The Church has More to Offer To All "Seekers"

Nothing about Thom Shultz's post on Vanishing Seekers strikes me as surprising.  We, in western, protestant Christianity, have focused so much on demographics rather than people, felt needs rather than soul needs, and resolutions over revelation is it any wonder that those same polling groups are showing trends away from being mere seekers?

"Pop-Christianity" has long been as fascinated with polling data as our politicians in an election year.  As the winds blow, so has this segment of western Christianity.  Ever noticed how most of the seekers we're looking for are usually in higher income brackets and more affluent communities both urban and suburban?  Our understanding of history seems only date as far back as the oldest living generation, no wonder we remain entranced by the 1950's.

But the Church has so much more to offer!  As we begin the ramp up to the Advent season, church staffs have already begun stressing on publication and advertising.  This is precisely when and where our attention can turn to the message of peace and hope - the very revelation of Jesus Christ: Immanuel! God is with us!!

Our liturgies, the practices of prayer and the order of worship are filled with participatory opportunities.  Yet we make apologies for our "ancient" book of faith when it is precisely the ancient and tested practices that so many are saying they are seeking after in their lives!  Since churches (and clergy) have long neglected or chosen to ignore our history, people go elsewhere to look such as Islam and Buddhist practice.  We continue to think  people want to debate when they ask questions not recognizing what they merely want is to listen to how meeting God in Jesus Christ has changed you and why your life is different?

I don't think it is fair to say we've got an emerging demographic even. Ages and gender tend to be crossing dramatically. It also seems to be as much personal as it is in relation to corporate participation. We've long worried more about Pelagianism and fear of legalism in our liturgy and practices.  So we've missed out on the good our more ancient practices of faith can offer us and those wanting to know God. Maybe this is the larger point we're missing, these people already "know" God - God is a given. They appear to be wanting to know how to experience and meet God in the everyday - does Christianity have a place for them and practices for their longings and their questions?

My experience and study is we do have the place and the practices but we have long hid them in the attic of history or in the closets of our various denominations.  We have grown so fearful of our vast faith practices of spiritual formation we dare not even consider exploring that landscape.  We fit well John Wesley's description of ,  "The generality of Christians...accustomed to use some kind of prayer; and probably to use the same form still, which they learned when they were eight or ten years old (Sermon on "The More Excellent Way")."  But we have so much more to offer and a world asking if we know the treasure we're sitting upon?

Methods of Spiritual Maturity - Prayer Practices

I have not had an easy time with prayer. That may make you a little squimish or uncomfortable to hear from a pastor. I realize that this is a dangerous thing to say when you are someone who is called upon so often to pray and those in front of me are the ones who are expecting me to be good at prayer! However, to deny the truth of that statement as we begin this time on prayer, this significant means of grace, would be far from being authentic with you about my own struggles with this.

As prayer is one of the two most significant practice of our maturing faith, by no means have I sat back idly with my praying issues. It is precisely because of my own journey that I hope to speak to this not because I have found some secret to prayer but because I have continued on, learning as I have gone. I am convinced the endeavor has been and will continue to be worth it for the gain of knowing and being known by God.

I hope that one day I will be counted among faithful Methodist clergy who stayed the course. As such, I can't help but be challenged and instructed by John Wesley in this practice. In his sermon on the “Means of Grace,” prayer is the first and foremost of the means. As Mr. Wesley says, “And first, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer. This is the express direction of our Lord himself (III.1.).”

One of the problems I have discovered with my approach to prayer is the singular approach the Church has taken to prayer in the past few centuries. Whether by patterns or repetition – our approach to prayer seems to have grown narrower and narrower, allowing popular teachers or certain teachings to dictate to the whole without examination.

Again, John Wesley was well aware of such tendencies, including what he saw regarding prayer practices. In his sermon on “The More Excellent Way,” Mr. Wesley goes farther to focus more directly on our personal prayers,

The generality of Christians, as soon as they rise, are accustomed to use some kind of prayer; and probably to use the same form still, which they learned when they were eight or ten years old. Now, I do not condemn those who proceed thus, as mocking God…but surely there is “a more excellent way” of ordering our private devotions. Consider both your outward and inward state, and vary your prayers accordingly (III).”

In tracing the history of prayer in the Church, Father Thomas Keating notes that with reformation as well as the Renaissance and Enlightentment, many prayer practices of the Church were lost. So even today, we find our understanding of prayer to be very limited, thought the evidence is very much to contrary in the history of the Church universal.

Richard Foster makes what is both a simple and yet profound observation when he speaks of the disciples request of Jesus that he teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Foster notes, “Prayer is something we learn (pg 37).”

I have often heard that prayer is a conversation with God. I find this to be a great analogy. But my experience has been we have been very good at teaching one side of prayer, that of speaking.  If it is a conversation, then there are two parts: speaking and listening.  For most of though, our prayer is one sided in that there are really two main forms of prayer we have been taught:

The Lord’s Prayer: As a pattern for prayer (and from it various acrostic patterns)
Praise / Admit / Request / Thanks (and others)

Intercessory Prayer: Praying for others

For certain, these have been and will continue to be our primary forms of prayer for private and public prayer. But there is more to conversation than just one person speaking. Marjorie Thompson writes in her excellent book, “Soul Feast,” Listening is the first expression of communication in prayer (35).” She compares our learning to listen in our faith journey with the same way children learn communication by listening as they grow and develop.

Dr. Steve Harper, author of “Prayer & Devotional Life of United Methodists,” addresses the role of discernment in prayer. This discernment is a recognition that prayer begins with God, God has the first word. For us, we respond, “rather than assembling our requests, we quiet our spirits.” This has been one of the most significant pieces of understanding regarding prayer for my journey.

There is a story that I’ve tried to find the full documentation on but cannot. So while I can’t fully confirm its authenticity, it speaks very well to our situation when it comest to prayer. “When you pray”, asked Rather, “what do you say to God?” “I don’t say anything,” she replied. “I listen.” Rather tried another tack. “Well, okay… when God speaks to you, then, what does He say?” “He doesn’t say anything. He listens.” Rather looked bewildered. For an instant, he didn’t know what to say. “And if you don’t understand that,” Mother Teresa added, “I can’t explain it to you.” (closest documentation: Sermon Central Newsletter, Source: Just Like Jesus, Max Lucado, p. 71.)

That brings us to a couple of those prayer practices which we have not been taught but which are part of our Christian heritage and practice.

Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This practice of prayer comes from the Orthodox stream of our Christian heritage.
The history of the Jesus Prayer goes back, as far as we know, to the early sixth century, with Diadochos, who taught that repetition of the prayer leads to inner stillness. Even earlier John Cassian recommended this type of prayer. In the fourth century Egypt, in Nitria, short "arrow" prayers were practiced.

Abba Macarius of Egypt said there is no need to waste time with words. It is enough to hold out your hands and say, "Lord, according to your desire and your wisdom, have mercy." If pressed in the struggle, say, "Lord, save me!" or say, "Lord." He knows what is best for us, and will have mercy upon us.  (Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. 10/22/12.

Later, in the 19th century, The Way of the Pilgrim is published. In essence it is the journey of an unknown Christian who chronicles his practice of the Jesus Prayer. It is his desire to “Pray without ceasing, (1 Thess. 5:17) as the Apostle Paul challenged Christians to do. Last spring, I referenced the Jesus Prayer in reference to Luke’s Parable (Luke 18:9-14).

Today, I want to focus on the practice of Centering Prayer. Centering prayer as a practice comes to us actually, from the Bible Study I spoke on last week, the practice of Lectio Divina.

There has been some discussion and debate regarding the origin of centering prayer. This comes, as you can imagine, because of the inter-religious dialogues that monks from East and West have been in for a number of decades. And while it is certainly right to examine everything, we have in our practices at Methodists, the Wesleyan-quadrilateral, that we use to examine various practices and teachings.

Starting with Scripture as our authority, we then use reason, tradition and experience to do the work of testing. Considering Scripture alone, we find texts such as Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” Or remembering that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself prays for us…(Rom 8:26)”,  I will meditate on Your precepts, And contemplate Your ways. (Psa 119:15 NKJV)"  We own in our traditions practices of meditation and contemplation, not of self-denial and self-actualization but that draws us to a place where we can listen AND hear God.

When I practice Centering Prayer, I find it most helpful to keep in perspective that word of Dr. Harper, that it is first God who speaks. The late Father Basil Pennington, who was abbot at the Monastary of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, wrote, “All prayer is a response to God and begins with Him (pg 7).”  As Scripture is where we know God has spoken and continues to speak, I ground my Centering Prayer time in the Bible.

Centering prayer is, primarily, a two-part prayer: Scripture and Contemplation. From last week: Read and Rest. Or from Latin: Lectio and Contemplatio.

1. Begin in a place of silence. “…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Typically 20 minutes is a fine amount of time but the reality is, you may only find 10!

2. Focus on Scripture (Read). Psalm 145:5 gives us these great words: “I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works.” The focus of your reading is listening for that word that symbolizes God’s presence with you. With the rich descriptions of God, the Psalms are an ideal place for this practice.

3. Time to Listen (Contemplation). Your time here is about you and God. Hear again the words of the Psalmist and his practice of prayer: “I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works.” Let the Word of Scripture, the word that seemed to speak out to you in Lectio, be your guide as you rest in the realization that God is present with you and in you. If (or better yet, when), you engage thoughts in your mind, bring back your word.

4. End with Patient Attention. When your time is up, bring your time of prayer to a close by saying the Lord’s prayer or the Jesus Prayer or a simple prayer of thanks.

The significance of the Centering Prayer isn’t regarding what takes place immediately but how it brings significance to the entire day. Last week in our Lectio reading, we looked at Mark 4:35-41. The words for me were “a great calm.” I returned to that text for Centering Prayer this week and I heard from God, “Be Still!” And people wonder if God still speaks or not?!?! With the way my past couple of weeks have been, is it any wonder that God would speak those words?  

For some additional thoughts, history and reading on Centering Prayer check out this post by Bill Cork at Spectrum.

Works Cited

Lectio Visual for Tuesday

To practice Lectio Visual, as you view the image walk through the following steps:

            Look (Read):  Consider deeply the image and what is being “said.”
            Linger (Reflect):  What is the verse or word being given to you?
            Led (Respond): How are you being called to respond?
            Lay (Rest): Be in God's presence.
            Live (Return): Moving back into the world with how we've been changed.

Take time to reflect on the image.  As you look at this image, what words come to your mind?  If there are people or a person in the picture, what might they be saying?  Specifically, what Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak to you?  Maybe it is a word or phrase that inspires you to look up a Scripture.   Certainly, there are those images, icons or symbols that attract us right of the bat.  BUT, we need to realize that there are also images that don’ attract us or inspire us with joy or peace that are just as likely to be used by God. 

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take that as a guide for your prayer through this coming day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.  If it is a full story, consider using more of Lectio.

Seeking To Serve: Living Life Committed to Christ

Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.  Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.  Galatians 6:6-10 (NIV)

I want to ask you the key question for this day. Are you more interested in being served in the church or are you more interested in being a servant in the church? A first grade teacher asked her class the question, "What do you do to help at home?" One by one the answers came back. One little girl said, "I dry the dishes." One little boy said, "I feed the dog." Another child said, "I sweep the floor." Everybody gave an answer, but one little boy sitting in the back. He didn't say anything. The teacher looked at him and said, "Danny, what do you do to help out at home?" He said, "I stay out of the way!"

I want to ask you another question. What is the secret to greatness? Go to what the places which are seemingly the three most influential voices in our society and see what they say. If you went to Wall Street and asked the question, "What is the secret to greatness?" Wall Street would say, "Money and lots of it." If you were to go to Washington and ask, "What is the secret to greatness?" Washington would say, "Influence and a lot of it." If you were to go to Hollywood and ask, "What is the secret to greatness?" Hollywood would say, "Fame and lots of it."

But the greatest man who ever lived, the man who probably alone deserves to be called "great" in every sense of the word, Jesus Christ, had a very different answer. He said, "Whoever wants to become great must be a servant to others." (Matthew 20:26, GWT)

Success and greatness in the Kingdom of God is far different than what it is on planet earth. If you want to climb to the top of the ladder in God's eyes, you've got to take the rungs of service. Jesus said also, "For even I didn't come to be served, but to serve others..." (Mark 10:45, NLT) The secret to greatness in the Kingdom of God is not how many servants you have, but what kind of a servant you are.

When you study the Bible, you will find the word "ministry" is sometimes, the same as the word "service" and the word "service" is the same as the word "ministry." In the Bible, a minister is simply a servant (see TDNT, 526: leitourgeo)

One of the most misunderstood words of our day is the word "minister", because people use it as a synonym for someone like me who is ordained or theologically trained in a seminary. Not only in Greek do the definitions overlap but you might be surprised to learn that the word "minister" derives from the Latin word for "servant" and is based on the root word "minus" which means "less." Technically a "minister" is someone of a "lesser" rank or status who simply wants to serve.

God never wastes anything. Every spiritual gift and natural ability that you have, God gave it to you to be used in service and ministry. "Each of you has received a gift to use to serve others." (I Peter 4:10, NCV) The good news is that there are more than enough gifts in the church to do everything that God wants the church to do. Do you know what I am looking at today? I am looking at a lot of un-wrapped, unused gifts.

Every Christian is gifted. We all have spiritual gifts. We don't all have the same gifts, but we all have certain gifts that God has given us so we can do what He wants us to do for other people, that is what Paul was saying in Galatians.

Do you have the attitude of a servant? Just like little Danny, it is against our nature to want to serve others. When the average person looks for a church, do you know the question they are usually asking? "How can this church meet my needs?" When you begin to really mature as a Christian, you will begin to ask instead, "How can I be used in this church to meet the needs of others?"

It is not how long you live that matters. It is how you live that matters. -Rick Warren

If I knew of a more significant way to invest my life than to do it in serving Jesus Christ that is what I would be doing, but there isn't. There is no work too small that God doesn't notice it and God doesn't reward it. Today, we want to help you get ready to serve God understanding that member means minister.

Are you more interested in being served in the church or are you more interested in being a servant in the church?

(Note: Rarely do I use another pastor's sermon but this was too good.  So you know, today's sermon was drawn largely from the sermon “Member Means Minister” by Rev. James Merritt.)

Methods of Spiritual Maturity - The Bible as a Means of Grace

Last week we opened with the Spiritual Journey and the distinctive gift to theChristian community of the Wesleyan-Methodist movement: our growth ingrace.  In the end of our time, I talked about the Methods of growth or the Means of Grace, practices that have helped Christians grow for centuries.

When it comes to our faith, there it is not surprising that the Bible and Bible reading is at the top of the list for us to grow.  Christians are known for studying the Bible, examining it, looking at the original languages, debating it’s authenticity.  But knowledge alone is not what helps us grow spiritually. 

In his preface to the 52 Standard Sermons, John Wesley set down his understanding of the implications and power of time in the Bible.  “At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me.  Let me be ‘a man of one book.’  Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men.  I sit down alone: only God is here.  In His presence I open, I read this book; for this end, to the find the way to heaven.”

“The Bible is a means of grace insofar as it enhances our awareness of God’s presence, purpose, and power in our lives (pg 54, Exploring the Way).” 

For that type of reading to take place we need to add to our desire for knowledge, an equally passionate desire to know God and be known by God.  This means we don’t read the Bible merely for information but with a desire for transformation, to become more like Jesus Christ, to become children of God.

To read the Bible in this way, we can go back to the Jewish roots and heritage of our faith.  Nowhere is it more evident than in the opening verses of the Psalms where we find these words, “Happy are those who…delight…in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate night and day.”

In the sixth century we find the work of Benedict and Pope Gregory, refining and clarifying for Christians, the approach to Bible Reading known as Lectio Divina.  Gregory is credited with comparing the Scriptures to a river or lake or ocean where it is, “…broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading but deep enough for the elephant to swim”  (ETW and Soul Tending). 

Think about it.  How can we teach the same story about Daniel in the Lion’s Den at Vacation Bible School and then turn around explore it in theological education and it have equal impact?  Or consider our growth in grace – that someone at the level of convicting grace can find meaning in the same scriptures as someone who has experienced entire sanctification?

There is wealth of beauty in the oceans.  This summer I was at Myrtle Beach and I learned to boogie board with my kids.  I loved it!  I really have never liked the shallows much until this year.  It was a blast and we had a great time.  But the shallows are only part of the ocean.

In Exploring the Way, the shallows are described as information (pg 56-57, ETW)
·What is in the Bible: the stories, history, poems, prophecy, gospels
·What were the writers trying to get across to their readers?
·Where did these works come from?  Who wrote them?
·What were the customs and traditions from that day?
·How have these writings shaped theology, doctrine and values of the people?
·What are the lessons and applications for our day?

This is GOOD STUFF!!!  It is important stuff.  This is where we put most of our emphasis in Seminary, in Bible study, in our lives.  But it is only part of the stuff.

You see, I’m also a certified scuba diver.  I don’t dive as much as I’d like but what I know is that there is so much we don’t see every day!  I’ve swam with a Loggerhead sea turtle, watched a stingray chase a crab on the ocean floor and played football with a sea cucumber. 

In the deep we move to look at formation
·We from knowing about God to knowing God
·We move from studying to listening.
·We move from mastering the Bible to allowing it to master us (B. Mulholland, Shaped by the Word).
·The Bible changes from a telephone book to an actual phone – from answers to conversation.

William Law, an English clergy who very much influenced John and Charles Wesley, wrote, “When in reading Scripture you meet with a passage that seems to give your heart new motion toward God, turn it into the form of a petition, and give it a place in your prayers (50, Soul Tending).”  Think about it.  Have you ever had a verse in the Bible stand-out for you?  Did it make you stop and consider the meaning for you more?  Did you feel the need to sit with it – wrestle with it – have it speak to you? 

Then in part, you've practiced, at least in part, some of the practice of Lectio Divina.  Lectio is the latin for “reading” and “divina” the latin for “spiritual” or “holy.”  Lectio Divina puts into practice what the writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)”

Saint Benedict is largely credited with refining the practice of Lectio Divina and it became widely used in Christianity.  Dr. Dwight Judy, Professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary noted that Lectio is the basic form of The Upper Room devotional and most devotional outlines.  Author and Professor Jane Vennard, shares in her book, “Be Still (pg 72),” one of the most common practiced forms of Lectio:

Read (Lectio): Read aloud a few times, listen for a word or phrase that stands out.
Reflect (Meditatio): Take that word or phrase and ponder it, chew it, mull it.  What does it say?
Respond (Oratio): How are you led to respond? Worship? Thanks? Sad?
Rest (Contemplatio): Relax in God's presence.  Be patient.
Return (Incarnatio): Movement back into the world to practice what we've heard/experienced.

Typically, a group of verses chosen would be between 4-8.  It is usually a complete paragraph or story.

The scripture which we are using today is from Mark’s gospel (I go through the Lectio process on the MP3 or you can follow it on your own).

Mark 4:35-41 ESV  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side."  (36)  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.  (37)  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  (38)  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"  (39)  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  (40)  He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"  (41)  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

A Visual Form of Lectio is one that I've been working with lately.  Some of us find that in our world, we “hear” from God in what we see whether that is in art or creation. This isn't really just for visual learners but anyone.  Finding a spiritually inspired work of art would be the beginning place. 

As you view an image, move through these steps:  (Jesus image):
            Look (Read):  Consider deeply the image and what is being “said.”
            Linger (Reflect):  What is the verse or word being given to you?
            Led (Respond): How are you being called to respond?
            Lay (Rest): Be in God's presence.
            Live (Return): Moving back into the world with how we've been changed.

Take time to reflect on the image.  As you look at this image, what words come to your mind?  If there are people or a person in the picture, what might they be saying?  Specifically, what Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak to you?  Maybe it is a word or phrase that inspires you to look up a Scripture.   Certainly, there are those images, icons or symbols that attract us right of the bat.  BUT, we need to realize that there are also images that don’ attract us or inspire us with joy or peace that are just as likely to be used by God.  You may need to intentionally look in this direction as well.  (Click here for a link to an image to try this practice).  

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take that as a guide for your prayer through this coming day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.  If it is a full story, consider using more of Lectio.

BONUS!  Here is Martin Luther's advice to his barber (adapted from Be Still, pg 76).
Begin by choosing a Bible passage and then read it through five times.
First time, just hear the words.
Second time, reflect on the immediate teaching found in the passage.
Third, consider the emotion/gratitude that you received in reading.
Fourth, listen for the sin; the correction given for your life and confession.
In the final reading, allow yourself to rest.


Works Cited
Vennard, Jane.  Be Still.  Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats.  156699229 ISBN
Soul Tending.  Abingdon Press.  068703079 ISBN
Exploring the Way. Leader’s Guide.  Upper Room Books.  0835898075  ISBN
Mulholland, M. Robert.  Shaped By the Word.  083580936 ISBN

A Visual Lectio on Jesus

Take time to reflect on the image.  As you look at this image of Jesus, what words of the Christ come to your mind?  What Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit bring to you today?

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take that as a guide for your prayer through this coming day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.

As I have spent time with this image, these were the words of Jesus that came to me.  If none, came to you, consider using this verse as you go through your day:
"And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will."    Matthew 26:39

This was given to me by my son, an original piece he did this fall semester.   

"Read and Pray Daily!" - Words for Living More Committed To Christ

Whether learning a new skill or becoming proficient in an old one, seeking out guidance and instruction from those noted for their abilities is always a good thing. I can’t say that I ever made first chair in trumpet or baritone but all those lessons with Dr. Kent Payne surely helped me enjoy them both. Whether it is playing an instrument, molding pottery, perfecting a jump shot or preparing a sermon, learning from those farther along makes a world of difference.

In 1760, a young, dynamic preacher named John Trembath, sent a letter to the Rev. John Wesley asking his advice about growing in one’s commitment to Christ. The letter he got back reflects a passion, not for ministry, but John Wesley’s passion for people to be in a growing, dynamic relationship with God. These few sentences stand out: “Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.”

If you ever read John Wesley’s works and his letters, he rarely pulled punches when asked for an opinion or instruction. And when it came to the heart of a persons’ faith journey, Wesley was not only passionate but very much in line with Scripture as we see in these two texts from the Bible…

Mat 6:6-8 ESV But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (7) "And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (8) Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

It is often noted an assumption noted in Jesus words. He doesn’t begin with “IF” but “WHEN.” Paul has own important note. He doesn’t say “some of the scriptures” or “The scriptures that you prefer” are inspired but every one of them.

No, I can’t point to a scripture passage anywhere that says, “Surely, thou shalt rise at 5am each morning to pray and read scripture.” However, the truth is, these verses, and many others point to the wisdom of God’s instruction. Dr. Steve Harper, in his book, Prayer& Devotional Life for United Methodists notes, “Wesley’s letter to John Trembath was not a legalistic requirement; it was sound spiritual guidance. It was the way to spiritual renewal. It still is (42).”

In the days of Methodist revivals and camp meetings, there was an old phrase, “You have to be at the spout where the glory comes out!” For Christians, that has always been recognized as God’s Word found in the Bible. The spiritual giants of our faith always began as novices, beginners, sitting and reading with souls wide open to God’s truth found in the pages of this great book.

And it was in their private rooms, in the caves of the desert, in the cells of monastaries or the kitchen table, where these same saints would pour their hearts to God. Then silence their souls so they might hear what the Spirit would speak to them.

Like anything, you begin with the first step = you have to do it. No excuses. Put it in on your calendar, your to-do list or set an alarm. As Wesley said, “whether you like it or not!” Don’t allow emotions to be the controlling element.

When I moved the middle of my junior year of high school, I was lost. Relationally, emotionally and spiritually. I felt completely alone and isolated. Leaving church one day, I saw this little booklet, one that I had seen again and again on a rack by the back door of the sanctuary. The title was “The Upper Room.” I was still a new Christian at the time, but opened it and began to read, to journal and to pray based on each days reading.

Funny thing how God’s grace works. Just a few weeks ago as I sat in my current class on Spiritual Formation with Dr. Dwight Judy, the subject of The Upper Room came up. He noted that the pattern of Bible reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that the Upper Room has used all these years is an ancient form of spiritual reading from the earlier centuries of the Church.

Today the Upper Room is still in print, it is online or you can get an app for that! It is one of many resources and helps. The question is will you take advantage? Will you take a step up in your personal reading and prayer time. What we know or maybe I should say, don’t know regarding John Trembath is an indicator that he didn’t follow Wesley’s advice.  The real question is what is stopping you from taking your next step?

Methods Of Spiritual Maturity - A Methodist Approach to Spiritual Formation

This is the first part of a four-part series regarding Methods of Spiritual Maturity. It is an introduction to not just theory but some of the practices of our heritage as Christian people. This first session explores some of that theory from both modern writers but connects specifically to John Wesley and the practices and emphasis of the Methodist strain of Christian faith expression.

(17) Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (18) And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ESV

In Matthew Henry's Commentary, he writes, “This light and liberty are transforming; we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory (2Co_3:18), from one degree of glorious grace unto another, till grace here be consummated in glory for ever.  How much therefore should Christians prize and improve these privileges!” 

We are a people of the Book.  This Book is more than any book we might pick up and read because it is a book, throughout the centuries, which reads us.  We find ourselves in these pages, in its poems, stories, histories and Gospels.  It tells us many things for sure and in these four weeks, I hope that you'll see that in these pages and in our history, God is desiring to move us to maturity.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul describes our journey in faith, hope and love as that of a child to man when he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”  God may find us anywhere but He never leaves us where he finds us.

Many different theories informed the education process in the 20th century.  The moral development theory was one such area. Like most theories, the initial practitioner paved the road and this case it was Jean Piaget.

But Piaget was followed by a number of his students and others who not only stood on his shoulders but directed his theories in differing and very fruitful directions.  Most of this work has been very academic and most often directed at curriculum development in schools and churches. 

Moral Development theory sought to give understanding and descriptions to how we, as human beings, reason and process events and feeling in our lives.  Not surprisingly, spirituality was an area of interest but it was not one which Piaget sought to pursue.  James Fowler was the one who took up that mantle.

Names like psychologist, Scott Peck and Father Richard Rohr are a couple of current writers who have greatly influenced through their reflecting and writing, this field where psychology and theology overlap. Janet Hagberg however, began work examining, studying and developing a theory first, in the stages of power.  Doing that research and work, she discovered as well, a parallel in the spiritual life.

I know that many of you work and have employees or work in large companies with large staffs.  I have found that as a Christian and pastor, understanding the developmental stages of others to be beneficial in not only leading others but working through problems and achieving goals.  More to the point, as a pastor, this understanding helps me in preaching, leading Bible Studies and providing spiritual direction to others.

One of the problems or temptations about talking about stages is that later stages or number sounds better than others.  Each stage builds on the other and often we even “go back” through stages during times of transition.

These are not law.  They are not in stone.    There is nothing holy about these nor are they law.  Using them as labels does little to benefit us or others though they can help us better understand and give grace rather than judgement.  They are intended to be descriptive, guideposts on life's journey.  Saying that is a good reminder that we need to be able to offer others grace during their journey through this life. As Janet writes, “God's grace does not make us move.  God's grace allows us to move (pg 14, Critical Journey)”

That understanding of grace is a good transition to move from a modern take on state of our moral development, with a jump back in history where we discover, this developmental view of things isn't so new after all.  While I’m stopping today at John Wesley, we could go back farther into history and would find other writers of the Christian mystic tradition who identified the flow of growth in our lives.  For Methodists, it is from John Wesley that we find our “Method” which does make this an appropriate beginning.

Wesley's semons, journals, books, and letters are an incredible resource and picture of who he was and how John lived out his faith and how he passed it on to others.  Wesley Theologian Thomas Oden, notes that Wesley's thoughts on Sanctification – our growth in grace were formed by the writings of Jeremy Taylor, William Law and Thomas a Kempis.  Oden writes: “Mark well: the teaching of perfecting grace is not finally about the power of human freedom, but the power of grace to transform freedom (John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity).”  This is an important observation – Methodists don't simply believe in free will but what we believe in is the abundance of God's free grace!

For John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, the recognition of growth in grace was a significant element to how he approached his ministry.  The Christian life was defined by this growth in grace.  Wesley took time to observe, reflect and even interview believers about their spiritual life.
As he did this work and studied Scripture, history and theology, Wesley gave description to a person's growth grace.  So while there was/is only one grace, Wesley gave names to different ways he observed grace at work.

Prevenient grace describing how grace is always working behind the scenes.
Convicting grace describing the grace which helps us recognize our need for God.
Saving grace describing the grace which empowers our decision to choose Jesus.
Perfecting grace describing that grace which transforms our freedom.

What Wesley was convinced of and believed the Methodist movement existed for was reintroduce the idea of Scriptural Holiness, Christian Perfection or the idea of being made perfect in love.
As such, Wesley was describing a process of Growth In Grace.  Dr. Allan Coppedge, professor of Wesley Theology, was the one who first made this clear to me.  But as we reflect today, I think there is good reason to position these two models, one of Hagberg’s and the one of Wesley’s to give us a fuller picture of our growth in spiritual maturity.

God does not force one on the journey nor can you simply choose to go from stage to stage, grace to grace.  As I said in the beginning, these are descriptions of the life journey – of the faith journey.  Far more can be said than what I've done today. 

What such a model does, is offer us hope, hope that who we are is not who we are destined to stay.  What we have lived through will not have to be what defines us.  By going on in grace, we have the opportunity to mature spiritually.

Like Wesley, my message is not for us to become entrenched in navel gazing.  Our hope is what Paul said to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another!”

In a letter to John Trembath in 1760, John Wesley wrote:
"Oh begin!  Fix some part of every day for private exercise.  You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.  Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow.  Do not starve yourself any longer.  Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you, and in particular yours."

There are methods for aiding us in our growth but these methods are nothing new to the faith.  They were the methods that have been tried and tested throughout the centuries.  Many forgotten, some cast aside or neglected but thoroughly Christian nonetheless.

In the coming weeks, I will look at these methods in more detail.  Not merely teaching but taking the time to practice.  In Scouts, we call this the EDGE method – Explain, Demonstrate, Guide and Enable.  In our faith, we call that discipleship, the journey to spiritual maturity

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