Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven

Advent Prayer

Creating God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where there is sickness and suffering
Break in where there is grieving and mourning
Break in where there is depression and distress
Break in where there is doubt and confusion
Break in where there is hunger and poverty
Break in where there is violence and war
Break in where there is destruction and death
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in.

Redeeming God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where the powerful hold power
Break in where the rich hold on
Break in where the homeless sleep
Break in where the hungry starve
Break in where the workers serve
Break in where the faithful worship
Break in where the people dream
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in.

Sustaining God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where there is love and joy
Break in where there is celebration and praise
Break in where there is friendship and family
Break in where there is peace and love
Break in where there is kindness and mercy
Break in where there is certainty and accomplishment
As we watch and wait for you this Advent.

In the name of your great breaking in, break in. Amen

 

A Meditation for Advent

The cry of the Prophet echoes through the ages:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and
every mountain and hill be made low.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:3-5)

As we enter the season of Advent, we are reminded again of this call. We work to clear every obstacle that may prevent God from entering our hearts, our church, our world. We know we do not prepare in vain. Even as we prepare we watch and wait for the coming of the Prince of Peace. So we remain vigilant, breathing the words of the Psalmist:

Advent

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
(Psalm 130:5-8)

The hour of our redemption draws near. Let us turn again to the One who created us, the One who unconditionally loves us, the One who promises to set us free of sin and free to love.

Take heart, be vigilant. Prepare the way of the Lord. Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart!

Spiritual Refreshment on the Internet

Doing as much work in front of my computer as I do, I find it helpful at times to go to places on the web where I can find refreshment and renewal. Rather than frequent pilgrimages to news sites where the hype of “breaking news” is overdone, I find the sites offered below help me gain perspective and inspiration. They often lead to a reflective walk around the sanctuary or through the neighborhood.

One of the first places I like to go is The Painted Prayerbook, where United Methodist minister and artist Jan Richardson brings together writing, art, and faith in a way that leads to deep reflection and prayer. I am astounded by the volume and depth of the work she does.

The United Church of Christ’s daily devotionals can be received by email or accessed on the denomination’s website (you’ll need to scroll down and select the reading for the day when accessing online). True to the identity of the UCC, these reflections are inclusive and seek to respond to real-world concerns and questions.

Contemplative Outreach, according to its vision statement, “is a community of individuals and Centering Prayer groups committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in everyday life.” Father Thomas Keating, a guru of centering prayer, is one of the founding members. The articles, videos, and newsletters under the resources tab provide helpful reminders and practical advice about the practice of contemplative prayer.

Finally, for now, as a preacher I enjoy visiting WorkingPreacher, where scholars comment on the texts prescribed for the week’s lectionary. I believe anyone who wants to engage the Bible can gain much out of the insights offered by a range of commentators. In find the work of David Lose particularly insightful and very much enjoy his “voice.”

The Daily Office … Online!

I’m back and apologize for not posting another round of spiritual practices last week. Much of my time was occupied with grief and crisis counseling, planning and conducting two funeral services, along with tending to my flock and usual duties. I find it is especially at times like this that it’s important to have spiritual practices and resources on which to draw.

So today (and for the rest of the week) I thought I’d offer some online resources that I turn to for inspiration.

The most logical place to start is wit the daily office. My two favorite sites for this are Mission St. Clare and Oremus. I especially love the focus on the Psalms, on which I like to prayerfully dwell (meditate) each day. In both the morning and evening offices one meanders through prayers, scriptures, hymns, and moments of acclamation. I especially enjoy the scripted prayers, many of which have been prayed over thousands of years.

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect about praying the daily office is that thousands of people from around the globe are participating in one way or another, albeit at different places and times. My heart sings with the monks at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham and Weston Priory in Weston, Vermont, each time I read the office. In their communities I’ve found peace and quiet on retreat, a feeling I carry with me even sitting in front of my computer or iPad. Mission St. Clare has an awesome app!

I’ll end there for today. Check back later in the week for some lectionary resources as well as other awesome sites for contemplation.

Lectio Divina: Part 2

We met in a small room off the sanctuary before worship one Sunday afternoon. I was facilitating group lectio divina for the first time and of my six companions five had only recently returned to church after many years away. One of the beautiful things about the aptly named Hope Church, a church start in Boston, was that it attracted seekers from a broad spectrum of society, including many who had been rejected and alienated by churches because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.

I did not know it at the time, but of the six present four did not even own a Bible. That was about to change. Over the course of the next 45 minutes of praying the text together the rich tapestry of the scriptures came into focus. The insights each participant brought transformed our perception of the Bible from a single dimension (dominated by a few who claimed the authority to rightly interpret it) into a multidimensional reality where God is still speaking. The experience enriched not only our study that day, but our relationships with each other to this day.

The method I used I first encountered at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC. I was told the method originated in South Africa, which I found intriguing for obvious reasons.

Here’s the process:

Select a text. Then find three different versions (translations) of the text, which is easy to do at BibleGateway. Have a copy of each available.

Gather a group. From my experience in Bible studies and committee settings, I’d limit the group to 8. Any larger and it would be wise to split into two or more groups.

Ask for three volunteers to the scripture and hand them each the version they will read. (At this point it’s wise to summarize the process for the participants so that they know what to expect. Assure the group you’ll guide it every step of the way.)

Open in prayer:
You can ask for openness, reverence, a listening heart, the kind of silence into which another voice may speak. Then leave space for silence.

First reading of the text:
Before the first reader begins, ask the participants to listen for a word or phrase that stands out to them.
After the reading, encourage them to share, as they’re comfortable, the word or phrase that stood oout. Ask them just to mention the word or phrase (we’re not looking for explanations). When the sharing has ended, leave space for silence.

Second reading of the text:
Before the reader begins, ask the participants to listen for the way this text intersects with their lives. After the reading, encourage the participants to share, as they’re comfortable, this insight. Once again, we’re not looking for explanations. When the sharing has ended, leave space for silence.

Third reading of the text:
Before the reader begins, ask the participants to listen for what they believe, through this scripture, God is calling them to do. After the reading, again encourage participants to share this insight.

Close in Prayer:
After a few moments of silence close in prayer. At First Church we each prayed for the person sitting to our left and concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.

Debrief:
You can ask participants what surprised them, what they learned from the process, and how they might practice it in their lives going forward.

Lectio Divina: Part I

In my personal prayer life, I find lectio divina an effective practice for quieting down, focusing, and reaching a more contemplative place in my prayers.  It’s often difficult for many of us to carve out the time to intentionally pray, let alone pray deeply to the point where we can rest in the arms of the Divine. Yet these days of Lent provide us a great opportunity to begin making time to pray.

From personal experience lectio divina is one of the most accessible of the spiritual disciplines. All you need is a block of private quiet time, a Bible, and the desire to engage the Word of God in a slow, purposeful, and ultimately contemplative way. One of the most ancient Christian practices, once widely used, lectio divina empowers one to cultivate deep listening, or “listening with the ear of our hearts,” as St. Benedict said in his Rule.

Lectio can also be a communal prayer activity that can greatly enrich those burdensome church committee meetings or even one’s time together as a family, but I’ll get there tomorrow. For today I’ll offer a brief description of individual lectio divina:

Find a passage of scripture that resonates with you or perhaps one of the texts prescribed for the week in the Revised Common Lectionary. Take notice of the parameters of the text, where it begins and where it ends.

Then take a few moments to prayerfully quiet yourself and to open yourself to the word God has in store for you. It’s useful to breathe deeply and ensure that you’re sitting comfortably yet attentively.

Then begin reading. This is not speed reading, the kind we’re used to in practically ever other setting of our lives. Rather it is slow, reverential, deliberate reading. One might even call it meditative reading.

As you’re reading notice what word or phrase starts to resonate with you.

Read through the text a second or third time, keeping your pace slow and deliberate and being attentive to that word or phrase. Memorize it. Hold on to it and then begin to prayerfully ponder it in your heart.

When your thoughts begin to wander, come back to that word and simply rest with it. Let it become a focal point for you, drawing you more deeply into your prayer, into communion with God. Think of this communion with the Divine, this contemplative place, in the words of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
Be