Posted in Different Scriptures

an experiment in prayer.

Take a deep breath for a moment, and prepare yourself to read the next few paragraphs slowly. As far as you are able, silence the noises and distractions in your environment. Acknowledge the noises you cannot silence, and set them aside mentally for now. Be sure you’re sitting comfortably in your chair.

Relax your body as far as you are able to, while still being able to read these words. Take another deep breath, but slower this time. Notice the breath entering your lungs, and become aware of the way God has created your brain to respond to increased levels of oxygen in your bloodstream from such a deep breath. It helps you to relax. Slow, deep breathing helps offer you a time and space where you step out of the routine for this moment. You step out of the pace of what needs to be accomplished, and what is depending on you, and allow yourself simply to “be” here and now.

I want you to imagine a leaf, which is easy to do right now because it is Autumn. Imagine all the colors you’ve seen recently, or look out the window for a moment to see what colors are visible there. Remember the warmth of summer, when all was green. Then the trees begin to change slowly, so that some of them are deep brown even now. Maybe you have seen, or can see even now – bright oranges, yellows, deep reds, and all hues and shades in between. Imagine what the trees will look like in the middle of winter – bare, branches blowing in the cold wind. They will be seemingly lifeless, as the flow of life within has slowed in order to survive until the higher temperatures return.

I want you to take another deep breath, and all yourself to examine your response to the question: What is the flow of spiritual life within you these days? Slow down for a moment. You are the only one who can guide yourself forward at a pace that offers this moment to God.

Maybe you feel vibrant and green.

You have experienced the shining of the sun, and the warmth of relationship both with God and others that have contributed to feeling like life is flowing into all the areas of who you are.

But possibly, there are parts of you…and possibly even the whole, that has begun to slow down internally.

The harsh conditions you have experienced in the world have made you feel cold. The flow of life seems to have slowed down. Some of it seems natural, and you can see the beauty in the changes of color as you experience the ebbs and flows of life, experiencing the natural seasons of living in a broken world. But it’s also possible the flow seems to have stopped to the point where it’s hard to find the beauty even in the leaves that remain, because they appear to be dried and falling already.

It happens so slowly, you may not even notice until this moment – taking time to examine the life and Spirit within you.

Even as you assess and allow yourself to be vulnerable to….yourself, the false statements begin to surface. Accusations to make you feel guilty or a sense of shame. “You haven’t done enough.” “You didn’t have such life within you to begin with.” “Such an experience isn’t possible, or is only for others.”

These are lies from the accuser. They have no place here. Imagine unplugging that speaker, or crumpling up the paper such words are written on, and tossing them in the garbage.

Instead, hear these words: (continue to read slowly – your tendency here will be to scan quickly through these words…but read them slowly, as if directly from God for you in this moment, with His intent to bring refreshment & healing to your soul)

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Rev. 3:20) “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28) “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:5, 7-11)

Know that metaphors are limited, and you are not a tree. Smile at how silly that sounds, and yet how important it is in this moment. Because it means you do not have to wait until a better external season for life to return. You do not have to wait until conditions are less harsh, to invite the life of the Holy Spirit that is available to you right now, to flow within you – bearing fruit that offers healing.

Not by any special effort, although it may make you want to respond in particular ways. But it begins simply by allowing yourself to be Loved by a God who has reconciled you to Himself already, and forgiven everything that could have separated you previously.

Spend a moment being thankful for such Love.

Come back as often as needed, and especially when you forget such a need exists.

Amen.

Posted in Different Scriptures, Spoken Word

Ecclesiastes 5:1-20

I come before You, aware of my faults
Aware of my penchant for error
I know that being unclean in Your presence
Is enough to fill me with terror

I look on my moments of worship
So quick to fill silence with noise
It seems a common self-defense
The shame of my sin oft’ deploys

Yet here I’ve permission for silence
As You’ve also silenced my shame
The accuser unable to point a finger
You’ve covered me with Your own Name

For You are the source of all justice
In You are all wrong things made right
Here as I come and be silent, Lord
Grant me to see with Your sight

It is good to live today all for You
Laboring not for tomorrow, but more
Aware of the context eternity brings
Knowing Your Love is assured

The gift of enjoyment You offer
Joy that integrates all with your Way
Grace that invites New foundation
Not for past, or for future, but Today

Posted in Different Books, Different Scriptures

Promoting Relationship…

As a pastor, I am always wanting to grow in my understanding of relationships. The psychology, sociology, and neurology that go into the ways we relate to one another, ourselves, and even the ways we pursue a relationship with God are of significant value.

Presently, that means I’m reading a book called “Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections”. One of the technology books I read with our older daughters this past year talked about the importance of face to face interactions in terms of building healthy relationships. It ranked the strength of communication styles for building a deepened connection, and texting (a primary form of communication for most of us) was toward the bottom, under phone calls, video chats (another primary form under COVID), and of course the number one – face to face, in person, conversation.

With such a low amount of connecting in person during the past couple of years, it’s no wonder that the worlds of psychology, sociology, and neurology are paying attention also, and figuring out how to help people understand (and of course, I realize, capitalize on this moment for profit-making also). Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, you’ve experienced loneliness during the past couple of years, and if their research for human relationships holds similar for our relationship with God (my guess is, there are definitely connections), you might be feeling a bit disconnected from the presence of God as well.

One of the basic premises of the book, is that their research shows a fundamental part of building more meaningful connections is this element called “Attunement”. They break it down into four components: “relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness.” The book goes into exploring these components, offering ways to become more aware, research to understand & improve each area, and exercises they have found to be helpful. Of course, it’s written for all people, and not a “religious” book. You won’t find them suggesting meditation on scripture, quiet breath-prayer/prayer walks, cultivating an awareness of God’s presence, etc. But they still offer some helpful insight, which can be adapted as needed.

Of particular note neurologically, is the research on how the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system responds to stress by releasing hormones, “including cortisol (often considered the body’s main stress hormone)”. The authors note that “experiments conducted at McGill University have shown that a stress response involving cortisol release can block a person’s emotional empathy for another person.” As we look at our culture today, especially the promotion of anxiety and stress by those who profit from our attention, we can easily see one of their conclusions then: “modern human culture has brought us a variety of long-term worries and stresses, and chronic activation of our bodies’ stress systems can have negative effects on our physical health, as Sapolsky points out, and can also have negative effects on our ability to tune in and connect to each other. This continual activation of the stress systems can promote a vicious cycle as stress increases a sense of disconnection; and being isolated and disconnected, in turn, increases stress.”

As a pastor, it helps to be aware that people are coming to church, and to life in general, with a decreased ability to form or participate in relationships with empathy. It also helps me to understand that simply praying “Lord, help us all have decreased levels of cortisol.” is not a faithful response to the understanding God has given us about how we’ve been created. As the authors write, “the activity of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) can reduce the activity of the HPA system.”

So what can I do to help activate and strengthen the activity of the PNS?  Dr. Stephen W. Porges stresses the importance of the “polyvagal theory”, as his research has found that the vagus nerve (which runs from our brain stem down into the abdomen, and is a major nerve of the PNS) can be calmed purposefully in several ways (here are some examples). One of the easiest ways, as we stand in the front of our churches in a moment of prayer or worship, aware of such things – is to slow our speech, model deep breaths, and even invite our people to pay attention to their own breathing. To pause and take a deep breath not only allows us to prayerfully consider what words to say next, it is also allowing a holy pause which can allow our PNS to wash our minds with responses that reduce cortisol and raise levels of oxytocin (a “neuropeptide involved in social bonding…including feelings of trust, generosity, empathy, and understanding.”)

It also means, as I encourage people young and old to spend personal time with God – I should emphasize that such time with God will be deepened by awareness of our breathing and body. It’s not as helpful to “dip in and out” of a 5 minute devotional, forcing God to connect in the time we give Him. We will improve and deepen our moments with God by finding ways to relax, de-stress, and become more physically attuned to our own emotional state as we move into His presence.

May you take a moment to breathe slow today, finding ways to turn away from the anxieties and stresses (even legitimate ones), knowing that purposefully embracing patterns of Sabbath and physical peace allow our relationships with others, with ourselves, and even with God to flourish in new and deeper ways…

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.’ – Jesus (Matthew 11:28)