Archive | September, 2012

Well, that’s some consolation!

Ever hear someone say, “I need to pray about that”?  The implication is that the person needs some time to consider or discern God’s will.

But what does that look like?

Recently I came upon some old spiritual tools for decision making and spiritual discernment.  The key words are “consolation” and “desolation.”  In simplest terms, consolation refers to the felt presence of God in the soul, while desolation refers to the opposite – God’s absence.

I think it’s fair to say that these words – especially “consolation” – have taken on all new meanings, but I think it would be good for our spiritual lives to recover something of the ancient meanings.  The words mean more than “I feel good” and “I feel bad.”

In case you’re interested it was St. Ignatius of Loyola who first explored this approach to knowing God’s will for our lives.

Consolation is not the prize you receive if you fail to win the grand prize. Consolation is a spiritual condition in which we find our hearts lifted.  The word refers to a kind of inner peace and joy.  I once heard an older person say, “Grandchildren are the consolation of old age.”  I like that. I’m looking forward to a little of that consolation myself.

Desolation is very different.  Ignatius called it a “darkness of the soul, a torment of the spirit.”

When we are asked to make a decision of some sort, the idea is that we quiet ourselves enough to notice what’s happening within.  Do we feel a serenity of spirit about whatever it is?

Or does the decision take us in another direction entirely, draining us of energy, crowding out what’s most important to us?

I know that someone is bound to say in response to all of this that “prayer and Bible reading” would be the best way to make good, God-honoring decisions.  And you won’t be surprised to know that I agree with that.  But what I am offering here, I hope, is a way to go deeper, to be more attentive, to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives.

In the last year or so I have had to face some of the biggest, most distressing decisions of my life.  Each time, I’m happy to report, I have come to a place of peace and acceptance about one direction or another, and though I didn’t have the language of “consolation” and “desolation” at the time, that’s exactly what I was doing.  I had used an ancient spiritual tool.

I hope this is useful to you.

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Prayer at lunchtime

It’s interesting to listen to others pray.  I was at a lunch meeting yesterday, and our speaker opened with prayer by saying, “Daddy.”

I hadn’t heard that word used in public prayer before – and I’ve heard a lot of public prayer over the years – but I remember feeling fine with it.

After lunch, on the elevator ride down from the 28th floor, I listened as two men, who were also at the lunch, debated the use of the word “daddy” in prayer.  One of them said, disapprovingly, “I come from a Southern Baptist background, and that word would never have been used in prayer.”  The other man seemed to think it was just fine.  He listed a half dozen churches he attends in the community and mentioned that all of them would be fine with it.  (My church was not on his list.)

I listened for a while to their conversation – okay, I eavesdropped – and then I introduced myself just before the elevator car doors opened.  “Hi, I’m the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church here in Fort Lauderdale.”

Their reactions were priceless.  But I kept thinking about the prayer and am still thinking about it more than 24 hours later.

Prayer language is an interesting subject. How do you address the Creator of the heavens and the earth, Maker of all things, seen and unseen?  Is “Daddy” okay?  Is “Lord” or “Lord God” better?  How do you decide?  Maybe some language is better for personal prayer and other language for public prayer, but how does one decide?

I’m interested in prayer language mainly because I think it reveals a great deal about the person who’s praying and the nature of the relationship that person has with the Almighty, if any.  I remember a person from a church I served previously who used to address God as though he was sitting at a boardroom table with him.  I loved those prayers.  God always seemed so sensible and matter-of-fact. God made decisions on the basis of good data.

I’ve listened to other people pray who become uncomfortably (to me) child-like when they pray.  Their voices take on a little girl or little boy sound.  I wonder what that sound says about their relationship with God.  I’m a child of God, true, but I would like to think that God prefers me to be a grown up in my relationship with him.

When my grandmother prayed many years ago, I enjoyed listening to her King James English.  She was Dutch and spoke Dutch, but she peppered her English prayers with a lot of thee, thou, and thine.  When she prayed, we were always approaching “Thy throne of grace.” I liked that.  For her God was on a throne that had to be reverently approached, but it was always, thankfully, a throne of grace.

Since moving to south Florida I have adjusted some of my own prayer language to fit a new culture.  I hear lots of “Father Gods” around here, a phrase that suggests some intimacy but also some majesty and holiness.  In other settings where I’ve served, though, that phrase would have sounded a tad too masculine.  I haven’t adopted that combination, but I’ve tried others.  I won’t be trying “daddy.”

Here’s what I think: Our word choices in prayer should be thoughtful.  We should use words because we’ve thought about what they mean and because they’re appropriate for our relationship with God.  I believe that God values sincerity and honesty and genuineness in our prayers, but I’m also convinced that God values a well-chosen word.

If God is going to take the time to  listen, we should choose our words with care.

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Not Compatible with Christianity

A couple of years ago, after nearly 35 years of running, I decided to try another form of exercise, to give my joints, which are still in remarkably good shape, an occasional break from pounding the pavement around town.

So, on a whim, I walked into a yoga studio early one Monday morning.

And not just any yoga studio.  I happened to walk into a studio that practices hot yoga (with temperatures set between 95 and 105 degrees).  I had never experienced anything quite like it.  I’ve run marathons, and many, many races of shorter distances, but have never felt pushed physically the way I felt pushed in this one 90-minute class.

I liked it so much that I went back.

In my excitement, I even told a couple of people about my discovery.  And that was probably my mistake.  One person, with a disapproving tone in her voice, said, “You’re doing what?”

Later she forwarded to me an article she had read titled, “Is Christianity Compatible with Yoga?”  I am familiar with the author, and I am aware that he takes strong positions regarding perceived threats to the Christian faith.  (Remember Rob Bell?  This author preached a sermon after Bell’s God Wins book was published that I thought was one of the biggest takedowns of a fellow preacher I had ever heard.  He pulls no punches.)

As you can guess, the article about yoga was clear and unambiguous.  Christians, he wrote, should stay out of yoga studios.  Period.  To venture inside is to put your salvation in jeopardy.  Yoga, simply put, is not just another form of exercise; it’s a religion, one that’s very different from – in fact, antithetical to – Christianity.

So, not being one to shrug off a challenge from a brother in the faith, I decided to do a little reading myself and discovered that the “Is Christianity Compatible with X?” formula is a fairly common question for Christians to ask.

I found lots of interesting articles including, “Is Christianity Compatible with Freemasonry?” (apparently not) and “Is Christianity Compatible with Capitalism?” (depends on who’s asking the question) and “Is Christianity Compatible with Being a Goth?” (who cares?)

At that point I started to think of other questions I would like to see explored – such as, “Is Professional Football compatible with Christianity?”  (A game based on aggression and physical violence, often resulting in long-term physical and emotional consequences for its participants, certainly needs a second look, though I admit that I’m a fan and don’t want to push the argument.)

Or, better yet, what about boxing?  How is that compatible with Christian faith?

But back to yoga.  What am I supposed to do?  And what are the other church members who have unrolled their mats next to mine supposed to do?

Here’s what I’m thinking: we live in a morally complicated world.  Nearly everything we do – for business, exercise, or pleasure – raises at least a question or two.   Should I participate in that sport?  Should I shop in that store? Should I do business with that person?  Should I pay $10 to see that movie?

And not to minimize, I believe people who are sincere in their faith should actively think about these questions.  To live faithfully often means to live carefully, thoughtfully, sensitively.

I listen to my yoga instructors at the end of the class thank me “for sharing my energy” with them.  I don’t really know what that means.  I shared a great deal of my sweat, but my energy?  A lot of what I hear, frankly, sounds like drivel.

Am I about to be pulled away from my faith and absorbed by a new and heretical one?  I don’t think so.  Still, I wonder about it.  Just as I wonder about freemasonry, capitalism, professional football, and boxing.  I’ve never been tempted to become Goth.

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It’s not all misty-eyed pride!

Having a daughter who’s a Presbyterian pastor is a mixed blessing. You might have thought it was all misty-eyed pride, but that’s not so.

On the one hand, she’ll say something like, “All of you baby-boomer pastors should retire and make room for us younger pastors to move up.”

I mean, really, it’s hard to disregard a comment like that when it comes from your own daughter.  With other young pastors, I could simply pretend that I didn’t hear, that something was wrong with my hearing aid, maybe.  When your own daughter says something like that, you kind of have to respond.

What she’s saying, I know, is that it’s time for my generation, which to her and her pastor-friends has failed abysmally, to move along to make way for her generation of bright-eyed, energetic, dynamic, clear-thinking friends, who are ready to take the church to new and unprecedented heights.

But then, just when I’m ready to encourage her to find another career path, I’ll read her blog one morning and find that she’s articulated some important truth about the life of faith that, after more than thirty years of trying, I’ve been unable to do.  And not only that, it will be so good that I’ll decide to post it on my own blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

This morning, for example, I saw that my daughter had written something on her blog about church members who toil away without recognition, who do tedious and monotonous work without a penny in compensation, and who (generally) ask for nothing except a thank you.

She said it in such a thoughtful, caring way, and she even quoted a lovely bit of scripture (1 John 3), that her words took my breath away.

That’s my kid, I thought. She’s got a pastor’s heart.  And I’m so proud, even if she does think I should retire and get out of her way.

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Suddenly dreading the fall

Honestly, how do I get myself into these situations?

Last summer I decided to preach a sermon series in the fall on the most common objections to the Christian faith.  “How could a good God allow suffering?” “The church is responsible for so much injustice in the world” “How can a loving God send people to hell?” – that sort of thing.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

And now the fall is here, and I’m wondering how this could have happened.

I’m not alone in having thought of preaching a sermon series.  After all, preachers have been doing this for a long, long time.

Those of us who’ve been around for a while have, at one time or another, preached our way through the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and more.  In my childhood I remember my pastor preaching a sermon series on the 12 sons of Jacob, one sermon per son. (Somehow I remember that the youngest, Benjamin, was left-handed.)

Last summer I preached my way through the Bible’s long narrative on the life of King David, and by the time I reached the story about David’s affair with Bathsheba, I realized that I had taken on too much for a summer Sunday in July.  I could sense that people were hoping for something a little lighter before heading off to the beach.

The 16th century Reformer John Calvin used to preach lectio continua, which means that he preached his way through entire books of the Bible, verse by verse, an example that’s been followed by many, many preachers who’ve followed him. (When I’ve done this, I’ve tended to choose short books, though, because a sermon series on, say, Luke’s gospel could very well take a couple of years or more.)

Here’s my concern about the fall.  And it’s not that people might miss one or two of my sermons along the way, almost demanding that I include lots of review each week to keep people up to speed.

No, my concern is that I’m bound to say too little for some – and too much for others.

Take a topic like “You can’t take the Bible literally,” which will be the last sermon in the series. I know there are going to be people who want me to make certain specific statements about the Bible, statements they’ve heard many times over the years, and I know there are going to be people who are dreading those statements because they’ve heard them a lot and don’t know if they believe them anymore.

With a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, you can say about as much as you want, without offending anyone. A lot more is at stake when you’re talking about, say, the limits of God’s love, which is coming up in week 5.

Here’s my plan.  And it’s going to be the same approach I’ve used in more than 30 years of preaching.  I’m going to do my best.  I’m going to say as plainly and as confidently as I know how what I believe to be true.  And not just what I believe to be true.  I’m going to say what people of faith have said consistently and reliably down through the centuries.

And then I’m going to trust that people, by a miracle of the holy Spirit that I don’t pretend to understand, will hear exactly what they most need to hear.

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