Thursday, March 31, 2011

Joy Is Worth the Chase

Edward Hays' books are like candy, at least for me. Even more than his daily healing therapies in Lenten Pharmacy, Chasing Joy is an excellent devotional companion for any season of the Church year.

I have come to really savor the way Hays can recast a wide range of anecdotes, biblical references, and folk stories with whatever subject is at hand. In the case of this book, it's about pursuing happiness, that historic American virtue. For Hays, joy just doesn't happen. Rather, it's a choice, and even more, it's a practice. Like that of prayer and gratitude, we access joy not by nature or instinct, but by intention.

And myriad disciplines are offered, a sort of "yellow brick road" to enduring joy, most of which stem from what Hays calls the "holy trinity" of I Thessalonians 5:16: "Always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. this is what God wants you to do." CEV Some of the more creative practices are the three-fold chuckle, and a habit hand-picked just for us culture-of-stuff Americans.

This is the practice of attributed to Socrates, who was known to have wandered through the Greek marketplaces and exclaimed with a laugh- “Behold the many things I have no need of!” Hays suggests we take this a step further. The next time, you find yourself waiting at a Walgreens or CVS, or even Target or Walmart, feel free to roam the aisles as time allows, thanking God for all the things of which you have absolutely no need!

For Hays, joy is an addiction, or can be, insofar as it becomes a holy habit. But it's a practice that cuts against our prehistoric fear-based, survival instincts. Negative thinking does not come from our choosing it, but rather, negativity comes from our ancestors. So the complainers and grumps we know within us and outside of us haven't received the evolutionary tweak that joy's practice can bring, mentally and spiritually.

So the sense of chasing joy, or pursuing happiness becomes a regular and disciplined choice for knowing and receiving the joy that no one and no situation can take away. This is a joy that 's there for taking, God's overflowing super-abundant love and grace, welling up to life here, now, forever.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hope in a Difficult Time

There is something deeper than trouble.
It is mercy.
God's amazing grace.
Carrying, lifting, holding us in all seasons.
There is something more powerful than despair.
It is mercy.
God's amazing love.
Seeing us through dark nights, waves of sadness, mountains of grief.
There is something longer lasting than pain.
It is mercy...

Excerpted from Larry J. Peacock and Prayers for Hope, Upper Room Ministries.

May God's healing embrace in Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit enfold, envelop, and encircle all in trauma and grief.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alpha or Beginnings?

The advantages both formats provide is the chance the group has to visit with each other over a meal. This becomes an excellent way to establish a sense of community and a more relaxed and informal atmosphere. The limitation of both Alpha and Beginnings is trying to contain the whole of the Christian faith into a classroom model, as something that is just taught, heard, and discussed. This shortcoming can be improved by incorporating Christian practices and group experiences outside of the sessions. Why? Because the faith and tradition is not only contained in words, but also in doing it.

Both experiences are intended to be longer than your typical 6-8 week block for short term studies. Alpha stresses the importance of going the distance of 12 weeks plus the Holy Spirit overnight or day long retreat, while Beginnings is a shorter 12 weeks (or 9 weeks with an overnight or day long retreat).

There's a sense in which Alpha asks participants to complete the entire course before making a faith decision for Christ, and, as such, to do so methodically, somewhat logically. Alpha, written in 1993, is more modernist in outlook. That is, it assumes that all things, including Christian faith, can be thought-through and understood rationally. Alpha uses its many Bible references as an evangelical tool to lead to conversion and persuade the participants of the truth of Christ. In this sense, it is not unlike the many Bible tracts of my youth, except on a more sophisticated and developed level.

Beginnings (2003) addresses the post-modern experience that truth cannot always be received just from logical deduction. Its approach is more narrative and invites self-reflection. Its use of the Bible is very different from Alpha in that most sessions use one or at most, two stories from the Gospels or Acts from which to develop the sessions. Whereas, Alpha suggests that the seeker will find the truth from hearing it well presented and then thinking on it, Beginnings emphasizes that we find God also as we engage the practices of faith, such as Bible reading, study, prayer, service, and giving. Whereas Alpha encourages our meeting God through personal decision, the theme of Beginnings is that God meets us where we are.

Although I have used both resources with a variety of groups, Beginnings , in my opinion, is more adaptable in introducing others to Christian faith. Beginnings also offers two follow-up studies: Habits of the Heart (on the spiritual practices), and Around the Fire (Christian community). Both of these are good, though I found Around the Fire, with it's focus on Acts 2, more popular with my groups.

Isn't it great that pastors have a choice?! Third option? Yet another possibilty is Rowan Williams' Tokens of Trust, which is a very readable introduction to Christian faith using Bible and the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Whatever you decide, I think the best time of year to offer these kinds of groups is following the biggest church seasons, such as Lent-Easter.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

To Begin Anew, Herbert's "Lent"

Lent by George Herbert

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos'd of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev'ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos'd of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree,
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men's abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour's purity;
Yet we are bid, 'Be holy ev'n as he, '
In both let's do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

George Herbert

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Living Water is here for the taking

Lent is a time of heightening, not deadening, the senses. But the best way to do this is the way of simplicity and uncluttering. Subtracting the spiritual hangers-on, the act of letting go allows us the freedom to move toward more of God and to choose life. Even in the midst of the ashes.

I wish I could have found the poem I was looking for, but in my searching, I discovered a part of one of John Donne's Elegies that I had long forgotten, from a class on the poets of his generation. It's from the last few lines of the Elegy entitled "Change":

To live in one land is captivity,
To run all countries, a wild roguery;
Waters stink soon, if in one place they bide,
And in the vast sea are worse putrified:
But when they kiss one bank, and leaving this
Never look back, but the next bank do kiss,
Then are they purest; Change is the nursery
Of music, joy, life, and eternity.

What in me stinks and is becoming putrified? To me, that brings home the stark reality that, yes, there are some things that are ugly and creating a stench in my spirit. It is time for the deep water of my soul to be cleansed by the one and only source of living water. The water welling up to life now and forever.

Remembering one of many 8th grade science experiments, lent is a spiritual application of what we learn from physical science. The law of volume and displacement means that two substances cannot occupy the same space. Quickly, the weightier matter will win out. More of God means less of something else. Less of that which is not God or of God. It doesn't mean that we fill up our lives with more, but that we let go of whatever in us that is holding us back, hindering, harming, or merely distracting us from the greater good.

Yes, change can be the nursery for love and joy, as Donne writes. Change itself is inevitable. But the choice for more God, more love and joy, is ours. Divine displacement works best when the presence of God's love forces out stink and stench, signs of being shut off too long from the free movement Living Water.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

You don't need church to live in denial

You don't need the church to be the one-half in "Two and a Half Men," but that doesn't mean people don't use the church to escape themselves. You don't need the church to avoid the pain of your own self-destructive wiring. But it can help.

With the opportunity to try out a new spiritual practice or discipline in the coming Lent/Easter season, I hope to take a fresh look at what I need- so that my faith practice, whatever it is, can limit self-delusion and blindness, and can encourage self-knowledge and awareness.

The thing is, we can turn anything, even the good gifts of our tradition, into a self-serving exercise, subverting and sabotaging the holy and life-giving intention of the practice. That's why it helps to be intentional and have the support of another in the journey, such as a spiritual director. The great gift of a Christian spiritual practice is first and always, the freedom Holy Spirit gives us to choose more of God, and less cobbling of the concocted self.

That's wonderful addition by subtraction!

Oldies but Goodies