Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the centering prayer method #1

Adapted from the writings of Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating

Centering Prayer is rooted in the word of God, both in scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. Centering Prayer is designed to prepare followers of Christ for contemplative prayer in the traditional sense in which spiritual writers understood that term for the first sixteen centuries of the Christian era. This tradition was summed up by St. Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. For Gregory, contemplation was both the fruit of reflecting on the word of God in Scripture and a precious gift of God. He called it "resting in God." In this "resting" the mind and heart are not so much seeking God as beginning to experience, "to taste," what they have been seeking. This state is not the suspension of all activity, but the reduction of many acts and reflections to a single act or thought to sustain one's consent to God's presence and action.

It is important not to confuse Centering Prayer with certain Eastern techniques of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation. The use of the Sacred Word in Centering Prayer does not have the particular calming effects attributed to the TM mantra. Nor is the Sacred Word a vehicle to go to the spiritual level of one's being as it is in TM. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between using the Sacred Word and arriving at some altered state of consciousness. The Sacred Word is merely a symbol of our will's consent to God's presence and action within us based on faith in the doctrine of the Divine indwelling. The Sacred Word is simply a means of reaffirming our original intention at the beginning of our period of prayer to be in God's presence and to surrender to the divine action when we are attracted to some other thought, feeling or impression.

Throughout the period of Centering Prayer, our intention predominates--the movement of our will to consent to God's intention, which according to our faith, is to communicate the Divine Life to us. Hence, unlike TM, Centering Prayer is a personal relationship with God, not a technique. Centering Prayer is basically two things at the same time: the deepening of our personal relationship with Christattachments that prevent the development of this relationship and the unfolding of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. It reduces the tendency to overactivity in prayer and to depending excessively on concepts in order to go to God. In short it reduces the obstacles in us, chiefly selfishness, so that we can be sensitive to the delicate inspirations of the Holy Spirit that lead to divine union.

Next Centering Prayer at Providence UMC: January 31, 2007, 6:30p.m., Chapel.

Monday, January 29, 2007

the last, the least and the lost (luke 4)

Each of the gospel writers tells the story of Jesus in a distinctive way. What does this mean? Think about our church for a moment. There are lots of people around here, lots of activity. Imagine that four people have decided to describe what goes on here. Maybe a person in the choir, and a teacher in the youngest children’s area, and a member of the Wesley Class, and someone who volunteers with Room In The Inn. Let’s call these four people Ann, Mitzi, Maurice and Scott.

Now these are all engaged, active people in our church. They are all eyewitnesses to what is going on. But each might focus on something slightly different. Ann might focus on preparing an anthem. Mitzi might write about how a young child played that morning. Maurice might talk about a Sunday School class lesson. Scott might describe a homeless person who slept here.

They were all there. It was all true. But each account would be slightly different. It is the same with the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and Luke has a unique perspective, which places importance on particular themes.

The first one is the prominence of the Holy Spirit. As Luke the historian records the events of the early Christian movement, in Luke and also in Acts, it is obvious that this is no historical accident. The explosive growth, the signs and wonders being done through Jesus in Luke and later through the disciples in Acts is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In chapter two of Luke, Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, gives birth to Jesus. In chapter three, as Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, in bodily form like a dove. Early in chapter four Jesus is led by the spirit to be tested in the wilderness, and later in that chapter, in his first hometown sermon, in Nazareth, he begins with these words: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…In chapter eleven he reminds his followers that the Father gives the Spirit to those who ask, and as he is put to death he commends his spirit to God (chapter 23). As the Book of Acts begins, Jesus is giving instruction to his disciples through the Holy Spirit. And in Acts 2, the church is born through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit is all about the power that comes from beyond us, our strength, our abilities, our control. That same spirit anointed Jesus and flowed through him. The Holy Spirit is the connection that Jesus had with his Father, and it is our connection as well.

On Friday I was with our Haiti mission at the Tovar clinic near Cap Haitien; on average we would see three hundred patients a day, pretty amazing and at times overwhelming, but at one point our team had caught up and I decided to sneak into the sanctuary, adjacent to the clinic, where I knew it would be quiet.

I sat there for a moment in the quietness. I thought about the people who had worshipped in that church, about the pain they had brought into the services, about the confusion, about the hope, I imagined that even though a Haitian is in many ways very different from us, we have also come into this sanctuary at times with our own pain, with our confusion, with our own hopes.

At about that time a woman came into the back door very quietly, and I thought, "wow, she is coming to find something here in the sanctuary". Then I noticed that she was looking around, and I realized that she was actually looking for a place to plug in her cell phone!

She was seeking a connection. Throughout the gospels, people are always seeking a connection, finding a place to pray, sitting at the feet of Jesus, sensing that the Holy Spirit is with them.

The second theme in Luke’s gospel is hospitality. In Luke Jesus is constantly eating meals with people of all kinds: with Pharisees (in chapter 14), with tax collectors and sinners (in chapter 15). There is a meal on the road to Emmaus (chapter 24), and as the Book of Acts begins the apostles are breaking bread in their homes with glad and generous hearts.

Charlotte is a big city, by any standard, and yet I often find myself looking for some kind of small town experience in the midst of it. Maybe you do as well. When Pam and I first came here one of our searches was for a place to eat breakfast out, not a chain, not a hotel, but a diner, a hole in the wall, a local institution.

One of the places we came across was Anderson’s, near Presbyterian Hospital. Now it is not convenient to us, and we had to pass a number of other places on the way---maybe you pass a number of other churches to get here---but when we parked and walked through those doors, we knew we had stumbled onto something special. Call it hospitality.

I knew it when one of the waitresses began to call me “young man”. And then she used a more familiar greeting that I won’t repeat! I knew it when they could almost guess my order. The point is, I was not a stranger there.

When Pam and I realized that Jack Lamour would be coming to Haiti, and attending Central Piedmont, we both came to the same idea: it would be great to take him to Anderson’s, maybe once a week. Then he could walk to school, and we could get on with our day.

Well, if you know the story, it took an unexpected turn. I read in the newspaper that Anderson’s was closing. My first thought was No, that can’t happen!” On public radio someone talked about the disappearance of local institutions. Everything is a franchise, a chain. It happens, and there are often reasons that make sense. Anderson’s closed its doors.

Well, Jack did arrive, and one morning we were taking him out to breakfast. We decided to go far off or our beaten path, and we ended up in Uptown, at a small restaurant (I promise I will get back to the point in a moment!). The waitress seemed really friendly, she took our orders, and then she looked at me and said, “You used to come to Anderson’s”. And then she recited my order there. And you know what: I felt at home! Even in the midst of a large city.

Brothers and sisters, that is our calling, as the church of Jesus Christ, to enjoy hospitality with other Christians and to practice hospitality with those who are new to us, strangers. People are drawn to church because they are seeking hospitality; to say this another way, they are looking relationships.

The spiritual hunger of the twenty-first century is the same as the first century: to break bread together, to enjoy a great feast. I love the words of the Charles Wesley hymn:

Come Sinners To the Gospel Feast, Let Every Soul be Jesus’ Guest

You Need Not One Be Left Behind, For God Has Bid All Humankind.

And this leads to a third theme in Luke’s gospel: the generous and inclusive gift of salvation. The good news is that we are all invited, we are all on the guest list! Luke tells a story about a great dinner, about who is invited, who is too busy, who chooses to come, about the expanding guest list (Luke 14). In Matthew’s gospel the family history begins with Abraham, but in Luke it is all traced back to Adam (compare Matthew 1 with Luke 3).

All of us are included in the invitation, the insider and the outsider. Jesus does care about insiders. But Jesus is always drawing us toward the outsider: the one on the margin, the one in need, the one who is lonely, poor, diseased. That is where the heart of God is located. If you want to read the classic story about the danger of being an insider and the salvation that is possible for the outsider, read Luke 15: the parable of the prodigal son. God loves all people equally, God shows no partiality. But I like the way it was once described: a parent was asked, which child do you love the most, and she replied, “I love them all equally, of course, but sometimes I the gift of my love has to be with the one who needs it the most”. Someone has called Luke the gospel of the last, the least and the lost.

There was a strong religious sentiment in the day of Jesus that if you were prosperous God had blessed you, if you were healthy God had favored you, and if you were poor, God had forgotten you, if you were sick God had cursed you. Call it the first century version of the prosperity gospel. It lives today, among television evangelists and in a culture that is obsessed with health and wealth.

Jesus came to announce the very good news that everyone has access to the Kingdom of God. I love the insight of Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy: no one is beyond beatitude (blessing) because the rule of God in the heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone” (122).

The Holy Spirit is our connection with God. Hospitality is the gift of relationship. Salvation is grace offered to the insider & the outsider.

If you want to know about the spirituality of Jesus, I invite you to read the gospel of Luke. And if you want to understand the gospel of Luke, look for the ways that the Holy Spirit is present, hospitality is experienced, salvation is offered. I want to conclude by making this more personal, as we ask ourselves a few simple questions.

About The Holy Spirit: What kind of connection are we seeking? If Jesus needed to pray, if Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit, how much more do we need those same

About Hospitality: What kind of hospitality are we enjoying? Has the faith become a fast food, drive through experience for us? Or do we take the time to savor the aroma of a great feast among friends who know us by name?

About Salvation: What kind of people are finding their way into the life and ministry of Providence? Can you think of someone who is discouraged, homeless, overwhelmed, burned out, lost, new to our city, interested in the Bible, cynical, dabbling in spiritual things? Can we think about an outsider, or an insider, who would be transformed by the amazing gift of grace? Here is the invitation:

Come sinners to the gospel feast, Let every soul be Jesus’ guest

You need not one be left behind, For God has bid all humankind.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

back in the u.s.a.

So I returned to the U.S. on Saturday afternoon, about 12:45 p.m. I passed through customs and then entered into the flow of the masses who were also hanging out at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, most of them evidently departing for or returning from a cruise. But we made the early flight that we wanted, I drank a diet coke for the first time in a week, and then ate a deli turkey sandwich, and some yogurt. I read the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition----a somewhat depressing article on private school headmaster compensation, an interesting piece on Smokey Robinson's favorite cds (he included Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Carole King's Tapestry), then more reading of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy (an extraordinary book), then onto the plane, and then home, in Charlotte. We ate at our favorite Mexican restaurant, and Elianna from Venezuela was our waitress. Jack, who is from Haiti and lives with us, remembered Elianna from our last visit there, they had recently conversed about Hugo Chavez, who is of course persona non grata in the U.S. but has helped Haiti recently with oil. It is an interesting world, a global village.

Then we went to see our younger daughter play church league basketball. Her team won 49-24, and I think she scored 24 points. When you are 6'3'', and have good hands, and know your way around a basketball court, church league basketball is like grabbing the low hanging fruit.

I am still processing the eight days in Haiti. I will write more about that journey later. It is an extraordinary mission of health care and hope to many, many people. It is the parable of the good samaritan all over again, it is touching the hem of the garment of Jesus, it is the man lying beside the pool of water, it is the roman official bringing his child to Jesus. It is life and death, illness and healing. It is awesome.

It was great to be back in church today. I am asked to give a "State of The Church" talk about this time each year, which I did. Then I wandered around and talked with people. Then at the second service I preached, there were baptisms and new members and the commisioning of the church council. And the Chancel Choir gave a glorious rendering of Mozart's Laudate Dominum, from the Solemnes Vespers. I had been in a college choir that sang that piece, and it brought back good memories.

Tomorrow evening the church council will begin the year with dinner; my friend Bill will speak, he is smart and funny, then we will (God willing) adopt the annual budget, and affirm a new candidate for ordained ministry (this is very exciting).

So it is a busy and good time of year. I need a day of rest here soon....maybe a part of Tuesday. We'll see. A more substantial post about Haiti soon...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

i'm not a doctor but i did stay at the mont joli last night

I am in Haiti, at the moment writing on a borrowed laptop, sitting in the open air courtward of the Mont Joli hotel, taking in the breeze. Our team has a day of work yet, and then we take the little bird (Lynx Airlines) and then the big bird (USAir) back to Charlotte.

The week has been another good one, and if you want to know more about what we do right now please access one of the Haiti links to the right. The team has been pretty cohesive. We have seen some really sick people in the medical clinic; I have done vital signs with persons with HIV and saw a man who I am sure had malaria this morning. We work with a very strong and faithful group of Haitians, and it is nice to renew friendships with them. I preached at the Cap Haitien Methodist Church on Sunday; I have now done this three years in a row.

I miss my family, and also Providence Church. And yet the work feels worthwhile: God uses the physicians here to bring healing to people undergoing extraordinary suffering, mostly because they were born on a particular place on the earth, and this ministry is a gift in the name of Christ, the healer, and the church. It really is a great place to be, and I am blessed to be a part of it.

More later.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

children of God (baptism of the lord)

If we have the spirit of God, we are children of God. If we have the spirit of God, we are adopted children of God. This means we are no longer slaves, but a part of the family. This means we approach God as Abba, father. This means we are heirs. This means we will suffer. This means we have occasional glimpses of God’s glory.

My friend lives in Statesville, and he shared this story with me. Like the best stories, it is true. He and his wife were at home one evening when his sixteen year old daughter, Robin, and her boyfriend Trevor came to them with a couple of announcements. One, she was dropping out of high school with three weeks left in her junior year. She had scored over 1200 on her SAT. Frank had always thought that all dropouts were marginal students. And two, she was moving out of the house, and she and Trevor were moving to Charlotte. No jobs, no money—but confident that they had the world by the tail on a downhill slide. Frank thought,

“If only you could see the person we want you to become”.

Five months later Frank and his wife Pat closed on a much smaller house: two bedrooms, a bath and a half, all the kids gone, plenty of space for the two of them. Three and a half hours later Robin called from Charlotte. “I’m coming home”, she said. And she did. Two and a half weeks later she discovered that she was pregnant. She would stay a few days, then leave, stay a few days, then leave. It was a roller coaster. And Frank would often think,

My child, if only you could see the person I want you to become”.

Several months later Christina was born. Robin and Trevor would live together for awhile in an apartment, then Robin would move back with Christina. They were always welcome. They are our children”, Frank would say. One evening Frank came in from an out-of-state business trip. He was filled with excitement, but he deferred to Pat. How was your day?”, he asked.

Do you want to hear about the whole day?”, she said, “Or do you want me to start when I came home and found three police cars in our driveway?”

“My child, if only you could see the person I want you to become”.

Trevor had come over and wanted to take Christina with him. And he had threatened to kill Robin. She asked Frank and Pat if they would take custody of Christina while she sorted out her life. And all the while Frank thought:

“My child, if only could you see the person I want you to become”.

In the scripture we are described as children of God. God’s spirit dwells within us, and thus we are children of God. There is an inward sense that we belong, that we are a part of the family. I will not leave you orphaned”, Jesus had told his disciples in the gospel of John. We are not orphans in God’s sight. We are children of God.

What does it mean to be a child of God?

There is a wonderful children’s song that expresses this deep theological point in a simple way:

Jesus loves the little children

All the children of the world

Red and yellow, black and white

They are precious in his sight

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

And then, of course, that gets translated into the conviction that the child loved by God is a little child sold into slavery in Cambodia, or a child in Africa with AIDS, or the privileged child who has everything except a knowledge of faith, or the rebellious prodigal who is still in the far country.

There is another children’s song that expresses the same idea, only it becomes more personal:

Jesus loves me, this I know

For the Bible tells me so

Little ones to him belong

They are weak but he is strong

Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me

Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

We are children of God. And if children, we are heirs. We have an inheritance. We read in Ephesians,

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,

having been destined according to the purpose of him

who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,

so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ,

might live for the praise of his glory. (1. 11-12)

The inheritance is given to us by Jesus, who stands in the waters of baptism, who hears the Voice of God,

I love you, I am pleased with you”.

Jesus, the son of God, the first born, the inheritor. Jesus, who will suffer. But prior to the suffering, Jesus has the occasional glimpse of glory. The heavens open. Sometimes the light shines through the darkness, and we have a sudden insight or clarity. In the scriptures, the opening of the heavens was related to the pouring of God’s blessings. People who worked the land would have related this to the gift of rainfall.

The heavens open. The spirit descends, in the form of a dove…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, John had told all the people, the fire purifying us, the spirit empowering us. And then the Voice speaks, saying, simply,

I love you, I am pleased with you”.

At a profound level, these words, “I love you, I am pleased with you”, express the relationship between a parent and a child, within the Trinity, between the Father and the Son, but also in our ordinary, chaotic lives, between my friend Frank and his daughter Robin, in your family and in mine.

And since we learn truths by hearing but also by seeing, we have not only the word, but the image of Jesus, the historical Jesus, standing in the Jordan River, taking our sin upon himself, “to fulfill all righteousness”, Matthew’s gospel explains it. A ritual cleansing not for his sake but for ours.

My child, if only you could see the person I want you to become”.

You see, the person God wants us to become is Jesus. Amazingly, what is true for Jesus is true for all who bear his name. We are a part of the family. We share the same father. This is our true identity.

And yet we do not always accept the truth that we are God’s children. Sometimes we rebel against God---do you remember the hymn, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love”? Sometimes we reject grace. Sometimes, like Robin, we live destructively, we enslave ourselves,. And surely God must say, at times, about each one of us,

My child, if only you could see the person I want you to become”.

Here lies the tension that is at the heart of our relationship with God. In the words of the African-American preacher: God loves us just as we are, and yet God loves us too much to leave us there”.

God looks at you and me, and says two things:

You are my son, my daughter, I am pleased with you”….and…

“My child, if only you could see the person I want you to become.”

The invitation this morning is simple: Welcome to the family.

If you have been wandering around outside the house of God, the invitation is to come home. If you have been subsisting on the fast food of a self-help culture, and you have smelled the aroma of a great banquet, sit down to a feast! Abby, Father, has invited you. You are his child. Whether you are nine or ninety-three. Whether you know the Bible from cover to cover or you couldn’t find Luke if your life depended on it….Whether your life is really a mess, or whether you have the great problem of having no problems at all.

The core truth about us is that we are God’s children, we are royalty, we are heirs, we belong.

When we have come home, sometimes we grow up, and we will be talking in the next few weeks, as we look at the life and teaching of Jesus, about growing in grace, living our baptism, become disciples, and taking the radical step of welcoming others home. And that is a sign that we are beginning to embrace the truth that we are children of God. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Claiming our blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others” (Life of The Beloved, page 66).

This is at the heart of the church’s mission: to open our doors to those who are weary and need rest, to those who mourn and need comfort, to those who sin and need a savior, to the scared and the scarred, to the last, the least and the lost.

Now, to finish the story: Robin did her life together. She later remarried, and regained custody of Christina, and then they had a son, Alex. My friend Frank’s life has never quite been the same, but that is another story. The point is that Robin came home.

On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, as we worship together in a new calendar year, God welcomes each of us home. The water symbolizes the blessing and the cleansing, both gifts of God. And the words help us to remember who we are. We are the beloved children of God, who is saying, about each of us, even now,

“If only you could see the person I want you to become”.

Friday, January 05, 2007

global warming

It is 61 degrees, fahrenheit, on Friday, 10:25 p.m., January 5, 2007, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

a haitian in charlotte

We have a new resident in our home, Jacques, who is from Haiti and will be attending college in Charlotte. Since he arrived approximately one week before Christmas, the following are some of his observations about life in the U.S.:

People bring a continuous supply of cookies and candy to your home.
There is a football bowl game on television every evening.
People spend most of their time doing three things: eating, watching television, and playing with computers.

We also spend alot of time talking on cell phones, but I think they do that in Haiti as well.

Along the way we are learning some creole: dejene is breakfast, mange midi is eating lunch, mange a te bon is the food is good, grangou is hungry, swaf is thirsty, soupe is dinner...

You get an idea about what we spend most of our time conversing about.

I am amazed at Jack's facility with the language. He speaks french and creole fluently, and also very good english, and a lot of spanish (due to Haiti's proximity to the Dominican Republic).

He is also picking up on some uniquely American icons and idioms, such as the Geico lizard, presidential funerals that last several days, and The Office. He loves jazz music, and I was pleasantly surprised that he was very familiar with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. All of this inspired me to pick up Andrew Hill's Timelines (Blue Note), which was on a couple of New York Times top ten lists.

Jacques is a longtime staff member (interpreter) in the Providence Haiti Mission Clinic in Cap Haitien, so we knew each other prior to his arrival. He begins his studies on Monday. We are happy (kontan) that he is here.