Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Jesus Prayer

"Let all your thoughts be with the Most High, and direct your humble prayers unceasingly to Christ." -Thomas a Kempis

The Jesus prayer began, so it seems, as one young man's attempt to discover how to really pray without ceasing. In his travels, he discovered an old hermit that explained to him that "The ceaseless Jesus Prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, and heart; and in the awareness of His abiding presences it is a plea for His blessing in all undertakings, in all places, at all times, even in sleep. The words of the Prayer are: 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Anyone who becomes accustomed to this prayer will experience great comfort as well as the need to say it continuously. He will become accustomed to it to such a degree that he will not be able to do without it and eventually the Prayer will flow from him." {Jones p. 60} The hermit pointed the young man to the ancient writings of Desert Fathers in a collection called the Philokalia. Through the use of a prayer rope and this prayer, the young man began to build this prayer into his life as a repitition, a habit that became an essential part of his life. The young man later travels the country side of Russia teaching this prayer to all who would learn. You can read about his travels in the anonymous book The Way Of The Pilgrim, a journal of his travels.

His discovery has actually been a foundational part of Eastern Christianity since the early 1400's. It seems that this practice of the Jesus Prayer can be traced back to Abba Philemon of the sixth century. The Jesus Prayer is a combination of Greek asceticism (excercise/training) and hesycahsm (quietness) seeking to combined the mind and heart in a unified prayer. The early church fathers taught that when this is accomplished through the quieting of the mind and focusing of the heart (through the use of this simple repetitive prayer/phrase) the believer will be illuminated, particularly with the truths fo Scripture. This Jesus Prayer speaks to the very nature of our travails in life; the fact that God is always ready to enlighten us, but our own nature seldom remembers the need for it.

In our times, the Jesus Prayer has been amended to have a tag that makes it read like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I prefer to leave the last phrase off because I am no longer a sinner if I've been redeemed by Christ. The New Testament calls me a saint. However, if the goal of this repetetive prayer is to remind us of our need for God's mercy, it may be an appropriate tag for the exercise. As I've put this into practice, trying to recite it as many times as I can during the day, I am finding that as my mind quiets, my lips purse and the prayer comes out. It's bleeding into my subconscious. The practice has become somewhat of a mantra for me. The desert fathers suggested recitation of this prayer upwards of 5,000 times a day! I'm nowhere near that, but with this prayer on my mind, it slips into my day and reminds me contstantly of my need for Christ Jesus.

In practice, I've tried to focus on a rhythmic pattern. As I breathe in, I say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God." Then, as I exhale, I finish, "have mercy on me." Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you. It's been a great thing for me.
Next up, centering prayer...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Silence And Solitude

"In silence and quietness the devout soul makes progress and learns the hidden mysteries of the Scriptures." - Thomas a Kempis
"Hectic" best describes most of our lives. "Noisy" and "Busy" come to mind as well. The wisdom of Proverbs admonishes us, "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." (18:21) The Scriptures attest to this in several places. The ancient fathers bear witness to its truth, as well. And yet, we live lives that are contrary to the consensus of these witnesses. They agree that much talking is a vice and that silence is a virtue. I know I forget that often. The greatest witness to this is Jesus, Himself. Although He taught publically, He also valued times of silence and solitude, seeking to emerse Himself in prayer and reflection. He also prepared for times of distress with times of solitude. But that word frightens many of us today. Solitude, silence, the idea of being alone and left to ourselves rattles us. For the Christ-follower, we're never turly alone, and silence is only a greater opportunity for us to listen. To quote the book I'm reading, "All in all, no spiritual discipline is more universally acclaimed as necessary than the practice of silence." Rufinus, Jerome, Benedict, and even modern day pilgrims like Willard and Foster commend silence as a necessity. But why solitude? It really isn't about withdrawing to avoid evil or people. It is about posturing ourselves to better listen to The Father. Richard Foster, one of my favorite all time writers, connects solitude with silence, saying, "Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening. Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God, is not silence." The need to listen requires silence, and the need for silence requires solitude. It's no wonder that with all the noise of life (iPods, CD players, TV, cell phones, etc.) that we have a hard time hearing God's voice. All of the ancient writings point toward silence and solitude being foundational in developing our love of God, self, and others.

In addition to needing to hear from God, silence and solitude provide us the opportunity to find what we can learn from ourselves without the external stimuli that are around us. St. John of the Cross (1542 - 1591) says that this type of silence often leads to The Dark Night Of The Soul. We can't truly pursue silence without ending up in a season of deep dark doubt where we hear nothing but our own depravity. Our desire to be plugged into God, fully listening and fully aware brings us to a place of dealing with that which hinders us most: ourselves. But when we enter into that lonliness, that deep dark doubt of our own inner struggle, we emerge with more patience and fortitude. We hear and are made stronger for it. Our faith is bolstered. We become aware of our true selves when we're "swallowed up" in God; realizing the freedom of being rather than doing. And when we discover this new self, fulfilled only in our immersion into Christ, we begin to bear fruit. It is in The Dark Night Of The Soul that the soil is replentished. Then the seed takes root and fruit is produced. John Climacus writes, "Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies...a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward." Richard Foster's quote on the product of silence and solitude bears great weight in whether it is worth the pursuit, He writes, "the fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts." Summary? Being quiet and being alone on a regular basis makes us better people and better disciples. It makes us more useful, more set apart and more aware of the work of Christ in and around us.

Will you join me in the practice of regular silence and solitude? I am building into my life this discipline by working out 2 hours a week (not necessarily consecutive) of silence. I will be building to a 1/2 day a month and a two-day retreat a year. I've already contacted a monastery in Pecos, NM, about the use of their facility. Like any other worth-while things in our lives, we must make them a priority and get them on our calendar. Will you put silence and solityde on your calendar?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Lectio Divina

The first of the Via Contemplativa (the way of contemplation) that I want to bring to the table is that of Lectio Divina, or Divine Reading.
All too often, Christ followers come to the Holy Scriptures for advice or to prepare for a lesson instead of a contemplative reading that allows Scripture to shape us as God sees fit. I know that my life is full of reading. That reading is usually around an event or a need, rather than a contemplative or meditative reading. Sound familiar? Thomas a Kempis counseled believers saying, “Do not read to satisfy curiosity or to pass the time, but study such things as move your heart to devotion.” The Scriptures and early church fathers testify that by entering deeply into the text of God’s Word as a believer gives God an avenue to reveal Himself to us, to speak to us, and to direct our lives. Paul affirms this in 2 Tim. where he says that Scripture is inspired and profitable. St. Benedictine (c. 480 – 550) found this such a primacy that he built it into the practices of his monastery, cementing this practice into Western Monasticism. Indeed, on this topic of Divine Reading, Guigo II (c. 1115 – 1198), the ninth prior of the Grand Charteuse (a Carthusian order in France), gives us great insight into what he called “The Ladder Of Monastics.” He says divine reading consists of four “steps” that I want to encourage you to put into practice this very day.

The first step is reading (lectio). Find a distraction free place, which is hard to do in our society. Also, grab a copy of God’s Word that is free from distraction. That is, find an easy to understand translation. I would also encourage you to get something that flows freely without study notes. Too often we allow the study notes to be what we take from God’s Word, and not The Word Himself. The New Jerusalem Bible, or the William’s NT are great for this. Sometimes we don’t think our reading places through, and a lack of light, or a stirring hunger, or a lack of sleep keep us from giving the text our full attention. We must give this time of lectio divina our full effort. Once you have all the distractions removed, choose a text and ask for/expect direction and insight from God.

Oh, one other thing; read slowly! Savor each word. Educator Michael Casey reminds us, “we need to slow down, to savor what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness.” As you read in this fashion, some things will stand out to you. That brings us to the second step.

The second step is meditation (meditation). During meditation we grasp the “interior intelligence” of the text. We wrap our minds around the values, the underlying assumptions, and the presumptions of the passage. It’s in attending to these deeper meanings that we begin to meditate. Dwell on the things that stand out to you, and explore the feelings and emotions that are conjured in your inner being. Embrace the sorrow of lamentations, the joy and sorrow of the Psalms, the tension and passion of the Passion week. Explore and chew on what your mind is fed.

The third step is prayer (oratio). Engage The Father in meaningful conversation about what you’ve just taken in. Allow Him to speak to you in the moments that follow. The Master Teacher wants to instruct and embrace you with His guidance, wisdom, and direction.

The last step of the lectio divina is that of contemplation (contemplatio). This final step will prove to be the hardest of the four. True contemplation drives us beyond words and intellect; into what Tony Jones calls the “thin space” where time and eternity almost touch. He says, “It’s in moments like these that some of the greatest saints in the history of the church have had a ‘mystical union’ with Christ. This step requires us to imagine our existence in the new paradigm of what God has just shown us. To think back to how life would be had we already been practicing the lesson of the Teacher, and to think ahead to how life will be different marks real contemplation. Don’t just converse with God about the lesson of the reading, ask Him to paint a picture so vivid it’s beyond description. Contemplation is the embracing and dreaming of that vision.

A lot to chew on, I know, but worth the effort. Next up will be Silence and Solitude. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Shaping Of A Soul

Welcome back. I've been reading a book called "Soul Shaper." It sat on my shelf neglected for the better part of a year because it looks like the Owner's Manual for a new car. Last week, I picked it up and started to read it. What a refreshing surprise. The book covers one of my favorite topics: Spiritual Disciplines. Over the next few weeks, I want to share some of those with you here. I will be sharing two catagories of disciplines. The first is the Via Contemplativa (The Way Of Contemplation). The second category covers the Via Activa (The Way Of Activity). I hope you'll come back and feed your soul on what's about to come.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Signs, Signs, Everywhere there's signs...

Planting a church has opened my eyes to many things church related. I've noticed how many churches choose to market themselves through their marquees. Living in the Bible belt, I see lots of church marquees. And I'll start by saying that I've never seen a good church marquee. I quite often ask myself, "What were they thinking?" Seriously, do these marquees bring people into the kingdom? Do people drive by and say, "You know, they are right. I need to go to that church."? If you know someone who came to faith because of a church marquee, would you comment about it below?

The signs I see are mostly Christian wittisisms that speak to the people inside more than they speak to the people outside. If they do speak to the people outside, it's usually negative because the people inside don't understand how to speak to those on the outside. A church marquee near my home dares people to try their web site. If they really understood people, it would double-dog dare you to try their web site. One sign says, "Tell Satan to go to hell...He needs to go home." If you are reading this, and you are in charge of your community's signage, just put your service times up, or special events you're having. As a tool for advertising, advertise your product instead of saying, "Come inside...We're prayer-conditioned."

Here's the real point, though: Your people should be your signs. Jesus made that clear when He said things like, "By this all men will know you are My disciples, if you love one another." or "Let your light so shine before men that they see your good deeds and they glorify your Father in Heaven." Trust me, people living missional (making disciples) and incarnational (the presence of Jesus in the real world) lives are a much better outreach tool than your marquee.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


What a whirlwind! In the last week I have fished and eaten catfish on Lake Texoma, stayed 2 nights at Eisenhower state park, visited with my in-laws and my mom, spoken at Mosaic Arlington, attended their leadership meetings, took the kids swimming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; been to Six Flags, driven through Weatherford, arrived home, and barely made it to game night last night! All in all, it was over 1,000 miles of driving. The best I can figure, I spent 18 hours behind the wheel of our Saturn in the last 6 days. It was a great trip, but I am glad to be home.
During my trip, I noticed a couple of church signs that were thought provoking. I'll post on that soon.
While I'm thinking about it, check out where this blog got mentioned:
My friends Stephen and Roy are cited their, too. So, I'll be back later with my thoughts on church signs.