Walking With Henri Nouwen To Easter – Prayer

Standard

IMG_0715 - Version 2

 

 

In an interview given to the Journal Sacred Journey, Henri Nouwen was invited to answer a question about prayer. This is his answer:

What is prayer? That is what you have to start with. I very much believe that the core moment of Jesus’ public life was the baptism in the Jordan, when Jesus heard the affirmation, “You are my beloved on whom my favor rests.” That is the core experience of Jesus. He is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he is. The temptations in the desert are temptations to move him away from that spiritual identity. He was tempted to believe he was someone else–You are the one who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump form the temple. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Jesus said, “No, no, no. I am the beloved from God.” I think his whole life is continually claiming that identity in the midst of everything. There are times in which he is despised or rejected, but he keeps saying, Others will leave me alone, but my Father will not leave me alone. I am the beloved son of God. I am the hope found in that identity.

Prayer, then, is listening to that voice–to the one who calls you beloved. It is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves. I’m not what I do. I’m not what people say about me. I’m not what I have. Although, there is nothing wrong with success, there isn thing wrong with popularity, there is nothing wrong with being powerful. But finally, my spiritual identity is not rooted in the world–the things the world gives me. My life is rooted in my spiritual identity. Whatever we do–we have to go back regularly to that place of core identity. 

In many ways, what Nouwen expresses here has become the heart of Spiritual Formation for me. I think of Paul who says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” We who are Christ’s must have our sense of self, of worth, of being worth something come from the fact that God loves us. God simply loves us, and so we’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose and everything to gain from offering ourselves to God and the world and those around us in compassion, helpfulness, handiness, service, care.

Who are you? How do you define yourself? Is it the work you do? The relationships you have? What makes you, you, and what would happen if you lost it? 

Does what Nouwen says here matter? 

These aren’t easy questions to take seriously; feel free to post any thoughts you have in the comments below, or reach out to one of Smoky Row’s pastors to talk more about this.

(The ISSN of this journal interview is 1096-5939; published by Fellowship In Prayer, Inc. www.sacredjourney.org.)

Walking With Henri Nouwen To Easter – Introduction & A Cry For Mercy

Standard

Twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) during the season of Lent, we’ll be highlighting quotes from a number of different works by the well-known author Henri Nouwen. Each post during this Series will contain some brief reflection, as well as a challenging question or two to consider, and perhaps even an activity or action that we can try to make real the insights Nouwen has for us.

IMG_0715 - Version 2Nouwen, a Catholic Priest who spent the last years of his life in service to a community of people living with mental and physical handicaps, wrote a number of books in his lifetime–with many more collated and published following his early death in 1996.

In a book called Here and Now, Nouwen wrote “My hope is that the description of God’s love in my life will give you the freedom and the courage to discover God’s love in yours.” It’s the belief that God can make Nouwen’s hope real for us that drives this devotional series. If you’re interested in Henri Nouwen’s life, a complete of his books, or anything Nouwen-related, visit the Henri Nouwen Society at www.henrinouwen.org

In A Cry For Mercy: Prayers From The Genesee, penned while Nouwen was on his second Sabbatical to the Abbey of the Genesee in 1979, Nouwen wrote the following. It was an Ash Wednesday, and he was reflecting on Lent:

O Lord, it is a great grace that I can be in this monastery during Lent. How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of this season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?

Yes Lord, I have to die–with you, through you and in you–and become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess. O Lord, I am self-centered, concerned about myself, my career, my future, my name and fame. Often I even feel that I use you for my own advantage. How preposterous, how sacrilegious, how sad! But yes, Lord, I know it is true. I know that often I have spoken about you, written about you and acted in your name for my own glory and for my own success. Your name has not led me to persecution, oppression, or rejection. Your name has brought me rewards! I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different form the other ones. Let me find you again.

Henri Nouwen. A Cry For Mercy: Prayers From the Genesee, 34-35.

Lent, in its best case, is an opportunity for Christians to remember Jesus’ suffering and the truth that, unless Jesus returns before it happens, we’ll all die. It’s also an opportunity to choose to “die to ourselves” in very practical ways. Some Christians “fast” from things during Lent: meat on Fridays, coffee, chocolate or a particular entertaining diversion, sexual activity, or destructive habit. Almost anything that has become something “you just can’t live without” can, in giving it up for awhile, remind us what’s really essential to our lives.

In this passage, Nouwen presents a few things that “need to die” inside him: “false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.” Most of us could relate to the need to allow these things to “die” in us. I’ve been considering how “absent” I am lately, and how difficult it is for me to be present to those I’m around–really engaged in their joys, concerns, and stories. So often, I’m mentally (if not physically!) restless, and, as Nouwen puts it “self-centered, concerned about myself.” The truth is that this distracted, restless way of living needs to die, and I’ve been trying during Lent to reject this as much as I can by trying to continually pray a brief prayer of attention and saying no to those distractions that help me divert my attention to places other than where I am (smartphone, anyone?)

Questions:

What in Nouwen’s personal prayer connects with you? Why?

What in your life, aside from God, do you think you “just can’t life without?”

What in you needs to die and why?

Feel free to answer the questions in the comment section. Consider sharing with someone you trust the way Nouwen’s prayer has started your mind going. If you do want to “do something” for Lent, and haven’t yet, reach out to the Christians around you to see what practices they’ve taken on.

Today’s selection, A Cry For Mercy, is available for purchase through the Amazon Bookstore of The Henri Nouwen Society.http://astore.amazon.com/hennousocusab-20/detail/038550389X

Crying Out Day and Night for Justice

Standard

Bob Trube2I never saw this before.

This past Sunday, I preached on the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8. I’ve often heard others preach, and have myself taught the message of this parable that we should “always pray and not give up” (v. 1). I’ve thought in terms of things like seeing people come to faith, praying for the sick, praying about needs related to our work and our lives. I don’t think that is wrong, but as I studied this parable I was struck by the fact that the widow was seeking justice from the unjust judge (v. 3). Furthermore, in Jesus’s own application of the parable verse 7 says, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” Verse 8 reinforces this theme: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

One of the basic things I learned about Bible study years ago was to pay attention to repeated words. They are a clue to what the writer or speaker considers important. Clearly in this passage, one of the things Jesus considers important is justice, and praying for it.

In recent months and weeks, we’ve been inundated with news stories about the death of a young black man in Ferguson, a black youth in Cleveland, and an older black man in New York City. In two of these cases, local grand juries refused to charge police with any wrongful death and there has been a great outcry in the press and in social media either decrying the injustice of these decisions and the deaths that occurred at the hands of police, or in defending the police officers, who often put themselves at risk in protecting public safety and have to make split second decisions that, if wrong, may cost them their lives or the lives of others.

While I personally have decided that it is fruitless to raise my voice on one “side” of this discussion or the other in social media, I will say a couple things. One is there is something wrong with this pattern with so many dying in the streets, some at the hands of police. It is clear to me that we still are a racially divided society. If nothing, the vehemence in the outcries on both sides of the discussion reveal we are a long way from what Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned as “the beloved community.”

It seems to me that in the predominantly white church community (the one I know best) we either resort to attempts at personal justification (“I’m not racist” or “I’m personally colorblind”). Or we attempt to join and justify one side of the outcry, and, from what I can see, simply perpetuate and deepen the divisions in our society.

None of this is to say that the bereaved and their communities shouldn’t pursue justice nor that police shouldn’t be supported in their hard work. In fact, in a society where the rule of law is upheld, our legal system should be the place where these things are adjudicated, and it is right for those who believe that justice is denied to continue to pursue it via legal means. It’s not a perfect system, but the best we humans can devise in a fallen world.

But the parable (remember the parable!) also exhorts us to prayer to God for justice as well. For those of us who are Christ-followers, obedience to Jesus means that we keep praying for justice. Our first work in these matters is to seek the Lord. But the parable also says it is to be our persisting work. And this is where I fall down. I see advances in civil rights. I see a president of African-American descent in the White House. I mistake progress toward King’s “dream” with fulfillment. And I stop praying.

What the succession of events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York do is challenge me to renew my efforts in prayer and become aware that this is an area where persistence is vital. As I look for God’s answers, such praying can also change me. Praying helps me listen both for God’s invitations to join him in pursuit of the “beloved community” and opens my ears and my heart to listen to other voices than simply the ones that most resonate with me, voices that need to be heard if real reconciliation and not simply self-justification are to occur.

I’ve concluded that I need to persist in crying out to the Lord to bring justice (all that that means) into the racial divides in our country. I pray the Lord’s prayer each morning and night. As I pray, “Thy kingdom come” I will include in my prayers the coming of Jesus’s just rule into our racially divided land. It occurs to me that I could be praying that the rest of my life. I hope not, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” What sustains our persistence over that “long arc” is the promise of a God who will grant justice, who will bring a kingdom of shalom.

Going Deeper question: For what do you believe God wants you to persist in prayer? How is a concern for justice a part of that?

 

Praying in groups

Standard

Like my father, I find consistent prayer to be difficult, probably more so because I have a difficult time keeping a regular quiet time. I try to justify this by saying I have a more casual constant communication thing going with God, which typically takes the form of me making an aside request when I think about it, or apologizing for something I said that was naughty or blasphemous.

Ben TrubeThe one thing that has been helpful in developing persistent prayer is my life group. While I don’t tend to be the type that actually speaks up during prayer (I know big shocker right), I do try to take in everything that has been going on with everybody throughout the past week and to lift them up in prayer. It provides a context to ask how things have been going in the past week, and to talk about any changes. It’s also a comfortable forum to keep asking for prayer since you kind of have a shorthand with those in the group.

And you can refine prayers in this fashion as my dad talked about. Prayers about your happiness at your job can involve in specific requests for positions, or prayers for better interpersonal relationships, or even just prayers of more relief and peace at home.

This certainly isn’t constant. It’s once a week, except on holidays and mostly not in the summer, but it’s better than nothing. And since we’ve been hosting lately we’ve actually been doing the whole showing up thing which is so critical to any enterprise.

I think we all have the praying for ourselves thing down decently well, even it just takes the form of requests for health or luck or whatever. And we probably include our spouses in that list, but it can sometimes be difficult to pray for others. Being an only child I tend to see the world in constant relation to myself and my own perspectives. It can be difficult to take in the problems of others, but I find that when I do I feel much better than when I’m just focused inward. And again, the life group provides a context for doing just that, with people you’re familiar with and care about.

I think specificity in prayer isn’t a bad thing. Praying for “God’s will” can be helpful, but it can be a little difficult to determine if that prayer has been answered or not. Praying that an upcoming meeting goes well, or that you have a safe trip to your relatives, or that you really enjoy a sandwich are all good prayers.

What’s been going on in your life that needs persistent prayer? Do you feel God has been listening or are you getting more of a meh vibe?

Vacations With, or From, God

Standard

This is probably a hazard of being employed in a Christian organization. Since so much of what we are doing is connected with our faith and helping people know Christ, it is sometimes a temptation on vacations to take a vacation from God. Maybe this is a problem others don’t have, but the fact that Rich (Hagopian, our pastor) addressed this on Sunday suggests that it may be.

Bob Trube2

Rich helpfully observed that developing regular spiritual disciplines can be helpful in this regard. I sometimes refer to these as habits of faithfulness, habits similar to brushing our teeth, that put us in the place where we are paying attention to God. And it is the case that things like my personal Bible reading and prayer do serve as times to think over the vacation day ahead and offer that, and myself to God.

Sometimes though, I think I look at vacation as a time to let down on the discipline and I wonder how many others deal with this? Many of us live highly scheduled lives between our work, family, church, and other obligations. Vacation is a welcome break from all that. And I think sometimes I, at least, am tempted to take vacations from God because I start to associate Him with all that discipline of a highly scheduled life that I long to get away from for a week or so.

It seems to me that vacation can be a time of hearing afresh the invitation of Jesus found in Matthew 11:28-30“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus invitation is “come to me and find rest”. I think that is what we often are longing for, even in the midst of all our travel plans or whatever else we have in mind for our vacations. So I wonder, as we plan our vacations do we ask Jesus to help us rest, to help us find the rest we need in him?

Here are some of the disciplines of rest that have helped me:

  • Sleep! Many of us are racking up sleep deficits and don’t discover how tired we are until we slow down. I’m struck that when Elijah ran for his life from Jezebel’s threats (1 Kings 19), God let him sleep and eat before he spoke anything to him. Plan a day or two to simply sleep until you wake up without alarms. Then thank God for his gift of sleep!
  • Unplug. I have a hard time with this, but I find when I turn off the computer and get off the ‘net, I also mute the chatter of hundreds of voices so that I can hear the one that matters.
  • Long wandering prayer. David Hansen wrote a book by this title in which he described his long, leisurely walks in the woods, or by a fishing stream (it could be by the shore, or even a quiet city street in early morning) where he just noticed, thought, and prayed as things came to mind, and listened for God.
  • Slow, reflective reading of scripture, maybe a short portion that I think about over several days. A form of this is lectio divina which Rich mentioned and has provided resources for in the past.

One of the curious things about Jesus’ invitation to rest is that it is actually an invitation to rest, not from our work, but in the midst of our work. It’s not a rest from all yokes but the rest that comes from being in the yoke with Jesus, following his lead, going at his pace. I wonder if vacations can be a time where we can “re-yoke” if we have slipped the yoke.

And this might be helpful for those who would say, “I’ve not been very good at spiritual disciplines in everyday life.” You might ask yourself during vacation, what one or two ways of “resting with Jesus” do you want to carry back into every day life and how will you do it? Ben was wise in his post to suggest starting small. Five minutes of being quiet with Jesus each day, or five minutes reading and thinking about a verse of scripture, or one “long wandering prayer walk” a week might be all you do. But it will help you carry the “rest” of your vacation time with God into the rest of your life.

Here’s hoping you have a “restful” vacation with God!

Being who we were created to be

Standard

So this week Pastor Rich and Pastor Rudy co-preached a sermon for Easter Sunday as we had a bi-lingual service.  It was a great thing to experience and be a part of.  And although I really don’t understand a lick of Spanish, I am proud to be a part of a congregation that uses the gifts and talents of its people and is trying to reach out more than one people group.

In a way that is what the sermon was about too.  It was stated in the sermon that our lives are filled with meaning and what we do in this life is important to God.  I believe this to be 100% true.

mattGod has given us each talents, gifts, hobbies, things we enjoy and more…and he wants us to use all of that to the best of our ability.  We are created as unique individuals.  God wants us to enjoy this life and bless others while doing so.  Even the things that seem minor to us, sometimes God can use them when least expected.

I experienced that this week.  I was able to go to the Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game yesterday.  As a CRAZY-WACKO SPORTS FANATIC it was awesome to say the least.  Sports is a hobby for me.  It is something I enjoy to the fullest.  Although I am not sure what role God played in making me like this, if any at all, I do believe that He can use it for His glory.

As we were driving to the arena one of the people in the car, all of whom knew I was a Christian, looked over at me and asked if I could pray for a family member of theirs.  I won’t mention the details due to the fact that it was asked to be kept private.  I was a bit shocked at first, then realized how cool of an opportunity that was.  I listened, I affirmed their thoughts, and I agreed to pray for them and the family.  The point being is that having the chance to bless someone else and glorify God in the process can come in the least likely of places and through the oddest of avenues.  My love of sports and being who God created me to be provided that opportunity to be used by God.

Are lives are filled with meaning and even the little things we do are important to God.  Enjoying our life now is a good thing.  God cares about it and so should we.  Because of the Resurrection we have a purpose.  Without it our lives as believers would be a meaningless existence.  Because Christ came back from the dead, we now have a reason to carry on.  That reason is to share the gospel.

We are to share that good news with everyone we know.  It may appear in small forms.  It may take time.  It may be just planting seeds.  But even a prayer for a family member of someone may brighten up their day and they may come to realize that their life has value too.  And maybe even if we enjoy the little things like our hobbies, it will allow the Holy Spirit to use us in ways we never thought possible.

I’m Just Not Feelin’ It

Standard

Participating in the Eucharist can be stressful, particularly if you’re not a Sunday morning person.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 (NIV)

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

So much of faith seems to be about our inner life “our thought life.” Certainly as a guy growing up in late 90s Christian circles, our sexual thought life was something we had to think very carefully about. And a lot of faiths, Christian or not, are focused on the idea of centering oneself, of finding an inner piece and serenity through meditation or prayer. When participating in ceremony, be it Sunday morning in general, or communion in specific, we are to reverent, selfless and faithful.

Well, maybe after my first cup of coffee.

Ben TrubeI don’t get a lot of sleep during the week since I wake up pretty early for work or early morning writing sessions. Even though our service is later (10:30), it’s not always my most reverent or even focused period of time. I can fake it with the best of them of course: stay quiet, stare at the cup. I try to tear of a piece of the bread that isn’t too tiny but doesn’t look greedy either. I kneed it in my fingers while listening to Paul’s other verses about communion, and I try to hold the tiny cup in my big fingers without crushing it.

And then I hear verses 27-29 and I’m uncomfortable. I believe in Jesus, and his sacrifice for humanity, for my sin and the sin of everybody else. But these verses sound an awful lot like I’m gonna get screwed if I’m not thinking about this the right way. It’s even enough to make me feel awkward about taking communion in other churches. They’re Christians, I’m a Christian, but are we really in the same place on this?

I think Rich rightly points out that we may be focusing too much on our inner life, as well as ignoring the larger role the whole Lord’s supper is supposed to play in our lives. It’s less that the Corinthians weren’t being right with God internally, and more that they weren’t being right with each other.

But let’s talk more about feelings for a second.

I definitely don’t want my relationship with God to be swayed by my emotions, much in the same way that my marriage isn’t governed solely by how in love I’m feeling that particular day. Thinking myself spiritual would certainly be easier than actually doing anything, or at least it would be if I wasn’t so internally distracted by ideas.

It’s a bit why I like the idea of this blog. God’s catching me at my better moments, and I’m actually drawn to reading and thinking about his word rather than passively trying to take it in by osmosis. I engage with scripture from a literary perspective, from a critical thinking perspective, sometimes from awe at creation, science or math, but rarely out of a particularly “spiritual” feeling.

Here’s how I know something is important to me: do I think about it, especially at random times? My writing can pop into my head at all times of the night or day. My wife is never far from my mind, even on days that I seem distracted and unfocused. And God’s there too, but maybe not in the same unconscious way. The real reason I sometimes feel awkward about the bread and cup is that I don’t always feel I’ve been thinking about God much, except on Sunday morning, and maybe not even then. It’s kinda like being asked to make a toast at the wedding of a friend you haven’t really seen in a while. You’re still friends, and you have a lot of stories about when you were kids, but life’s gotten in the way.

So, if we’re gonna think about anything when we take the bread and the cup, I think it should be less about a specific feeling of “spiritual reverence” and more about where we stand with God. But that said, if we want God to be more a part of our lives, and if taking the Eucharist reminds us of that, then we have nothing to worry about.

Have these verses been a stumbling block for you? What about communion in general?