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Monday, December 15, 2008

Prayers for Presidents in Times of Transition, or Any Time . . .

As one President prepares to leave office, the President Elect prepares to enter the White House. When he wrote Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World, Frank Laubach often thought about the responsibilities and burdens every President shoulders. (The passages quoted are found in Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World, Fleming H. Revell Company, Westwood, New Jersey, 1946, pages 20 and 57.)

His words (with a word or two added) can fuel our prayers as we begin a new century and observe a peaceful transition from one President to the next:

“Most of us will never enter the White House and offer advice to the President. Probably he will never have time to read our letters [emails or tweets]. But we can give him what is far more important than advice. We can give him a lift into the presence of God, make him hungry for divine wisdom, which is the grandest thing one man [or woman] ever does for another. We can visit the White House with prayers as many times a day as we think of it, and every such visit makes us a channel between God and the President.”

When we think of our President, let us pray for him often as Frank Laubach suggests we should with this prayer:

“Lord, help the President to feel hungry and thirsty for Thy wisdom.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

Prayer Changes the World

There is much to learn and apply from Frank Laubach’s fervent call to prayer. He longs for pastors and their people to be sure that:

“Every prayer we utter from the heart begins to change history at once. Most prayers of intercession one hears in church are tragic disappointments, meager, vague, half-hearted, powerless, small. People seldom pray as if they realized that prayer changes the world.

“Evangelical Christianity is lost unless it discovers that the center and power of its divine service is prayer, not sermons; God, not the preacher. This does not mean that more time must be spent in preparing written prayers, it does mean that minister and people need to spend more time preparing themselves for the service by prayer at home” (Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World, Fleming H. Revell Company, Westwood, New Jersey, 1946, page 49).

Frank Laubach's writings suggest specific ways that we can grow in prayer--by praying with the conviction that prayer can change people, events, even world history. He modeled this conviction, and challenges us to pray experimentally--to record our prayers and the ways God answers.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Pray for Your Pastor

We’ve heard many calls to pray for our churches and pastors, but in his second chapter of Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World, Frank Laubach issues a different challenge to church members. He appeals to church members (and attenders) “to pray while our pastor is preaching. Don’t shut your eyes unless you wish to, but keep asking God to speak through the pastor’s lips and in our hearts” (Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World, Fleming H. Revell Company, Westwood, New Jersey, 1946, page 45).

What would happen if we took his challenge to heart, and began to pray for every pastor we listen to while he or she is preaching? Too often we focus on what we can “get out of a sermon.” How often do we think about what we can put into the sermon through prayer while our pastor is speaking? Are you willing to pray while you listen?

As Dr. Laubach writes: “It will be an exciting experiment. Remember, you are the church, and the pastor is your servant. Each of you is just as important in making a great service as he is. He can’t do his [or her] best alone. Your prayer sets the spiritual atmosphere without which no sermon can be great. Together we can lift the pastor and the service to new heights . . . Praying together in this church today is one grand way in which we can help Christ to give us vision and power to lift the world.

“So pray inwardly every minute, and see what happens.”

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pray for World Leaders

“Millions of us ordinary people must pour an incessant white light of prayer upon our world leaders, day after day. We must lift the heads of those leaders toward God so that they will hear Him and obey His will. Enough people praying will release into the human blood stream the mightiest medicine in the universe, for we shall be channels through whom God can exert His infinite power. Prayer is to the world of human relations what white corpuscles are to the human body.”

This call to prayer was not written after our recent election, but sometime in 1946.

The writer is Dr. Frank Charles Laubach, known as “the Apostle of Literacy,” a missionary in the Philippines, and founder of Laubach Literacy, which merged with Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. in 2002 to form ProLiteracy Worldwide.

During the latter years of his life, he traveled all over the world speaking on topics of literacy and world peace. He was author of a number of devotional writings and works on literacy.

The first passage quoted here is from Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World by Frank C. Laubach, (Fleming H. Revell Company, Westwood, New Jersey, 1946, pages 17-18). I came across the title while searching for another book on Amazon, and while it is somewhat dated, there are passages like the first quotation that are well worth reading, re-reading, and acting upon in the year 2008 and beyond.

Let us pray for all world leaders, as Paul wrote to Timothy:

“The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.

“He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned: that there’s one God and only one, and one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, who offered himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free. Eventually the news is going to get out. This and this only has been my appointed work: getting this news to those who have never heard of God, and explaining how it works by simple faith and plain truth.

“Since prayer is at the bottom of all this, what I want mostly is for men to pray—not shaking angry fists at enemies but raising holy hands to God” (1 Timothy 2:1-8, The Message).

Make some time to pray for your country’s leaders today. Then, as God leads you, pray for the leaders of other countries you learn about on the Internet, in the newspaper, or on the nightly news.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Prayer of the Heart is Short, Unceasing and All-Inclusive

The Way of The Heart concludes with an emphasis on three characteristics of the prayer of the heart:

• The prayer of the heart is nurtured by short, simple prayers
• The prayer of the heart is unceasing
• The prayer of the heart is all-inclusive

Henri Nouwen explains “When we use a very simple sentence such as ‘O God, come to my assistance,’ or Jesus, master, have mercy on me,’ or a word such as ‘Lord’ or ‘Jesus’ . . . Such a simple, easily repeated prayer can slowly empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God. It can be like a ladder along which we can descend into the heart and ascend to God” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 65).

A Russian peasant was once challenged by the New Testament verse: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Not surprisingly he wonders what this means “I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living.”

A wise man told the pilgrim “Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning of the human spirit towards God.” In the course of his travels, the pilgrim makes the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” his constant companion until one day “It seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the Prayer within at each beat . . . I gave up saying the Prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying” (quoting R.M. French, trans., The Way of the Pilgrim, New York: The Seabury Press, 1965, pages 1-3).

Can anyone, even a busy minister, pastor, teacher, journalist, parent, student, or mechanic learn to “Pray without ceasing”?

Nouwen responds that “The prayer continues to pray within me even when I am talking with others or concentrating on manual work . . . I am not suggesting that we should imitate . . . the Russian pilgrim, but I do suggest that we, too, in our busy ministry should be concerned to pray without ceasing, so that ‘Whatever we do, whether we eat or drink we do it all for the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).

“To love and work for the glory of God cannot remain an idea about which we think once in a while. It must become an interior, unceasing doxology.

“A final characteristic of the prayer of the heart is that it includes all our concerns. When we enter with our mind into our heart and there stand in the presence of God, then all our mental preoccupations become prayer. The power of the prayer of the heart is precisely that through it all that is on our mind becomes prayer.

“We have seen how the prayer of the heart is nurtured by short prayers, is unceasing and all-inclusive. These three characteristics show how the prayer of the heart is the breath of the spiritual life and of all ministry” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, pages 68-70).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How to Pray the Prayer of the Heart

We’re not monks. At least most of us reading this blog aren’t so far as I know. (Do let me know if you are a monk and somehow come across these words.) We ordinary Christians don’t usually live in an actual desert (though some parts of Texas and California are very close to being exactly that!). So how can we, Jesus-following disciples and citizens of the world in the 21st century, practice the prayer of the heart?

How do you do that? Let me know, and I’ll pass your practices along to others.

As Henri Nouwen writes towards the end of The Way of The Heart (pages 63-64):

• The prayer of the heart is nurtured by short, simple prayers
• The prayer of the heart is unceasing
• The prayer of the heart is all-inclusive

As Nouwen observes, the Desert Fathers discourage the use of too many words. Abba Macarius said: “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hand and say, ‘Lord as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say: ‘Lord, help.’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.’

John Climacus is even more explicit: ‘When you pray do not try to express yourself in fancy words, for often it is the simple, repetitious phrases of a little child that our Father in heaven finds most irresistible . . . One phrase on the lips of the tax collector was enough to win God’s mercy . . . Wordiness in prayer often subjects the mind to fantasy and dissipation; single words of their very nature tend to concentrate the mind.’ The quiet repetition of a single word can help us descend with the mind into the heart . . . a word or sentence repeated frequently can help us to concentrate, to move to the center, to create an inner stillness and thus to listen to the voice of God.

“When, for instance, we have spent twenty minutes in the early morning sitting in the presence of God with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ they may slowly build a little nest for themselves in our heart and stay there for the rest of our busy day. Even while we are talking, studying, gardening, or building, the prayer can continue in our heart and keep us aware of God’s ever-present guidance.

“The discipline is not directed toward coming to a deeper insight into what it means that God is our Shepherd, but toward coming to the inner experience of God’s shepherding action in whatever we think, say, or do” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 65).

Try it. Carve out 5 to 10 minutes one morning this week. Then pray the prayer of the heart.

As you go through your busy day, use the pauses and breaks, the interruptions, the brief moments of downtime, the transitions between activities, the commute, or a few minutes at the close of your day to repeat the prayer of your heart.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Prayer of the Heart

“The crisis of our prayer life is that our mind may be filled with ideas of God while our heart remains far from him. Real prayer comes from the heart,” writes Henri Nouwen, adding: “It is about this prayer of the heart that the Desert Fathers teach us” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 58).

Reading The Way of The Heart will help us learn how to pray with and from our hearts.

The classic definition of the prayer of the heart comes from the Russian mystic, Theophan the Recluse: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you” as quoted by Nouwen citing editor Timothy Ware’s The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology (London: Faber & Faber, 1966).

“The word heart in the Jewish-Christian tradition refers to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional and moral energies . . . it is this heart that is the place of prayer. The prayer of the heart is a prayer that directs itself to God from the center of the person and thus affects the whole of our humanness.

“The prayer of the heart is a prayer that does not allow us to limit our relationship with God to interesting words or pious emotions. By its very nature such prayer transforms our whole being into Christ precisely because it opens the eyes of our soul to the truth of ourselves as well as to the truth of God. In our heart we come to see ourselves as sinners embraced by the mercy of God. It is this vision that makes us cry out, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“The prayer of the heart challenges us to hide absolutely nothing from God and to surrender ourselves unconditionally to his mercy” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 59-61).

When you pray, pray with your heart.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Athlete . . . and Prayer . . .

Do you ever think about the role of prayer in the life of an athlete? While watching the 29th Olympiad in Beijing, China, I’ve noticed how some of the athletes appear to take a moment for prayer at the start of an event. Several wear crosses. Others make the sign of the cross. A few take a minute or two for prayer after winning a race. But so far (based on my limited viewing) prayer has not been featured in a report by NBC broadcasters. If you happen to catch such a story, please let me know with a comment or an email.

The Olympic athletes’ years of training, the ups and downs of competition, the struggles with injuries, and their joyful victory celebrations can all inspire a desire to pray, or even to learn how to pray and build a relationship with a loving Heavenly Father who cares about all the events and outcomes we experience as we run our race.

Perhaps the best known verse comparing an athlete’s life with the life of a Christian is “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25; see also verses 24-27).

While moving from the study of solitude and silence to prayer, Nouwen explains that solitude and silence are for prayer. “The Desert Fathers did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced”
(The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 53).

One of the Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great, (an Egyptian who lived in the fourth century) says: “The chief task of the athlete [that is the monk] is to enter into his heart,” as quoted by Henri Nouwen citing The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 60).

Desert Fathers, monks and nuns, everyday Christians living in the 21st century, we are all athletes. Let’s pray.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Silence in Preaching, Counseling, and Organizing

Yesterday a friend of mine spoke about the “still, small voice of God” and the need to be quiet in order to hear God’s voice. It’s not often that we hear a message in church about being silent, or the value of times of quiet reflection. But it’s possible to take a concern for the practice of silence and its use in preaching and ministry even further.

As Henri Nouwen observes, “If it is true that the word of Scripture should lead us into the silence of God, then we must be careful to use that word not simply as an interesting or motivating word, but as a word that creates the boundaries within which we can listen to the loving, caring, gentle presence of God” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 44).

“The simple words ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ can be spoken quietly and persistently in such a way that they become like a hedge around a garden in which God’s shepherding can be sensed . . .These words . . . can slowly descend from the mind into the heart. There they may offer the context in which an inner transformation, by the God who transcends all human words and concepts, can take place” (page 45).

So silence can shape a kind of meditative preaching in which time to reflect, time for silent meditation, time for listening prayer, time for the Spirit’s own work, time for God’s living Word, are all more important than the many words that are usually the centerpiece of most ordinary sermons.

As for counseling and silence, Nouwen observes
“it is also possible to experience the relationship between pastor and counselee as a way of entering together into the loving silence of God and waiting there for the healing Word . . . pastoral counseling is the attempt to lead fearful parishioners into the silence of God, and to help them feel at home there, trusting that they will slowly discover the healing presence of the Spirit” (pages 45-46).

Perhaps Nouwen’s most relevant insight for ministers is his observation that “In a society in which entertainment and distraction are such important preoccupations, ministers are also tempted to join the ranks of those who consider it their primary task to keep other people busy” . . . instead “the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence” (pages 46-47).

Nouwen adds one final caution to this series of reflections: “Charity, not silence is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry.” Be sure to wrap your preaching, counseling, and organizing in the love of God and a genuine love for His people.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

How Can We Practice a Ministry of Silence?

This is the next question that Henri Nouwen tackles for us. He says “It requires a strenuous discipline to make our ministry one that leads our people into the silence of God. That is the task Jesus has given us. The whole of Jesus’ ministry pointed away from himself to the Father who had sent him. To his disciples Jesus said, ‘The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself; it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work’ (John 14:10). Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, spoke not to attract attention to himself but to show the way to his Father: ‘I came from the Father and have come into the world and now I leave the world to go to the Father’ (John 16:28). ‘I am going to prepare a place for you . . . so that where I am you may be too’ (John 14:2-3) (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 42).

After noting the overly chatty nature of contemporary society, Nouwen concludes by observing that the sensitive use of silence in ministry (especially during quiet periods in corporate worship services) can move people towards an experience of God as a God of love: “couldn’t this be accomplished by gently and carefully converting the empty silence into a full silence, the anxious silence into a peaceful silence, and the restless silence into a restful silence, so that in this converted silence a real encounter with the loving Father could take place? What a power our word would have if it could enable people to befriend their silence!” (page 43).

The way Jesus spoke, and the way we speak as His followers, can influence people to begin to search for their Heavenly Father and to begin to listen to Him. As Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 14:-10 says in The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2002):

“The words I speak to you aren’t mere words. I don’t just make them up on my own. The Father who resides in me crafts each word into a divine act.”

As you minister to others may your Heavenly Father craft each word you speak so that it works divinely in the minds and hearts of those who listen. Let there be carefully crafted words accompanied by carefully crafted moments of silence.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Speaking Out of Silence

Sometimes it’s the passages that I have not underlined that stand out the most when rereading a book like The Way of The Heart. That was the case with the following excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s reflections on how “Silence Teaches us to Speak” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, pages 40-42).

According to Nouwen, silence teaches us to speak by shaping our words. Words that emerge from silence come forth in fullness and presence, he writes, when they are born in the “divine silence in which love rests secure.” Now here is the passage that stood out for me when I read it earlier this evening on my commuter train:

“Here we can glimpse the great mystery in which we participate through silence and the Word, the mystery of God’s own speaking. Out of his eternal silence God spoke the Word, and through this Word created and recreated the world. In the beginning God spoke the land, the sea, and the sky. He spoke the sun, the moon, and the stars. He spoke plants, birds, fish, animals wild and tame. Finally, he spoke man and woman. Then in the fullness of time, God’s Word, through whom all had been created, became flesh and gave power to all who believe to become the children of God. In all this, the Word of God does not break the silence of God, but rather unfolds the immeasurable richness of his silence.”

“As soon as we begin to take hold of each other by our words, and use words to defend ourselves or offend others, the word no longer speaks of silence. But when the word calls forth the healing and restoring stillness of its own silence, few words are needed: much can be said without much being spoken” (page 41).

When we speak, may we have the wisdom and courage to speak out of silence.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Silence Guards the Fire Within

Last weekend our men’s Saturday morning Bible study group was challenged to consider the presence or absence of silence in our daily lives. We meditated on listening to God in 1 Samuel 3:1-21, then watched a video clip that challenged us to consider whether we welcome silence or avoid it by always turning up the volume.

Henri Nouwen asserts that silence is essential because it “Guards the Fire Within” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 37). “Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.”

By way of explanation and interpretation, Nouwen then expounds on quotations provided first by a certain Diadochus of Photiki, who wrote about “Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination,” as quoted in volume one of The Philokalia (London &Boston: Faber & Faber, 1979). A second quotation comes from James O. Hannay's book The Wisdom of the Desert (London: Methuen, 1904, pages 205-206).

As Nouwen writes, “Diadochus of Photiki offers us a very concrete image: ‘When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good . . . Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.’”

Commenting on the sayings of the Desert Fathers, James Hannay writes: “The mouth is not a door through which any evil enters. The ears are such doors as are the eyes. The mouth is a door only for exit. What was it that they [the Desert Fathers] feared to let go out? What was it which someone might steal out of their hearts, as a thief takes the steed from the stable when the door is left open? It can have been nothing else than the force of religious emotion.”

“What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with the utmost care,” writes Nouwen (page 39).

“It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people: we have to help him out and, with many words, convince others of his power. But it is precisely this wordy unbelief that quenches the fire.

“Our first and foremost task is faithfully to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to lost travelers.”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Silence--a Home for the Word

“Silence is the home of the word. Silence gives strength and fruitfulness to the word,” writes Henri Nouwen (The Way of the Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 34).

Instead of silence, noise and busyness is more often the background and springboard for many of today’s communicators. For all who would communicate God’s Word a rediscovery of the value of silence will be essential. As you spend quiet time immersed in the Bible, a book, reviewing an article, or reading pages online as you prepare to write or speak—cherish the silence.

“How seldom have long talks proved to be good and fruitful? Would not many if not most of the words we use be better left unspoken? We speak about the events of the world, but how often do we really change them for the better?

"We speak about people and their ways, but how often do our words do them or us any good? We speak about our ideas and feelings as if everyone were interested in them, but how often do we really feel understood? We speak a great deal about God and religion, but how often does it bring us or others real insight?”(The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, pages 36-37).

Let silence do its work in your heart and mind as you gather thoughts and words and prepare to share them with others. Listen first in silence.

“Just as the rain and snow descend from the skies and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry, so will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They’ll do the work I sent them to do, they’ll complete the assignment I gave them” (Isaiah 55:10-11, The Message).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Towards an Understanding of Solitude

Henri Nouwen titled his chapter on solitude ‘The Furnace of Transformation’ because that’s where ‘stuff comes up’ according to a speaker I heard recently. Here’s how Nouwen himself explains what solitude is in The Way of The Heart and why we need it:

“In order to understand the meaning of solitude, we must first unmask the ways in which the idea of solitude has been distorted by our world. We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives.

“What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be. For us solitude most often means privacy. We have come to the dubious conviction that we all have a right to privacy. Solitude thus becomes like a spiritual property for which we can compete on the free market of spiritual goods.

“But there is more. We also think of solitude as a station where we can recharge our batteries, or as the corner of the boxing ring where our wounds are oiled, our muscles massaged, and our courage restored by fitting slogans. In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life.

“But that is not the solitude of St. John the Baptist, of St. Anthony or St. Benedict, of Charles de Foucauld or the brothers of Taize. For them solitude is not a private, therapeutic place.

“Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, pages14-15).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Way of The Heart

The cover is faded. The broken spine carefully taped together. The 78 pages (plus three pages of notes) are now yellowing with age. But my personal copy of The Way of The Heart by Henri Nouwen (Ballantine Books, 1983) is a favorite book that often accompanies me when I travel and almost always comes along when I take some personal time off. This may be the book I’ve recommended more than any other to friends and family members.

Each time I open my battered and heavily underlined paperback copy, Henri Nouwen’s gently probing questions and quiet reflections spark a desire to travel back in time with him into the fourth century to listen to what the Desert Fathers and Mothers have to say to us regarding the spiritual disciplines of Solitude, Silence and Prayer.

Nouwen recalls how this book originated in a seminar he taught at the Yale Divinity School on the spirituality of the desert. Five women and eleven men from 10 different denominations “gradually came to see the ‘way of the heart’ as the way that united us in spite of our many historical, theological, and psychological differences” (The Way of the Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page vii).

When he penned his prologue, he set the context with these timeless words:
“It seems that the darkness is thicker than ever, that the powers of evil are more blatantly visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever. During the last few years I have been wondering what it means to be a minister in such a situation” (The Way of the Heart, pages1-2).

The Way of The Heart is written especially to women and men called to minister to others in Christ’s name “to bring light into the darkness, ‘to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor’ (Luke 4:18-19).” (The Way of the Heart, page 2).

“In this fearful and painful period of our history we who minister in parishes, schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons are having a difficult time fulfilling our task of making the light of Christ shine into the darkness.” Here are some of the questions Nouwen invites us to consider in light of the contexts in which we live and seek to minister:

• “What is required of a man or a woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope?”

• “How can we expect to remain full of creative vitality, of zeal for the Word of God, of desire to serve, and of motivation to inspire our often numbed congregations?

• “Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength?

• “How can we alleviate our own spiritual hunger and thirst?”

Reading and re-reading The Way of The Heart is one way to begin a search for personal and lasting answers. But the path Nouwen maps out may be as challenging as your most rigorous workout regime. Concluding the prologue he writes:

“The words flee, be silent and pray summarize the spirituality of the desert. They indicate the three ways of preventing the world from shaping us in its image and thus the three ways to life in the Spirit.

“My first task is to explore what it means for us to flee from the world. This raises the question of solitude. My second task is to define silence as an essential element of a spirituality of ministry. Finally, I want to challenge you with the vocation to pray always” (The Way of the Heart, page 4).

May you discover the radical personal benefits of solitude, silence and prayer.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Timely Invitation

"Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything."

This is Eugene H. Peterson's rendition of Psalm 46:10 in The Message (NavPress, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2002). A timely reminder for us all.

God's Word speaks today.

The New International Version rendering captures the timeless quality of this personal invitation: "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

Selah. Stop and think about it.

Step out of the traffic! Take a short break for meditation on God's Word today. Take a long, loving look at your God, high and exalted over the nations.

Above politics, above everything.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Our Real Life, Our Real Selves

This weekend I began cataloging my books with My Book Collection Software on my laptop. My first entries were 30 plus Thomas Merton books, mostly journals and letters. In his author’s note to No Man Is an Island (Harcourt, Brace and company New York, 1955) I found a passage that I think has special relevance to life in the 21st Century. Merton writes:

“I consider that the spiritual life is the life of man’s real self, the life of that interior self whose flame is so often allowed to be smothered under the ashes of anxiety and futile concern. The spiritual life is oriented toward God, rather than toward the immediate satisfaction of the material needs of life, but it is not, for all that, a life of unreality or a life of dreams. On the contrary, without a life of the spirit, our whole existence becomes unsubstantial and illusory. The life of the spirit, by integrating us in the real order established by God, puts us in the fullest possible contact with reality—not as we imagine it, but as it really is. It does so by making us aware of our own real selves, and placing them in the presence of God” (pages ix-x).

Discovering passages like this in the works and writings and lives of others provides real soul food. Read this passage carefully and prayerfully and thank God today for His direction and guidance on how to have a real, integrated, spiritual life.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Understanding Takes Time

So if you have an hour to spend, two recent NPR discussions with Rev. James Cone and Rev. Dwight Hopkins provide a balanced introduction to black liberation theology.

You can find their interviews here Cone’s presentation is “Black Liberation Theology in its Founder’s Words.”

And Hopkins interview is here
his is titled, “Black Liberation Theology: A Historical Perspective.”

The Rev. James Cone is the founder of black liberation theology. Cone's books include Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, and Risks of Faith. He teaches at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dwight Hopkins is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His books, include, Walk Together Children and Being Human: Race, Culture, and Religion.

I found both presentations insightful and balanced, and encourage you to check them out for yourself. Senator Obama’s complete speech can be viewed in its entirety here:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What is Spiritual Direction in the 21st Century? Part 1

While the question sounds simple, there are many possible answers. For a Christian, all forms of spiritual direction have developed out of the day-in, day-out, relationship that Jesus shared with His twelve disciples.

With nothing more than three years of constant exposure to His life, works, and words, the twelve (actually just eleven) soon became known as those who turned the then-known world upside-down.

Today, spiritual direction can happen via iPhone, text chat, email, mp3, video or audio, ebooks, web sites, books on paper, magazine articles, lectures or sermons, seminars and conferences, retreats and many other ways too numerous to list. But while we can take advantage of technological breakthroughs and online tools for virtually instant communication, there is still no substitute for the life-on-life, face-to-face, heart-to-heart in-person conversations first modeled by Jesus.

Christ’s followers in the 21st century, meeting over coffee, breakfast or lunch, sharing a park bench, or taking a walk or a cross-country trip together, can still plant seeds that will have world-changing results.

These men and women share a common purpose (promoting spiritual growth that encourages the formation of Christ in us—the lifelong goal of becoming more like Him in all of our attitudes, words, relationships, works and actions).

We will pray together and for one another. We will read, study, reflect and share the results of what we learn through our personal discoveries in and by our personal applications of the Word of God. We will encourage one another. We will learn together and grow together. We will do this person-to-person. We will give and receive spiritual direction as peers, mentors, disciplemakers, pastors, teachers, trainers and friends in Christ.

We will often do this one-on-one (men discipling men; women discipling women), sometimes three individuals will meet together in this way, and a small group of 5 to 7 can also provide the accountability and discipline and growth towards a more Christ-centered common life that our world needs to see practiced by Christ’s followers.

If you give direction, encouragement, or counsel, to brothers or sisters in Christ, be sure to do it in reliance upon the Spirit of Christ in you:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

“The Counselor, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

What is Spiritual Direction in the 21st Century? Part 2

According to Evelyn Underhill “It is the guidance of one soul by and through another soul. It is the individual and intensive side of pastoral work. God comes to and affects individuals very largely through other individuals . . . Direction work can, of course, be done only and all the time in absolute interior dependence on God; and all the most valuable part of it will be done silently, by the influence of your prayer on the souls that you are called upon to guide.”

Underhill reminds her readers that each person’s spiritual personality is unique: “the spiritual personality you are helping to form is probably quite different from your own; and perhaps even different from your own secret ideal for it . . . It needs a great deal of self-abandonment to do all this with simplicity—it means learning from those who come to you as well as trying to teach—and that is the purifying part of personal religious work.

“Moreover those who do this work are commonly themselves growing and changing; they have not arrived, but are traveling and exploring as they go. It is generally a case of one more or less dusty pilgrim helping another . . .

“This is where a strict personal training in mental prayer and spiritual reading abundantly justifies itself. You may not yourself be called to the mountains; but you will be more able to advise and understand prospective mountaineers if you have at least put on heavy boots and tried a little hill-climbing, than if you have merely spent all your time on the level growing nice little patches of devotional mustard and cress.

“It is imperative that those called to guide the souls of others, should themselves be humble pupils in the school of interior prayer.”

(Quotations from Concerning The Inner Life, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 1999, pages 84-85, 90-92)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Remembering Gutenberg's Artistry

Last month we journeyed to Southern California to attend the 41st version of the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Los Angeles over the weekend of February 15—17th.

Nearly 200 dealers from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Argentina, and Australia display samples of every kind of book imaginable. “Overwhelming” best describes the impact of spending a few hours wandering and browsing among these treasures. The next day we added an impromptu visit to the nearby Huntington Library.

This unique Library displays one of 12 copies of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible (regarded as the first book printed with moveable type by Johann Gutenberg around 1452 to 1455).

Truly amazing to see a book made over 500 years ago. Here’s a kind of contemporary tribute to Gutenberg’s pioneering accomplishments from some 20th Century artisans:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reading Our Family History

As our friend Evelyn Underhill writes, “the proper feeding of our own devotional life must . . . include the rightful use of spiritual reading.

“Spiritual reading is, or at least it can be, second only to prayer as a developer and support of the inner life . . . It should not be confined to Scripture, but should also include at least the lives and writings of the canonized and uncanonized saints.

“If we do it properly, such reading is a truly social act. It gives us not only information, but communion . . . with the great souls of the past, who are the pride and glory of the Christian family. Studying their lives and work slowly and with sympathy, reading the family history, the family letters; trying to grasp the family point of view, we gradually discover these people to be in origin though not in achievement very much like ourselves.

“They are people who are devoted to the same service, handicapped often by the very same difficulties; and yet whose victories and insights humble and convict us . . . The Confessions of St. Augustine, the Life of St Teresa, the little book of Brother Lawrence, the Journals of Fox, Woolman and Wesley—the meditative, gentle, receptive reading of this sort of literature immensely enlarges our social and spiritual environment.

“It is one of the ways in which the communion of saints can be most directly felt by us.

“In the saints we always have the bracing society of keen Christians . . . Their personal influence radiates, centuries after they have left the earth, reminding us of the infinite variety of ways in which the Spirit of God acts on people through people . . .

“The saints are the great experimental Christians, who, because of their unreserved self-dedication, have made the great discoveries about God, and, as we read their lives and works, they will impart to us just so much of these discoveries as we are able to bear. Indeed, as we grow more and more, the saints tell us more and more: disclosing at each fresh reading secrets that we did not suspect.

“Their books are the work of specialists, from whom we can humbly learn more of God and of our own souls” (Concerning The Inner Life, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 1999, page 54-56).

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Breathe Out.

After breathing in it’s natural to breathe out. For those who pray, short “arrow prayers” are often the equivalent of exhaling. In Pray How to Be Effective in Prayer by Warren and Ruth Myers (NavPress, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1983, pages 111-115), the Myers note that “Short, concise payers offered anytime, anywhere are both scriptural and immensely useful.”

“We have had similar experiences with prayers which, like arrows quickly shot from a bow toward a target, are shot toward heaven for immediate help, guidance, or protection, or in response to special prompting.”

“We can use arrow prayers to intercede for others, even strangers,” writes Warren Myers. “Many times when I pass a person on the street or see someone on a bus, the Lord prompts me to pray that the person might come to know Him or have a special need met. Though we seldom learn of specific answers to such prayers, God hears them.”

“Nehemiah was a master of such prayers. While he was serving as cupbearer for Artaxerxes, ruler of the Persian Empire, he received the distressing news that the wall of Jerusalem had been broken down and the gates had been burned. Later, when King Artaxerxes unexpectedly asked Nehemiah to state his request regarding Jerusalem, he quickly ‘prayed to the God of heaven,” then answered the King. Later in Jerusalem, when enemies tried to frighten Nehemiah and his men to prevent them from rebuilding the city wall, his emergency prayer was, ‘But now, O God, strengthen my hands.’ Nehemiah concluded his book with a brief cry to God that he often used, with variations: ‘Remember me, O my God for good.’”

The so-called “prayer of aspirations” is the technical term used by old school writers like Evelyn Underhill to describe arrow prayers more formally “The frequent and attentive use of little phrases of love and worship . . . keep our minds pointing the right way, and never lose their power of forming and maintaining in us an adoring temper of soul . . . They stretch and re-stretch our spiritual muscles; and, even in the stuffiest surroundings can make us take deep breaths of mountain air. The habit of aspiration is difficult to form, but once acquired exerts a growing influence over the soul’s life” (Concerning the Inner Life, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 1999, pages 52-53).

In other words: practice, practice, practice. Pray. Breathe Out.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Breathe In.

Writing on “The Goals of Inner Life” Evelyn Underhill asserts that “adoration, and not intercession or petition must be the very heart of the life of prayer.” Although we often use the acronym ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication—as a prescription for personal prayer, we seldom gain a clear understanding of what adoration really means.

Underhill expands our understanding when she writes movingly that prayer “must begin, end, and be enclosed in the atmosphere of adoration; aiming at God for and in Himself. Our ultimate effect as transmitters of the supernal light and love directly depends on this adoring attentiveness. In such a prayer of adoring attentiveness, we open our doors wide to receive His ever-present Spirit . . .” We seldom practice this kind of adoration when we pray. But our need to learn how to pray prayers of adoration is as necessary to maintaining a healthy spiritual life as breathing in is essential to our physical life.

“Only when our souls are filled to the brim can we presume to offer spiritual gifts to other people. The remedy for that sense of impotence, that desperate spiritual exhaustion which religious workers too often know, is, I am sure, an inner life governed not by petition but by adoring prayer. When we find that the demands made upon us are seriously threatening our inward poise, when we feel symptoms of starvation and stress, we can be quite sure that it is time to call a halt . . . ‘Our hearts shall have no rest save in Thee.’ It is only when our hearts are thus actually at rest in God, in peaceful and self-oblivious adoration, that we can hope to show His attractiveness to other people.

“Thus it is surely of the first importance for those who are called to exacting lives of service, to determine that nothing shall interfere with the development and steady daily practice of loving and adoring prayer, a prayer full of intimacy and awe. It alone maintains the soul’s energy and peace, and checks the temptation to leave God for His service. I think that if you have only as little as half an hour to give each morning to your private prayer, it is not too much to make up your minds to spend half that time in such adoration.

“For it is the central service asked by God of human souls and its neglect is responsible for much lack of spiritual depth and power” (Concerning The Inner Life, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 1999, pages 47-50).

O come let us adore Him. Pray. Breathe In.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Personal Spiritual Fitness

How’s your progress with your New Year resolutions? Did you make any?

The gyms are full of newcomers this month, and we have to wait longer than usual for an open treadmill or elliptical trainer. Most people set goals for physical fitness, but what about your personal spiritual fitness? Are you in training? Have you set any goals to maintain or improve your personal spiritual fitness?

The first priority for a minister, writes Evelyn Underhill, is that “his own inner life should be maintained in a healthy state; his own contact with God be steady and true”

It isn’t just the career minister who needs a strong inner life. Paul encouraged every Christian to grow in faith: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16-17). You may be the only “minister” or “religious worker” that your neighbors, friends, or colleagues ever know. As Evelyn Underhill wrote, you are one of the “assistant shepherds.”

So if you are a layman or woman who does the work of ministry—counseling, encouraging, teaching, or discipling others—you must become spiritually fit.

“The soul of a priest—in fact, the soul of every religious worker—stands in a special relation towards God and other souls . . . He is one of the assistant shepherds, not one of the sheep. He has got to stick it out in all weathers; to be always ready, always serving, always eager to feed and save. An unremitting, patient, fostering care, the willing endurance of exhaustion, hardship, and risk: all these things may be asked of him. He is constantly called upon to give out spiritual energy and sympathy. And he has got to maintain his own supplies, his own religious health and suppleness, in a manner adequate to that demand; so to deepen his own life, that he is capable of deepening the lives of others. In the striking phrase of St. Bernard, if he is adequately to fulfill all his obligations, he must be a reservoir and not a canal” (Concerning The Inner Life, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 1999, pages 13-14).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Kind of Furnace

Today, January 5th, Cheryl and I prayed with about 150 other members of our local church during our annual morning of prayer. Praying with one another for our local and global ministry and outreach is one of the privileges of an active church membership.

Praying with our brothers and sisters in Christ is energizing and renewing and may be the best work of all.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to describe a church or what it is like to experience the ways God works through his people. I like Raniero Cantalamassa’s description of it as “a kind of furnace . . . incinerator . . . hearth . . . and home”:

“We should have an understanding of the Church that is very different from the way the world sees it. The Church is the furnace where the Spirit ‘burns’ in order to destroy sin—a kind of ‘incinerator’ always alight, always at work to do away with the refuse of the soul and to keep the city of God clean. There is a hidden hearth, with welcome fire burning, in the inner privacy of our home which is the Church, and blessed are those who know where to find it and who make a habit of staying close to it, until it becomes their heart’s favorite spot, to which they hurry back every time they feel burdened by guilt and in need of a fresh breath of life” (Come, Creator Spirit, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota, 2003, page 119).