Wednesday, February 28, 2007


"It is so easy to play the world's game which is the power game, the game which depends on setting myself apart from others, distinguishing myself, seeking the limelight and looking for applause. I find that it is only too easy to become compulsive in my continual need for affirmation, for more and more affirmation, as I anxiously ask, Who am I? Am I the person who is liked, admired, praised, seen as successful? My whole attitude towards myself becomes determined by the way in which others see me. I compare myself with others, and I try to emphasize what is different and distinctive about me. Those three temptations which Christ faced in the wilderness are equally my own temptations: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. Am I able, like Christ, to put them down?"

Esther de Waal, Living With Contradiction

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

the good life or the blessed life? (luke 6)

The Christian faith is never lived, taught, preached in a vacuum. There is always some alternative to it: another philosophy, another religion, another ideal. I see that you have many gods”, Paul said when he looked around first century Athens. And indeed there were gods of wealth, gods of beauty, gods of fertility, gods of immortality, gods of warfare. The statues were constructed to communicate permanence, power, reliability, endurance. The gods helped people to orient their lives toward achieving these ends: becoming wealthy, being beautiful, having sexual freedom, being healthy, avoiding death, overcoming the enemy by violence, being secure.

Most Christians have come to terms with the idea that there is only One God. But the gods that our ancestors worshipped die a slow death, and even though we live in a supposedly Christian nation, a supposedly Judeo-Christian western culture, their influence is still with us, and it has everything to do with what we might call “the good life”.

What is the good life? The good life is a life of wealth, beauty, sexual expression, health, security. I don’t need to give you chapter and verse about the good life. Take your remote control and turn to one of over one hundred channels: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, The Apprentice, The Housewives of Orange County, 24. Or watch a music video---it could be country or rap. Or wander around for an hour at the mall. The culture saturates so much of our thinking about the good life.

And we are hooked by it. We are like the hamster, Wade, who lives in our house. I don’t know quite how or why we ever got a hamster, but that’s another story. Wade is in his cage, sometimes the wheel is turning, going really fast, sometimes Wade is gnawing on anything that is available. We are hooked by whatever is presented to us. And what is presented to us, in our culture, is a vision of the good life.

You will be happy if you are wealthy, if you are beautiful, if you express your sexuality in any way that feels good, if you are young and healthy, if you are secure. This is the good life.

There is a problem: the pursuit of the good life can almost train us to be hamsters on a never ending wheel of motion, one that gets harder and harder to keep going.

Most young adults sense that their world will not be as prosperous as the ones their parents lived in---they are aware of the debt and the environment. Every face that we see on television or at the movies is the face of a nineteen year old, but many people do carry on with their lives into the twenties or thirties, and even beyond. Sexual expression can be a gift from God, but it can also be destructive. Our bodies age, even as we try to keep putting them back together. Our world is dangerous and insecure.

The good life, it turns out, is a mirage. Sometimes we see the good life in what we imagine our neighbor’s life to be like. We compare ourselves to others and say, “they are really making it”. Of course, this is deadly sin of envy, and envy is all wrapped up with our vision of the good life. But there is a deeper problem. The good life, to use the language of the Old Testament prophets, is a false god.

And the good life turns out actually to be something we have substituted for the real thing. We have substituted the good life for the blessed life.

Jesus was, is and will always be a radical contrast to the gods of every culture, to our human constructions of the good life. This is nowhere more apparent than in the beatitudes; they are found in Matthew 5 (the sermon on the mount) and Luke 6 (the sermon on the plain).

The beatitudes of Jesus are surely among the best-known portions of the scripture, along with the ten commandments, the twenty-third psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. At times the beatitudes can be of great comfort, and at times they present a real challenge.

The comfort comes in the good news that God is near, that God provides, that God blesses. The comfort comes in the actions of God, on our behalf, on God’s help in our need. The challenge has everything to do with where we locate ourselves in the teaching. In Matthew’s gospel the beatitudes seem to be spiritualized: the poor “in spirit”, those who hunger and thirst “for righteousness”. In Luke, they are material, concrete: the poor, the hungry. In Matthew’s gospel there seems to be an orientation toward the future: they will inherit the earth, they will see God, they will be filled. In Luke’s gospel, the focus seems to be on the here and now: those who hunger now, those who weep now, those who are well fed now, those who laugh now.

The beatitudes are a challenge for some of us because we place ourselves in categories, and may sense that this is not about me, this is intended for some elite group, people who are more spiritual, more committed. The scholars have wrestled with this idea for centuries. How can you live your life based on the beatitudes, or on the sermon on the mount? We think it applies to someone else, or it is demoralizing.

This misses the point of the teaching of Jesus. The blessed life has to do not with us, but with God. The good life is something we try to control, but the blessed life comes to us as a gift. And the very clear message of the gospel is stated by Dallas Willard:

No one is beyond beatitude because the rule of the God of heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone”.

Think about the beatitudes:

Blessed are you who are poor. There was a clear teaching in the time of Jesus that wealth was a blessing, and poverty was a curse. And yet, Jesus teaches, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. The poor are blessed, in that God’s blessings are available to them. They are not excluded.

Blessed are you who weep. There was a clear teaching in the time of Jesus that tragedy was the will of God---your husband or wife dies, you child rebels, you have a terminal illness or a deformity. Who sinned, the rabbis would ask, you or your parents? Those who weep, Jesus says, are blessed, in that God’s blessings are available to them. They are not excluded.

Now, in Luke’s collection of the beatitudes there are also woes, cautions, warnings. Woe to you who are rich, to you who are well fed, to you who laugh, to you when all speak well of you. By the standards of the planet earth, 2007, that would include virtually every one of us.

What is Jesus saying to us? The gospels themselves help us. Blessed are the poor. Suppose you throw a party, and you invite the wealthy first, but they cannot come. Our wealth can become a distraction. I grew up in a country church, that became, in time, engulfed by the growth of the city on its north side. We became a little more sophisticated along the way, which meant we took down the little boards on each side of the front of the sanctuary, which listed the morning hymns, and began to have a printed bulletin. This was our controversial worship decision, but we made our way through it.

We had revivals every fall and every spring, and I recall one preacher, off on a tangent maybe, preachers do that at times, talking about a man who would accept Christ, and then he would be blessed with more of the world’s riches, and then he would buy a motorboat and take his family out on Sundays on the Chattahoochie River waterskiing. What started as a special occasion soon became a habit. Along the way his faith would become less important to him. Other bad things happened in his life. Wealth can be a blessing, but not necessarily.

Blessed are the hungry. Being well-fed, we can lose touch with the Creator, the Sustainer, the Provider, with the rhythms of planting and rainfall and harvest, and the reverence and trust and faithfulness that went along with that.

Blessed are those who weep. Being entertained, we can block out the world’s pain, the unnecessary suffering, the injustices. That is one reason someone like Bono, whom a number of people listened to by a videoconference this week, is so amazing: an entertainer who places the sufferings of the world squarely in front of us.

Blessed are those who are excluded and criticized because of their faith. Wanting to please people, we can forget that God is our primary audience, that God is our judge.

These are not hardened categories. We have all known poor people whose lives certainly are not blessed, and we have all known wealthy people who are quite humble and generous. But the teachings do challenge our understanding of the good life. They remind us that we must let go of the good life in order to receive the blessed life. The fourth century saint, Augustine, said it well: God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them”.

I am preaching this morning for about twenty minutes about the blessed life. In the next three days you will hear over twenty hours of messages about the good life. And since the good life is always presented to us in short soundbytes and digestable portions, here are a few ways you might enter more fully into the blessed life.

  1. Live more simply. Materialism can become an obstacle to the place of God in our lives. We can obsess into the night about wanting to possess something, or we worry about preserving it or protecting it. The poor are not burdened with these obstacles, and the rich person is wise who knows that this is not what life is all about.

  1. Enjoy the harvest, and share it with others. The earth is the Lord’s, and the poor have a place at our tables, in our hospitals and in our schools, in our nation but also in our lives, not because of our charity, but because they are children of our heavenly Father.

  1. Prefer happiness to entertainment. We live in a culture that escapes through movies, music, alcohol and drugs. The good life may be about work and diversion, but the blessed life is about work and worship, work and Sabbath, work and rest, work and celebration. On the Sabbath the wheel stops, and we get off, and rest, and worship. It is a taste of heaven on earth.

  1. Tell The Truth. I have played a little golf in my time. Some ministers are golfers, some are very good golfers. I think of Harley Dickson and Tom Latimer and Abe Moyer. I am not in the league of any of these guys. I heard a golf story from another preacher friend who talked about a shabby group with which he played. You may have heard of “gimmes”: the ball is close enough to the hole, that’s a gimme.

Well, they began by taking a gimme on the first hole of the front and back nine, then a gimme on the first and last holes on the front and back nine, then the first two and the last two holes on the front and back nine. At some point a question dawned on my friend: “Who speaks for par?”

Who speaks for par? We can say pleasing things to each other, but, in God’s sight, who speaks for par. The false prophets were adored, but what about par? What about truth?

What is the truth?

God will provide for us, that is our wealth.

We are created in the image of God, that is our beauty.

This mortal body must put on immortality, that is our health.

The Lord is our shepherd, that is our security.

Brothers and sisters, we are not here to achieve the good life. It may be within our grasp, but it is, finally, a trivial pursuit. The radical teaching of Jesus envisions a better life, a blessed life.

Live more simply.

Enjoy the harvest and share it with others.

Prefer happiness to entertainment.

Tell the truth.

Israel had made it to the promised land, and Moses was standing before them. All that they had dreamed about, they held in their hands. I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses”(Deut 30). “Therefore, choose life, so that you and your descendents may live”.

And so, what will it be: the good life, or the blessed life?

Source: Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

ash wednesday: thoughts on anna nicole smith and the war

I am not a Catholic. I did not grow up attending Ash Wednesday services, or observing Lent, for that matter. In fact, we bristled a little when we came to the line in the creed about believing in the “Holy Catholic Church”. Never mind that there weren’t that many Catholics in south Georgia. This was before the great migration of Catholics to the south. That is another story.

Not being a Catholic meant that I did not pay that much attention to whoever the Pope might be. All of that changed in my young adult years, as John Paul was elected, and then as he was shot, and then as he forgave his assailant. Some of my Catholic friends adored him, many others could hardly bear his teachings, even if they respected him as a person. I watched as he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and asked for the forgiveness of the Jewish people for the Catholic participation in the Holocaust. I waited for the miracle that women might be priests in the Catholic Church, or that priests might marry. It never happened.

It was John Paul, who died a year ago this past May, who coined the term “culture of death”. For him it was always juxtaposed with what he also called “The gospel of life”. The culture of death had to do with a variety of issues, all of them hot button----abortion, capital punishment, war, euthanasia. He made Democratic presidents uncomfortable with his opposition to abortion, and he made Republican presidents uncomfortable with his opposition to war and torture.

We lived, he insisted, in a culture of death. I have remembered that phrase as I have prepared for this service, for this season: a Culture of death. You can barely walk through a restaurant, the ymca, a doctor’s office or any room in your own home, or my house, without seeing the face of Anna Nicole Smith on television. She was famous, I suppose, for the reason that she wanted to be famous. Her bizarre and mysterious death must have gripped the imagination of most of the American public, for it has trumped every other bit of television news. She is almost a living proverb, about path of destruction, about an unwise choice of friends, about every type of excess. Now she is our living parable of death.

The only news that can replace Anna Nicole Smith in our national consciousness is the revelation that Brittany Spears has shaved her head. But that is another story, too.

I think of another facet of our culture of death, one that is more important: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now entering their fifth years. I think of the 3135 Americans who have lost their lives, and the fact that most of us could not even come close to a number for the Iraqis who have lost their lives---I had to look up the number, it is between 56,000 and 62,000.

One facet of our culture of death consumes us: we cannot hear enough about it. The other we would rather put out of sight and out of mind. When asked about Iraqi civilian casualties, an official commented, “We don’t do body counts”. The Pentagon will not allow the flag draped caskets to be photographed as they return to the U.S.

I appreciate John Paul for his naming several of the manifestations of the culture of death, for we live, as a psychologist of a generation ago named it, in the denial of death.

Ash Wednesday is the church’s way of piercing this illusion. On Ash Wednesday we confront our mortality. On Ash Wednesday, we are marked with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. You and I will die, sooner or later.

I think of our Lord’s warning, to Peter, late in the gospel:

“When you were younger,

you used to fasten your own belt

And go wherever you wished.

But when you grow old,

you will stretch out your hands,

And someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you

Where you do not wish to go”. (John 21.18)

But the good news is that the reality of death is juxtaposed with the gospel of life.

The dead in Christ will rise

This mortal body must put on immortality.

If a grain of wheat falls into the earth, it bears much fruit.

Death has been swallowed up in victory.

And so our realism about death forces us to confront something else: the promise of resurrection. That the church exists in a culture of death is not the end of the world. First century Rome was a brutal place. We have been here before. The devaluing of human life, the cheapening of human dignity, the horrors that are associated with terror or torture or child slavery or sexual exploitation or abortion as birth control or indiscriminate bombing or gang violence, and the more subtle diminishing of human life: we have worth if we are young, productive, beautiful, attractive, wealthy. If not, we are discarded, because we are a drain on the system.

We mark our foreheads as a symbol of this culture of death in which we live, a culture that is somehow traced back to our fall from paradise. And surely we pray for something more, more than flesh, more than dust, more than matter, more than this life, as good as it might be at times, more than this life.

The psalms often give us this dose of realism:

To you, O Lord, I cried

And to the Lord I made supplication

What profit is there in my death

If I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you?

Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me.

O Lord, be my helper.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;

You have taken off my sackcloth

And clothed my with joy.

So that my soul will praise you, and not be silent. (Psalm 30. 8-12b)

And so, brothers and sisters, fellow travelers in this culture of death, but fellow pilgrims en route to the promised land, let us enter again into this season of Lent. Let us stay close to the One “who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. Let us be in the world, but not of it. Let us look, with hope, to the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


Sources: For estimates of war casualties, google any of the following sites on the internet: International Committee of The Red Cross; Christian Science Monitor; Common Dreams; CNN. Or go to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death was published in 1973, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, two months after the author’s death.

Monday, February 19, 2007

the sauce is beside the pork by dan martin

Ken's note: From my friend Dan Martin, who is a UMC pastor in Newton. He and I have eaten more barbecue in this life together, not to mention biscuits and gravy, than either of us would care to admit. This is good stuff!

"I have made barbeque for years and it is one of my favorite meals. It is possible to cook the meat to perfection, make it into a nice roast pork platter of goodness and to eat it at that point. This makes a great meal. But the mass of wonderful meat does not become barbeque until you add the sauce. The meat cannot make its own sauce. The sauce has to come from the outside and cannot be found within.

And this is the great law of religion and spiritual well being. The two great schools of religion are centered around this basic root belief of barbeque. One system is of the belief that we can find within ourselves the true essence of meaning and joy. That within us is the sacred spark that can be kindled into nirvana or a sense of “finding oneself”. In other words: the cooked pork can find its own sauce from inside itself. Buddhist, Scientologist, and various Gnostic beliefs embrace this sort of understanding. The chief form of discovery involves meditation where we search for our own truth and then saunter off into life happily existing in joyful bliss.

The other system is the Judeo-Christian-Moslem belief that the source of our joy must come from the outside. The sauce cannot be found within and must be invoked from outside the pork. This founded upon the belief that we are not whole, cannot be whole, and are monstrously depraved, often referred to as “sin”, without the incarnation of the Creator, Saving, and Sustaining God who impacts our life.

This all may seem strange to you but the central event in the life of the Christian Church is the “incarnation”. This is the instance where God became a person and lived among us. This was the total infusion of God into our world. Salvation by grace is the total infusion of God into our life. The Jewish beliefs and the beliefs of the Moslems all hold their own form of incarnation from the God of all creation.

And now Oprah Winfrey has found ”The Secret” to all life and this from a talk show host who spends more time dealing with her personal weight issues, how to de-clutter your home, how to have the perfect party, and what the latest stars are up to in Hollywood. Now guess what, her belief is classic Buddhism, Scientology, and Gnosticism. It is the belief that we can find our salvific peace from inside our own little Hollywood inspired bodies. How wonderful that she has now entered into the world of the “spiritualist” and is promoting her own version of religion offering inspirational quotes from the stars as evidence to the great truth she is hawking.

Wynonna Judd was recently quoted where she tells how she spent so much of her life trying to love others and is just now learning to love herself. I love it when Hollywood actors go to the depths of these sorts of enlightenments. Do I ever feel inspired?

Oprah’s guest promoters of “Oprahism” state scientific facts concerning sending out negative or positive waves and you get back what you send out and how even Jesus said “the kingdom is actually in us” which I cannot remember ever reading. “It is like radio waves” says her guest host. You get back according to what you send out.

Do not be fooled. Do not let celebrities, who dabble in the eternal and throw together a little smoke and personal holiness to form their own brand of cosmic naval gazing, become the sacred guru who will pull you from the eternal truth of Jesus Christ.

The barbeque has to have sauce. The sauce cannot be found on the inside. It comes in a little bottle or bowl and you pour it on. This is incarnation. This is the great touch of God almighty.

I am sorry space does not allow me to go into more depth here but come by sometime (maybe on a Sunday?) and we will discuss the fine art of barbeque and the eternal truths of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

salmonella/scrubs/day of service/in remembrance

This has been an unusual week, not that any of them are ever normal. Our daughter Abby, a senior in high school, came down with something on Tuesday (the flu?), and missed a day of school, then returned, but did not seem to be getting better. Then Thursday afternoon my wife noticed a tv spot about salmonella and peanut butter.

Being the good father that I am, I had made Abby peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Monday and Tuesday mornings (on whole grain bread, better than the pizza and fries her school serves, or so I thought), and she had eaten them, and so I googled "peanut butter recall" and there it was, the very brand I had purchased at our local grocer, and the very code #: 2111.

We shifted gears on her treatment, she began to overcome her nausea, I returned the peanut butter and received two bucks, which did not cover the pharmacy, medical office co-pays, gingerale, or ibuprophin, of course, but at least we knew.

I realized Abby was feeling better when she began to refer to me as the "poisoner"!

During the recovery time, out of pity, we allowed Abby to control the television selections, and we soon found ourselves watching one episode of "Scrubs" after another. It does have its own form of odd, adolescent humor, especially the daydreaming sequences and the celebrity cameo appearances; it is a version, of sorts, of a real life "Simpsons", and there are lots of take-offs, including Gray's Anatomy, which seems to be grist for continuing satire. Anyway, when you have come to the end of an episode of Scrubs, you are in exactly the same place as when you began, only you have laughed a couple of times.

This morning our congregation was engaged in something we do once or twice a year---a day of service in the community. This has been a part of my own church experience since St. Timothy's in Greensboro and Mount Tabor in Winston-Salem, and it is always a very energizing day. Local non-profits love it because they receive an infusion of volunteer assistance (which they have requested). The participants like it because they enjoy spending time together--today I painted. And it helps a church to do something constructive, and beyond its own walls. In most cases, as today, it is intergenerational.

We worked at the Community Health Clinic. Jack, who is living with us from Haiti, went along. He painted as well, but in all likelihood he will volunteer there in the future---he speaks spanish and french, and as 40% of their clients are latino/a, and many others from french-speaking african countries, there is a great need for his gifts (he interprets in our medical clinic in Cap Haitien). So that was good too.

Today, Bill, one of the pillars of the Mount Tabor Church in Winston-Salem, is being remembered. He and his wife Pat have been key leaders of that church for some time. I remember Bill would always wear a brilliant red blazer whenever NC State had won a significant football or basketball game against one of their rivals (like Wake Forest or Duke or UNC). As I was only 39 when I was appointed to his congregation, he was patient and supportive in my years there. Bill died earlier in the week, after an extended illness. My prayers are with his family today, and with that community.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

the centering prayer method #2

Adapted from the writings of Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating.

"The old-fashioned guidance systems to keep airplanes on course during flight might help us to understand the art of listening to the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the pilot is on course, he will not hear anything on his headphones. If he veers a little to the right, he will get a beep. If he goes too far the other way, he will pick up a different signal. By correcting his course, his headphones return to silence. In the moment by moment process of daily life, similar indications of being on or off course are available. Any sign that you are upset is an invitation to ask yourself why you are upset and not to project the blame on another person or the situation. Even if they are to blame, it won't do you any good until you solve the real problem which resides in you. The fundamental work of a spiritual director of contemplatives is to encourage and to guide them to submit to the divine therapy which allows the unconscious emotional material of early life that led to the drive for security, esteem and affection, and power symbols in the culture to be evacuated. Each of us has a significant dose of the human condition. We call it the consequences of original sin. We come into the world not knowing what true happiness is but needing it; not knowing what true affection is but needing it; not knowing what true freedom is, but needing it. We bring with us into adult life the way we as children coped with impossible situations, either through repression of feeling or by compensatory programs for happiness that can not possibly work. The stronger those needs, the more the frustration when they are not fulfilled.

Into this universal human situation Jesus comes saying, "Repent" which means "change the direction in which you are looking for happiness." Human happiness is found in the growth of unconditional love. The work of spiritual direction is to help us to become aware of the obstacles to divine love and the free circulation of that love within us. This requires the cultivation of a non-possessive attitude toward ourselves and other people. Gradually we learn that God is the true security, God truly loves us and with this love, we can make it even if no one else seems to care.

Spiritual direction should primarily be directed to ordinary life. True freedom is God's gift to us, enabling us to serve. Jesus said to his disciples, "You have to learn how to serve people." The greatest in the kingdom are the persons who are truly serving--not necessarily some great cause, but just the ordinary needs of family and the people with whom they live and work. Service is something anyone can do. This ordinary kind of service and love is what Jesus seems to mean by learning to love as he loved us. He loves us in the details of our lives, puts up with our misguided ways and above all, shares with us the suffering that comes our way as a result.

Every now and then because of damaged or unprocessed emotions contained in the unconscious, we may enter a place of long term dryness in our prayer or avalanches of thoughts and feelings that are disturbing. Sometimes attitudes or desires arise that we did not even know existed in us, or sometimes we recycle a bad relationship that we thought we had resolved once and for all. This is a place where we need to be reassured and encouraged. It is not so much being told what to do as being encouraged to do what we know God and our conscience are asking us to do.

There is only a limited amount of help that spiritual direction can bring us. In the beginning, it can start us on the path by providing good readings, a rule of life and what is most important, a regular practice of prayer. It is prayer that gives us access to our center. As we approach that center where the divine Spirit dwells, the Spirit dismantles our emotional programs for happiness and relativizes them so that we begin to act not from a self-centered point of reference-from a perspective of fear or self-protection-but from a center of pure love.

As we progress we need advice when we come into some particular dilemma or double bind. In fact, as is the case with some serious medical problems, you may need a second or a third opinion. In a crisis of choice when you are perplexed and do not know which way to go, it might be good to consult several persons. God can communicate at this point through anything. The Spirit uses something concrete, like a word or a book, to enlighten the person reading it or hearing it. A good director can sometimes tell by your doubts, by your feelings, by a certain grace that you have had, how God is trying to lead you, and can point that out to you. But he or she cannot tell you what to do on all occasions. The real success of the spiritual director is to become gradually less of a director and more of a spiritual friend.

The contemplative journey that we have enlisted in through a commitment to Centering Prayer is an adventure in faith and a trip into the unknown. If we think we know what is going to happen or if we expect to arrive at certain goals, we are on the wrong road. The chief comfort that our security system, which is so deeply biologically rooted, does not want to give up is certitude. That is the ultimate security, especially certitude that we are advancing on the spiritual journey. The moment that you surrender yourself to God, you are surrendering to an unknown future and destiny. You are letting yourself become the person whom God always intended you to be. Thus, you learn through the Spirit's guidance and through difficult or impossible situations, to relinquish your hold on every level of your being, allowing God to take total possession of it so that you can manifest the pure love of God in daily life without even thinking of it. The noise and frenetic character of modern life, the excessive chatter, so much information, so much entertainment--all of this has to quiet down inside of us. The greatest teacher is silence. To come out of interior silence and to practice its radiance, its love, its concern for others, its submission to God's will, its trust in God even in tragic situations is the fruit of living from your inmost center, from the contemplative space within. The signs of coming from this space are a peace that is rarely upset by events, other people and our reactions to them, and a calm that is a stabilizing force in whatever environment you may be in. God gives us everything we need to be happy in the present moment, no matter what the evidence to the contrary may be.

Contemplative Prayer is not a technique, although it makes use of methods as starting points to awaken spiritual attentiveness. Contemplative Prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit. A basic tenet of the Christian Contemplative Tradition is that this gift cannot be earned, but it is freely given by God. Centering Prayer is not that gift, or even a way to make Contemplative Prayer happen. Rather, it is a means of preparing to receive it by opening to God’s presence and action within. The following texts from the Gospel of John are a New Testament scriptural and theological inspiration for the practice of Centering Prayer and Contemplative Outreach.

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? I am not myself the Source of the words I speak to you: It is the Father who dwells in me doing his own work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else accept the evidence of the deeds themselves. In very truth I tell you, whoever has faith in me will do what I am doing, indeed he will do greater things still because I am going to the Father. Anything you ask in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. (John 14: 10)

“I will not leave you alone; I am coming back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me; because I live you too will live. When that day comes you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you”. (John 14: 18)

“I have told you these things while I am still with you; but the advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name; will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you”. (John 14: 18)

“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.... Dwell in me, as I in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself, but only if it remains united with the vine; no more can you bear fruit, unless you remain united with me..” (John 15:1)

“I am the Vine and you are the branches. Anyone who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing”. (John 15:4)

“If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask whatever you want, and you shall have it. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love”. (John 15:7)

“May they all be one in us; as you, Father are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you gave me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, may they be perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me, and that you loved them as you loved me”. (John 17:20)

. The whole thrust of Centering Prayer is to encourage us to let go of all thoughts. A "thought" in Contemplative Outreach terminology is any perception whatsoever including memories, plans, visualizations, external or internal sensations, feelings, and self reflections. Any kind of reflecting, even to make a choice, is a "thought," and hence, an invitation to return to the sacred word.

In the beginning our advice is: Resist no thought, retain no thought, react emotionally to no thought, and when you notice you are thinking about some thought, return ever so gently to the sacred word. One does not think about whether to return to the sacred word or not. One simply returns to it when thoughts are attracting one's awareness to a particular object.

We recommend the "discrete" use of the sacred word rather than its constant repetition. By this we mean using it as much as one needs it. This may be continuously at first. Beginners need it whenever they notice they are thinking about some other thought. In following this advice, we note the fact that the sacred word may become indistinct or even disappear for a limited period of time. When thoughts again engage our attention, we return to the sacred word as before. Thus, a disposition of alert receptivity is gradually formed.

Later we suggest returning to the sacred word or symbol only when we notice that we are attracted to some other thought. The meaning of this advice is that with time and regular daily practice one can discern intuitively whether one is disinterested in the thoughts that are coming down the stream of consciousness. Disregard of the thoughts is the sign that the consent of the will is becoming habitual. The will can be directed to God at a very delicate level without having to express its intention in a sacred symbol. Thus, from our perspective, the sacred symbol is not a means of going some place like an elevator. Still less is it a means of bulldozing other thoughts out of awareness. It is rather, a question of cultivating the spiritual level of awareness, which is real awareness, but without particular content.

This brings me to the chief difference between Centering Prayer, Vipassana and Hindu mantric practice. Centering Prayer comes out of the Christian Contemplative Heritage, inspired in the first instance by the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, both of which cultivate interior silence and purity of heart. In the methods of meditation in the Eastern religions, the emphasis is on concentration for the sake of developing clarity of mind. By concentrative practices, I understand the use of the rational faculties and the imagination, physical movements and postures, and continued repetition of a word or phrase.

Centering Prayer is a passage from concentrative practices to alert receptivity through consenting to God's presence and action within us, which places the emphasis on purity of intention. Effort refers to the future, consent to the present moment where God, in fact, is. According to St. John of the Cross, purity of intention manifests itself during prayer as "a general loving attentiveness toward God." This is attentiveness not of the mind but of the heart. Its source is pure faith in God's presence leading to surrender to the interior action of the Holy Spirit in the here and now.

Monday, February 12, 2007

a prayer for peace by jonathan marlowe

"Gracious God, who created our world in love, provided the resources for us to live in peace, and blessed us with the abundant nature of your grace, we pray today for the needs of our communities, nations, and world.

Although you have endowed your good creation with Shalom, we confess that we have turned aside from your way of peace. We have been too eager to punish wrong-doers, we have been reluctant to forgive, we have allowed our fears and insecurities to take control of who we are. You sent your Son Jesus Christ to be our Prince of Peace, but when the time for important decisions came, we have too often and too easily trusted in the weapons of war to solve our problems.

Lord, help us not to fall victim to the temptation of self-righteousness in times like these. Our sins of arrogance and naïveté cross the borders of liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans, hawks and doves. Make us into a humble people, sober in judgment, modest in speech, and authentic in our desire for peace.

We confess, O Lord, our complicity in the systems and the disordered passions that fuel the fires of war: the angers that we nurse, the resentments that we treasure, the greed we harbor. Sometimes we have been content to let our institutions do our sinning for us.

Forgive us and renew us, O God. Heal our broken spirits, and transform our relationships. Show us again the path of peace, and expand our vision to seek justice for the poor.

We pray for the people of Iraq, for their safety and well-being. We pray for Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds. We pray that centuries of hostility towards one another will somehow subside, that sectarian violence will come to an end, that the very difficult road of forgiveness will be considered. God, please comfort those who mourn in Iraq today.

We pray for Iraqi Christians, many of whom have fled their homeland for safer dwelling places. For those who have fled, grant that they will find a new home. For those who stay in Iraq, give them hope and strength.

AS Jesus taught us, we pray for our enemies. Give us the strength to love them, even when they don’t love us back.

We pray for American soldiers who are serving now in Iraq. They serve because they are good people who want to serve their country. We thank you for their dedication, skill, and bravery. We pray for their safety; we ask that they will be able to come home very soon to their family and friends and churches. We are sorry that we have put them in the position that they are in. We have asked them to do our combat for us, while we sit safely at home. Bring them home, Lord, bring them home.

We pray for veterans who have already returned home from Iraq, sometimes to disturbing conditions at home. We pray for veterans who are homeless, who need medical, psychological and spiritual care, who have been injured in body, mind, and/or spirit.

We pray for the governmental leaders, both here and in Iraq. Give them the wisdom to know how to end the conflict as soon as possible. Where they have strayed, give them new direction. Where they are trying their best, bless their efforts.

Lord, we pray today for your church, particularly the United Methodist Church. Sometimes we have been timid, reluctant to speak up for peace, hesitant to resist the crowds when they have clamored for war. Give us boldness now, to speak the truth in love, to articulate clearly our desire for peace, and be your witnesses for Shalom. Make us active in ministering to all those who suffer, stir our imaginations to greater relief efforts throughout the world: to bind up the broken-hearted, to care for the widows and orphans, to minister compassionately to refugees and survivors.

Make us your Church, the body of Christ, a foretaste of your heavenly peace on earth - Until that day when we will all beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when nation will not lift up sword against nation, and we can finally learn of war no more.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

deeper waters (luke 5)

A River Runs Through It is a book, and later a movie about trout fishing, but it’s really about two brothers, Norman and Paul. Paul is the troubled child, but he’s also an expert fly fisherman. One day the two brothers are out fishing together. Norman remembers the experience:

“Being out of practice, I was especially careful to keep in open water. Paul watched me fish a hole that went under willows until he couldn’t bear the sight any longer. “Brother”, he said, “you can’t catch trout in a bathtub. You like to fish in sunny, open water because…you are afraid to lose a fly if you cast into the bushes. But the fish are not taking sunbaths. They are under the bushes where it is cool and safe from fishermen like you.”

“But I lose flies when I get mixed up in the bushes”, I complained. “Nobody”, he said, “has put in a good day’s fishing unless he leaves a couple of flies hanging in the bushes. You can’t catch fish if you don’t dare to go where they are.”

“Throw your nets into the deep waters”, Jesus says, “and then let them down for a catch”. It all begins with an invitation. They’re on the sea of Galilee, south of Capernaum. It is a beautiful part of the world. Pam and I have eaten St. Peter’s fish, which is sort of a speciality there, like eating barbecue in North Carolina, or shrimp and grits in the low country. A first century fishing boat has recently been discovered in that area, unusually well-preserved, measuring 26 and a half feet long by 7 and a half feet wide by 4 and a half feet deep. It is fishing country, and Jesus, a teacher, is talking to people who make their living around these waters.

There is a first miracle: they listen! He says, “Throw your nets out into the deep water”. “We have worked all night long”, they respond, “and we have caught nothing”. What they are really saying is “What’s the point….we are not catching anything…there are no visible results”.

Has this ever been your experience? Have you ever worked hard, really hard, at work, in a relationship, toward a goal, and there seems to be no visible result, nothing to show for it? I know what it’s like. You know what it’s like.

Nothing in the nets….Empty. Jesus says, “throw your nets out into the deep water”, and they do. They cast their nets. This is the faithful action that we offer to God in the present moment, and even if it seems totally pointless, we do it. Why do we do it? Because Jesus is calling us to throw our nets out into the deep waters, even when we have worked all night long and caught nothing.

And so the nets are cast into the waters. Luke points to a second miracle. “They caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break”. You can see, you can almost smell the overflow. There’s more harvest than they can handle. The nets begin to break…the boat begins to sink. They are amazed! They’re afraid. You’ve heard the saying, I’ve heard the saying, “be careful what you pray for, you may get it”.

Well, they got it! Nets bulging with fish, maybe we’ve never had a day like that, but we understand. The one who turns water into wine, the one who gives sight to the blind, the one who feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fish is doing it again. It is a miraculous catch of fish.

Enter Peter, his first appearance in Luke’s gospel. Peter doesn’t always get it, but this time he does. He bows before Jesus and says, “Master, leave. I’m a sinner, and I can’t handle this holiness. Leave me to myself”. In other words, “Lord, I know who you are, and I know who I am, and more importantly you know who I am, and I cannot stay in your presence”. We might not use these exact words, but we have all been there. We have all felt inadequate, unworthy, unclean.

Then Jesus speaks: “do not be afraid; from now on you will be fishing for men and women”. Jesus can use Peter. Jesus calls Peter into his service. Peter begins a new adventure. He will gather people and rescue them from danger. He will catch people and bring them to life.

This is the call to follow Jesus and to be a disciple. Question: Can we hear the savior calling us, you and me, in the scripture for today?

Our answer depends on how we respond to a few other questions, questions that Jesus might be asking us:

Are we playing it safe? We may be fishing where we won’t lose our flies. In sports this is often called “playing not to lose”. And when teams play not to lose, they often lose. Maybe we’re stuck, not much is happening, but we rationalize by saying “it could be worse”. We like fishing in those open waters, we might even like fishing in a bathtub. There is no catch, but we have learned to do it.

Are we discouraged, because the visible results are so hard to see? Fishing for men and women is like that. Richard Rohr says it well:

“Brothers and sisters, you have no idea how hard it is to be a fisher of men [and women]. Sometimes I feel that I’d much sooner be an ordinary fisherman. Because then I’d at least have fish to show for my work. I could hold them up and say, “see, I caught three fish”. But a fisher of humanity, its sort of vague. You don’t know when they’re growing, when you have them, when they believe, when they’ve let go of life. Ours is hard catch to measure”.

And yet, fishing for people is what is most important. I think of those in our church who volunteer with children and youth, who give their time to teach them, or go on retreats with them, as some are doing this weekend. You cannot fully appreciate what you are doing, the impact you are having on those boys and girls, but it is real. It is hard to measure, but it is important.

Are we keeping the Lord at arm’s length? Are we saying, “Jesus, what do you have to do with me?, I’m not good enough for you, talented enough for you, gifted enough for you”. I’m not the right person, now is not the right time, this is not the right place.

Are we keeping Jesus at arm’s length? You stay in your heavens and I will stay here on earth, you can have Sunday and I’ll take care of the other six days…Are we saying “Jesus, you are really wise, but I’m the fisherman, you’re just the rabbi…please stay out of my business”.

Or… Are we ready to throw our nets into deeper waters? Jesus is calling---calling Peter, calling you, calling me. Throw your nets into the deeper waters. Loren Mead was down at Pawley’s Island with his children. He really didn’t know what to do with young children at the beach, so he went into one of the stores in town. He asked the people there, “I’m going to take my children fishing this afternoon. Is that what you do with children around this beach?”

“Yeah, you can do that, but nothing is biting”.

He came again: “I’ve got to do something with them. What do I have to buy?”

The manager sold him some gear to fish with, but as he was leaving he said, “what you really ought to do is come back in October. That’s when the fish really begin to bite”.

Later that same day he was walking out to the south point with his wife. Somebody was fishing. Fly fishing in salt water. He had never seen that. “Are you having any luck?”, he asked.

“Nope”, the man said. My friend had never seen anyone fishing so hard. “I heard they’re not biting much”. “Yep, I know”. “I was over at the store in town, and they said it is a bad time of year”. “Yep, I know.” “They told me to come back in October. That’s when they bite”.

Then the guy said, “Yep, I know. But I’m here now.”

You and I do not have life the way it was twenty or ten or even five years ago. We are alive now, in this place, at this time. And Jesus is speaking to us, and saying “throw your nets into the deeper waters”, right now, where you are. He says, “If you have eyes to see, I will show you an abundance”. And if you have ears to hear the Savior calling, listen. He says, “I want you to be my disciple. I want you to rescue men and women from danger, and bring them back to life.”

Throw your nets into the deeper waters: a deeper spiritual relationship with God…a deeper engagement with the members of your family…a deeper compassion for the last, the least and the lost…a deeper concern for the world in which we live, the world of the present and the world of the future.

It is about leaving the places where it is cool and safe, where we are in control, and casting our nets, our lives, our gifts into deeper waters. What else could life be all about?

“Do not be afraid”, Jesus says. And so, if you believe in miracles, a third miracle: They leave everything behind and follow him. They have new priorities. They will fish for men and women. And if we can hear the Savior calling, we will hear him speaking to us: “Do not be afraid. If you fish for men and women, I will fill your nets with an abundance. I, the Lord of sea and sky, want to rescue you from danger and give you life”.

Just when we are about ready to give up, someone comes along beside us, just when we thought we were all alone, someone speaks to us, and it is Jesus, and he says, to you and me,

“Throw your nets into the deeper waters”.

Let us pray:

Help us, Lord Jesus, to hear your voice,

to throw our nets into the deeper waters.

Bless us, Lord, with a harvest that is beyond our imagining.

Lead us, Lord, to follow you.

Make us your disciples. Amen.


Loren Mead tells the story in Shaping Our Future, pages 13-14. Richard Rohr, Radical Grace, 230-231. Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

mission to ministers/bono/the coming sabbath

This week has been busy. Our congregation hosted an annual "mission to ministers" for our annual conference. Over three hundred clergy showed up. The day began with a worship service, Alyce McKenzie of Perkins preached, the Bishop celebrated holy communion, I served as liturgist, a $2000 offering was received for the theological library of Africa University. Then a luncheon and a very long talk by an invited guest speaker on the subject of personal evangelism. Then an afternoon lecture on the forms of preaching----a very good lecture, solid content (also by Alyce McKenzie). Then workshops---I led one of them on the subject of preaching at Easter. Then the Bishop spoke, and announced the appointments of the district superintendents for the coming year. Then a service of evening prayers for peace, led by my friend Jonathan Marlowe. See his blog, under "Voices in The Wilderness". I believe he is going to include a prayer that he gave, for peace, at his blog. I will post it here soon. One of the real high points of the day. Then the board meeting, a great meal and the Bishop speaking again, on the importance of preaching. A long day, well-attended. Our church offered wonderful hospitality. I saw a number of good friends. No major glitches.

The next evening we had our usual Wednesday night meal, and the program offering this week was a videoconference interview with Bono on Africa and the global HIV/Aids crisis. I had seen the presentation this summer at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, and had ordered a copy, and it has been shown a couple of times in our congregation. Our primary response to the issues raised by Bono has been support of Africa University (see link under "Schools") and the constuction of an HIV/Aids clinic in Haiti. The video was very moving, and a cross-section of folks viewed it. The music is inspiring, Bono knows the scriptures, and he comes across as honest and compelling, like a 21st century prophet.

Today was a somewhat typical day in the ministry, not that it lacked times of meaning. We had breakfast with a couple of friends in the church. I tried to complete the first draft of the sermon, on the beatitudes from Luke 6 (I find Dallas Willard to be helpful here). I had lunch with a friend in the church---we went to Green's in uptown Charlotte, which is a local institution---I had never been there. I visited the mother of a couple in our church, and she is likely near death. We prayed together. Then I had a meal with a candidate for our music position----he is an exceptional person, as each of the finalists is likely to be. He auditioned with our choir, which is an extraordinarily talented group of people.

Tomorrow is Friday, and it will be a sabbath that I am anticipating with eagerness. The week has been full, and Sunday will be a day literally packed with events--morning worship services, a lunch Bible Study, the District Leadership Conference, hosted by our church, an evening chapel service. And then everything will begin again on Monday. So a breather, tomorrow will be nice.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


78 days until Merlefest!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

when you are born in texas, you don't have to be born again

I had a good weekend a few days ago with the people of First UMC, Arlington, Texas, where my good friend David Mosser is senior pastor. David and I share the common vocation of serving in churches and writing/editing; he has for years edited the Abingdon Preaching Annual. We met at the General Conference in Pittsburgh in 2004, which remains one of the Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno in my own spiritual pilgrimage, and we had a good meal somewhere in the business district of downtown Pttsburgh, and have kept up with each other since. Anyway, it was fun to be with his people, as we shared a retreat with the church council on spiritual gifts and spiritual practices, and then on Sunday morning as I preached in three of their five morning services. They are a 5100 member church, which is a medium sized church in the supersized Texas church environment...actually, I am kidding, FUMC Arlington would be the largest church in most annual conferences or dioceses or presbyteries in the United States, not to mention Western Europe. Anyway, it was fun to interract with the people and also to appreciate the church that I serve and how the two congregations are alike and how they are different. David is a truly gifted spiritual leader and at the same time something of a maniac, an excellent communicator who is also a fine administrator although he tries to hide this, in order to preserve his image. I always like being in Texas, even as I know that if I lived there I would eat myself to death. Anyway, God's blessings to David and the good people of FUMC Arlington.