Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Focusing on Spritiual Formation Just Might Save the UMC [Real Food 02]

Last week, we looked at mission as one thing we can do to "save" the UMC: that is, to help us weather the cultural storm in which we find ourselves and come out on the other side having been Christ for the world. But while mission is life-giving by invigorating our Christian life and imparting it with meaning, it can also be physically or emotionally tiring. Each month before I help lead our sandwich ministry among my homeless neighbors, I "charge up" emotionally and spiritually. I prepare my heart to meet whomever I will met, however I will meet them, and wherever they are in life. This usually involves reflection, an inner re-orientation toward others, and an awareness of things in the environment that might be affecting my street-dwelling neighbors on that particular day. Often I do something quiet and reflective before I go out. Likewise, folks who go on work trips must prepare themselves mentally and physically, and take care not to strain themselves at the beginning of the trip so that they can complete the work they went to do.

The types of preparation for ministry I just described are more specific to a certain situation or event. What about weekly mission participation? How does one prepare for that? One way to prepare, or charge up, to be in mission is to practice regular spiritual formation. 

 Everybody raised in the church knows that if you "read your Bible, pray every day, then you'll grow, grow, grow" but if you don't, you'll "shrink, shrink, shrink". But many of us did not grow up reading the Bible each day or even (gasp!) each week, even in Sunday School. How does one establish a spiritual practice or set of spiritual practices? Well, first we can look at some different types of spiritual practices. There are diverse ways to connect with God in our everyday lives. I would say that anything that helps you re-center, reflect, and pray counts as a spiritual practice. All spiritual practices employ mindfulness, which is being aware of your surroundings and focusing only on what you are doing right then (not writing a mental grocery list or planning your errands). Mindfulness helps you to slow down, focus on the present, and reflect. Here are some spiritual practices you might want to try:
  • Walking in nature: many people feel closer to God when they take walks or spend time in nature. You can find a guide to being mindful on using nature walks here, which can help you use thm as a spiritual practice.
  • Yoga, Zumba, or whatever physical activity helps you center and clear your mind
  • Prayer: practicing silence, using breath prayers, walking a labyrinth, or using prayer beads
  • Fasting: this practice is not for everyone, especially when it comes to fasting from food. You may need a fast from online media or even social networks if you realize they are taking up too much time and energy in your life or if disturbing news is upsetting you.
  • Lectio Divina: this is the practice of praying the Bible and is a very useful way of listening to the Holy Spirit. You can find an online Lectio Divina guide here.
  • Devotional reading: try to pick reading that is deep rather than wide, and is time-tested. Here are some suggestions:
  • Singing: this practice requires mindful breathing and focus on the text being sung. If this practice works for you, try going to CUMC's Taize service or joining the Chancel Choir.
The more you know yourself, the better able you will be to select spiritual practices that work for you. For instance, I'm not a huge fan of the woods, and I have trouble sitting still, so nature walks and sitting in silence might be things that would frustrate me rather than help me. My good friend, Joy, loves to hike, so nature walks would be a good practice for her.  I also don't do well when I haven't eaten, so fasting from food is a bad idea for me. Labyrinths and singing do help me focus, though, and fasting from social media can be helpful if I'm feeling a sensory overload. Which practices you choose to use depend on your temperament and interests. If you're a young person who's still getting to know yourself, you might try many different practices to see what works for you. If it helps you re-connect with God, great. If not, don't feel guilty about letting it go.

Lectio Divina and devotional reading can work for lots of different folks, and I highly recommend both practices. If you are interested in them, you might want to have a conversation with Pastor Jane, who specializes in prayer. She has extensive knowledge of Christian devotional literature and can help you find a book that works for you.

Two more spiritual practices used by Protestants are Fellowship and Learning. As Methodists, we come from a heritage of people who love to learn, and who love to get together and have a good meal! While we can't have a potluck every week, Sunday School combines fellowship and learning for many people. If you aren't involved in a Sunday School class, I encourage you to try it. If your Sunday School class could be diving deeper into the Bible or devotional literature, suggest it. The more you engage in learning our Good Book and spiritual tradition, the more your faith will be transformed. Sometimes it can take a lot of effort, but it's worth the time and energy because ultimately it feed our souls and results in a beautiful new creation inside us.

Spiritual practices are, in my opinion, the counter-balance to mission in the Christian life. One is focused outward and one is focused inward. Both are necessary for a balanced and healthy spiritual life. When you include both in your life of faith, and you strike the right balance between the two, I think you'll find the peace that passes understanding.

Moreover, Churches full of spiritually healthy people will transform the UMC. When folks get to know us, they will be able to sense a deep spirituality within us. That trait is attractive to a lot of people, especially in our time of manic busyness and competition for achievement. There's a lot of empty striving in our culture now, and many people feel anxious and even alienated. When they meet someone with deep spirituality, they can sense groundedness and peace, which is the antidote to today's malaise. Part of transforming the world as Christians can be showing folks a new way of being that is Spirit-centered instead of achievement-centered.

So we've looked at focusing out and in, but what about up? To focus upward, toward the Divine, we go to worship. In worship, we focus on God for the sake of focusing on God. That is the element of "saving" the Church that we will examine next week. Come back next time for the last installment in our series: worship!

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