Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grandpa Project 5: Lessons Learned from a Real Grandpa

This is my maternal grandpa John Wesley Mitchell.  The handsome rascal getting a haircut is me at age 3 or 4.  Grandpa John was a union machinist by trade, democrat by politics and a grandpa in the purest sense of the word.  He taught me many lessons for life.  Some mom is proud of, some she isn't, and some I may never tell her about.  Grandpa taught me of sharpening knives, frying potatoes, catching fish, making things work with what you have,  and many colorful quotations that won't be used in any sermons. I have a number of pictures of him but this is my favorite.  He was a country man with only one leg.  He lost one to infection as a youngster.  He was never 'handicapped' that I could see and a lot of fun to be around.  He loved me and I love him still.  When life gets complicated, I catch my self thinking about throwing dirt clods in his garden.  It is a simple and quiet memory.  Another one of those lessons learned.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: A Ridiculously Good Book; "Life WIthout Limits" by Nick Vujicic

Life Without Limits - Nick Vujicic

All of our lives have challenges. Without perspective we can dissolve into our challenges rather than our purpose.  Nick Vujicic's (pronounced Voy-a-chich)book "Life Without Limits" gives a victorious perspective on how we are not defined by our "handicaps".  Nick was born without arms and legs.  He has overcome any handicap from this physical reality to become and successful philanthropist, motivational speaker and evangelist.  The mechanics of his abilities to drive, swim, surf, scuba dive and simply go to the bathroom are curious and amazing.  This book celebrates victory, "ridiculous" victory.

The first victory is that of hope.  Nick writes, "I was never crippled until I lost hope.  The second is faith.  Only a firm vision of being a child of God and working within God's purpose plan could he live in victory.  Thankfully he does not reduce his message into glib bumper sticker aphorisms.  He does not leave out dark thoughts of suicide and the times that people let him down.  Yet God's grace and Hope driven Faith is where he finds his motivation and sheds it onto the reader.  The final victory is less explicit.  His family system's response to his physical reality was miraculous.  They had faith when he couldn't and did not allow him to be or become a cripple.  His family paid a price for his resilience and the return on that investment is beyond dollars and cents.  His family is amazing.

The book gives a lot of stories from childhood through ministry.  His trip to South Africa is memorable but my favorite is when he took a ride on the luggage carousel in an airport.  He shares part of his motivational program with his "Ridiculous Rules" and other bullet pointed teaching moments.  "Life without Limits" is well written, a quick and infectious read, balanced with anecdotes and teaching, and shares an amazing network of ways to become a philanthropist.  I am better for reading this book.

Thanks to Multnomah Press for giving me this book free in exchange for this review as a part of their bloggers for books program and thank you for taking the time to read this review.     Alan Van Hooser, TheThoughtfulPastor Blog.

More details from the publisher are at

Addendum:  The author is putting together a pretty respectable acting career. Check out the Butterfly Circus, a 20 minute short film, on YOUTUBE at   The Aussies are building an industry for these high quality shorts and this is one of them.  The more I see of this guy the more I like.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Christian Meditation: "Centering Prayer" as a practical application to life

I am a non-Roman Catholic, contemporary, mainline, fairly conservative Christian Pastor. I want to know "Christ and the power of his resurrection" through a deeper prayer life.  I also want to be more effective at the slippery task of  teaching prayer to others.  My Lenten Journey for 2011 has included Basil Pennington's book "Centering Prayer". (Image Publishing, 1980-I have a brief review here also)      It's blessing has been to discover that Contemplative Prayer and Meditation are the same thing.  Shocking, huh.  This is a brief attempt to understand and share truly Christian meditation. This brief article is meant to be a seed for your practice and not the final fruit.  Here goes..............

Meditation/meditate is the Old/Jewish Testament, better the Psalmist's,  word haga or hagut, and the Greek Word, meleteo.  They both imply intense thinking, utterance,and  imagining in an intentional giving of oneself totally to the process of connecting with God.  Where the word Pray, various Heb. and Gr. proseuchomai  is used with different nuances-intercession, praise, confession etc.-Meditation has one single use, simply to "be still and know."  Both prayer and meditation are called for in both Old and New Testements.  Both are modeled by Christ.  Bottom line: Prayer and meditation are explicitly and intimately Christian practice. Still, "meditation" seems to have been given over to other world religions and the contemporary Christian Disciple will be blessed by discovering or re-discovering it.

First, we need a starting place.  Central to Christian Meditation or "Centering Prayer", is the use of the "Prayer Word".  Pennington compares it to a "mantra" though he does not use this more eastern term.  The Prayer word is a single word or short phrase that is discovered (Mine comes from Psalm 52), and trains the mind to focus and center on God.  Find yours in scripture, a song or in your heart but it must be yours.  The purpose is not to the denial of outer thoughts or distractions but to be detached from them.  (p. 102)  The writer compares this to having a conversation with one person at a noisy party.  We can focus on a conversation with one individual while the noise and bustle go on around us.  When we realize that we have lost our focus, speaking the prayer word is the action we take to snap our attention back to a God centered conversation.

Set a particular place aside for prayer if possible, sit quietly and allow yourself time, at least 20 minutes.  Lots of busy people do this in the shower-it may be the only quiet some get during the day.  Begin by repeating your prayer word, keep it simple, and allow the prayer word to fade into silence. stay in this centered place and listen.  God has something to say to you-and probably won't use words.

The question that I most often get when teaching prayer is, "What do I do with these distracting thoughts that I have?"  Centering Prayer is a healing and nurturing time with God that is destroyed by external thoughts.  These thoughts are wild monkeys swinging through our minds and stealing intimacy with God.  Pennington's Chapter 6 deals lends a five way strategy to deal with them by using the gentle assertion of your personal prayer word.  These are five common types of thoughts that disrupt our prayer and meditation.

The first type of though is the "Simple Thought".  These are the natural and steady stream of thoughts that simply need to be put aside by using your prayer word to deny them a hand hold.  Second is the "Catching Thought" that hooks us and comes to us during the course or prayer.  They are born in prayer and can drag our awareness away.  We must hold tenaciously to the prayer word "which capsulates the the fullness of my faith-love relationship with God."  (105)  You don't quit but renew your prayer.  Third are the "Monitor Thoughts".  These are very troublesome because they tempt us to make prayer a production event or worse a celebration of what we are doing.  To conquer this we must remember who we are praying to  and "ruthlessly" insert the prayer word and return to the presence.  Fourth are the "Bright Idea" thoughts.  These tempt us to leave prayer to go and do something-probably something good but half baked if we allow it to interfere with our prayer.  Don't quit.  Center with the prayer word and complete the time of prayer.  Fifth and finally, the "Stressful Thoughts".  Prayer can bring us stresses from relations and situations in our daily lives.  It is this type of thought that can halt the prayer that can bring healing of the stresser.  Only by being aware and staying centered can we continue to experience God's presence in prayer.  (P. 103-110)

This process is better learned with a spiritual director or a trusted Christian friend that shares your journey.  However, God has given you a sufficient amount of information to discover deeper prayer on your own.  Pennington parallels Centering/contemplative/meditative Prayer with Sleep.  "Just as dreams release tension from our lives while we sleep, so too do thoughts and images that flow through our minds while we are resting in contemplative prayer."  (p. 109)  In this contemplation God is given our thoughts and takes over.

We need an action to end also.  The author suggests using the Lord's Prayer or other formula prayer as a way to "come out" of prayer.  A favorite scripture, poem or song would work also.  End this precious time with a formal invitation for God to come with us on the rest of our journey.

We begin with a process.  We will know that it is successful when it disappears and we no longer need it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Essential Books: Centering Prayer by M. Basil Pennington-Is meditation consistant with Christianity??

I have to be reminded occasionally that I need to pray-or better said, I need to NEED to pray.  I began 'Centering Prayer' as a Lenten thing and to further the discipline of reading an old book for every new one. I actually put it on my "to read" list after hearing it outlined during a seminar several years ago.  I found this paperback copy for 50 cents at a used book sale last month.  It has been a move of God's Grace.

Fr. Pennington, a Cistercian, wrote this book in the late 1970's after a series of popular retreats and lectures.  It was well received and sold just as well.  This was and is a sign of the spiritual hunger that we all have built into us.  Real people want to know how to pray.  He offers a method that gives us both permission and a starting place to learn prayer.  "Centering Prayer" is  Roman Catholic in its scholarship and viewpoint but is much broader that one might think.  A non-Christian will find resonance here as much as I did.

Pennington's  writing style is efficient and clear though he gives numerous lengthy quotations from many of the church fathers.  You will have to wade through a lot of history, some Latin terms and other jargon.  Prepare yourself for the first 60 pages.  They are confusing unless you have read some Merton, Desert Fathers and other Christian Mystics.  HOWEVER, it it worth the effort and prepares the reader for the method.  The writer offers a practical way to answer the question:

Is Meditation Un-Christian?  The short answer is no-we just call it contemplative prayer. The most word-centered evangelical cannot deny that our delight in God is to "meditate day and night" on scripture.   Sometimes we forget about the oriental influence on Christianity and Judiasm.  Why should the eastern religions have a lock on this anyway.  It is scriptural and grows the Disciple.

Pennington defines "Centering Prayer" as, "any method by which the pray-er seeks to bring his or her scattered thoughts and feelings together for a certain deepening."  (61) It is neither new nor unique to this book but an application of ancient Christian praxis.  The 3-rule "formula", 1-take a minute to quiet down;2- Rest in the Center by the use of a "prayer word" that can be repeated until we achieve that meditative rest; and  3- to use our prayer word when we become aware of anything that disturbs our prayer filled center to return to prayer. End with or  "come out" of prayer time with an "Our Father" or other formula prayer (65)  The successful end to the method is that it is no longer needed.

The method's essence is in the prayer word.  Eastern meditation would call this a mantra, though the author hesitates to use that word.  Deriving your prayer word is the crucial first step in prayerful "rootedness or centeredness."  To find God we need quiet.  To find quiet in such a noisy world we need a starting place.  That start comes with " a quieting word, a gentle word, a soft word that quiets the mind and allows the heart space."  (71)  The chapter on "New  Packaging" is basically a commentary on the book, "The Cloud of Unknowing" and gives wise counsel on choosing your unique prayer word.

The author is clear that prayer method is only to assist and the purity of prayer can only be achieved when kept very simple. The key is to be in touch with Christ and to "Know Thyself" before plumbing deeper spiritual depths.   The book also provides written prayers, daily schedules, retreat outlines, relaxation exercises and other helps.  His method is useful for all of us "Martha/Active's" who secretly want that "Mary/Contemplative" prayer experience.   The Bibliography is rich with resources too.  Many of them are public domain and on Google Library.

The book begs to be used.  Here is how I applied it to my day-to-day.  Each year I study the Psalm of my age.  A United Methodist Bishop started me on this discipline several years ago.  My "prayer word" comes from Psalm 52-"I trust in the steadfast Love of God".  When my day gets distracted I say this until I actually hear it.  At the top of the hour I take a full moment of quiet meditation, centering on this psalm and afterward write a short prayer in my journal.  I seek the quiet daily for the suggested 20 minutes at a time too.  I am blessed to have an office and a prayer garden at work and am building on at home too.  However, even in my busiest times I can find that 2-3 minutes to center up the next hour.  The very busiest among us can will a precious centering moment without regard to the noise, haste or place.  The fruit of this practice is rich and healthy everyday living.  Christian prayer/meditation is practical.

This is the beginnings of my prayer garden at home.  Watch for more progress as God allows.
I am building benches and adding other faith expressions to give me a sacred space to pray and study.  This is also a bird and butterfly friendly garden.  Not my usual style but it is pretty cool to watch the wildlife.

I read a lot of this type of material and maybe you do too. Sometimes the essence of prayer gets lost in the words. I needed to be reminded to prayer today.    How about you?  Christ comes alive when we meditate on His word and not merely read it.  "Centering Prayer" gives us a new starting point and goes on my essentials shelf.