Spiritual Practice

I chose the vocation I did because I love words.  And especially words about God.

And if I wanted to be honest, I would say that my vocation called me, but that is another post entirely.

As we enter the 40+ days of Lent (there are 46, by the way, because Sundays are always considered feast days for the church and don’t count in the Lent to Easter equation.  So, without any bad feelings, you can take a pass on your Lenten discipline on Sundays), one of the things we are invited to do is to meditate on God’s Word and to make time for that reflection.  In addition, I love to make time to read at least one or two books that help me reflect on Lent and the way of God in the world.

So here are a few for you to consider for your Lenten discipline.  I always link to Amazon (it’s just easier), but you can almost always find these books anywhere else on line, and some at your local bookseller.

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Mioslav Volf.  This was the Archbishop’s Lent book for 2006, and is written by a former professor of mine from Yale.  Remarkable stuff.  Don’t be distracted by the fact that Miroslav is a prof at Yale.  This is accessible stuff.  He makes a great comparison between himself as a cyclist, the innate way ducks quack and God’s love (get the book if you want to figure out how this works).  This book (like all of his books) is deeply personal, and looks at how Jesus suffers in our place and what that really means.

Bread and Wine: Readins for Lent and Easter by various authors.  I love books like this; it’s a collection of readings for Lent and Easter from a variety of people spanning a great deal of time.  There are readings from St. Augustine and Philip Yance  Pascal and Henri Nouwen.  There are readings for each day in Lent and for half of Easter as well.  It begins on Day 1 (Ash Wednesday) with a selection from Kathleen Norris.  In it she tells of her work with young students as a Poet-in-Residence and one boy’s poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.”  She writes, “He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town.  The poem concludes, ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”‘” She continues by saying the boy was more honest than most adults and well on his way toward repentance. Nice for short reflections during the season.

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor. A wonderful short reflection on language around sin by this Episcopal Priest and professor at Piedmont College.  Taylor ponders how when we lose a way to talk about sin in our lives—we say “problems” or “issues,” but even now less and less of even that—we also lose the language of salvation.  If we don’t have sin, what are we being saved from?  She contends that when we have language around sin, we can move from “guilt to grace.”  A short book that is well worth having on your shelf.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality by Beldon C. Lane. At times our journeys take us into difficult landscapes, often seen as deserts and mountains in scripture (and in real life, if you’ve been to these places).  Lane plunges deep into wrestling with his own wilderness times—writing about his mother’s struggle with cancer and Alzheimer’s—and rejecting the common language of Christianity being an easy road as expressed in pop spirituality.  In moving beyond the common understanding, he looks at how desert times become a mirror for our own inner brokenness, and the need we have for God to bring healing in them.  Perfect meditations for the desert season of Lent.

The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty by Peter Greer and Phil Smith. One of our Lenten disciplines should be the giving of alms.  This book lays out how to do this with an extended telling of stories about how bad poverty really is, and how easy it is to help.  The focus is on micro-finance with practical steps on how you can help change someone’s life through a small loan.  One of the stories is about a man who runs a small pharmacy who needed to close multiple times a day to run out a get more supplies because he had only enough capital to buy a few things at a time. With a small loan, he could buy more supplies for a cheaper price, cut down his traveling to once a week, and keep his store open for longer hours. He easily paid back his loan and expanded his business.  Wonderful on both the theory and the practice.

That’s five for now.  I hope you find something here that will whet your appetite and help you take on the Lenten Discipline of study.  And why don’t you take a moment to comment about a favorite Lenten type book that isn’t listed here.

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A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently about something his rabbi said during Shabbat services.  “Sabbath,” the good rabbi said, “is like a snow day every week.”

I love that image.  Snow days–especially for kids–are filled with delight.  Putting on snow pants, hats and gloves to go out exploring and playing in the snow.  After a good long time, a cup of hot chocolate or tea.  Maybe a book by the fire or a favorite movie.  Certainly no work.

The best book I’ve ever read about Sabbath Keeping is by Dan B. Allender called simply Sabbath.  Frankly, it blew me away.

What he said is this: The 4th Commandment on keeping the Sabbath is the only we relish in breaking.  “I’m too busy to take time off.”  Or “I’m always connected to my work.”  Or something along those line.

Yet in the Hebrew one of the connotations of Sabbath is celebration.  God didn’t need to rest because God was “overworked” rather God took delight, God relished in all that God had done

Sabbath can become a living out of the kingdom of God that is to come in the present world.  It can become a time not of just cessation from the mundane, but of true enjoyment, taking pleasure in this wonderful world God has created and being restored.

“Dream delight for yourself and your family,” he tells his seminary students.  “Let yourself go with dreams as wild as you can imagine.  Don’t let money or physical limitations enter your thoughts.  Dream as extravagantly as you know how to do, then pray that you might truly dream well.  Where would your dreams take you?  Where would you go, with whom and what would you do?”

Maybe that scares the bejeezus out of you.  You may not know how to handle that much delight in our world, in creation, in sharing love with your family.  So you might just push this aside.

But if you are intentional — and let me be honest, you have to have intentionality to keep the Sabbath, you can’t just decide “Oh, today I’ll do it” because you won’t — Sabbath keeping can change your entire outlook on life.  What if you knew that at the end of each week you absolutely knew you would have a day of rest, of delight?  What if you knew you and your loved ones could count on being free from all obligations?  Or that it would be filled with a day of reading, or going in to Boston, or sharing a non-rushed meal with friends?

Imagine how that would transform your life.

And that’s the gift God wants to give us.  Each week.

Find that book or any other if you want to explore this further.  Or just decide today that beginning this week, you’re going to spend one day out of seven taking delight in God’s wonderful world, in the way the kingdom will be.

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Sunday I mentioned that I’d post some information about the Ancient Spiritual Practices which many Christians are rediscovering as a way to be grounded in the faith and to draw closer to God (See the Ancient Practices Series of books that have come out in the last couple of years, beginning with Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren).  One of these is the keeping of regular prayer.  For centuries this has been known as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Daily Office (as it’s known in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer).

The practice includes regular reading of scripture, psalms and prayers and is done at times throughout the day.  It grew out of the monastic tradition in Christianity, but probably goes back further to Jewish practice — Psalm 119:164  “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.”  Seven times set aside for prayer was the monastic practice, however our Book of Common Prayer includes four (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayers, Evening Prayer and Compline).  If you’re interested in more of the history, go to the entry at wikipedia.

Keeping the Daily Office

Making time for regular prayer may seem daunting, and the form in our prayer book is tricky to maneuver.  Having said that, there are a number of resources that make the office much more understandable and, frankly, easier to do.  The biggest challenge to keeping the office (that comes from the Latin, by the way, officium or “duty”) is similar to doing any lifestyle change: it’s mental. Carving out time, be it once, twice or seven times a day, takes discipline.  But it’s well worth it and life-changing and life-shaping.

The best book out there on why you should pray the office is Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer (and part of the Ancient Practices Series).  Here’s a taste of his great and down to earth writing. “I stumbled into the daily office when I was almost forty years old.  And I have never quite recovered….. The world of prayer and contemplation to which I was introduced still draws me deeply, and I am still fooling with all of this, still convinced that there are deep truths buried here if I can just be smart enough, or patient enough or devout enough to dig them out. I am not much holier than I was before I began, but I am still trying nonetheless.”

You might still be asking what the daily office is.  So here you are.

The flow of the office:  Introductory Sentences (Invitatory), Psalm, Scripture Reading, Canticle, [2nd Reading, Canticle], Creed, Prayers.  [Confession once a day or more if needed].  For the longer offices in the BCP (Book of Common Prayer), the scripture readings are longer and dictated by a lectionary that prescribes readings for the day found in the BCP (an Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel and 2 Psalm selections); for the shorter offices, they are just a couple of verses.

The Psalms are the star of the office.  They are read through in a six week cycle and show the range of emotion in humanity, from the highs of great joy to anger and being deeply troubled.

You can pray the office regularly by going to The Mission of St. Clare online.  It’s tremendously easy if you can read on the screen.  Just bookmark the page.

Books that are a single source for the Office (rather than flipping around in the BCP and a Bible):

The Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle. The best wholly contained daily office books, including the Pocket Edition which has the seven hours throughout the day.  Highly recommended.

Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro Great new single volume book which includes Morning Prayer for every day of the year, and a seven day rotation for Evening Prayer.  Also includes a few hymns at the book, as well as prayers for other occasions in it.

The Contemporary Office Book has the four offices and all the readings put together by date so you won’t need to flip around in a Bible (ie all the readings for the 2nd Wednesday in Lent are together).  This is a handsome leather bound edition that is quite pricey (you may find it cheaper elsewhere), but a wonderful edition.

This is a longish post, but I have one more thing for you.  If you’d like to tackle the office in the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve created a cheat sheet. You can find a pdf of it here.

Interested in praying the office together? If you are interested in saying Morning Prayer together during Lent 2011, please respond to this post.  Even if there are one or two, I’ll make space in my schedule to come over to the St. Mark’s Parish House at either 7 or 7:30 Monday-Friday during Lent to pray together (because the office is easier to keep with one or two others).

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