spiritual disciplines

The Dawn of Vision and The Role of Pastor

Photo by  Karl Magnuson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash

There is a story about the nature of spiritual disciplines that goes something like this:

A student asked the teacher, “What effect do the spiritual disciplines have on gaining salvation?” The teacher said, “As much effect as you have on causing the sun to rise.” To which the student asked, “Then why practice the disciplines at all?” Looking to the east the teacher said, “So that we are awake to witness the sunrise.”

Too often we church leaders think that it is our job to “come up with the vision” of the church. And some might say this is true. I offer that it is not the leader that comes up with the vision but it is God’s vision that leaders are trying to articulate. This means the leader must be engaged in spiritual disciplines so as to not miss the sunrise.

The vision for a church is like the sunrise. It is a gift an it comes slowly. It is not the leaders job to cast the vision but to help and show people how to stay awake to the breaking of God’s vision. The pastoral leader is not the one who decides what the vision is, but the one who calls people to look eastward for the coming vision of dawn. The faithful church is less interested in deciding what to do and more interested in where to face.

Pray then Contemplate then Meditate then Pray...

Photo by  Motoki Tonn  on  Unsplash

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Listening to different groups of people I hear three words used to describe some of their practices. The religious (often conservative) use the word prayer, academics (often liberal) use the word contemplate, and mystics (not just Christians) use the word meditate. Sometimes there words are used interchangeably in popular culture, but my lived experience teaches me that these are not different words for the same practice, but rather three different practices. The trouble is, most of us just do one of these when we really need all three.

Prayer is many things, however at the core, prayer is paying attention. it is the act of paying attention to the needs around us. It is paying attention to gratitude. It is paying attention to the hurts and pains in the world. It is paying attention to what the still small voice of God whispers to us.

While prayer is using our peripheral vision to pay attention, contemplation is the practice of focusing on something. It is focusing on one scripture or one concern. It is focusing on what God is inviting us to do or become.

Meditation is the practice of letting go. If prayer and contemplation are about opening our eyes to different degrees, meditation is about closing them. Not closing them to the pain of the world or the concerns of God, but closing them so to empty ourselves. Meditation gives us access to our limitations and shows us how we are not in control or in what ways we are limited to effect change.

To pray, contemplate or meditate in isolation is not only difficult to do but we are missing out on the fullness of these practices. They each build upon one another and connect to one another. We pay attention, we focus, we release, only to pay attention once more.

Since we are just out of Lent, perhaps it is easier to pull the example of Jesus from Matthew 26 36-42. First Jesus prays (pays attention):

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 

Jesus is praying and in doing so he is paying attention. He is paying attention to his situation becomes grieved and agitated, even to death. Jesus asks the disciples to “stay awake with me” to pay attention to what God desires.

The story continues:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 

Now Jesus moves from praying to contemplating. He is focused on the real possibility right before him. He narrows his choices to two - let this cup pass or thy will. Additionally we wonder if Jesus frustrated with the disciples because they are asleep or because they are not paying attention? The story then makes the final turn toward mediation:

Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

Jesus lets go of a desire to control the outcome. He is aware of his limitations in the situation. He clears his mind through meditation and said “the same words” of release to God. Once this threefold movement is complete, Jesus remains frustrated, not at his impending death mind you but at the disciples who could not even do the first step to stay awake, pay attention, pray.

Deciding and Discerning Distinction

Photo by  Matt Seymour  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

In church world, we often do not make the distinction between deciding and discerning. For the most part we favor the word deciding over discernment - if we use that word at all.

To “decide” means to cut away. When we make a decision we cut away the options we do not want or like or deem less appealing. When we decide we tend to assign a judgement or an evaluation of that which we decided against. Once we decide, we consider our choice good and the thing we cut away as less than good or perhaps bad.

To “discern” means to to separate. Separating is value neutral. That is when we separate our laundry we are not saying that “darks” are good and “lights” are bad. We are just separating things into piles. Discerning is a value neutral process where we separate out that which is discovered.

Discernment is like panning in a river. We pull many things from the living waters and look and sort. We may think we are only looking for gold, but when we sort things out we may discover other beautiful things. These beautiful things may not be what was originally sought, however these beautiful things are retained. We do not call the other rocks “bad” or “unworthy.” We only sort in order to see clearly. If we assign some value to things as we sort, then we are not discerning we are deciding.

Discerning is non-threatening and requires patience. We tend to place a premium on having a decisive mind that we fail to appreciate the value, joy and faithfulness the discerning heart.

WWJD is less helpful than WIJD

WWJD bracelets were common place when I was younger. The effort in this movement was to encourage people to consider a choices and actions through the question, "What would Jesus do?" It is noble to think about what Jesus would do in different situations and I have asked this question myself. 

I am sure this question has given numerous people reason to pause maybe make a wise choice. However, from what I know about human beings, the chances are greater this question was used to justify a decision already made or to guilt someone to a particular action. So while it is a helpful question, it is less helpful than "What is Jesus doing?"

The obvious difference in WIJD is the verb tense. It is a question asked of the present, not of the past. What would Jesus do is something we often have to guess at. What is Jesus doing can be brought into greater clarity with spiritual disciplines and community.

Practices like discernment, prayer, reflection and contemplation are all helpful for us to pause and consider what is Jesus doing right now. In our midst, at this moment. 

Christians of all denominations believe a wide variety of things about Jesus, but there is at least one thing all Christians can agree on. We all want to be where Jesus is. We all want to be where Jesus is going. We all want to be on what Jesus is doing.

So lets start asking.