Monday, January 22, 2018

Discerning Mission through Lectio Divina

Rev. Dr. Brenda Buckwell, contributor

            I was astonished. The leadership team of the small urban congregation had just signed their death certificate. In response to the question “What is your greatest desire in ministry?” a tenderhearted gentleman in his early seventies, with head held high, stated, “To keep the doors of the church open until the oldest generation dies.” The team was not surprised by the man’s response. The church had tried various approaches over the years. With one glance at the declining community around the church building, anyone could see the marks of hopelessness and poverty. The closed stores, folks walking rather than driving from one place to another, children running in the streets on school days, drug dealers standing on the corner: all spoke of despair. There seemed to be little opportunity for church renewal and revitalization. Not surprisingly, however, God had other plans for this aging urban community of believers.

            In my astonishment, I paused a moment and then leveled the playing field of mission and ministry for this congregation. With a deep breath and the infilling of the Spirit, I replied: “You can certainly do that if you would like. I can speak to the bishop about sending someone here to your declining ministry to do just that, close the congregation. I am just not that pastor. If you would like to venture forth with me, we can discover God’s desire and mission for this congregation together.” Now it was the team’s turn to be surprised. That very night the leadership team had their first experience of lectio divina, and the journey to amazing new life began at First United Methodist Church in Zanesville, Ohio.
            Opening the Bible for a prayerful soaking in the Word, I posed questions to the leadership team based on the historical practice of lectio divina.[i] In choosing scriptures for vision planning for a church, I work from the perspective that to be vital, the congregation—any congregation—must seek the presence of God’s Holy Spirit as the first-century church did. I began with a healing story so they could picture God desiring healing for them. Later, I used the scripture of Jesus walking on water and asking Peter to step out of the boat to develop their capacity for acting on faith. The final scripture was the Pentecost story from Acts 2. After the scripture passage was read, each member responded to the question “What word or phrase catches your attention from this text?” Next, elaborating on the answer a bit more, the conversation grew as they responded to “How does this text intersect with this leadership team for the congregation?” And finally, because we believe that God’s Word is a living Word, not just a historical document, we deepened our prayer through invitation. Prior to the third reading of the scripture, I encouraged each person to be open to a third question: “From this scripture, what is God inviting this leadership team to, for the sake of the mission of this congregation?” I recorded the responses and read them back to the community for clarification and accuracy.
            After recording each response from the question of invitation, I explained the final step in this community process of praying the scriptures. Confirming that the leaders knew the name of the person on their right, I asked them to pray for one another and the invitations each had heard in the scripture. Audibly each person spoke prayers around the circle. Not just any prayer but a prayer of empowerment for the team and the congregation to live into the invitation stated by the neighbor on the right. As we audibly prayed the other’s invitation, no one could insist “my way is the best way” or “I have the perfect direction from God.” Each listened to the other’s heart’s desire and cared for the other’s invitation to bear fruit. In that instant God began binding prayer-filled hearts together. New community was born. This praying for one another’s invitation is vital to the discovery process that is discernment.
            Our discernment journey continued as we prayed the scriptures out loud and set aside personal agendas at each church council meeting for six months. Then, with a unanimous uplifting of the Spirit, a collective aha! birthed new vision and life into the fragile congregation. As we named the potential ministry, each person was certain it was a direction from God, clearly the fruit from our practice of lectio divina. Unity and excitement were the marks of the Spirit’s leading. The excitement could not be contained. The leadership team passionately spoke at the next Sunday worship and encouraged others to join in the ministry. The next week eighty-year-olds were on the floor or climbing ladders with paint or mop in hand. TheLifewell Free Store was prayed into existence.
            The congregation transformed empty rooms into possibility; an ecumenical board was formed to govern the Free Store. The connectional United Methodist Church sent supportive presence to the store’s opening. A television broadcast about the grand opening of an “unusual store” where no money changed hands brought the first throngs of people to theLifewell Free Store.
            Enthusiasm and passion for ministry grew as community mission expanded. People once hesitant to pray aloud became advocates for prayer, and they continue to kneel in awe of God’s mission and ministry explosion on the corner of Pierce and Putnam. Prayer and mission in this congregation have transformed life in the neighborhood and in the church. A gentle-spirited seventy-year-old woman sums up the miraculous power of praying the scripture for discernment and mission. Her words still ring in my heart: “Why hasn’t any pastor ever before in all my years of going here taught us to pray like this?”

[i] See Jane Tomaine, St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005).

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Beginning the New Year Together --
For the Peace of the Nation and the World

On election night, I was teaching in a 5-Day Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation in Oklahoma. The group held a beautiful candle light labyrinth walk for “the peace of the nation.” I received this vision: the map of the U.S.A. was laid over the labyrinth. This image of the U.S.A. rose to join its place in the globe, gently rotating above the labyrinth. The message was clear: the factionalism and struggles we are engaged in within our nation are mirrors of the same kind of struggles going on within the whole human family, as ancient divisions of culture and religion must give way in order for a new humanity to be birthed in our time – a new world of deeper respect, mutuality, and greater connectivity.

A similar vision inspired Glynden Bode and several women from different faith traditions in Houston to meet regularly in the challenging days after September 11, 2001. Their labyrinth walk became a pathway for prayers for peace and gaining inspiration for personal action. Glynden graciously wrote of this time in her contribution to A Quiet Pentecost.

May we each be inspired in the months ahead to pray and work for a new era of grace, justice, and peace within the human family.

We have learned in new ways how much our nation has become factionalized during the presidential election. Now we have the opportunity to speak directly to the many difficulties facing our nation, our communities, and our families. I am encouraged by the personal and collective conversations that are already taking place, as we begin to recognize that greater individual participation may be required of each of us, if we are to move toward a new common good.

Let us join together to serve the Prince of Peace in fresh ways in 2017.

Dwight Judy

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Your Advent 24-7 Prayer Room

Rev. Jennie Edwards Bertrand describes an extremely simple prayer practice that she initiated in the campus ministry at Illinois State University:

In September 1999 in a village in southern England, Pete Greig and his college friends decided that if the Moravians could pull off a one-hundred-year prayer vigil, they could sustain three months of unbroken prayer. It seemed like a great way to induct the year 2000. What this group did not know was how news of their small prayer room would spread to college students and young adults all over the world by e-mail. Prayer rooms began to pop up all over the world, run mostly by young adults. [This movement is now known as 24-7 Prayer. It involves simply setting up a small room so that one person can be in prayer for one hour at a time; 24 hours per day. The campus ministry determined to hold their prayer room for one week. They had 30 active students in their first year.]
Jennie continues: While the phrase “I am not religious, I am spiritual” was quite popular as we were preparing for our first 24-7 prayer room, I don’t think many of the students were consciously concerned about their spiritual lives either. Looking back, I think the main reason that first group of thirty students was willing to try a prayer room was because it sounded crazy and undoable. They were competitive and wanted to be able to say, “We kept a human in that room for one hundred and sixty-eight hours. . . . Oh yeah, and they were praying.”
Richard Foster writes: “We all hunger for a prayer-filled life, for a richer, fuller practice of the presence of God.” The corrective I add to this is that a generation raised in a postmodern, post-Christian world doesn’t know it hungers for a prayer-filled life. One of my favorite characteristics of the 24/7 prayer movement is that the participants are not limited to those who would self-select to attend a prayer retreat, or join a prayer group.

A student leader and I collected paints and canvases, and covered the floor with cardboard and the walls with newsprint. We bought a CD player, some good meditative CDs, and a few worship CDs. We labeled the space outside the small converted office the Welcome Wall; plenty of coffee and water was provided. In the room, we labeled one wall a Wailing Wall; another wall the Worship Wall; and on a third wall we hung a map and named it the World Wall. We included a stack of Bibles, two journals, and hooks on the wall for hanging painted canvases. We went to the Catholic supply store, bought twelve seven-day candles, and ritually lit each one. For one week, hour-by-hour, students experienced the presence of God in the solitude of this room. One person would write a psalm on the Worship Wall, and others would follow suit. Names of loved ones in need of healing and R.I.P.s began to fill the Wailing Wall. Confessions and expressions of pain followed. Articulate and painfully honest conversations with God began to fill the pages of the journals. Beautiful artistic expressions of love, forgiveness, and healing covered the canvases. People highlighted countries on the map and asked for prayer, justice, and the end of poverty and war. By the end of the week, the floor and every wall was filled with an outpouring of deep cries from the soul. Right in the middle of day-to-day life, an entire (albeit small) ministry learned how to pray and experienced the power of God’s presence. (A Quiet Pentecost, pp. 71-73)

Now, ten years later, this practice continues at Illinois State University with an average of 130 students regularly in the ministry. I saw Jennie last spring and asked her about the 24-7 prayer ministry. She was so excited to share with me that now in addition to the campus ministry, she is involved in a new church start aimed toward millennials begun by former students whose spiritual life was awakening in the 24-7 prayer room.

The practice is simple. The impact is profound and very challenging. As we prepare for the feasts of Thanksgiving; and as we begin the patient waiting of Advent, I invite us to use this image of the 24-7 prayer room to refresh us to live toward the righteousness of God. In the 24-7 prayer room within your own heart: what will you name on your inner Wailing Wall? Remember how full the Psalms are of lament, of voicing our human hurts and longings? Our hearts ache for the Peace of Christ to pervade our families, our nation, and our world – we are asked by Jesus to be honest with naming our hurts, our griefs, our losses. But, we are invited to also love, praise, and sing. What will you name on your Worship Wall this week? What a wonderful season for us to give thanks, for the goodness we have each experienced in the past year, for hopes that we hold. Let us in joy, give thanks and praise to God as we gather around our family Thanksgiving and Advent meals. What will you place on your World Wall? What particular peoples and places within our nation and our world call to you for prayer and action? Where is Jesus asking you to give your special prayers, your donations, the work of your hands to live into that prayer we pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Using the Study Guide

Using A Quiet Pentecost to shape your spiritual formation ministry

Chapter 8 of the book, A Quiet Pentecost, is a study guide to be used by a small group, going chapter by chapter, to assess and develop the spiritual formation focus in your congregation or other ministry setting.

The Holy Spirit is ready to guide your congregation into a quiet Pentecost. The Spirit’s guidance will be quite specific for your congregation and your community. There is no cookie-cutter pattern to enhance your spiritual life or move toward developing a spiritual life center for your congregation and community. Instead, Jesus wants to lead you into unique patterns of prayer, small-group support, local and global mission, and sustaining worship.

Each chapter of the book can be a springboard for conversation among the lay and pastoral leadership of your congregation. Start with the first step in “Getting Started” below—designing a team to work through the book together on behalf of your congregation. Use the questions related to each chapter as a guide for your group’s conversation in a series of meetings.

Invite all participants to read the questions at home before they read the related chapter. Read the book in the spirit of lectio divina, lingering over particular passages, stories, or images that strike you as significant for your congregation. It is helpful for group members to keep a journal of reflections as they read.

Use the additional resources on the blog site
 with your group and your leadership team.

Getting Started

1. Forming a team. If you do not already have a spiritual life or spiritual formation committee in your congregation, work with your pastor and administrative body to develop a task force to work for six months or more in prayerfully considering potential new areas of ministry. You may want to use an existing prayer ministry group such as an intercessory prayer team.

2. Covenanting together. This work will require commitment and prayer. Set a regular time to meet. Commit to regular prayer for the work of this task force or committee. Be committed both to inspiration arising from prayer and to practical tasks of information gathering.

3. At your first meeting explore the two themes below. There are no right answers to these two questions—only what is right for your congregation!

a. What is your definition of spirituality? What is the range of subject matter that will be effective in your congregation? Be realistic! Do not push edges too quickly. Think about what people need within your own setting and what kinds of resources will be well received.

b. Is your work for your congregation only or is it for the broader community as well? What are implications of promoting your classes, groups, retreats, and so on to those beyond your congregation?