Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Avoiding prayer for all we're worth.

Have you ever tried to pray for more than a few moments? I know, for most people on this journey the answer is "yes." Yet often when we face the daunting silence of prayer, I fear we step away. We are probably convinced that the old saying is truly wise: "Don't just sit there. Do something!"

I am seeking to spend more time in praying. This has meant for me longer times of prayer. Here are the challenges I meet: Silence, a racing mind, and that incessant need to be busy doing. And because of these, I often avoid prayer for all I'm worth. And I become worth-less as a result.

Entering into quiet is frightening. Turning off all electronic forms of distraction leaves our souls feeling not only alone, but naked--exposed. And it is for this very reason that periods of silence are important to us. We need to see what is exposed. Is it loneliness? Is it fear? Is it anger? Is it resentment? Is it lust? What surfaces when you get quiet?

A Racing Mind
I don't like failure. And when I pray and my mind leaves the prayer behind and focuses on something else, it maddens me. It humiliates me. This causes me to believe that I simply am "not cut-out" to pray. That it is a gift that others can enjoy, rather than a skill that must be honed.

I'm learning to sit with my busy brain. When it wonders away, I pull it back to my prayer. And yes, I do this over and over and over again. I want to find my heart (what the Eastern Church calls the "nous"). And the longer I practice this corralling of my busy mind, the more I tame my soul.

That Incessant Need to Be Busy
I never have my "to do list" finished. I rarely get close. There are always more meetings to schedule and hold, more people to go and encourage and more studying to do for future teaching, etc. And so it is extremely difficult for me to still myself for the purpose of prayer. It is hard to stop and be present with God.

Prayer is a decision to step away from busy-ness. And while it is not practiced for the purpose of making us more effective in our work, it will do just that. When we sacrifice our busy-ness and choose prayer, we sharpen our soul which I will define here as our mind (our ability to think), our will (ability to make choices), and our emotions (our ability to feel).

I am discovering that the use of prayer tools can be helpful. I will write about them next time. Peace to you as you seek to honor the Lord of Holy Week.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A gushy Lenten love note

In the last couple of weeks I have been challenged on several levels. First, to intensify my prayer life. I've also been pushed on the subject of humility and service for the sake of Jesus. And, I have found myself drawn deeper into a passionate love for Jesus. Yep, there it is.

I'm not speaking of a passion for the "good teacher" Jesus, or the "spiritual master" Jesus, or the "friend of the lowly" Jesus. And I'm not talking about a passion to do more Kingdom work, although such passions are worthy of our best efforts. I'm talking about a passionate love for Jesus himself. Like my love for my wife, or my children or my grandchild, or mother or sisters, etc.--I have been drawn back into the feeling of love for Jesus. I have not been here for a while (I am sorry to confess).

Spending time with someone, telling them you love them, and sacrificing for that love will do this for you. Action for the benefit of the loved one will draw love from your heart. Like a dried old leather saddle, my soul has come alive with the renewing oil of God's nearness. And something in me must say very clearly, that I love Jesus.

I know this is a more sappy post than you are used to here, but this writer is a bit more sappy these days. I've caught myself weeping as I read of Him, or as I sing on Sunday morning. Just plain old sentimental love for Him.

Now I know--and I have taught over and over--that "love" is not a feeling, but a commitment. Well pardon my Lenten blubbering here, but sometimes the feeling of love can be pretty intoxicating and even necessary. I'd hate to have done my thirty-plus years of marriage so far with a love that was strictly cognitive. There is something about passion and feeling that is necessary glue in such a relationship.

And so, with the Psalmist I am confessing, "I love you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Experience first the darkness: Lent is moving toward its aweful, awesome ending.

In this blog, I am inviting you and anyone you can find that is willing to share here, just how you spend the last week of Lent--Holy Week. I find sharing traditions to be a good thing, and an encouraging thing. In order to comment, just click comment at the bottom of this posting, and write a comment in the box. You don't have to have a google account. Just choose another option, and post your thoughts. So here are some of my thoughts. You can be more brief, or longer if you like.

This week has been a time of ramping-up preparations for next week--Holy Week on the Christian Calendar. We are preparing our Thursday evening service and Good Friday services, which basically are just long readings of Luke's passion narrative. Our sanctuary is dark and bleak. The cross is dominant up front, and the lights are kept low. On Thursday, we will receive communion and read about Christ's last supper. On Friday, the sanctuary will be draped with black cloths, as will the cross. We will read of Christ's arrest, trials, crucifixion and death. By the last reading, every light and candle in the sanctuary is out except for the "Christ Candle." The candle that represents to us his presence from Christmas until next Advent, is extinguished at the end of the service. (This of course, is not Jesus' actual presence, but rather it is our weekly reminder that when we gather, he is in our midst.) All is dark, as is our world with no Christ.
We leave in silence.

Then on Easter Sunday morning, we will begin outside (weather permitting) and walk symbolically around the building on our journey to the tomb of Christ. We will read of his burial and of the women walking to the tomb which will be represented again by the sanctuary. The doors will be opened as we arrive, and we will hear the incredible words: "Our Lord is Risen!" We will respond, as we do each year (if I'm not to choked and fighting tears) with, "He is risen indeed!"

The drama and darkness of Lent will succumb once again to the bright hope of Easter Sunday morning!

I learned long ago that the joy of Easter is little more than candy eggs and new clothes if we don't intentionally discipline ourselves to experience first the darkness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An Unexpected Welcome: Retreating at Catholic retreat sites.

A gentle, smiling group gathers for simple fare at lunchtime. They have just completed noon prayers. Scriptures have been meditated upon, Psalms have been read and sung, and you have been prayed for. Yes you.

I've made it a habit to spend some time away with cloistered communities throughout my sojourn. I've visited them in deserts, mountains, in the sweltering south and in the Midwest. Each time, whether a community of nuns or priests, I find myself surrounded by welcome and peace. My spirit is invited to rest and pray.

In my book, The Runaway Pastor, the lead character visits a Catholic monastery for a time of prayer and reflection. The reason I chose not to mention a protestant one? I don't know of any. We don't have a similar long-standing monastic tradition. I encourage people of my congregation to go to such Catholic retreat facilities because there is no comparable place to go and pray within my tradition.

I've had a few critiques about this. "There are protestant campgrounds and retreat sites that welcome people to go on retreats," they say. "Why not go there?" And they are right, these places exist. But they are not the same. What one experiences in these cloistered communities I speak of is an atmosphere which has known continuous praying for the world and singing of the Psalms throughout the cycle of hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and sometimes centuries or more. Prayer isn't retreated to for these people. It is their atmosphere...the air they breathe. This is the kind of holy place they share with us.

Yesterday for only two hours, I sat, shared stories, prayed and ate lunch with a Catholic sister whom I've known for twenty four years. Today is her eightieth birthday. Sixty seven of her years have been spent in community praying daily. And while she ventured out to teach school, serve in soup kitchens, jails, homeless shelters or as a speaker in retreat settings for literally thousands over the years; this sister has operated out of the strength drawn from roots deep in prayer and scripture--deep in God's presence. And yesterday, I enjoyed that place of peace and strength, and began a few days of vacation with prayer as my starting place.

You may not be aware of these places around you. Such communities are in countrysides and cities. And the people who find their home there work hard like you and I do. But they also have espoused themselves to prayer in community. And when they pray, they pray for you and your world. I would not want to see the world without such leaven.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

End of the one week TV fast...blah

Well, yesterday marked the end of my week without TV. There isn't really much to report. How about you? I kept up with news online. I had to change a habit or two when entering rooms. But at the end of the week yesterday afternoon, I realized I wasn't jonesing to turn it on. In fact, I haven't yet.

I think the big deal is that I have no show that I watch every week. I'm never home consistently in the evenings when those are on. I do enjoy travel channel, discovery, Explorer etc., but I guess it was an easy experiment/fast for me.

About six of you told me you'd join in. How'd it go?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lenten reflections, part way through...

Here are some of my thoughts as we stand four Sundays from Easter, and as we approach the halfway point of Lent.

I'm finding a purer self--a less pretentious presence. These are days of frustrating humility, but deeper peace and stronger confidence. There is more a sense of being able to do whatever is needed, and less discouragement midst the little hassles.

These are quieter days. And I am quieter within myself. I am stronger in the face of all temptations (not just the temptations I've brought upon myself by saying I wouldn't participate in things I usually consider routine). I've gained a bit of self-assurance that I can do all things through Christ. I'm not saying that I'm superman, but I'm stronger in this weakness.

I understand the need for self-discipline and want to remember this place, and not fear coming here more often. There are a couple of things I've set aside for this season which I may leave aside. Others I will pick up with a new understanding of their insidious ability to become idols/addictions.

I'm a grateful follower of the way of Jesus. And this Lenten journey has carried sweet suffering.

This is why I wrote The Runaway Pastor

My favorite amazon review yet. Maybe it is self-serving that I post this, but this review hits the exact reason I wrote The Runaway Pastor in the first place. Thanks for indulging me, and please, find a copy of the book and for your pastor's sake, read it. And if you are a pastor, well, please remember that you are not almighty. Here is the review:

5.0 out of 5 stars Runaway Pastor, March 4, 2010
Runaway Pastor is barely fiction! There is so much reality, so much bare naked truth, and so much raw life in it that it blurs the lines. At times, I vacillated between feeling comforted by the fact that someone else knows my plight and understands my heart... or embarrassed to think that someone has been peering into my deep dark secret places! I have served as a pastor for 20+ years and the last few years have taken an unspeakable toll on my health, both emotional and physical... on my mind, both mental and spiritual... and on my relationships, both in and out of ministry. Just over a year ago, my wife and I nearly crashed and burned. Were it not for the arms of God and a few well-placed friends acting as His hands, we would not be in ministry any longer. We would not be fulfilling our life calling. I never ran... probably because the creative access panel of my mind had been scorched and I merely wasn't clever enough any longer to plot my escape.

Please, read this book. Layman or minister... read it and wake up to the realization that we are in grave danger every day that we deny our vulnerability and our need to care for ourselves first. Bless God for working through you, David Hayes. Bless God.

Friday, March 5, 2010

And how would you like your pain? Now, or later?

Yesterday afternoon, I sat in the dentist's chair thinking philosophically. "Why do I like myself so much better now, than I do three weeks from now?" And what I mean by that, is this:

I knew, after consulting with the dentist, I had an unpleasant procedure (not a huge deal) that needed to be scheduled. Something in the way the guy looked at me made me think he might offer to do it right then! And inside, I thought, "No! Let's schedule this later!" (Actually, yesterday would have been a great time to do this. My day wasn't heavily scheduled. But I didn't want the pain now, it needed to be later!)

We never want the pain NOW.

So I thought to myself, IF I could have my way, I'd choose to not pay my bills until later. I'd choose not to exercise until later. I'd choose not to read to my children or grandchildren, or for my own growth until later. I'd choose not to work at my diet until later. I'd choose not to cook until later. (And I would go out to eat NOW. I would put it on a credit card and pay later.) Later!

We never want our pain or effort NOW.

We know that discipline is something we need. We know we need it today. But the steps involved:
-writing a budget and staying with it, and paying for what I can afford when I buy it;
-saying NO to myself about that cookie or fa(s)t food foray;
-quitting that debilitating addiction;
-reading a book or taking quiet time instead of vegging in front of the television;
these things are just painful, and require effort!

So we postpone our pain until LATER. After we lose our health and damage that of those around us due to poor eating habits; after we've abused our friends by stealing their money or robbing their medicine cabinet to get our next fix; after the collectors have set up residence in our answering machines and after we've abused our friend's trust because they know they won't get paid back for last year's "little loan;" and after it's too late to teach our children to read, or our soul to be still... Later please.

So, while I sat in the dentist chair I asked: "Can we do this now?" He responded by tilting his head and saying, "Afraid we can't get you in right now. You'll have to schedule with the front desk." And I did. April 1st--April Fool's Day will be my day to hurt a little. And next April, and the next and the next--if all goes as planned--my tooth shouldn't be hurting when I chew on an apple.

I heard lots about repentance when I was a kid. I thought it meant that you said you were sorry. That is the beginning of it. But real repentance means to be sorry enough to change. And that is something we'd prefer to do later.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Help me grow this community, or How to be a more active participant.

My "hits," or visits at this site have gone up over the past few months. Readers come from all of the United States, and provinces of Canada; and readers also visit from three to four dozen countries on six continents. I'm humbled and honored by this. Here's how you can help me to build this online home:

It REALLY helps when you leave comments after a post. By doing that, you help me create the community I want this to become, and you help others feel less nervous about commenting. (You DO know that I don't get paid for this, don't you?) And hey, if you have trouble remembering your password to leave a comment, may I suggest you just place your info in a word processing file? This isn't high security stuff, so keep it simple and save it to a file where you can find it. Or you can just make an anonymous comment anytime.

Also, when you check an impression box at the bottom of a post, it shows signs of life. Not even 1% of you do that, and it only requires a click! Try and remember if you would.

It is extremely helpful when you sign-on as a "follower." It lets us see who hangs out here, and again, not many of you have done that. It isn't really very hard to do. You get a google i.d. and go from there. I'd love to see you jump in with this step.

Finally, the thing that makes this work more easily is the "feed." See the orange button on a white background with the word "Posts" (and the one below with "All Comments") next to it? It is just below the search box. If you click on that and then on a service you use online, you can find out every time there is a new post here. Then you remember to visit, read the post, click an opinion box and start or join the discussion by writing a comment.

That's how this thing ties together. Use the "feed," read the post, click an opinion, leave a comment, and watch for more discussion.

By the way, I added a new feature to the blog yesterday. The search feature on the top right hand side is pretty cool! Google provides it free, but it allows my blog to be searched using keywords. I noticed that if the word "hiking" is entered for instance, several posts from the past couple of years pop up. Maybe it will help you in the future.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Deep Silence: Dumping TV for a week.

Our medical society is stymied as to why so many of U.S. Americans are stressed or depressed, and thus suffering from diseases that result from these two conditions. I have a decent history with stress and depression myself. No, I'm not proud of that; but it is reality. Why, in this age with so many tools and conveniences at our fingertips, do we never seem to escape the ravages of hurry and worry?

Here are a couple of guesses.

We don't know how to be still. Instead of utilizing dishwashers, laundry equipment, cell phones, computers, automobiles, and every other imaginable piece of time-saving gadgetry to our advantage, we use them to pack more into our living. We don't work hard and wisely with our tools in order to be done at a decent time and go home to our loved ones and relax. We work hard in order to get more gadgets and impress people with the toys and with the moniker of "busy." (People are impressed with busy people. Busy people are impressed with busy people.)

But happy people usually know better.

I have to believe that another source of our hassled existence is our non-stop media connection. Radio, iPod, email, facebook, myspace and TV are incredible tools. I also think they are deep pools of insanity. We lose ourselves in their jumble. We are addicts. (Do NOT try and tell me you aren't. If you do, I'll challenge you dump them for a couple of months and see how you react--most likely as a junkie without his fix, or an alcoholic without her bottle or a fish without its water. You'll say: There's no way I can go without it, its part of my job! I have to connect there or I'll get left behind!" Or, "I could turn them off any time I want, I just don't need to. In Barbara Brown Taylor's words from a few articles back, we see perceive our addictions as power tools. Not problems.

And indeed, they should be. Until we smear our needs and desires all over their glistening surfaces.

I'm relearning how to sit still; to be still and know that God is God, as a wise writer once said. Perhaps, it is better to say: Be still and know that our business and our busy tools are not God.

I read Jerry Mander's book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television back in the early '80s. I just checked it out on Amazon, and it is still a highly rated title. It is not a religious approach to the question of media. It is not even all that much about television. But it is a mighty presentation (even if written from a bit of a Luddite perspective) of the way we as a human race are separating ourselves from natural (and I would add spiritual) moorings, and are paying a heavy, heavy price.

I'm trying to grow up and be a big boy. I'm trying to put away childish things. I'm thinking of dumping my dependence upon television. Radio has been a great first step. But, but, but....! No, I can get the news from my laptop. I can keep up with the weather there too.

OK, I said it here first. No TV for a week for me. But, I love the news!!!!, Nope. You can ask me how I'm doing. You game?