Archive for Devotional

The Practice of Prayer Beads

Today, for Throwback Thursday (#TBT), and continuing this week’s theme of spiritual practices, I’m posting a reflection I wrote in the summer of 2013 on the gift of a set prayer beads given to me while I was in the hospital.  Enjoy!

 

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The Lost Week.

The yellow sickly-sweet smell of jaundice, iodine and antiseptic.

The flurry of nurses, doctors, and diagnostic tests.

The haze of pain meds, sedatives and general anesthetic.

An ambulance ride from the local hospital to the big city hospital for a specialized procedure, and then back to the local hospital for surgery.

It wasn’t the plan for the week, but one trip to the emergency room changed everything.

The four walls of the hospital room were giant white walls that blocked out the world. Cut off from family. Cut off from life.

The dark shadows of fear and sickness and despair crept from the corners and overwhelmed the room.

God was an abstraction, blocked out by those impenetrable hospital walls.

There was no praying. 

There was no worship.

There was no seeing or feeling anything beyond those four white walls.

I was alone. And my faith was failing me.

And then, that mild Saturday evening, day three of my seven day sentence, the pastor arrived. She was quiet and sweet and kind-hearted, just as she was every Sunday at church. She came and she listened. She chatted. She told stories. The dark shadows began to recede back into the corners, held at bay, even just for a little while.

Can I pray with you? She said. And then she pulled out a present: a string of Anglican prayer beads.

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Prayer beads to give rhythm and structure to my prayer instead of flailing words lost and uncertain.

Prayer beads to help me pray the prayers not of my own creation, but the prayers of generations of faithful Christians. I could be carried on the strength of their prayers instead of trying to rely on the weakness of my own.

My God, my God why have you forsaken me. Christ’s prayer would become my prayer.

Prayer beads that, even if I couldn’t say any words, I could physically cling to the cross at the end of the circle of beads. I could hang on to the cross of Christ that for 18 years had been transforming my life.

And so, starting at the cross at the bottom of the circle of beads, I prayed.

 

O Lord make speed to save me. O Lord make haste to help me. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

 

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden…

 

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…

 

Around and around the circle I went for hours, the rhythm pushing back the shadows until dawn broke and the summer sunshine rose to wash over the white walls.

And then came surgery day. After being wheeled back into my room, in pain and groggy, I reached for those brown beads, and held onto them tightly as the sedatives worked on my weary body, calling me to sleep.

And that little circle of beads allowed my soul to rest in the knowledge that those four white walls did not have the power to hold out the Almighty One. There, in the very midst of pain and sickness and suffering, was the One who Suffered. There, in the midst of the doctors’ training, and the nurses’ gentle hands, was the Healer. There, in quiet and stillness of the white walls, was the assurance of Resurrection and Glory.

And that lost week that wasn’t planned turned out to not be such a loss after all.

Sunday Meditation

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy, Lord,
keep us free from sin,
and protect us from all anxiety
as we wait in joyful hope
for the coming of our Saviour,
Jesus Christ.
Let your Kingdom come, Lord, in me.

I pray the protection of Christ to clothe me,
Christ to enfold me,
to surround me and guard me
this day and every day,
surrounding me and my companions,
enfolding me and every friend.

~Aidan of Lindisfarne (7th century) — As found in Celtic Daily Prayer, pg 159-160.

Sunday Meditation

May the Father of Life pour out His grace on you;
may you feel His hand in everything you do
and be strengthened by the things He brings you through:
this is my prayer for you.

May the Son of God be Lord in all your ways;
may He shepherd you the length of all your days,
and in your heart may He receive the praise:
this is my prayer for you.

And despite how simple it may sound,
I pray that His grace will abound
and motivate everything you do;
and may the fullness of His love be shared through you.

May His Spirit comfort you, and make you strong,
may He discipline you gently when you’re wrong,
and in your heart may He give you a song:
this is my prayer for you.

May Jesus be Lord in all your ways,
may He shepherd you the length of all your days,
and in your heart may He receive the praise:
this is my prayer for you, my prayer for you.

A prayer of blessing taken from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northhumbria Community, pg. 292.

Tips for Practicing Lectio Divina as a Student at a Christian College

It is a hazard that is inevitable for biblical studies/theology students: the more you study Scripture as part of your program, the more devotional reading of Scripture plummets. Sometimes it takes years after graduating for the practice of daily Scripture reading as a spiritual discipline to be reincorporated into a student’s life.

A few years ago, a friend recommended Lectio Divina as an exercise for me to try to reclaim devotional reading during my studies.

Lectio Divina is comprised of four components or stages:

Lectio – reading – What does the text say?

Meditatio – meditation – What is Jesus saying to me in and through this text?

Oratio – prayer – What do I want to say to Jesus about this text

Contemplatio – contemplation – How will this text shape/change me?

 

I tried it. Over and over, I tried it. And I failed horribly. I could never get past the “lectio” stage. I would read the text and begin mulling the exegetical issues. I’d think about parallel passages. I’d think about different scholars’ opinions on the interpretation of the text.

 

After a year of trying and failing to practice lectio, I realized that maybe I needed to tweak my approach. I didn’t change stages, but instead I worked on changing the environment of the stages.

 

  1. I chose a different translation than what I used for my studies. For class and papers, I use the NASB. For lectio divina I chose a different translation, usually a more contemporary one. This helped separate this exercise from the daily exercise of studying Scripture as a part of my program. For the most part I would use something like the NLT, but sometimes I would experiment with a paraphrase like The Message.
  2. I chose a different space to read. Instead of doing lectio divina in the same place where I studied and wrote papers, I would find a place where I could assume a less academic posture. Instead of sitting at a table or a desk, I would sit in an oversized chair. Sometimes I would find a closet or a corner away from busyness.
  3. I chose a different text. If my coursework was focused on the Old Testament, I would choose a NT text for my lectio reading. If my theological work was focused on Christology, I would choose a passage of Scripture that was about ecclesiology or pneumatology.
  4. I asked someone to pray for me. They didn’t need to be praying at the same time that I was doing lectio, but knowing I had someone interceding and praying that the Word would speak through the word helped especially if I found myself struggling in the oratio stage.
  5. I limited how often I practiced lectio divina. Sometimes it was only once a semester. Sometimes it was once a month. But in limiting how often I practiced it, it made the act and time of lectio divina sacred, focused and purposeful.

Sunday Meditation

At first the word ‘hospitality’ might evoke the image of soft sweet kindness, tea parties, bland conversations and a general atmosphere of coziness. Probably this has its good reasons since in our culture the concept of hospitality has lost much of its power and is often used in circles where we are more prone to expect a watered-down piety than a serious search for an authentic Christian spirituality. But still, if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings…

Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…

Just as we cannot force a plant to grow but can take away the weeds and stones which prevent its development; so we cannot force anyone to such a personal and intimate change of heart, but we can offer the space where such a change can take place.

~Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, pg. 46-54.

 

A Meditation on John 1:14 by Karl Barth

I think I like Karl Barth best not when he’s a theologian, but when he’s a preacher. There is something about his writings aimed at a general rather than academic audience that draws me in and wants me to become a good charismatic shouting “amen” in response to his witness to Jesus Christ.

From 1926 to 1933 Barth wrote a series of Christmas devotions/meditations/homilies for German newspapers. My favourite is the one from 1926, a reflection on John 1:14 entitled, “The Word Made Flesh.” And as Christmas fast approaches, I wanted to share a few excerpts from it:

The Word:

            It is an event which happened and which is still happening; to the evangelist it is as certain as his own existence, and as self-evident as the truth of an axiom. God has spoken and still speaks. All abstract thought and metaphysics, everything one might know and say of God as Thought, Power, and Deed is summed up and completed by the fact that God has spoken and still speaks.  Yes, God! In the verses which precede our text, the evangelist has made it clear what he means by God’s speech: This is a Word which is thought and spoken in the eternal “beginning” of all things, God Himself being present, a Word which unreservedly possesses God’s own attributes, nature and being and which is – really, not parabolically – His Word.

Became:

            This must be immediately interpreted as: “He came to be flesh then and there,” which excludes any wrong conception the word “became” might suggest. John means not a transformation but an incomprehensible coexistence. Without ceasing to be the eternal divine subject the Word is there in time, concretely, contingently and objectively, recognisable as man’s vis-à-vis, for only man can really confront man. The reality of revelation is according to the general meaning of our text just this: The Word of God to which the Gospel witnesses, is a man. To put it the other way round: the man of whom the Gospel speaks, is neither the “symbol” nor the “appearance” of God’s Word to man, nor the highest expression of the Word in a relative sense, but the Word of God Himself, His one and only, His first and His last Word. This “is” the Christmas Gospel.

 

Flesh:

Flesh in the New Testament is not human nature generally and ideally, but concretely this human nature in which I find myself, the nature of “Adam,” the nature man possesses under the sign of the Fall, in the realm of darkness and in his principal opposition to God and to his own self. It does not say: the Word became a super-man or a personage…He does not appear in the form of an angel nor of an ideal man (how can anyone who is not as real as we are, address us?) but as Paul writes, in “the form of a servant” (Phil II.7), so that we who ourselves exist in this form, are able to hear Him. He encounters the riddle of our “darkness” on its own ground.

And Dwelt Among Us:

Inasmuch as the Incarnation fulfils the time, it is also limited by time. Inasmuch as it is epoch-making, it is also an episode which points beyond itself to the Holy Ghost who proclaims the Incarnate Word in other ages as well, and to the Resurrection of the body which includes all ages.

(You can read the whole meditation in Karl Barth, Christmas. translated by Bernhard Citron. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959).

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Spiritual Formation

 Spiritual formation is more than just formation of the soul or spiriti; it is the formation of the whole person. It is not just about shaping what we believe, or how we think. While it most certainly includes these, spiritual formation shapes the actions, posture and whole being of a Christian so that her life and entire being become molded in the image of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, spiritual formation means that Christians are going to look and act differently than the world around them. In the words of St. Benedict, “Your way acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.” After having taken a class on Spiritual Formation, I want to suggest four common themes that are foundational to a spirit-formed life.

Community:

While there is indeed a place and a need for individual reflection, spiritual formation is cultivated in and through the community of believers. It is in living this “life together”(Dietrich Bonhoeffer) that our attitudes and postures are shaped and conformed to the image of Christ. The community is built on the person and work of Christ. This means that true community is found only in and through Christ. In each culture and age, the community may take on specific traits and rules that guide the mission and structure of the community. Thus, Benedict’s monastic order had specific rules and expectations for its members, and while they may seem legalistic and harsh (e.g., at least two references to the use and benefit of corporal punishment) they are not designed to be punitive, but are instead meant to be tools to assist the community to conform and be transformed to Christ’s image. Indeed, whether it be St. Benedict’s monastic order, Bonhoeffer’s enclave of seminarians, or James K.A. Smith’s vision of Christian higher education, the role of community is one that embodies the Great Commandment: to love God and to love each other. This ethos that is shared and encouraged shapes not only the community but also each individual within the community. Community is where spiritual formation takes place.

Confession:

In the introduction to Augustine’s Confessions, translator Maria Boulding notes that confession has three levels: there is the confession of sin, which is most prominent, the confession of God’s glory, and the confession that it is God who enables us to make confession in the first place. Augustine’s entire life is a confession to God, and an act of testifying to the goodness and rightness of God’s justice and mercy, both in his sinful life before his conversion, and in his life after conversion. Augustine’s confession exposes the reality of his sinfulness: “To you, then, Lord, I lie exposed, exactly as I am…My confession to you is not made with words of tongue and voice, but with the words of my soul and the clamor of my thought.”

This practice of confession may have fallen out of favour with Protestants in light of Catholic misuse and abuse, but Bonhoeffer and his seminary students, who were Lutheran, adopted a form of confession as part of their spiritual formation. Bonhoeffer writes that the act of confessions leads to four breakthroughs: a breakthrough to community, a breakthrough to the cross, a breakthrough to new life, and a breakthrough to assurance. Confession of sin includes confession of both personal and corporate sins, and the act of confession is profoundly counter-cultural, particularly in the modern, secular world that encourages the deflection and/or minimization of guilt (see Smith, 177-181). James K.A. Smith highlights the role of confession in the liturgy of the Church, specifically pointing to the prayer of confession in the Anglican tradition, noting that in the act of confession, “we are honest with God about our transgressions and agree with God that they are violations of his law.” The act of confession is not just words, it is also a posture and a way of life.

Contemplation:

The act of meditating, praying through, and reflecting on Scripture is foundational to the life devoted to spiritual formation. As part of his confession, Augustine contemplates the mighty works of God in heaven and earth. Benedict devotes a significant portion of his rule to the structure and space for the study of the Word, as he outlines the practice of the daily office, and morning and evening prayer. Bonhoeffer emphasized the practice of meditation, which appears to have caused discomfort for several of the seminarians. N.T. Wright notes that reading and meditating on Scripture is habit-forming in that “the more you do it the more it will form the habits of mind and heart, of soul and body, which will slowly but surely form your character into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”

Included under the heading of contemplation is also the practice of worship, though in actuality, worship could and should properly be discussed under each element of spiritual formation, as it is done in the context of community (see Wright and Benedict), is at the heart of the act of confession (Augustine), is structured by the story of Scripture (Smith) and assists in the cultivation of virtue (Wright). An entire paper could just be written on the function of worship in spiritual formation, but suffice to say, worship is an embodied act that points to the fact that what we love is what we worship.

Cultivation of the Virtues:

As N.T. Wright notes, the Christian life does not stop once we have prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer”, given our life to Jesus, been baptized or any other rite of initiation into the life of Christianity. The over-emphasis on conversion means that Christianity can (and has) been reduced to act of intellectual consent, with little thought to the embodied reality not only of human existence, but also of the life of Christian discipleship. The cultivation of the virtues is the practical outworking of the doctrine of sanctification. It is a life-long process in which the Christian actively participates in the ongoing work of God in their life, the life of the Church, and in the world. The cultivation of the virtues is the formation of habits, so that the practice of a specific virtue becomes “second nature”, wherein the Christian does not have to consciously think about how and why he has to act, but does it automatically.[Footnote] While the list of Christian virtues may vary by theologian or tradition, the three core virtues that form the Christian life are faith, hope, and love.

 

Sunday Meditation

“Justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.” ~ Doctor Who, A Town Called Mercy.

Sunday Meditation

The life of worship, then, is itself a corporate form of virtue. It expresses and in turn reinforces the faith, hope, and love which are themselves the key Christian virtues. From this activity there flow all kinds of other things in terms of Christian life and witness. But worship is central, basic, and in the best sense habit-forming. Every serious Christian should work at having worship become second nature. Expressing the love of God in this way will then flow ‘naturally’ across from the first conjoined twin to the second, reinforcing the life of mission. The temple is there because God’s filling of the house with his presence is to be a means, as well as a sign, that God intends to fill the whole world with his glory. Worship must lead to mission.

~ N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, 225.

Sunday Meditation

“Worship is the ordering and reordering of our material being to the end for which it was meant. Implicit in the materiality of Christian worship is this sense that God meets us in materiality, and that the natural world is always more than just nature — it is charged with the presence and glory of God. Thus the very performance of Christian worship cuts against both dualistic gnosticism, which would construe matter and bodies as inherently evil, and reductionistic naturalism, which would construe the world as “merely” natural.

In short, the practice of Christian worship resists two sorts of reductionism: a dualistic, supernaturalistic gnosticism, on the one hand, and a materialistic, flattened naturalism, on the other other. Both evacuate the world of God’s presence, either by suggesting that a holy God would not traffic with the impurities of materiality, or by a “nothing-but” conception of the material as nothing more than material. The sacramental imagination runs counter to both of these reductionistic understandings of the world. The understanding of the world in Christian worship walks the tightrope of a “theological materialism” that both affirms the goodness of materiality but also that the material is only insofar as it participates in more than the material. Thus the sacramental imagination implicit in Christian worship eschews the dichotomies of both naturalism and supernaturalism.”

~James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, 143.