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Posts Tagged ‘spiritual discipline

Journey Inward Journey OutwardJourney Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1968, 176 pp.

I was introduced to Elizabeth O’Connor in my first semester of university, when I attended a retreat for those interested in exploring ministry as a vocation. (I was supposedly there as a music leader, not a candidate for ministry, but, well, you can see where that went.) A workshop leader used multiple passages of her Cry Pain, Cry Hope that have stuck with me ever since.

There is an ongoing conversation within my ministry colleagues about the crucial role of discipleship and faith formation, and the “competition” between time or investment as churches in acts of justice and compassion and acts of prayer, worship and study. I am firmly committed to the church’s mission and advocacy endeavors, but believe they require investment in the work of discipleship, shaping our inner lives in the mind and heart of Christ. The movement can work both ways–engagement in outward works of compassion and justice can lead us toward inward works of devotion, and inward works of devotion can lead us toward outward acts of social engagement. But it can be a struggle to sort through the balance, and engage those who think one side or the other is more important.

As I am preaching a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices, including both inward and outward ones, this seemed like an apt time to seek O’Connor’s wisdom in a new arena, even though this book is old and set in a different era.

Journey Inward, Journey Outward is the second volume (the first was Call to Commitment) of the story of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC, an intentional, missional Christian community in the 1960s led by Rev. Gordon Cosby. The congregation has sought with care and great deliberateness to develop disciples of Jesus governed by inward habits of prayer, worship and communal living, engaged in outward practices of mission. As always, O’Connor’s gifts as a writer give voice and perspective and ways of framing that capture my thoughts and inspire deeper reflection.

 

She begins with a conversation about vocation, the way of intentionality and consciousness of God at work in our lives. She describes those without vocation, comparing them to the crowd surrounding Jesus (as opposed to the disciples):

They do not receive anything into themselves; things happen to them, but never in them. Their lives are rich in outer events, and poor in inner ones. (5)

The person who has lost his true self has a hunger in him. It may be expressed in apathy or industry. He may try to satisfy it with a job he works at 14 hours a day, or a family that is ‘everything’ to him, or success that is worth all striving, or the acquisition of things, of which there is no end of want. But there is nothing to fill the emptiness of the one who is not following the way of his own inner being. (7)

This is exactly the kind of pain I see so often in the people I meet every day, most of whom are “good people,” dedicated to serving others and trying to live rightly. Yet there is a pain, an alienation, a loneliness, a “God-shaped hole,” as some would say. More outward action and good works will not fill the void. More, it is not the way of Christ.

O’Connor says that the journey inward involves three engagements:

  1. The engagement with oneself — moving toward self-knowledge, plumbing the depths of our own consciousness
  2. The engagement with God — from St. Teresa: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” Prayer, both in daily life and in time apart, along with study and spiritual disciplines
  3. The engagement with others — a real commitment to friendship and relationship with others, even when it is difficult

She summarizes the whole thing here:

If engagement with ourselves does not push back horizons so that we see neighbors we did not see before, then we need to examine the appointment kept with self. If prayer does not drive us out into some concrete involvement at the point of the world’s need, then we must question prayer. If the community of our Christian brothers (and sisters) does not deliver us from false securities and safe opinions and known ways then we must cry out against that community, for it betrays. (28)

The inward must not be sacrificed to the outward, nor the outward to the inward. There is no transformation that way. (30)

That’s what it’s all about–transformation. If we are about the work of Christ, it is always transformation that we seek, and that requires both inward and outward engagements.

The remainder of the book gives practical insight and stories to the way Church of Our Savior has endeavored to live these practices in their life and work together. Specifically, they organize mission groups for all members that practice both inward-looking prayer and worship together and outward-looking engagement in service and justice in the community. The stories O’Connor tells speak of remarkable transformation, in both the communities they serve and the individuals who have opened their lives to God in this way: an army captain turned potter and artist; a homeless shelter for children emptied as children are placed in homes; a coffee shop become worshiping community. Each remaining chapter unpacks the story of a mission group, recounting its many challenges and small victories on both the inward and outward paths.

A few remaining treasures from her writing to share.

After discussing the role of risk-taking in the Coffee House community, and the importance of taking risks as part of the life of faith, she talks about the safety they found to take risks:

The safety was not in protection from ‘slings and arrows,’ but in a group of people who, however poorly they might embrace it, had as the basis of their life in Christ an unlimited liability for one another. (84)

The image of having “unlimited liability for one another” is worthy of further exploration and reflection.

She recounts the exploration of faith in the church’s education program, and in particular one person’s account of the role of Gordon Cosby in inspiring their faith. Quoting this individual:

“I knew that this was a man of faith, and that he included in it the faith that I could have faith. I became expectant myself, and when I became expectant, things began to happen for me.” (105)

There is something true and holy in this explanation of ministry. We hold faith that others can have faith, that God is at work in their lives. Even when we have doubts, the role of pastor and our presence with them represents that to people. And that simple presence and faith of expectation opens the way for people to believe for themselves that God is at work in them.

Dr. Cosby’s education session included three relationships that each of us need if we are to be growing in faith.

  1. We need those who are further along the way, who give us hints of where we are and raise the question of where we are going.
  2. We need those who are our peers–fellow pilgrims with whom we share the day-by-day events of our life in Christ
  3. We need those who are not as advanced as we–a little flock which is ours to tend and nourish (110)

While I resist the notion of being “advanced” in faith, it is true that there is wisdom and excellence in practice developed over time, and helping others navigate terrain that you yourself have already traversed is important to one’s own continued growth.

In spite of its age–some of the book is very 1960s–O’Connor’s writing and perspectives on the spiritual life and the inward and outward journeys remain insightful. If you are curious, you can usually find a used copy of O’Connor’s works online at Alibris. (I know because I have lent out Cry Pain, Cry Hope a few times and had to replace it.)

 

 

 

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Strength for the Journey: A Guide to Spiritual Practice by Renee Miller, New York: Morehouse Publishing/CREDO Institute, 2011, 134 pp.

strength-for-the-journey.jpgThis tiny little volume contains tiny little introductions to 20 different spiritual practices, along with a rubric for introducing and beginning each one. It is produced by the CREDO Institute, which runs the CREDO program of mid-career personal, spiritual and vocational development for clergy in the a variety of mainline denominations.

The book is intentionally lightweight and light reading. The 20 spiritual practices are grouped into five categories: Meditative Practice, Ministry Practice, Media Practice, Mind Practice and Movement Practice. Each section and each practice begins with a beautiful and simple color photograph, which invites you to slow down your reading for information and simply reflect on the invitation into spiritual practice. The author follows a formulaic approach to each one, offering a brief rationale for the gift and struggle of that particular practice; practical suggestions for how to begin to engage the practice and what to expect in the discipline; concluding with a short observation about what personality types will be draw to or resistant to a particular practice, and the stumbling blocks each might encounter.

I especially appreciated the inclusion of both ancient, traditional practices and contemporary, creative ones. Alongside praying with beads or praying the daily office, there is attention to technology, even movies as a possible spiritual practice. Movement practices do not just include walking and nature, but handwork. Ministry practices of hospitality and caring are joined by spiritual attention to money and gratitude.

Miller’s reflections made me want to try a few practices I had not sampled or engaged with any depth. She spoke with an honesty about the difficulty and reward (or lack thereof) of spiritual practice, emphasizing that it is not about obtaining a certain feeling or holiness, but about the way the practices take root in your life and shape you by the discipline you exercise in doing them to give attention to God. Her whole style had a sense of encouragement and accessibility I appreciated greatly.

I will be returning to this book throughout Lent, as I am preaching a sermon series called “A Lived Faith,” which is about inviting people into a life of spiritual practices, with a particular focus on those practices that we, as a congregation, should embody in an international, expatriate context. This is a book easily read in one sitting, but best consulted and savored slowly and spaciously.

 

Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.

A full house for our Sausage Supper! I love these folks. (Photo by Ann Swilley)

The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.

The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.

Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.

One of my readings at morning prayer said, "May you experience Jerusalem's goodness your whole life long." (Psalm 128:5, CEB) That is what spiritual disciplines help me do---experience to the presence of God in everyday life, just as I did during my pilgrimage. (Photo of a Jerusalem street, by me.)

Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.

As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.

Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner, Paraclete Press, 2003, 161 pp.

Last week, a high school friend who I had not seen in nearly 20 years contacted me on Facebook to let me know he was passing through my town, and invited me out for coffee. It was a delight to catch up, and the conversation flowed free and easy even after so many years. For me, it was a special treat to talk to someone who knew me before marriage, motherhood and pastoral life—as if he could unlock a more primitive version of myself, one that I have already unearthed a bit during this sabbatical time.

As it always seems to with me, conversation turned toward the realm of the spiritual and the religious. (I realized in this reunion that this sort of thing always happened way back in high school too, not just with him but with all my friends. I guess my calling was inevitable.)  My friend described himself just like he did in high school—not a believer, but someone with a deep fascination and appreciation for the spiritual realm and the mythos of religion. He expressed a sentiment like, “I wish I could believe, but no one has been able to show me more than the man behind the curtain.” At the time I responded somewhat pathetically with a torrent about liberal Christianity, welcoming doubts, honoring questions and joining as Jesus-followers even if we weren’t sure what we believed.

What I really should have said, and what I am coming to believe ever more deeply, is the premise of Mudhouse Sabbath: that religious life (aka spiritual life) is not about belief, it’s about practice. Following a religious tradition is not about conforming your mind, it is about cultivating a way of life. Religious life is about taking on habits of living that have led seekers to God and transformed wayward souls into faithful followers for millenia. Whether we believe or do not believe, whether we “feel it” or not, religious practitioners continue to follow these ways of life—not because we have a blind allegiance to tradition, but because the practice of spiritual discipline shapes us in ways that make belief possible and mystical experiences knowable.

Lauren F. Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath is a unique approach to this ongoing conversation about practices of faith. Winner was raised in an observant Jewish household, but converted to Christianity as an adult. She loves her Episcopalian church life, but misses the disciplines of her Jewish roots. This book, then, takes a look at a host of Jewish spiritual disciplines, compares Jewish and Christian practices, and imagines how Jewish ideas and habits might shape a Christian spiritual life as well.

It is important to note that Winner begins the book by refuting my claim about belief versus practice.

Action sits at the center of Judaism. Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity… for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (ix)

For Christians, however:

Spiritual practices don’t justify us. They don’t save us. Rather, they refine our Christianity; they make the inheritance Christ gives us on the cross more fully our own. … Practicing the disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians. … The ancient disciplines form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith. (xii-xiii)

I am no longer convinced of Winner’s claim that the practices do not make us Christians. I do agree that our spiritual practices do not justify us—God’s grace does that. However, I question how we can call someone a Christian when they believe all orthodox doctrine, but do not let it influence their life decisions in any way by practicing love, generosity, prayer and compassion. The same is true in reverse: if you follow Jesus as the shaping influence of your life through acts of love, generosity, prayer, compassion and worship, but you are not sure what you believe, I think you are still a Christian. In this light, I doubt Winner would disagree, but it is something I continue to wrestle with, as someone whose life often has more doubt, more practice, and less confident belief.

None of that is the heart of the book, however. Winner’s book is primarily a description of the Jewish spiritual disciplines, a comparison to Christianity, and an invitation to Christians to make these practices a part of our lives. She describes eleven different practices: Sabbath, fitting food (keeping kosher), mourning, hospitality, prayer, body, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings and doorposts (hanging mezuzot on doorposts).

What drew me to her book was what has always drawn me to Jewish spirituality—its embodiedness. So many traditional Christian spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, lectio divina, silence) focus on the mind and spirit. The practices Winner describes are much more physical—stopping work on Shabbat, caring about the kinds of food we eat and how they are prepared, placing physical markers in our homes and on our bodies to remind us of our faith. I have always been cautious about adapting any of these practices as my own, since I am not grounded in the community that shapes them. Winner has opened the door for me to imagine ways to incorporate these kinds of practices into my Christian life, with an appreciation for their Jewish origin and not a presumptuous attempt to imitate Judaism. I wrote recently about the spirituality of housework, which works for me in the same way as the practices Winner describes and reminds me of the Shabbat preparations she discusses.

This is a great introduction to spiritual disciplines  that is accessible to everyone. It is a short book that would make a great subject for a church book discussion group or Sunday school class. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I had a dream last night about this post, and about a new metaphor for pastors. We are preachers, teachers, counselors, visitors, business managers, supervisors, coaches, cheerleaders, leadership developers, fundraisers, advocates, biblical scholars, facilities managers, marketing directors, administrators and a dozen other things—often all of the above in the course of a day or week. To that list, I would like to add the title of spiritual personal trainer. (Not that we need more things to do, but I do think that a good metaphor helps us sort out what it is we are doing.)

First of all, the description of the skills needed to be a personal trainer sounds quite similar to a list of pastoral skills:

Personal trainers need to have a multitude of skills. You should be analytical, patient, nurturing, persistent, organized, an effective motivator and, most importantly, a good listener. You should love working with different kinds of people and be a self-motivator. You don’t have to look like a body builder to be a fitness trainer, but you should definitely lead a healthy lifestyle to be a good role model for your clients. (from about.com)

If you replace fitness training with discipleship or spiritual development, it’s a pretty good match. We pastors do not need to be saints, but we should definitely  have a healthy spiritual life to be a good role model for our churches.

What does a personal trainer do? Personal fitness trainers work with individuals on developing a healthy lifestyle through improved diet and exercise. They help people identify their own goals for their body and develop a plan for growing into those goals, encouraging and challenging them along the way. They have a reputation of pushing people beyond what they perceive as their own capacity. People sometimes get angry at their trainers for pushing so hard, demanding so much—but they praise them for the results and for helping them become more and better than they could be on their own.

The body we are training is not the physical body, but it is the Body of Christ. We are working the various muscle groups and strengthening the core so that we can better serve God in this world.

I think this metaphor is especially apt as we work with church leaders. We have the opportunity to work with leaders to set personal spiritual goals and then to live up to them. We can challenge them to grow in prayer, in communication, in evangelism. We help them tend to various parts of the Body of Christ and keep all the parts working together as a whole.

My church is preparing to enter a capital campaign. We will be asking people to make a sacrificial gift to our church in order to help us renovate our building and move into what we believe God’s vision is for our future. We will be asking people to stretch themselves, to act in faith, to dig deeper than we have in a generation. As pastor-who-is-personal-trainer, I want to challenge them to do more than they think they can do, to exercise greater generosity (even if it hurts a bit), to exceed their own expectations. The exercise of growing in generosity will, I believe, strengthen our Body in faith, commitment and connection to Christ, and equip us to serve God more effectively in the future.

I am imagining myself as a personal spiritual trainer, building up the Body of Christ. What do you think? Does this metaphor make sense to you?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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