Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Advent 2: Cry Out!

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.   (Isaiah 40:6)

Yesterday, the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 40:1-11.  My friend Christopher Edmonston (@pastoronpoint) got me thinking about this passage in an entirely new way this Advent season.  He began his online Advent reflections by asking a question:  what would happen if no one told the Advent and Christmas stories anymore?  What if we all decided that those stories are too old and worn out?   What would happen then?

His question led me to another:  what would happen if no one cried out, in the way that Isaiah is inspired to do?

What would we have lost if no one in the world had ever spoken up, dissented, protested, or revolted?

I used to think it would be easy to cry out about whatever I deemed wrong with the world.  If you don’t like something, start an argument or a protest about it, I reasoned.  What I didn’t realize was that I knew nothing about actual resistance; I was simply a determined argumentative kid.  (Just ask my mom and dad.)

As an adult, I have discovered that standing up for what you believe in is tough and complicated.  You think you’re signing a simple petition, but that one stroke of the pen commits you to arduous behind-the-scenes work.  You take a stand on something, and you lose some friends over it.  Or, you may be mad in general, but unable to articulate the changes you want to see in the world.

And so sometimes you just cry out.  Isaiah felt the call to cry, and yelled out, “What?  I’ll do it, but what will I say?  It’s almost no use.”

Years ago, as I prepared for ordination as a pastor, I thought and prayed about this passage.  At the time, being a seminary student or a pastor was a ridiculous thing to do, at least in my circle.  My senior year in college, some people even asked me why I would waste my time in seminary.  Yet I felt that God was doing something in my life and in the world that required me to talk about it.  So I used this passage at my ordination service.

Now, things are still not crystal clear, but I have felt encouraged and determined by the conversations about spirituality and personal ethics that have been swirling around in recent years.  I get the sense that we still don’t completely understand what we’re talking about, but all our words and cries are headed in the right direction.

As we prepare to receive Christ anew, may we cry out to the world about how much we need Him … even if we have trouble finding the words.

yes and no

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days … (from Deuteronomy 30)

Tonight in our campus ministry fellowship we discussed the idea of discernment, but with a twist.

Usually when we’re in a discernment or decision-making process, we ask open-ended questions: “What does God want me to do?”  “What is the Spirit trying to say to me?”  “What should I do?” (or even, “Why aren’t my prayers being answered?”)

Those are great questions, but maybe not always the best questions to be asking.  Sometimes a question can be too big.

So we started with two words, Yes and No.  We talked about how we say “yes” and “no” in the transition from high school student to college student to college graduate.  Along the way we outlined a discernment process that I just had to write about, because I think it’s great (open-source theology!)  By the way, keeping up spiritual disciplines (prayer, Christian fellowship, Scripture reading) is a given at all points in this journey.

Here’s the process we outlined:

1.  Begin with a very general question that you can answer with a yes or a no.  For example, a sixteen-year-old might ask, “Do I want to attend college at some point in the future?”  Those who were present tonight, by virtue of being college students, had answered “yes” to this question even if they hadn’t realized it.

2. Apply filters to this general concept:  filters of time, money, goals, personal values, or any other filter that’s important to you.  One student talked about wanting to join the military at some point in his life, but not wanting the environment of a military college.  So within his overall “Yes” to a college education, he ended up saying no to the military college and yes to the Reserves.

3.  Realize that you might spin in circles for a while, when you are in between steps in the process.  Some students talked about being so excited to attend college, but then spending some time trying out different majors or different groups of friends.  The trying-out phase was a little frustrating, but important for getting to the next step.

4.  Whittle down the number of “yes” answers into something manageable.  The students talked about making choices of how to spend their time while in college, and that fact that they have had to let some things go.

5.  Think about a “yes” within a “no.”  For example, a musically gifted student talked about the decision to say “no” to a degree in music while saying “yes” to music as a hobby and a source of personal enjoyment.

6.  Finally, evaluate your decision in terms of how it affirms life.  To the best of your ability, think of how this decision affirms you as a child of God, with all the gifts God has given you.  Even if your decision may result in some temporary stress, does it ultimately build up the life that God gave you?  To borrow a phrase from John McCall, a missionary in Taiwan, does your decision rest within “the divine yes”?

What do you think?

Advent Day 5: Parking Lot Sabbath

Advent Day 5:  Sabbath

May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,

like showers that water the earth.

In his days may righteousness flourish

and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,

who alone does wondrous things.  (From Psalm 72)

The above verses paint a picture of what Sabbath is all about:  rest, refreshment, peace, a reminder of God’s power and providence, a glimpse into the kingdom of keaven.

Most of us have trouble with Sabbath, as beautiful as the idea might be.  There’s just no time, we say.

Earlier this fall the students in our college ministry group shared their ideas for a mini-Sabbath.  Only one student knew anyone who actually observed a full Sabbath, a day without work.  Click here for my blog post about what they shared — all good starting points for the task of observing a day of rest.

It can be a task to take some time for rest.  The student who talked about the “total Sabbath” idea talked about how much preparation was needed before each Sabbath (which was Sunday, in the case of the people she knew.)  All  the cooking, cleaning and laundry had to be done before Saturday was over.  That’s a lot of work!  If you did it, though, I imagine it would make you more mindful of what you are about to celebrate.

So  here’s our first Sabbath-related discipline:  preparation.

Let me give you an example from an old friend.  Suppose you’re an art or music major and you feel that you never have time to create for your own personal enjoyment.  You long for even a one-hour rest from the demands of the academic world:  a time for simply enjoying the beauty of art or music.  So, pick a Sabbath time, and the day before, clear away any materials that will remind you of your classes.  Set out some visual reminders, such as a different sketch pad or a fresh set of guitar strings.  (You don’t want your Sabbath to be tied up searching for something you suddenly need.)  Then, for the time you’ve chosen, give yourself over to pure creativity.

Another discipline related to Sabbath is choosing a Sabbath place.  Here’s an idea that’s a little offbeat.  Our church has a huge parking lot, to accommodate Sunday services, weeknight community activities, and football games (the stadium is on the next block.)  However, on an average weekday before 7 pm, there are fewer cars in the lot.  Sometimes people drive into the empty spaces, roll down their windows, and take a short break from the demands of the day.  After a few minutes, they’re gone.  It makes me feel good that even our parking lot can be a place of Sabbath! 

Is there a place you can go for some ten- or fifteen-minute breaks this month?  The ritual of going to the same place, getting ready to go there, and having a certain activity when you get there (prayer, reading, even just emptying your mind) may make your mini-Sabbath more meaningful.

Are you and I ready for a full day of resting in God’s arms?

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

Advent Day 3

Advent Day 3:  Prayer

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,  praising God and saying,
   “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”   (Luke 1:14)  

Ah, the dreaded outline.  Did you ever have to make an outline for a class:  an outline of a paper, or of a chapter you read in your textbook?  Boring, huh? 

Yet I think the opposite can be true for prayer.  Sometimes we just have no idea what to say to God.  If you’ve ever experienced a lack of words (or if you think your words are getting in the way), try “outlining” your prayer.   It may feel fake at first, but after a while it may help you guide your thoughts.  Here are some suggested outlines, and you can make up your own.

“ACTS” outline:  this contains all the elements of the Lord’s Prayer, by the way.  I’ll write more about the Lord’s Prayer in a later post.

Adoration:   praising God.  Begin your prayer by reflecting on what’s great about God.  My experience using this outline is that this is the most difficult step.  What can I say that doesn’t sound cheesy, or hasn’t been said better by someone else?  Sometimes for this step I just sit and enjoy God’s presence, to help me stop worrying about what to say and to put me in the right frame of mind for prayer.  Or, I repeat the words to a hymn or praise song.

Confession:  letting go of whatever you did wrong and asking for forgiveness and restoration.

Thanksgiving:  just like what it says.  Give thanks to God.

Supplication:  this means asking for things.  It’s OK to ask for healing for sick people, and guidance for confused people, for world peace, and so on.  I don’t think supplication is about asking God for magic tricks.  Instead, sometimes as we pray over and over for something, we begin to see the world through God’s eyes, and we see how God is already answering our prayers.  Also, sometimes through supplication God helps us accomplish what we pray for.  Those who pray for peace may learn over time how to become peacemakers, for example.

“Breath Prayer” outline.  You can do this in one of two ways. 

First, you can say a word such as “ask” when you breathe out, and “receive” when you breathe in.  Other useful words:  peace, love, hope, Spirit, shalom, I, Thou, one, many.

Second, you can stretch the prayer out, spending some time looking inward and then considering the world around you.  I used to do this in a particular place I would walk every morning:  on the first half of the walk I would lift up whatever was going on in my life to God, and on the second half I would ask God for direction on how I would be a servant in God’s world that day.

May your prayers be like the breath of life.  (see Genesis 2.)

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

Advent Day 1

Advent Day 1 :  Prepare the Way

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  (Isaiah 40:3)

If you go to church this morning (depending on the church), you may hear some things you aren’t expecting to hear:  in particular, Advent music. What in the world is Advent music?   And where did my Christmas carols go?

Generally, Advent Scripture readings and music draw heavily from the prophets of the Bible and from Jesus’ own words about his return.  During the four Sundays of Advent, we’ll hear from people who preached about God’s plans for the world:  plans that included a baby and so much more.  We’ll hear from people who said, “Prepare the way!  God is getting ready to do tremendous things.”  Each year, pastors like me hope that by focusing on Advent, we will reawaken ourselves to the many ways God reaches out to us and dwells with us.

By the way, Christians who observe Advent aren’t necessarily anti-Christmas!  It’s just that we know we have some serious things to think about before Christmas comes.  After all, Christians claim that the little baby Jesus really is the Son of God, and that’s not a statement we can make lightly!  We ought to spend some time thinking about what it means for God to take up residence here on earth.

So today’s spiritual discipline is “getting ready” or “preparing the way.” Here’s an exercise for today:

Pretend that you live in a very small dorm room or apartment (perhaps you already do!)  You are notified that on Christmas morning, an important person will show up to stay at your home.  What do you need to do in order to get ready?  What needs to be cleaned or fixed?  How can you make your small space welcoming and inviting?  What food will you serve to your guest?  What would you like to talk about with him or her?  Apply these same questions to Christ.  How will you welcome him and serve him, though you may feel “small” in your spiritual life?  What will you talk about with Jesus?  What do you hope will happen during his stay?

Write these things in a journal and revisit your thoughts as Advent continues.

Today’s PC(USA) online Scripture readings:

just a little bit

I’ve always believed in the power of little things.  Yes, it sounds sentimental, like a motivational poster with a picture of a butterfly or something (“One little flutter of a butterfly’s wings….”) Blech.

It’s just that in my way of thinking, getting the big things right is impossible unless I start small.  And in my experience, if I forget about the small stuff, my whole life gets out of balance.

Over the weekend I found myself re-converted to my belief.  Last Thursday night, the college students shared ideas on taking a Sabbath rest.  (Most of the folks in the room admitted to already being tired this early in the semester!)

It struck me how all the ideas being batted around the room were so, well, little.  The activities the students described were rich and meaningful, but just … short.  This is no criticism of the students!  They are simply part of a larger society that seems to have no use for big commitments anymore.

In fact, as I mulled over our discussion, I remembered some other things I’ve read, suggesting that people of faith try something little.  Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses recommended in a recent interview* that students try temporary abstinence from sex.  She wondered if short periods of abstinence might lead to a greater commitment, once students have a breather from worrying about sexual performance and have a chance to rest in their own beds.  Somewhere else (but I can’t remember where) I read a suggestion that Christians try small bits of “fasting” or “abstinence” from things like TV or junk food.  Even the secular magazines I read regularly have articles about cutting down on meat or gasoline or some other commodity, but not cutting it out entirely.

Only one student in that group brought up the concept of a total Sabbath.  Her relatives had been farmers, and they took Sundays off. No cooking (cold leftovers for all three meals), no laundry, no cleaning.  They just got dressed, went to church, visited relatives, and probably washed the dishes.  (I can’t imagine a Southern woman leaving dishes in the sink overnight!)

Wow.  I guess this is where we are as a society.  Sometimes I think the only true commitment we make is to our cell phones.  We’re accessible 24/7, ready to go over tomorrow’s meeting with the boss while we cook dinner, or to check Facebook while we supposedly have lunch with our significant other.

Other than the phone, what commands our true commitment?  Work?  Hmm… everyone checks Facebook at work too.  Marriage?  I wonder if there would be so many marriage books on the market if couples just took a little more time to talk.  Taking care of our bodies?  As long as I can do it in 10 minutes or less!  Taking care of our souls?  Um, maybe later when things calm down at work/school/whatever.

Of course I still believe in the little things.  I really like Donna Freitas’ suggestion.  Also, later on, I’m going to post some of the Sabbath ideas shared by the students.  Maybe these little things can help us rearrange our commitments.

I’ll close this post with one of my favorite photos.  A few years ago, some of the students in our group organized their own camping trip.  Those who went kept talking about what a moment of rest it was, despite the campfire that wouldn’t get going and the bugs and the heat.  One day they rented canoes and just set out in the calm of North Carolina’s eastern rivers.  And on that day, they rested.  If only we could make a commitment to this.

* Donna Frietas’ interview with Patheos:

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?