Posts Tagged ‘spiritual development’

sowing seeds in the desert

Last week I was part of a great tradition.  Presbyterians are pretty serious about being “connectional,” meaning that we make decisions and engage in church work as a part of networks.  In the spirit of being connectional, we ask people who want to be pastors to stand up at a presbytery meeting, and give an account of their walk with Christ.  Those who are beginning a new call must also answer some questions on Scripture, worship and/or theology.  After their petition (to accept a call or to go forward with their seminary education) is approved, people who are connected to them are asked to stand.  I got to stand for two young people who have participated in campus ministry, as well as for a nearby colleague.  It was a proud moment of seeing seeds bear fruit.

A question posed to one of the candidates got me thinking:  “What’s your favorite book of the Bible, why is it your favorite, and can you outline it for us and explain its major themes?”  (If that sounds like a big question, know that they used to be worse!  Back in the day, candidates could be called upon to outline and explain any book of the Bible, not just their favorite.)

Lately I have been captured by Genesis.  It has been in our lectionary (recommended readings for Sunday worship) this summer, and even though we’re doing a sermon series on another topic, I’ve been going back to Genesis in my personal reading.

What I never noticed before is the amount of individual interaction with God.  In the past I’ve read Genesis from a historical or even a family systems theory point of view, looking at the broad scope of what happens to the emerging people of God.

But this time I’m focusing on these encounters between fallible people and a God who has a scary amount of power to shape the future.  And most of these encounters are clothed in deep, wrenching personal struggle.

  • Of course in Genesis we have good old Abraham, who hears the call to go to a new land (12:1), and the disturbing call to sacrifice his own son (22:2).
  • Then there’s Rebekah, a woman, who had a conversation with God.  Her twins in utero kicked her until she was utterly spent.  So she asked God to explain her suffering, and God told her about his plans for these humans in the making. (25:22-23)
  • This week the lectionary tells us about Jacob, who sent his whole family ahead of him on his journey home.  During his night alone (32:24) he wrestles with “a man,” some kind of divine manifestation.
  • And later we’ll have Joseph, who spends time alone in a well (37:24), alone in prison (40:23), and alone weeping when he sees his brother Benjamin (43:30).

These are just a few examples.  What stands out to me this time around, is that none of these people receive a perfect resolution as a result of their struggle.  Jacob is left with a limp, Rebekah is left to deal with two sparring sons, and Abraham must go on raising his son after almost killing him.  Some interpreters say that Joseph, although he saved countless people from starvation, set in motion a chain of events that led his people into slavery.

What happens when we struggle?  We’re so similar to these people from a faraway time and place.  We too struggle alone. We too have sacred moments during which we are deeply connected to God in the midst of our pain, but not given magical powers to bend circumstances to our will.  We too play a part in stories larger than our own, stories that are shaped by the movement of the Spirit.

And we too leave our mark on the story.  The people of Genesis sort of sow seeds in the desert:  they build monuments, they tell their children about God, and they stand out from the other peoples they encounter.  I doubt they would have kept going had it not been for the strength they received from those long nights of prayer and wrestling with God.  They left deep wells of faith as they moved through the dry land.

What seeds will we sow as the result of our struggles? 

Spirituality, Scripture, and the Art of Being Irrelevant

Here it goes again.  Someone in my church universe just tossed the word “relevant” into the conversation.

That’s a word I hear pretty often.  The church needs to be relevant, people say.  I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by using that word, but I guess it means not looking old, or never saying something that seems foreign.

News flash:  the church is old!  The church is foreign to every time, place, and culture, because the gospel is a stumbling block to anyone who’s not one hundred per cent connected to God.  If you think about it, something about the church or its holy text has been labeled “irrelevant” somewhere along the road of history.   Consider these:

  • Galatians 3:28?  Irrelevant.  No one cares about females or slaves. (Except Jesus.)
  • Deuteronomy 24:19?  Irrelevant.  No one farms anymore.  (But we still have hungry people, right?)
  • Genesis 3?  Irrelevant.  No one likes to talk about sin.  (But what if I have sinned, and I can’t find anyone to talk to about it?)
  • Classical music?  Irrelevant.  No one finds any meaning in it.  (Except at Christmas.)

You get the point.  Everyone, even if they don’t want to admit it, takes in Scripture and faith and worship through a filter.  My question is, what’s relevant:  the filter or the stuff trying to break through it?

Along the path of spiritual development, particularly Christian spiritual development, one must confront the seemingly irrelevant stuff.  True spiritual development is stunted when we are content to surround ourselves with scriptures, prayers, and experiences that we like.  Somewhere along the way, if I want to grow in faith, I need to ask myself …

  • What does it mean to feed the hungry in 2011? 
  • What does it mean to be free?
  • If I feel connected to God in an expensive environment (plasma screens, poinsettias, orchestras, exquisite guitars) and not in a run-down country church, what is that saying?
  • Why do I sometimes feel that God isn’t there, but other times I feel God all around me?

Perhaps others find answers to these questions in their current cultural/economic/social situation.  Me, I have to go back to the old stuff.  Nothing speaks to me like words I’ve heard a thousand times in church, repeated just one more time for my ears that day.  Nothing brings me out of my bubble like a throwback to some ancient way of doing things.

I think it’s about time for those of us trying to be the church to claim our irrelevance.  Let’s be old, awkward, and weird.  We may just find God that way.

Advent Day 25: Leaping for Joy

Advent Day 25

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  (Luke 1:39-45)

The high school I attended offered plenty of advanced classes:  college-level math, foreign languages no other high school offered, and so on.  I think the best class in the entire school was the one taught on the Vietnam War.   In that class, a veteran-turned-teacher took us out to interview parents whose children had died in that conflict.  I had the privilege of interviewing a couple who had never received their son’s body.  All they had was a photo of medics helping a wounded man whom they believed to be their son.

A few weeks afterwards, I interviewed my uncle, who served in Vietnam, and talked to other family members with military experience.  This subject had never come up before.  Previously, we had only seen one another at family gatherings, where we made small talk.  That uncle attended my graduation from seminary, and I’ll always treasure the interview he granted me.

I wonder what Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was thinking as Mary approached the house.  What we get in Scripture is the happy ending to the story.  Did Elizabeth have doubts about Mary’s mysterious pregnancy?  Did she ever doubt her own?  What was the relationship between the two women like before Mary showed up for this long visit?  Whatever Elizabeth was thinking, she was joyfully interrupted by her own unborn child jumping and dancing in her womb.  Then she knew something spectacular was happening.

Will you attend a family gathering this year, or host one?  What will your reaction be as the guests assemble?  Are you looking forward to getting together with everyone?

If you’re a young adult reading this blog, try this:   get to know another family member better during your holiday gathering.  Chances are you have been sitting at the children’s table for years (literally or symbolically), never involved in adult conversation.  So claim your place!  Be the young Mary who visits her older cousin Elizabeth.  There may be undiscovered joy in this family connection. 

Today’s daily Scripture reading from the PC(USA):

Advent Day 11: the Word

Advent Day 11

… one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Today’s spiritual practice is a certain way of reading Scripture.  In this method, you read a story and imagine yourself in it.  Take as much time as you need, and if you like, go back and imagine yourself as a second or even third person in the story.

Here’s a short outline, and you can find more in Prayer and Temperament (see “Resources“)

  • Read the story once and choose a person.   A good story for this is Luke 17:11-19.  (Here’s a Bible website:
  • Dwell with this person a while (let’s say you chose to be the leper who came back, if you’re reading the Luke passage.)  Read one or two verses at a time, pausing to consider what the leper might have been seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting.  What if he’s so sick with leprosy that he experiences very little with his five senses? 
  • Consider what your chosen person is thinking and feeling.  Imagine yourself in his situation as he turns around to return to Jesus.  What is going on in his mind?

What I love about this method of reading is that it forces us to read slowly, and let the words sink in.  In our college group we’ve talked about not skipping to the moral of the story when you read Scripture, and not looking for immediate inspiration.  The Bible is so much more than pretty sayings you can post on your status update — but you have to take time with it, and give it time to speak.

This season of Advent is about getting ready for the Word Incarnate, as we sometimes refer to Jesus Christ.  We say he is the Word of God dwelling with human beings, and that he was the Word God spoke at creation (see John 1.)  But you can’t rush this Word.  You have to give it time to create, imagine, and work within you.

Happy reading!

today’s daily Scripture reading from the PC(USA):

lost symbols

Landon Whitsitt, the Vice Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) used a great word to describe what I’m writing about today: kerfuffle. And I’m about to add to it!

The excitement is over some recent articles on clergy burnout in the New York Times (click here and here) and in the Huffington Post (click here.) Each article offers some insight into the problems of clergy and congregations falling short of their goals (and the gospel.)

I’m beginning to wonder if part of the problem is symbolism. Whether we care to admit it, symbols and the meanings we attach to them have a huge impact on our beliefs, opinions, and everyday activities.

I grew up with grandfatherly pastors who carried out their ministry in beautiful, historic buildings. Although I’ve had a variety of church experiences since my childhood, I have to admit that those symbols hold a lot of meaning for me. My thoughts of the kind silver-haired man and the musty old building evoke a feeling of being grounded and connected. Moreover, I grew up watching M*A*S*H (yes, that dates me) on TV, and enjoyed watching the meek and scrappy Father Mulcahy.

Anyone who has gone to church for several years has developed a relationship with symbols as well, even though some would ardently deny it. Churchgoers have fond or painful memories that become entrenched in their minds: memories of pastors, places, songs, and experiences.

Unfortunately, some of the symbols we hold on to so tightly are incomplete, or even obsolete. Yet we still hold on to them, thinking that if we can just find a person or place that fulfills the symbol, God will smile on us and things will be great.

One of the symbols most appealing to mainline Protestants is that of the young male pastor with a pretty wife and smiling children. I can understand why this symbol is so powerful. After all, a beautiful family greeting people outside the church after Sunday worship sort of looks like a Nativity scene, and who doesn’t like Christmas? Maybe that’s why I have fond memories of the older pastor: he looked like a Santa decoration we had at home.

The problem is that God calls people, not scenery or statues or stereotypes. And the essence of God is deeper than the trappings we assign to it. All people of faith burn out, or just slowly simmer into nothingness, when the scenery becomes the main object of worship. When clergy have trouble breaking out of their role as props, they are bound to feel worn down. When congregations can’t see past the decorations, they are bound to become petty and lacking in purpose.

How do we fix this problem? Some denominations have a tradition of assigning pastors to churches instead of allowing the churches to choose, but I’ve even heard of churches seething and waiting until they get assigned a “real” pastor who fits the mold they want.

Maybe it’s as simple as choosing more meaningful symbols. How could Christians go wrong if we focused more on the cross, the cup, the bread, the empty tomb, and the flames of Pentecost? In trying to fit our faith into a box, we create our own coffin: in the ancient symbols of faith we may just find something that helps us break out into life.

empty space

Earlier this summer a friend sent me this aerial photo from Afghanistan.  It shows an empty space.  Years ago, folks carved a gigantic statue of the Buddha out of the rock of this mountain, and the statue (and others like it) stood silently through years of human history and all the good and bad that humans do.  In 2001, however, the Taliban decided the statues had to go, and dynamited them.  Thus the empty space.

imagine if someone did this to Mount Rushmore...

Aside from the issues of religious tolerance, human rights, and cultural preservation, this photo brings up a ton of questions for me about spirituality and religious expression.

First and foremost, don’t you feel a sense of grief when you look at this picture?  Regardless of your personal beliefs, does it not hurt to see evidence of humans trampling all over one another, and leaving open wounds in bodies as well as landscapes?

Second, this picture made me think about empty spaces I see in my own environment.  Some of them are tangible, like places that were flooded during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and never rebuilt.  Some of them are intangible, like the spiritual empty spaces I encounter as a pastor:  places in people’s lives where there is an unresolved loss, an unfilled longing, or even an open wound.  Sometimes as a pastor I get to see empty spaces that people have brought upon themselves.  When you get to those places you are in a type of sacred space (maybe you could call it a “decision space,”) such as Moses encountered at the burning bush.  The empty spaces call out for some kind of action, even if just to remain empty for a while.  I read somewhere that efforts are underway to re-sculpt the statues, but for now the empty spaces have a lot to say on their own.

Third, I think about my job that’s coming up in a few weeks, to create some kind of sacred space for college students as they begin a new academic year.  As always, I selfishly enjoy having a large group of students, and hope that God sees fit to send the students we contacted at orientation our way!  More than that, I am always in prayer at this time of year over how to juggle truth, tolerance, idolatry, and emptiness as I work with these great folks.

I’ve noticed along the way that some people choose one of these three options when working with college students:

1.  Present Christian faith as rock-solid, written in stone, unchanging as the mountains into which we carve statues. But that’s not telling the truth.  Indeed, God is solid, the rock on which we can build a foundation (see Matthew 7:24-27.)  Yet our relationship with God, as individuals and as a church, changes.  I think we can say with authority that faith is not the mountain, but that it can move one (see Matthew 17:20-21.)

2.  Tear down everything students have been taught, using intellectual dynamite if needed. This also strikes me as dishonest.  The world’s best ideas are products of a complex process that involves tinkering, debating, critiquing, researching, and sometimes even poaching.  Perhaps some students need to have a rigorous initiation into the practice of thinking as an adult.  But I haven’t met anyone yet who developed a strong intellect and solid moral character via intellectual annihilation.

3.  Don’t say anything, and let folks figure it out for themselves. Also not a good option.  After all, why are college students even in school, if not for some guidance on how to get a life?  And if professors or RA’s or campus ministers truly believe the students are putting their faith in the wrong things, how can they be silent?

So I’ve got a lot of space to work with.  What are you doing with yours?