Strengthening community and faith
By N. Graham Standish | Presbyterians Today
I walked away from the church at age 15. I wasn’t unique. Many teens walk away from the church, although it’s more common today than when I did it in the mid-1970s. No matter what the year, teens walk away from church for many reasons — spiritual laziness, lack of inspiration from worship services, worldly distractions, peer pressure (it’s not cool to go to church), the attraction of other beliefs (including agnosticism and atheism). But I walked away for reasons that were a bit different from those of many of my friends.
I wasn’t seeking less. I was seeking something more than I thought was available from the church. I was seeking an authentic, experiential spirituality — although I never would have said it in that way back then. In short, it felt as if there was nothing spiritual about the church of my youth.
From my 15-year-old perspective, church attenders were more interested in being part of a church either because it was the social thing to do in our town, or to check “worship” off their task of weekly things to do, albeit with the hope that this task would pay dividends in the afterlife.
I, though, wanted to experience God. I wanted to see, hear, touch and follow God. But I wasn’t getting guidance on how to do that from the church. In fact, the church seemed to lack any interest in the guidance department. So I embarked on my own pursuit of God that led me on a journey of spirituality, including early stopovers in Buddhist and New Age thought. Eventually I came back to the church at age 24, joining the church I had abandoned earlier. But this time I saw what I couldn’t see before: Spirituality is hard to nurture in a vacuum when we are our own gurus. This is why Christian spirituality has always flowed out of community. There’s a reason the early church worked so hard to create Christian communities. Without them, spirituality can easily become self-absorbed.
The spiritual connection
But community is only one aspect of Christian spirituality. Over the last 20 years there has been a significant increase in interest among Christians in the spiritual traditions of our past. More Christians, including many Presbyterians, are engaging in practices such as contemplative prayer, reflective reading, journaling and guided meditation, especially in the context of small groups and church practices.
The rediscovery of Christian spirituality, which began in the 1960s and 1970s, has been nurtured through the influence of an ever-growing number of influential Catholic and Protestant writers and teachers. It has sparked a much-needed growth in awareness of Christ’s presence everywhere, calling us to a deeper way of life that nurtures the fruits of the Spirit, such as compassion, generosity, self-discipline, patience, kindness and peace.
It used to be that spiritual disciplines were something only monks and nuns, and some Protestants, did in solitude, but even their solitude was still in connection with community — the monastery or the church. They might engage in solitary prayer walks to contemplate God’s wonders; fast to sharpen prayer and to “let go to let in God”; sit in quiet prayer to listen to God’s “still, small voice”; sit in contemplative silence to center on God. For several centuries spiritual disciplines were something only a few in the church were interested in, as the church emphasized a more intellectual approach to faith. These were people hungering for more of God. That spiritual hunger has grown in recent decades as members seek more from their churches, their faith walk, their lives and from God. They are finding that extra dimension together in the ancient and not so ancient practices of spirituality. Those who haven’t found it in the church, though, have left and increasingly are declaring themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.” Does that make us religious but not spiritual?
In my years as a pastor and spiritual counselor, I’ve noticed how much we’ve Americanized Christian spirituality. How? We’ve treated spirituality as though it’s largely individual — as a matter of just Christ and me. Almost all the ways we focus on spirituality tend to be individualistic, or if we take a communal approach, it’s only temporarily communal.
I remember a pastor lamenting to me her experiences after going on a weeklong spiritual retreat. She said, “You wouldn’t believe how electrifying it was. I was learning so many ways to pray, and I could feel God. One day I went for a walk and stared at a flower for 15 minutes and I sensed God saying to me, ‘This is you … you are that flower to me.’ Then I came home and it was like nothing had ever happened. Nobody understood my experiences. I was back to being a pastor to people who didn’t understand.”
So again, what we need to be mindful of is that spiritual practices were never intended to be individual. Sometimes we Presbyterians can be somewhat dismissive of Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox brothers, sisters, monks and nuns. We think of them as people who have withdrawn from society to live in cloistered, protected communities. What we don’t realize is that most of our spiritual practices came from these communities and were intended to spiritually build up their communities. They can build up ours, too.
I had the honor of pastoring Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, for more than 21 years. One of the major features at Calvin Church was that we integrated spirituality into the life of the congregation not by starting with a focus on individual spiritual practices. Rather, Calvin Church began weaving such practices into the various groups in the life of the church.
For example, over the years there, I taught our confirmation class a practice called lectio divina, which translates as “divine reading” or “spiritual reading.” This is a multistep practice of reading and reflection dating back to around the 10th century. A reader slowly reads a small passage of Scripture and then invites listeners to sit in silence as they meditate on the passage and think about what God is saying to them through it. Then she or he slowly reads it again, and afterward invites listeners to pray silently about what they heard. Then she or he slowly reads it once more, and afterward listeners sit in silence, centering prayer, letting all thoughts fade away as they simply sit with God.
In the 12th century, a monk, Guigo II, said lectio divina is like taking a mouthful of Scripture and slowly tasting it, chewing it and swallowing it so that it nourishes our soul. This is not the intellectual kind of reading Presbyterians tend to do. There is no analyzing or parsing or debating. There is only listening with the heart. In Guigo II’s community, they did this every night as part of their prayer time together.
In teaching this practice to a confirmation class of teens, I was amazed at how much the teens always took to the silence and slowness. One teen emailed me after a prayer retreat, telling me, “I never knew until our prayer retreat that I was attracted to finding God in silence, but even more how powerful it was to do it with other teens.”
It wasn’t just the spiritual practice that mattered. It was doing the practice as part of the community of the class and church that mattered to this teen. It was the shared experience that strengthened the ties among them.
Labyrinth walking — together
Another practice that was intended to be part of a community, but has turned into an individual practice, is walking a labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze. It’s one path that always winds to a center. A person walks the path slowly as it twists and turns toward the center, creating a slow, spiritual walk intended to help the walker connect with God.
Modern labyrinths are often based upon one from the 13th century that was laid onto the floor of the magnificent Chartres Cathedral in France. It was designed around 12 concentric circles that lead the walker along a twisting path toward the center. The turnaround points (labyrs) of the path form the outline of a cross. The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth is believed to have been built at the close of the Crusades, when people could no longer make holy pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Thus, the labyrinth allowed them to embark on a symbolic spiritual pilgrimage.
Many Presbyterian churches are now building outdoor labyrinths with the help of grants, as First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, New York, did in 2016, or are finding blessings in eager Boy Scouts seeking to earn their Eagle Scout badge by creating a labyrinth for a church. Last November, Christ Presbyterian Church of Rancho La Costa, in Carlsbad, California, unveiled a winding meditative path that Boy Scouts made out of stone.
In 1998, Calvin Church built its own outdoor version of the Chartres labyrinth out of stones and pine needles. While it is always available to anyone, several times a year instructive introductions to the labyrinth are held. As a twist to the labyrinth experience, there were times during these communal walks in which Communion was served as people entered the center — reminding all that on the journey of life, they do not travel alone. One man from the community who had joined in the group labyrinth walk remarked, “I got about halfway through, and it was like all the energy of everyone walking in prayer entered me. I walked into it sad and skeptical. I walked out energized and full of light.”
Other spiritual practices
If a church doesn’t have the space or money — or eager Boy Scouts — to build its own labyrinth, other spiritual practices can easily be incorporated into the life of a congregation.
Calvin Church maintained weekly prayer groups to pray for others, which then became monthly prayer vigils that the whole church was invited to attend. In addition, two contemplative prayer groups were added to the church’s schedule each week. As the practices began weaving their way into the church, more nurturing communities emerged. There were small groups rooted in the practice of spiritual reading of great spiritual writings spanning traditions and centuries. There was also the start of a healing prayer ministry. Elders and lay leaders were trained in the practice of discerning prayer in decision-making. Even worship was influenced by the growing interest in spiritual practices among the church community. For example, the traditional Presbyterian call to worship was replaced with a Taizé-style chant and a time of silent prayer.
Despite the growing interest in spiritual practices, some misconceptions remain. One is that people who engage in spiritual practices become self-consumed and shy away from service and mission. The exact opposite is the truth. Nobody can spend that much time with God in prayer and not find themselves being called to serve in ministries and mission of love.
A perfect example is a bicycle repair ministry that began at Calvin Church. Several of the church’s elders, who had been steeped in communal prayer, found themselves being nudged to start a bicycle mission to collect bikes for Native American reservations. Their communal prayer life as part of Calvin Church helped them to hear God. One of the elders, Robert Stubenbort, said, “God presented the need to us, and that need is not just the Native Americans who could use the bikes, but also involving youth and adults in the community. Our church has always been focused on praying and discerning what God is calling us to do. We have a heart for mission.”
The difficulty of much of the modern spirituality movement, in addition to its individualism, is the tendency to treat spirituality in a functional way. We’ve often assumed that if someone engages in contemplative prayer, walks a labyrinth, or becomes part of a spiritual growth group, they will become spiritual.
A spiritual community starts with the transformation it seeks in its community, and then adopts a slate of practices and endeavors it hopes will lead people to become transformed. The focus is the connection with God. As the spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill said in her book Life as Prayer, “A mystic is not a person who practices unusual forms of prayer, but a person whose life is ruled by this thirst.”
In other words, being spiritual isn’t about the practice. It’s about the thirst for a deep connection with God that practices can nurture.
The modern church has fallen victim to the Americanization of everything, meaning the individualization of everything. Congregational life has become defined through the quantifying of success — how many are in worship, how many are members, and how much was given?
The spiritual life in a congregation is much more qualified — how loving is the congregation, how deep the sense of relatedness with God, how willing to serve?
Spiritual practices lead to a deeper quality, but ultimately also to a greater community.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish is the executive director of Samaritan Counseling Center in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation.
Church creates a spiritual practices calendar
By Ann Alexander | Presbyterians Today
Individually and in community, members of First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, are experiencing spiritual practices.
“Our intention is to use spiritual practices to grow and learn together,” said Lisa Anderson, a church member who chairs the Antioch Group, a committee that identifies possible ministries to expand the ways in which God is encountered.
First Presbyterian, a congregation of 3,000, began holding contemplative services during Advent and Lent several years ago. That experience led to an exploratory group of people looking to grow deeper in their faith. Two years ago, the church created a spiritual practices calendar, offering the congregation a more-focused approach to journeying together.
Each month, the church highlights a practice — some familiar and approached in a new way, such as combining prayer with a labyrinth experience; others new, such as visio divina, a way of using images in prayer; and some often not thought of as a spiritual practice, such as hospitality and stewardship.
The monthly practice is introduced through the church’s magazine, website and social media, including suggestions for related reading and online resources. Then comes doing — exploring the practice in group activities. Last November, for instance, the spiritual practice was community.
The congregation participated in a service of celebration and reconciliation with a sister church, Saint James Presbyterian, which had been founded by former slaves who belonged to First Presbyterian. Community-building continued in November as the Presbyterian Women from both churches held a joint luncheon and members began organizing small dinner groups to meet throughout the year.
In December, the focus was hospitality. One of the church’s most popular outreach ministries is Hot Dish & Hope, a free dinner served to the hungry and homeless each Tuesday and Thursday. December brought other opportunities: A local rabbi was invited to speak about Judaism in the time of Jesus. A multicultural meal took place in the church. A children’s group celebrated at a Christmas party with children from Congolese immigrant families.
Throughout February and March this year, in keeping with the spirit of the Lenten season, the church will focus on discernment, confession and self-examination.
“Spiritual practices move us from head to heart,” said Donna Chase, director of Christian formation. Not that the head is unimportant. For Presbyterians, however, that movement can be tough, Chase explained.
“Spiritual practices help us develop a relationship with Christ that leads to a living out of the fruit of the Spirit,” she said. “Becoming more like Christ is the whole purpose.”
Ann Alexander is communications director for First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro.
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