Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Prayer Labyrinth


Last Friday, I travelled to the Servite Convent in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, to walk their prayer labyrinth.

I had heard about prayer labyrinths before, but never had the opportunity to walk one. Thus, I decided, after discovering one just an hour from my home, to visit it.

Driving there, I eagerly anticipated my prayer journey. The clangings and clutters of life had been too loud lately. I needed to still my soul in quietness.

The labyrinth was not nearly as impressive as I had imagined -- from a distance I could barely discern the boundaries -- and it looked more like an unkempt backyard than a sacred shrine for prayer and meditation.

Nevertheless, I entered the labyrinth expectantly -- silencing my heart and waiting to hear the voice of God.

I heard something different.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, my contemplative state was interrupted by a hideous intrusion.

"VROOM! VROOM! THWAT, THWAT, THWAT, THWAT!"

Some young punk picked that particular minute to do weed whacking at the convent. Strapped in a giant and loud ghostbuster machine, and goggles donned, he looked like a creature from a scifi flick.

I glared at him, hoping that would make him disappear. Undeterred, he kept whacking away.

So, trying to make the most of an unpleasant situation, I resumed my prayer journey:

peace, faith, love, tranquility, GRRRR, dumb gardener, go away,
peace, faith, love, tranquility. Good grief, you moron, can't you see I'm praying??

And then it hit me. The bothersome gardener was a part of God's design. I needed to realize and admit the Jekyl and Hyde in me -- prayer and anger mixing in my soul like oil and water: sloshing, foaming, but never coming to agreement. My turmoil spoke more about the state of my soul than than the inconsiderate yard worker.

Turning a labyrinthian corner, I finally let it go. Harboring this frustration would not benefit me one bit. I clenched my fists tight, put all my anger in them, breathed a prayer, and then slowly opened my fingers, releasing the burden to God.

Lo and behold: a fresh outpouring of peace, faith, love and tranquility! (Without the Grrr!)

The machine was still Vrooming -- but I wasn't.

I walked away from my prayer experience deepened, refreshed and ready to face the clangings and clutters at home.

The noises and annoyances of everyday life are not enemies of contemplation. They can all be turned to prayer partners.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Faithful in the Wilderness

John Fletcher, one of the early Methodists, was a great spiritual leader, and small town pastor. He served for 25 years as the Vicar of Madeley, until his early death.

Both John Wesley and George Whitefield preached from his pulpit. I had the privilege of visiting Madeley in April, and praying at his grave.

In his first year of the pastorate, he wrote a letter to his friend, Lady Huntington:

If my being stationed in this howling wilderness is to answer no public end as to the Gospel of Christ, I will not give up the hope that it may answer a private end as to myself, in humbling me under a sense of universal unprofitableness.

If I preach the Gospel ten years here and see no fruit of my labors, in either case, I promise to bless God, if I can only say from my heart, "I am nothing. I have nothing. I can do nothing."

He concluded the letter by adding, ". . . the number here has increased from 30 to above 100."

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Osama

If you think you can't make a difference in the world from a remote place, think of Osama bin Ladin.

From the deserts of Afghanistan -- and now, hiding (in Pakistani caves?) he has literally changed the world with the power of hatred and evil.

Conversely, just think what a small town pastor could do with the Power of the Holy Spirit and love!

Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world! (1 John 4:4)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why the Biblical Illiteracy?

I was reading the other day about Abraham Lincoln's heavy usage of Scripture in his speeches, correspondance, and conversations. It struck me that the hearers understood what he was saying. In other words, in the mid 1800's there was a general biblical literacy in America -- at least educated America.

Today, if you mention Jethro, Jezabel, or Delilah -- you will be met with blank stares. As Len Sweet observed, "America is no longer a post-Christian nation, but rather a pre-Christian one with no memory of biblical heritage."

How did the pool of common biblical understanding evaporate? How did this vast ocean, teeming with life, shrivel to small mudpuddles and aquarium tanks?

I don't begin to know all the answers -- but here are a few thoughts:

1. The Proliferation of Radio, Television and Computers.
Abe Lincoln grew up with two books to entertain himself -- The Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Our media options both widen and shallow us.

2. The Relocation of the Music Industry.
Music used to be the church's domain -- primarily to worship and teach biblical doctrine. As the center of music has shifted from sanctuaries to concert halls, there has been a general "secularization" of society. The poets have always been the greatest cultural influencers. When "Oooo Baby, Baby" replaces "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" in popularity, it is no wonder we are biblically impoverished.

3. The Multiplicity of Options.

This combines the two points above -- PLUS -- cars, planes, movie theaters, bowling alleys, restaurants, video games -- a plethora of options! One hundred years ago, life was simpler for most people. They didn't go out that much. There wasn't anything on t.v. -- So, they had to rely on reading and conversations for entertainment. (Occasionally, there would be a travelling evangelist who would set up a tent -- and that would be the biggest event of the season!)

4. The Demise of the King James Version.

Now, I read the NIV daily -- so I'm not on some KJV only bandwagon. However, I have noticed that certain phrases and cultural understandings are direct quotations from the King James Scripture. (i.e. tender mercies, why do the heathen rage?, A house divided against itself cannot stand, great is Thy faithfulness.)

The modern versions have been wonderful resources for understanding -- but they took away a common language which English speaking Christians have used since the 17th Century.

5. The Replacement of Bible Based Reading Primers.

Eary American children learned to read with Scripture as a basis. The hornbook in colonial America always included a prayer. Here is a sample of spelling words from The New England Primer: Holiness, Godliness, Fidelity, Humility (p. 10).

Now, reading and spiritual instruction are totally separate.

6. The Decline of Sunday School.

Since the 1970's Sunday School has been on the decline in every denomination. Faced with heavy competition from the "options" (see #3 above) churches have (perhaps unintentionally) shifted focus from educating Children to entertaining them.

Thus, popular Sunday School curriculum today is topical -- need (or want) based -- and neglects a systematic teaching of the Bible stories.

7. The Immigration of Non-Christian Religions.

The 17th, 18th and 19th immigrants to America were mostly all from Europe -- which was steeped in the Christian tradition -- and they brought with them generations of biblical understanding. The muli-ethnic makeup of America today is very different -- thus, leading to a variety of understandings.

I celebrate the diversity of America -- and believe that we should warmly welcome those of various faith traditions. However, America's increasing plurality has an impact on general biblical literacy.

8. The Rise and Fall of Ecclesiastical Liberalism.

In the 1920's to 60's, many of America's churches shifted to a more liberal view of Scripture. The Bible stories, then, were taught as myth, rather than literal historical events. This led to a decrease in Bible reading and memorization among church people.

Over the past few decades, the mainline churches have suffered terrible declines -- due, at least in part, to the bankruptcy of their biblical understanding.

More evangelical churches have grown -- but the the cultural damage was already done.

9. The Redefinition of Education.

America's first colleges were for the very purpose of teaching the hallowed precepts of the Bible. Now, in many of those same schools, we have administrators who do not "minister" and professors who do not "profess." This cultural shift has deeply impacted the all the major sphere's of influence in American society (entertainment, politics, business, education, and the church.)

In 1850, an American could not be "educated" without any biblical knowledge. This was just as important as the three R's. A 19th Century colllege graduate may not have believed the Bible, but he would certainly have known a lot about it.

An "educated" American today is not likely to have even a modicum of biblical knowledge.

10. The Collapse of the Family Altar.

(Or, the Family, for that matter!) Materialism and Entertainment have so ravaged our culture that families are not following any kind of togetherness pattern.

Most devout church families in the 19th Century made a point of reading the Bible and praying together. This, perhaps more than any other factor, contributed to the common knowledge during Lincoln's day.