Tag Archives: Prayer

The Gift of Silence in a Wordy World

Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Political ads. Music blaring.  Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.

How do we cut the noise?

The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

But stillness and silence are in short supply these days,  This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:

“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)

On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day.  The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.

We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us.  The urgent always demands to be  addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side.  But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.

What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day.  Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset?  Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.

Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.

But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.

How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!

The Lord’s Prayer for Today’s Christians

In conversation with some theologically gifted friends recently, it was mentioned that many contemporary Christians seem to make Christianity all about them.  That gave me the idea to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer based on many conversations I have had or that I have overheard.   Without further adieu, I give you the Lord’s Prayer for Today’s Christians.
Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.
Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.
Our deity who art everywhere and in everything,
hallowed be every possible name for you.
Please make things here a little better,
and give us all the things we want
which is exactly what heaven will be like.
 
Deprive us not of our daily mochaccinos, 
and don’t make us feel guilty for the bad things we do,
but definitely punish everyone we dislike.
Deliver us unto many pleasing things,
for nothing that we want
could possibly be evil.
For the world is ours,
our self-actualization knows no bounds,
and we are pretty freaking awesome.
Amen.

“A School for the Lord’s Service:” 6 Lessons from a week with the Benedictines

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An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.

I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C.  I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college.  While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned  much during my all-too-brief time with the community.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself.  I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.

1) Community is a blessing

Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience.  As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”  In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died.  Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways.  They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same.  After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.

2) Community is difficult

The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together.  This, of course, would not be without its own problems.  But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift.  After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times.  This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)

Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a  rather petty creature.   I suspect I am not alone.  That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places.  Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.

3) Reverence is a rare treasure

Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery,  was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence.  Awe.  Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp.  I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship.  God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness.  But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost.   We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort.  In his instructions to his Order, known as  the Rule, Benedict says,

“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, 
we do not presume to do so 
except with humility and reverence. 
How much the more, then, 
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary 
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!” 

4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift

UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.”  The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way.  The Rule of Benedict, again, says:

“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region 
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires, 
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”

I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel.  They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome.  As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me.  He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.”  He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.”  What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.

5) Obedience and freedom are connected

Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them.  I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way.  The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop.  Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus  avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”

The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,

“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”

Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together.  Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries.  Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true.  Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.

6) Silence is holy

Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence.  The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence.  They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect.  This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast).  The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.

In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,

“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”

I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction.  My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is.  After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Concluding thoughts

This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk.  I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again.  They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.

Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:

“Whoever you are, therefore, 
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, 
fulfill with the help of Christ 
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; 
and then at length under God’s protection 
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue 
which we have mentioned above.”

Relevance As Temptation in Ministry

Image
Acting like Jesus is often highly irrelevant, and yet beautiful, like Pope Francis washing feet.

When Henri Nouwen found himself among the mentally disabled of the L’Arche Community, he learned something about himself: the skills, knowledge, and “value” that he thought he had were all meaningless to that particular community. This caused him to reevaluate his understanding of Christian leadership, which is spelled out in his marvelous little treatise In the Name of Jesus:

“I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love…Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread.” (17)

Of course, this is almost the exact opposite advice many Christian leaders are given today. We go to workshops, drown ourselves in piles of books, and rack up CEU’s as if they are lottery tickets (one of them will be the key to a life and ministry of ease!) all in search of new skills, techniques, and methods. Most of all, we want to matter. Such is a tragic, if not pathetic, position for pastors in the twilight of Christendom, when many in the West view the church at best as little more than a vendor of religious services (marriages and burials, crisis intervention, a baptism to keep grandmother happy, etc.). Pastors are faced with the temptation to be something more, something objectively useful: a “real” counselor, a life coach, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser, a master of conflict resolution. We want something to show that says, “I promise I really DO matter!”

But all of this may be deeply misguided:

“The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?” (24)

For Nouwen, the cure for this temptation is a discipline both ancient and (to the astonished ears of hipster pastors everywhere) relevant: contemplative prayer. Such prayer takes us back to the heart of God, the place of our true identity, meaning, and value:

“To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love…contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite.” (28-29)

To put it another way: church leaders would do best to begin any task, goal, discussion, study, or discernment not by asking “what works?” or “what must we do?” but rather by seeking the face of God.  Amazing things happen when we refuse the temptation to relevance, and instead act, not out of calculated strategies and therapeutic utilitarianism, but out of an encounter with the living God of Scripture and the Church.

A Prayer to Remember the Last Supper

Artist’s rendering of a triclinium, the table Jesus and his disciples would have used to celebrate the Passover Seder. Da Vinci was way off.

I wrote the following prayer to open the service today, as we began a series based on Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World:

Gracious God,
Who fills our plates with good food
and our cups to overflowing:

We thank you that your Son eats with sinners, even those like Peter
who deny him
and like Thomas
who doubt him
and like Judas
who betray him.

We thank you that Jesus still prepares a feast for people like us.
Help us to take our place at his table now,
that we may feast at the great banquet to come. Amen.

It also occurred to me (and I’m probably not the first to notice this, though I haven’t heard it before myself) that this event recorded in the gospels is misnamed.  If it were actually the “last” supper, then we would not be worshiping Jesus as the Christ and the Second Person of the Trinity.  Jesus conquered death and went on eating and drinking; in fact, the disciples didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread (Emmaus).

We look forward to what John the Revelator calls “the marriage supper of the lamb,” in which the bride of Christ shall rejoice to see her savior face-to-face in unbroken communion in that Kingdom which is breaking in even now.  Amen.

Here Comes the (Catholic) Boom

https://i1.wp.com/wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/files/2012/10/Here-Comes-The-Boom.jpeg

I regret that I have yet to see Here Comes the Boom.  I’ve been excited since I first read reports about it, but between writing my Full Connection papers and getting writing for Charge Conference, I’ve been stuck in the purgatory of bureaucratic minutiae. Alas, had I taken the time, I would’ve known about what is apparently a strong faith element in the MMA-themed film.  Kevin James, of King of Queens fame, is a faithful Catholic who made it a point to show Christianity in a prominent and positive light in the film.  Via the United Methodist Reporter by way of Patheos:

Was there a deliberate decision to include scenes where faith is organic to the lives of the characters?

Yes, absolutely. There are so many movies out there that go the opposite way. There’s so much negativity. To show faith and prayer as positive things was important to me. You’re right in that it’s difficult. You don’t want to beat people over the head. They’re hip to it, and they know when you’re just banging them over the head to get them to believe it. So that was important to me, to make it organic, and to have it be in the main stream of this movie.

I’ve written a couple of times (here and here especially) about the intersections between Christianity and MMA, and I’m glad to see a devout Christian so public with his MMA fandom (I often get blank stares and agape mouths when I name my favorite sport in a room full of preachers).  Fighters, like other athletes, are complicated people – driven, often superstitious, and more faith-oriented than one might think.  So says James:

Faith plays a HUGE part for the fighters I’ve met, following the sport. I became a fan of the sport back in 1993, and as I grew to know these people and these fights, to see them and work out with them, it wasn’t even the fighting so much that impressed me. They seem like gladiators going at each other in a cage — but they’re real people…In the fighting world, I see it all the time. I know how much prayer and a strong relationship with God is needed, and they rely on it.

Prayer For Leaders With Ole Hallesby

I found the following in the classic work Prayer by Ole Hallesby, a Norwegian theologian from years gone by.  This seems especially pertinent in this day and age, when we are quick to critique, quick to blog (yes, this is the pot calling the kettle black), and yet slow to actually pray for our leadership.  It’s true in politics, in the workplace, and of course in the church.  The aftermath of General Conference has shown this to a great extent, as everyone who is anyone (and even some, like me, who are nobodies) offer their post-mortems on the event.  Perhaps all of our thoughts and energy would be better directed to God on behalf of our leaders.

It is easy to criticize leaders.  After the thing is done, everybody is wise.  Then we all see how it should have been done.  Beforehand nobody sees what ought to be done, but that is just when leaders must act.  Let us pray for our leaders at all times instead of constantly criticizing them.

By this I do not mean that we should accept uncritically everything decided by the leaders.  If you think they are making a mistake, tell it to them in humility and in love.  Above all, pray for them.  Pray for them until the themselves are convinced that they have made a mistake.  Thereby you will have succeeded in having your viewpoint adopted and, in addition, the spirit of comradeship and love of the community will have won a great victory. (Minneapolis: Augsburg 1994, 74)

Humility and love.  Somebody want to write that petition for 2016?