Thursday, February 23, 2006

Images of Intimacy with Jesus

Have you ever had times in your life at which you were comfortable with what you knew about life or faith; and then have that comfort shaken by ideas that were so striking, so compelling as to carry you to depths of faith that you never knew were possible? In moments such as these our perception of the universe expands. We realize that we are living in a much larger world. We also realize that the possibilities of experiencing the presence of the risen Christ are much broader than we ever thought possible.
I’ve shared in the past weeks my thoughts and experiences of learning to be with God in silence. These learnings and experiences have borne very sweet and plentiful fruit in my life and ministry. One of the most meaningful parts of that learning is that spiritual formation is not a narrow path made up of a singular thread that must be meticulously followed in order to be meaningful. I’ve learned that spiritual formation is a broad path with a smorgasbord of experiences that will be meaningful to us regardless of our personality type, life experience and personal preference.
One of the new experiences of spiritual formation that has been opened to me is the use of icons. For centuries, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has used icons as a source of spiritual practice and devotion. I know very little about the tradition (still something I need to learn), but what I do know is that the use of icons exposes one to images that draw us deeper into understanding the nature of our relationship with Jesus. There is one particular icon to which I’ve been drawn. This image is a representation of the nature of the relationship I seek to have with Jesus. The image is the Theotokos of Vladimir.

The Theotokos of Vladimir is also known as the Virgin of Vladimir. It is an important image in the Russian Orthodox Church and the icon itself is on display at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. At face value it seems like simply one more representation of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. However as you look closer there emerges an image that has captured my spirit. First, if you look at the Virgin’s left hand, she is not holding the child; she seems to be pointing toward him, as if to offer him. In my life and ministry that is what I seek to do…offer Christ. Second, the position of their faces is striking. There is a powerful closeness. In fact, the Virgin is so close to the Christ child that she would breathe His every breath. She is so close that she is breathing in the very Spirit of Christ.
This is the image that motivates me. In my life, in my devotion and in my ministry I want that kind of closeness…that kind of intimacy. I want to be close enough to Christ to breathe His Spirit. As I worship, as I engage in my devotional practices, as I preach, as I teach, as I live and as I breathe; this is my hope. This is my deepest longing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Crisp Around the Edges
It took something significant to get my attention…to break me out of the rut that I had created for myself as a response to the circumstances around me. Last July I was finishing (or near the end) of the most challenging three years of my ministry. Through this time the church went through significant and sometimes challenging staff changes, we were trying to get a much needed Sanctuary expansion project off the ground and completed and the church experienced an unprecedented number of serious illnesses (mostly cancer) and death. I was on the go constantly and with extraordinary commitment from the whole church we saw each of these challenges through. These experiences took a toll on my spirit. I won’t say that it was bad or worse yet awful, because even through the most difficult times I could see God’s hand sustain me and the people around me. Even in the experiences of the Pit, I knew that I wasn’t there alone. Still it took every ounce of spiritual, physical and emotional energy to get through it.

Through this time I did everything I knew how to do to take care of myself. Self care for Clergy is big in my Annual Conference and with my Superintendent; I knew enough to take it seriously, especially with what I was going through. I would take my day off each week. I continued to take continuing education when I could. I took all of the vacation that I was entitled to and I even gave up some preaching time. Yet the toll on my spirit and body was the worst I’d experienced. Physically, I began to experience mild symptoms that led to testing and treatment for early stages of an ulcer. I’m happy to say that this all turned out well. Spiritually, by the grace of God, I was muddling my way through. Thankfully I didn’t really know how cooked I was until after the Sanctuary was completed and I started a four week (pre-planned vacation). It took the distance away from the pressures of the church to realize just how tired and cooked I had become. After two weeks of decompressing in Hawaii, God brought me to a startling realization.

Through all of this period of life stress I did try and remain consistent with spiritual disciplines. I prayed, did regular devotions and journaled but too often it seemed as though I was just going through the motions. What God helped me to see was that every prayer, every worship, every journal entry had something to do with being Pastor J.T.. Even in my time alone with God I had become too consumed by my calling. Pastor J.T. may have been muddling through the circumstances, but the person underneath the calling was getting pretty well fried. I was so caught up, seemingly by necessity, in being Pastor J.T. that underneath it all J.T. wasn’t being fed. I realized that there was very little left for my ministry to stand upon.
It was at this point that I was ready to hear and ready to learn. This unleashed a week of prayer and quiet. I let go of the calling that had come to define my life so that God could heal, renew and transform the person that God had called into ordained ministry in the first place so that I might pick it up again as a whole and renewed person.

It was this experience of renewal, this readiness that God used to call me to the Academy for Spiritual Formation. While the experiences of transformation that I’ve undergone as a result of my Academy learning have begun to spill over into my ministry, it isn’t because the Academy is meant to be (at least for me) a vocation building experience. The transformation of my ministry is a result of how deeply these experiences have rooted themselves in my life. I know that through these experiences God’s grace has burrowed more deeply into my life than I ever conceived possible. It is because of the fruit that grace has born that I am changed and my ministry is changed.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Learning Silence

After years of toying with forms of silence, including meditation and contemplative prayer, I finally began to understand the nature of silence in prayer. I believe that I did understand the concepts behind meditation and contemplative prayer. What I didn’t understand was the true nature of the silence that rests beneath these forms of prayer.

One of the things that I need to say about myself is that I am an off the chart extrovert. I love social situations. I love being with people. I get energized by being in the crowd. As an extrovert I’ve routinely struggled with the singular practices of personal spiritual formation. From the time that I was in seminary, I’ve cycled through times of effective spiritual formation and long periods of personal dryness in my spirit. Thankfully, even during the periods of personal dryness, my passion for my own ministry and my commitment to my own sense of God’s call and claim on my life were not diminished. Through my years of ministry I’d come to understand and believe that spiritual formation is as much about what God does through our spiritual practices as it is about the practices themselves. I knew that my prayers for others and myself were more than prayers for intercession and petition. I knew that God’s grace flowed back through that channel to heal, guide, shape and transform me. Out of this understanding I’ve sought to understand more deeply Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” I’ve been learning to live more and more in the constant awareness of God’s presence in my life.

With the progress that I’d made in my spiritual journey, there were still missing pieces. There were still holes in my understanding. In the weeks to come I’ll share more about some of the experiences of the last year through which I discovered where the holes were.

Back to silence. The very next week after my first week at the Academy for Spiritual Formation (where I had learned to experience God in silence) I was right back into my regular routine. This was a routine that fit my extroverted personality and style. It was go, go, go. What I could not have anticipated was the surprise that I was in for in that first week. In the midst of an on the go week I found my self craving the silence and quiet time with God! Me…the ultimate extrovert…I couldn’t wait to be alone with God. In one short week at the Academy I discovered how much I needed silence with God. I discovered how much I needed to be with God. The seeking of silence with God became more than a spiritual discipline, more than one more thing to do; the seeking of silence with God was quickly becoming part of my very being.

What I’ve learned about silence has transformed my life, my spirit and my ministry. One of the myths that I had regarding silence is that it is a void. I was under the fallacious understanding that silence was all about absence. In essence, I was under the assumption that silence was a negative. I was constantly thwarted by my inability to experience the void, the absence, the negative that I assumed silence to be. What God has shown me is that silence in prayer is not about void; it is about fullness. It is not about absence; it is about presence. It is not about the absence of sound; it is about the sound of God’s voice in our hearts when we intentionally seek God’s presence. For an extrovert, who enjoys the experience of the crowd, I found in silence the biggest and best crowd of them all. I have had experiences of God’s presence throughout my life, yet none of them could compare to the depth of God’s presence that I’ve begun to experience through seeking out God in silence. A brand new pilgrimage has indeed begun for me. God is leading me and I can’t wait to see what God will show me next.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Learning to Listen

As I approached my 43rd birthday and was well into my 17th year of serving a local parish as an ordained pastor I was under no illusion that I had my act completely together. I could see holes in my life, my vocation and my spirit. Knowing that growth in the Spirit is a pilgrimage that takes a lifetime I was satisfied that I was in a generally good place. I had learned to give up nearly everything that might stand between me and God. What I hadn’t yet learned to give up was the sound of my own voice and my own thoughts.

I suppose you could say that this would be an occupational hazard for a preacher. After all, isn’t that what we get paid for? Aren’t we expected to be able to talk at length about a variety of subjects maintaining the myth that we know more than we actually do? While this skill may be valued in the parish; in my own heart and relationship with God I discovered that it was an enormous stumbling block. It was an obstacle to experiencing God more deeply in prayer. I’ve always known that it is important to take time in prayer and listen to God. We can get so caught up in petitioning, but if we don’t stop talking long enough, even God has a rough time getting through. The reality is that I had rarely experienced silence as an ongoing and vital part of my devotional life with God. I tried my hand at contemplative prayer, with no instruction or context, but it always seemed that there were pieces missing.

Then I experienced silence. Through a series of events (which I’m sure I’ll share in the weeks to come) I found myself attending the Two Year Academy for Spiritual Formation. This is an experience that I will attend once a quarter, for a week at a time through the summer of 2007. The Academy is sponsored by the Upper Room, a division of the United Methodist Church. It involves seminar teaching in and about the area of spiritual formation, worship (including Eucharist), time for reflection, covenant groups and silence…lots and lots of silence. I was spiritually ready for the challenge, but I had no idea what I was really in for.
In one of the first hour long experiences of silence I decided to walk the labyrinth that was on the grounds of the retreat center. I went into the silence with a specific idea to consider and reflect upon (one that had been assigned by one of our presenters) and as I began to walk the labyrinth I began to have one of my usual conversations with God. I made an effort to let God get a word in, but not many. Then I heard it…”Be still and know that I am God.” COOL! I have had experiences where I know that I’d heard the voice of God, so this experience wasn’t a total shock. In my excitement I proceeded with the conversation then it happened again…”Be still and know that I am God.” Just as clear as the first time. Now I was really excited. I was ready to launch back into the conversation with renewed gusto when I heard it a third time…”Be still and know that I am God.”

Now I get it…Now I understand what silence in prayer is all about. In that moment I was able to let go the sound of my own voice, my own thoughts, my own agenda in prayer and let God show the way. That was the grand beginning of the journey that I will share in the weeks to come.