The ancient church utilized a number of so called spiritual disciplines to aid in the process of spiritual growth.  They were intended in various ways to encourage the emergence of a rich and healthy spiritual quality within a person’s life.  Among these was the discipline of solitude. In the simplest of terms, it was an intentional commitment to times of withdrawal to be alone with God and one’s thoughts.  A time to simply commune and listen to what the Spirit might say to a person.

Probably very few of us have ever actually engaged in this activity as a discipline. Certainly some have perhaps been thrust into it by the circumstances of life. I am thinking of our widows and widowers who too often pass many days and nights in a state of aloneness not of their own choosing.  There may be others as well.  The rest of us as often as not, find the idea of solitude a very desirable dream in the midst of lives where every hour is tasked to the maximum. 

We rush from commitment to commitment, activity to activity with an occasional moment when we wish fervently that we could just get away from it all for just a little bit.

I fall into the category of those who have been committed to the fullest extent possible in days gone by, and also those who have had solitude thrust upon them by circumstances.  During the past year, as I have served as an intentional interim minister, I was geographically distanced from my family and spent a fairish amount of time alone.  At the end of the day, I live the life of a bachelor returning to my house where no one awaits. I have learned some new lessons about all of this.  First, solitude can be very difficult.  At first, it feels a great deal like loneliness.  The hours can drag. It can feel like the house is closing in around you.  The quiet is oppressive. There can be a temptation to simply go to bed and wait for tomorrow with its promise of distracting activity.  It may not feel very spiritual at all.

On the positive side, I have “slowly” (I emphasize that word) learned how to transform aloneness into solitude. Solitude should be understood as solitude with God. I am learning how to read the Bible again with a devotional eye rather than an exegetical eye. I am learning afresh how to pray in a flowing manner where prayer extends for minutes stretching into hours.  I am learning how to simply listen to my thoughts in the conscious presence of God and to allow the Spirit to critique my foolish notions. 

It is dawning upon me that this window of my life was a wonderful gift, but I have found in a visceral way that it is also hard work.  Like so many, there is probably a part of me that wants spiritual growth to come in easy doses, conveniently swallowed so that we may move on. I believe that it does not work that way.  It is a labor of time.

I cannot tell you how to achieve this in your life, especially if you are among those who are scheduled for every minute of every day. I can only tell you it is worth thinking about and exploring as one is able.  Do not expect it to be easy, but do expect it to be a gift.


The New Mars' Hill

            I confess I am not a good Face Book person.  I have a page, but I rarely post anything.  I view it mostly when someone includes me in one of their posts.  I have viewed it enough however, to develop a perception of that electronic community.   
          While many people use it as a way to stay connected with the happenings of their friendship circle, I see a surprising amount of people who regularly employ it as a sort of philosophical forum.  You know the ones I mean—those persons who set forward religious, political, cultural, and/or ethical viewpoints that are important to them.  The more extreme examples can become quite strident in their denunciation of “those other people” whose views differ from their own. 

           In some ways, these ideological face bookers remind me of the story in the biblical book of Acts. Paul arrives in Athens and discovers that a regular gathering takes place on “Mar’s Hill”. The gathering is a free forum of new ideas and radical positions.  Mar’s Hill may have been something like “Speaker’s Corner” in London’s Hyde Park. At Speaker’s Corner today, anyone with a point to make may draw up their soap box and proclaim their message. The catch, (perhaps with both settings) was and is that everyone listening has the right to “get in your face”.  They did so with Paul, and do so today in Hyde Park.

            So what is the point?  As Face Book demonstrates, our culture is a large arena of competing ideas in many different arenas.  Whether as a Christian or otherwise, do you and I know what we believe and why?  Have we established considered opinions that we may articulate (hopefully graciously) when the occasion demands?  

             Let me encourage you to give your deepest convictions some attention.  What do you believe?  Why do you believe one thing as opposed to another?  Could you offer a cogent summary of what you believe, and even more importantly why you believe it?  This ability strikes me as pretty important in our present day with its complex culture.


The Church Year and Spiritual Growth

I have often found that persons are unfamiliar with the concept of the “Church year”.  In many  
congregations, including Methodism, we see and take for granted certain practices without fully understanding them.

The practices I am referring to include the changing colors on the altar, the pulpit and lectern, as well as choir robes and other features.  Also, we often see or hear terms that we may not fully understand; Advent,  Lent,  Eastertide, Kingdom tide, and others may not translate meaningfully. There are even special days that may seem strange, such as All Saints Day, Christ the King Sunday,  Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. What is it all about?

The Church year is about reliving the life of Christ in an ongoing seasonal manner.  The year begins with Advent when the promised coming of the Messiah is remembered through specific readings, music, and acts of worship. Advent climaxes with the Christmas celebration of the nativity. The year proceeds with Epiphany in a manner that walks the believer through the public appearance of Jesus, his life and ministry. With the arrival of the Lenten season believers recall his passion, death. The climax here is Easter when we experience the resurrection of the Christ. From Easter we move towards Pentecost and the birth of the Church.  The balance of the year explores the important themes of what it means to be the body of Christ in our world. 

 And in general terms, the cycle begins again as we approach Advent.

So, as they say, “What’s the point?”  I believe that correctly understood, the Church year can be a valuable tool to allow us to grow spiritually as we meditate upon and study the major movements of our faith.   

The early church understood the Christian faith as both an organized set of beliefs (credens) and a vital condition of the heart (fiducia).  One played into the other.  We too may find that by reliving the seasons of the year with their focus upon the Gospel message, our own faith will be more completely informed and more deeply felt.

As we approach the Advent season, be on the lookout for resources that will be displayed around the church to aid you and your family in mining this treasure trove of the Church year.   Then as you note those dates, places, events, and activities for the coming year, include these built in times for your own (and your family's) spiritual growth.  


You Feed Them?

Perhaps one of the most familiar stories of Jesus’ ministry is the feeding of the five thousand.  Most of us probably know it well.  A large audience had spent the day listening to Jesus teach about the work of God upon the earth and as the late afternoon drew on, his disciples approached him with the words, “ It’s very late, send the people away so they may go to the surrounding villages and buy food to eat.” (Mark 6:35)  However, Jesus shocks the disciples with the direct command, “You give them something to eat.”   

There is the first lesson. 

 It would be so much more convenient if we could just send people with needs away somewhere.  Send them to DHS, or the Salvation Army, or some other church, or day I say it…to the pastor.  But Jesus does not give his disciples that option.  “You feed them!” he says to the twelve.  As believers, that instruction echoes to us this very day.  Are we alert to the situations in our community that may call for us to meet the needs of people for food, shelter, or even emotional support?  

Now it is not difficult to understand the consternation of the disciples with this command.  Twelve ill prepared people not told to feed five thousand?  No wonder they said, “That would require eight months wages to do. Do you expect us to come up with that much?”   

Now here is the second lesson of Jesus. He responded, “What do you have? They responded “Five and two fish”. Jesus said, “Give them to me.”  The message is clear. The answer lay in, first, our being willing to give what we have and second, to give it first to Jesus.  Too often, we do not give because among other reasons, we perceive that we have nothing adequate to the task. What will my five dollar bill accomplish? What will my small bag of staples really do? How do I meet this great need with only this small sack lunch?  Jesus says, “Let me worry about that.”   

Second, the lesson is also, don’t just give to the need; give to Christ. The disciples were not instructed to go immediately to the crowd, but to bring the bread and fish . In a way, it is God saying to us that it is never about what we can do…it is about what he can do with what we have.  There is an old hymn entitled, “Little is Much, When God is in It.”  That hymn proclaims the message that when we yield our bit, God can do great things. Do you have a loaf or a fish that you could share today?
to him


Looking Forward

In the autumn many people begin to think of next spring and plant some lovely trees, shrubs, and bulbs to bring color to those post winter days.  In this process are some good tips for our lives as well.  What can a church or a heart of faith do to look forward and prepare for a burst of life and color in their future?

1.  “Let the seed break open.”  Continue to embrace the idea of being a dedicated person or a dynamic church.  In the imagery of the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies, let the heart or the community be  willing to explode with fruitfulness.  The single seed in its package accomplishes nothing, but when it meets the moisture of the soil and surrenders to the destruction of its shell, it accomplishes a feat that never ceases to amaze the observer.  Do not be willing to remain in the package, but be sown into the soil.

2.  “Love one another.”  It has been my experience that tremendous potential emerges when a church or person steps outside of their personal concerns and simply pours out love for people around them.  This includes both others in the congregation, and those in the community and beyond.  Yes, like all churches, there are times when we rub the fur the wrong way, but I have noted that humans have the ability to put such frictions into their proper place and move on.  Please build upon that love in every way possible.  It is a worthy effort.

3.  "Protect the work."  Gardeners spread a layer of mulch down to protect the tender plants. A lot of effort goes into getting things to grow and it is important to protect that work.  Safeguard the tender shoots, nurture the growing, and see the results bloom.  A church or person who throws away efforts by not protecting the work they have done, nurturing the tender spiritual plants around them, and providing a warm place of love and growth will see no bright spring.

Like so many truths of scripture, looking forward involves us minimizing the "Me" window on our life computer and reaching out to others with encouragement, investment of self, and a promise to safeguard their journey to spring.

Poland Music Trip