Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Pursuing God

We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time
(T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”)

In my seminary days (35 years ago now) I remember hearing, “Being is more important than doing.” Those who said this held that we act out of a centre that comes from dwelling in God, so that however important acting is, being is more important.

Recently I read an article titled, “Churches could fill their pews with millennials if they just did this.” The author doesn’t quite deliver on the title, but his main point is as follows: “I’m all for love and a personal relationship with God, but I choose to follow the man who teaches that political action is worship, that social justice is love.”

When I was in seminary, I resonated more with that writer than with those who told me that being precedes doing. I wanted to do justice more than I wanted to pray. Over the years, however, I have changed my mind. Doing is easy—for a short time. Doing justice for a lifetime requires something more. Doing requires a deep inner connection with God. Doing requires Being.

So today I want to describe a lifetime of searching for God, and some of the ways in which God has found me. These descriptions fall into two groups: what you might call mountain-top experiences, and the daily routine of spiritual disciplines.

The Mountain Tops
When I was 14 years old, I was baptized into the Brethren in Christ Church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on a Saturday afternoon. On Friday evening we gave our testimonies to the church and were accepted for baptism. Saturday was the baptism. On Sunday I took part in feetwashing and the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Throughout the events of that weekend, I was aware of a profound sense of God’s presence. My father tells me that my face was shining when I came out of the water, and still today the feetwashing service moulded my understanding of the Christian life decisively.

In 1967 I entered Messiah College in Pennsylvania. In chapel we sat alphabetically, so that I sat next to Rachel Cooper. Rai was a pastor’s daughter who had become agnostic in her faith and was determined to convert others to her agnosticism. We had many good arguments! One evening in the second semester we arrived at the dining hall at the same time. That evening Rai told me that she had met the Lord in a new way, and she asked me if I had ever led anyone to the Lord. I spent the next hour making excuses as to why I did not share my faith publicly. I liked arguing, but not sharing! We ended up in the mailbox area praying over the water fountain as I recommitted my life to Christ. That evening again formed me as one who wants more than anything else to know God and live for God.

After college I returned to Zimbabwe and taught high school mathematics there for three years. In the third year, August 1974, I remember a series of services at Mtshabezi Mission, during our church’s General Conference. A man named Luke Keefer preached each evening on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. On the last night of the conference, the congregation responded to Keefer’s preaching by surging forward, seeking God’s Spirit in their lives. I remember how we sang, “Woza Moya Oyingcwele”, as we sought for God’s Spirit. We ended up in circles of about 15 people, praying to be filled with the Spirit. Once again as I sought God, God found me and filled me with his presence.

One final event recently, here at Providence. Without going into details, I felt like was as close to a collapse as I have ever been in my life. The experience was similar to depression, but was spiritual in origin, not emotional or mental. Kathleen Norris calls it “acedia”, and she says that you can tell the difference from depression by the fact that it responds to spiritual discipline, while depression responds to counselling and medication. My acedia responded to God’s presence through prayer and spiritual discipline. That experience, February 2009, was again a critical time of searching for God’s presence, and of being found by God. Whatever age we are, we need God, and God is waiting for us at every age, to speak into our lives with new life and with God’s Holy Spirit.

Spiritual Discipline
Throughout my life I have been taught that a basic part of seeking God is regular spiritual discipline. When I was young I was told that you should get up a half hour earlier than you normally would in order to read the Bible and pray. Five chapters from the OT and two chapters from the NT will take you through the Bible in a year. This kind of discipline works well for my Dad, who divides the number of pages in the Bible by 365 and then reads that many pages a day. I admire such discipline, but it doesn’t work for me.

As I got older and married Lois and had two sons, we tried family devotions. Reading to the boys before they went to bed worked well, and we would pray after the reading, but I must admit that we read Narnia more enthusiastically than Joshua and Judges. We involved our sons in Bible Quizzing, which was good, but hardly replaced family devotions. I won’t describe all that we did; it is enough to say that we tried to be disciplined, and we did not always succeed.

Now that the boys are gone, Lois and I are again trying to work out how one interacts with God in Bible reading and prayer. This brings me to something that we have been doing a little over a month—using the music and silence practiced in Taizé worship. Let me tell you a bit about Taizé and then describe how we use it.

Taizé is a small village in France, not far from Geneva, Switzerland. In 1940 Brother Roger began a small community of brothers there, who made it their mission to be a place of refuge for Jews and others in Nazi-occupied France. In 1942 he had to flee to Switzerland, but in 1944 he returned. After the war they continued as a place of refuge for anyone who needed it. Their common life revolved around daily prayers drawn from several contemplative traditions.

Over time these prayers began to attract travellers, who came to join in the life of the community for brief periods at a time. Today during the summer months 5,000 to 6,000 young people come from Sunday afternoon to the following Sunday to share in the life of the community. Lois and I and our sons spent half a week there in December 2003. At that time of year there were only a few travellers who joined in. The community itself consists of 200 to 300 people in the Brothers of Taizé and in a community of sisters nearby. Their life still revolves around daily prayer.

There are three times of prayer a day—before breakfast, in the middle of the day, and about 8 in the evening. Each prayer time as we experienced it was something like thi
  • We began with a time of singing the distinctive Taizé chants—perhaps 15 minutes. A basic characteristic of the chants is that they are open-ended, with various solo verses that can be added by the brothers and sisters, rather than defined as hymns are. They combine form with a kind of improvisation.
  • There was a Scripture reading—usually an OT reading and then a NT reading, read in French, German, and English.
  • More singing of the chants followed, for perhaps 10 minutes, preparing for the silence.
  • Then came the silence—10 minutes of silence during which one meditates on the reading or in one way or another tries to become fully silent in God’s presence. When one becomes fully silent, one can hear God’s voice.
  •  Finally there was a final, joyful chant. Occasionally Brother Roger (then in his 80s) would give a brief two minute or so homily. Often we simply began singing again.
  • After a 40-45 minute service we left the meeting place. A few brothers stayed behind for any who wanted special prayer, and a few others continued to sing.

 Recently I read a history and examination of Taizé, an excellent study that reconnected me with this significant week in my life. Then I thought of trying the Taizé worship in our home. I suggested it to Lois and she readily agreed. This is what our adapted prayer looks like:
  • At about 9 pm we light a candle on a small table in our living room and lean a cross against the table. This serves to define the space as a sanctuary. Then we turn on dim lights with one brighter light to read by.
  • We start with one or two songs from our Taizé songbook, sung for three to five minutes.
  • We read the gospel reading for the day, taken from the lectionary.
  • We sing another brief chant or two. Then we turn off the brighter light, leaving the room dimly lit.
  • We sit on the floor before the cross (similar to the way that they do at Taizé) and spend about five to seven minutes in silence.
  • After the silence we do brief prayers, usually starting with our children: “For Vaughn and Lauren”—“Lord, hear our prayer.” “For Nevin and Alison”—“Lord, hear our prayer.” We add requests for others who are on our hearts at that moment in the same style, without elaborating on the requests.
  • Finally we close with the Lord’s Prayer. “Gathering our praises and requests into one, we pray as our Saviour taught us, our Father in Heaven …”

 I have learned several things from our practice of Taizé. One is that I do silence more easily than Lois does. She has too much energy to sit still for long! Another is that when you have talk about your concerns with each other, to pray “For this person” is enough. God is not impressed with our false eloquence, but responds to our hearts’ desire.

I have found also that I pray better in my own private prayers when we also pray together. I have other times when I read the Bible and pray on my own, but I hold those times better when I am also engaged in regular prayer with Lois.

I have learned that the prayers are a gift of grace, not a load that is bound on our backs. When we have guests, or go out for the evening, we don’t necessarily do the prayers. We pray together again the next night instead.

I have found that I miss the prayer when we don’t do it. I can miss one night because I know we will pray together again soon. I can miss two nights if I have to. But then I need the time of prayer because it builds a foundation in my life on which I can build with other acts of devotion and which gives me greater stability in my life.

I have found that the prayers give me a space out of which to act. My old friends in seminary were right. “Doing comes from Being.” In the words of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (with which I began), life in Christ is “A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything).”

I have been searching for God my whole life, and by God’s grace he has found me.

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