Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Means of Grace

This Lenten season at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, we have been exploring alternative forms of prayer as spiritual disciplines. In doing so, we hope that people will discover new practices that draw them closer to God.

Our Christian tradition offers us rich resources of a variety of contemplative and meditative methods that can aid us in our spiritual journeys. Within the Wesleyan tradition these spiritual disciplines are often understood as "means of grace."

For Wesley the means of grace were "...outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby God might convey to humanity, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace." That is, they were methods by which one could have access to or be receptive to God's grace moving in and through the world.

In the Large Minutes, Wesley distinguishes between “instituted” and “prudential” means of grace.[1] Instituted means of grace were those means either recorded in scripture or practiced by the early church. In the list of instituted means, Wesley included prayer, searching the Scriptures, communion, fasting and holy conferencing.

Prudential means of grace, on the other hand, were distinctly Methodist disciplines that proved helpful in holy living. These practices, including the society’s General Rules (do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend on all God’s ordinances), attendance at class and band meetings, vegetarianism, abstinence of late meals, temperance of alcohol and drinking water, were all acceptable alternative means of living a holy life. While not instituted in Scripture, they were for Wesley nonetheless appropriate means of coming to know and follow God. These means tended to change and vary over time as the people called Methodist adopted new practices to assist them in their pursuit of holiness.

Wesley understood that our spiritual journeys are as individual and diverse as we are. Each one of us comes to know God in and through different means. For Wesley, the point was not which means, but how often and how seriously one devoted themselves to these practices. While all should partake in the instituted means of grace, individuals had to choose for themselves which of the prudential means of grace helped them to draw closer to God.

Likewise today, in our own communities of faith, we are invited into a deeper relationship with God through a variety of spiritual disciplines. Perhaps it is the Jesus prayer or Scripture or holy communion through which you sense God's presence. While for others it might be through origami, or labyrinths or silence that they sense the Holy Spirit. The point is that we try every available means of grace in our journeys toward God and God's kin-dom. The more we practice, the more we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit living and dwelling and breathing in and through us.

This Lent may you find your own means of grace and draw nearer to God day by day.

[1] “Large Minutes,” question 48 in Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1873), 8:322-324; See also Sermon, “The Means of Grace,” in Albert Outler, ed. Sermons (Bicentennial Edition of the Works pf John Wesley), 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-1987), 1: 379-380.

Centering Prayer

This week at CWM, we invite folks to practice yet another spiritual disicpline, centering prayer.

Below is information from the Contemplative Outreach on the use of centering prayer. We hope that you find it a useful tool on your own lenten journey.

Centering Prayer
is a method of prayer, which prepares us to receive the gift of God's presence, traditionally called contemplative prayer. It consists of responding to the Spirit of Christ by consenting to God’s presence and action within. It furthers the development of contemplative prayer by quieting our faculties to cooperate with the gift of God’s presence.

Centering Prayer facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. It emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God. At the same time, it is a discipline to foster and serve this relationship by a regular, daily practice of prayer. It is Trinitarian in its source, Christ-centered in its focus, and ecclesial in its effects; that is, it builds communities of faith.

Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient prayer practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, Lectio Divina, (praying the scriptures), The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.. It was distilled into a simple method of prayer in the 1970’s by three Trappist monks, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist Abbey, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.

Centering Prayer Guidelines

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (cf. Open Mind, Open Heart, chap. 5)

    1. The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

    2. The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable for us.

      1. Examples: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen.

      2. Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Mercy, Listen, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Yes.

    3. Instead of a sacred word a simple inward glance toward the Divine Presence or noticing one’s breath may be more suitable for some persons. The same guidelines apply to these symbols as to the sacred word.

    4. The sacred word is sacred not because of its inherent meaning but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our intention and consent.

    5. Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period because that would be to start thinking again.

  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

    1. “Sitting comfortably” means relatively comfortably so as not to encourage sleep during the time of prayer.

    2. Whatever sitting position we choose, we keep the back straight.

    3. We close our eyes as a symbol of letting go of what is going on around and within us.

    4. We introduce the sacred word inwardly as gently as laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.

    5. Should we fall asleep upon awakening we continue the prayer.

  3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

    1. “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and spiritual experiences.

    2. Thoughts are an inevitable, integral and normal part of Centering Prayer.

    3. By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word” a minimum of effort is indicated. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.

    4. During the course of Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.

  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

    1. The additional 2 minutes enables us to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.

    2. If this prayer is done in a group, the leader may slowly recite a prayer such as the Jesus Prayer while the others listen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Labyrinth As Prayer

This week at CWM, we looked at labyrinths as spiritual tools. The following is from two websites on labyrinths: The Labyrinth Society and Sunday School Lessons. We hope you will take time this week to use a labyrinth in your own prayer and meditation.

Labyrinths are ancient human symbols known to go back at least 3500 years and probably much older. A labyrinth is not a maze, but a walking meditation device with a single winding path from the edge to the center. There are no tricks, choices or dead ends in a labyrinth walk. The same path is used to return to the outside. The labyrinth symbol was incorporated into the floors of the great Gothic pilgrimage cathedrals of France in the twelfth & thirteenth centuries.

Following a labyrinth is a right brain activity (creative, intuitive, imaginative), and can induce or enhance a contemplative or meditative state of mind. It is a tool which can clear the mind, calm our anxieties during periods of transition and stress, guide healing, deepen self-knowledge, enhance creativity, allow for reconciliation, restore feelings of belonging to a community, and lead to personal and spiritual growth.

There are three movements to the labyrinth, and you are free to make of them whatever you like: moving inward, centering, and moving outward. You might want to select one from each movement and try it, or create your own rhythm to each of the movements. Using all the suggestions at once is overwhelming.

Moving Inward: A time to cast off, discard, divest, unwrap, forget

  • Discard our many roles (parent, partner, sister, brother, student, accountant, teacher, pastor) and simply say “I am.”
  • Leave the noise, demands, voices around us, and enter a soothing silence.
  • Unload our guilt, resentment, self-hatred, failures, depression, shame, & forgive ourselves.
  • Leave the familiar world of day-to-day living for a different experience.
  • Choose to ignore all our ideas about God and theology, and return to the beginning of our faith.
  • Reject the anxious desire to get the most out of the labyrinth, simply becoming open and expectant.

Centering: A time to be open, expectant, empty, and receptive

  • Take the risk of recognizing an emptiness within ourselves that only love can fill.
  • Enjoy the silence, stillness, waiting, and the simplicity of nothing happening.
  • Take time to listen to an inner voice or to nothing or to mystery.
  • Contemplate the blessing of the hidden nature of God who cannot be fully known, cannot be manipulated, cannot be made into an idol, cannot be pinned down, contained or tamed
  • Consider the possibility of the new, the miraculous, the transfiguring entering our lives.
  • Remember that the Holy Spirit, like the wind, blows where she will.

Moving Outward: A time to gain direction, satisfaction, comfort, and new energy

  • Decide to continue a journey deeper into the love of Christ.
  • Refuse to take up again the guilt and hatred of the past.
  • Seek a simpler and more focused life.
  • Rest in the knowledge of God's unconditional love.
  • Move away from anxiety toward peace and faith.
  • Seek the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Origami As Prayer

Over the next few weeks CWM will be exploring a series of spiritual disciplines designed to help us contemplate and discern direction in our lives. This week we looked at the practice of origami as a means of stilling and opening our mind through repetitive manual action.

Through the repetitions of detailed and precise movements, we find at times that the chaos buzzing in our head stills in concentration and our mind is opened so that we find a quiet space to contemplate and seek the presence of God in our lives.

David Lister Grimsby has written an article on the connection between origami and the spiritual. Recalling the story of Sadako and the 1000 peace cranes, he reminds us of the prayerful action of origami. He writes:
"Our own folding can be an encouragement to meditation. Many folders have discovered this as they have folded multiple copies of identical modules for a modular creation or folded cranes as part of a thousand to be given to a sick person or to be sent to hang before the statue of Sadako in the Peace park at Hiroshima. As we fold, our fingers are occupied without require mental application and the repetition has the effect of liberating our minds. The folding acts like a mantra which frees our spirit for prayer and meditation. This is one of the most potent links between paperfolding and spirituality."

For more information about the practice of origami see the following websites:

Origami Club
Wikipedia - Origami
Simple Origami


Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. It seems life is a series of endless decisions that lead us through time…what to wear, where to go to college, what to eat, how to act, where to live, to stay in a relationship, to leave a relationship, to go to school, to quit school, and of course, the proverbial quest of figuring out what we want to be when we grow up.

Some decisions are easier than others…what to wear v. what to be (then again I suppose which seems easier all depends on the person, after all), but all of them force us to choose, for in life it seems we never get to have it all.

The decisions and choices we make shape, for better or for worse, the contours of our lives. When lined up one by one, our life choices reveal to ourselves and to the world that which we value (or perhaps, for that matter that which we do not value). Think about it. Every time we make a choice, we choose based on some implicit or explicit value, whether we ourselves realize it or not. If we were to ask each other and ourselves “why” at every choice point in our lives, we would begin to unearth the implicit values driving our lives.

One by one the decisions we make add up to a lifetime of values that shape and mold who we are by what we choose. Often, this is something we realize only too late after one too many bad decisions.

I don’t know about you, but when I begin to think about the way in which my choices translate into values (or perhaps vice versa), I suddenly become more anxious about making decisions. Suddenly it seems as though the weight of the world has descended on my shoulders about the smallest of decisions. How do we possibly begin to make decisions knowing that what we choose bears out what we value and who we will become?

In our Christian tradition, we often talk about the process of making decisions as discernment which can be a spiritual journey in and of itself. Within the wider Christian community there are a myriad of ways to practice this type of discernment. This week, I read an article by Jan Richardson in which she told two Dominican tales about the quirky discernment processes of St. Francis.

“In the first story, St. Francis and Brother Masseo are on a journey and come to a crossroads. Not knowing which path to take, St. Francis tells Brother Masseo to stand at the center of the crossroads and spin himself around. When Masseo finally falls down, Francis and his dizzy brother set off in the direction in which Masseo had landed.

In the second story, Francis is trying to discern whether he should spend all his time in prayer, or whether he should also go out and do some preaching. He senses this is not something he should decide for himself, so he enlists Brother Masseo’s aid once again. He sends Masseo to two trusted souls, St. Clare and Brother Sylvester, to ask them to pray about this question. In prayer, they each discern the same response: Go and preach. When Brother Masseo takes this word back to Francis, he leaps up, saying, ‘In the name of the God, let’s go!’”

Now, before we chuckle a little too hard at our Catholic sisters and brothers in the faith, we must remember that our own dear founder, John Wesley was fond of similar means of discernment using both casting of lots and bibliomancy, the practice of randomly opening the Bible for answers.

Although these stories and practices are not the most sophisticated of Christian spiritual disciplines, they do in fact tell us important things about the process of discernment itself. The first story reminds us that sometimes there is no one right definitive decision to make; no one clear path. At those times it’s sometimes better to set off in some direction if the alternative means staying stuck at the crossroads. At times our anxiety over making a decision can paralyze us and lead us deeper into a depressive inertia. The fact of the matter is, whatever decision we make, God will continue to offer us new possibilities for seeking the good in our lives. God can turn any path around.

The second story reminds us of the importance of community in times of discernment. Faced with a momentous decision, St. Francis realized the question was too big for him alone and sought the insight of those who knew both him and God well. When their mutual answer came, Francis trusted it to be the voice of God known through his community of faith, and he moved forward without hesitation. This idea of communal discernment is nothing new for us Methodists. In our own tradition, Wesley instituted the practice of Christian conferencing or Christian conversation for communal discernment on matters of faith, doctrine and polity.

These questions of decision and discernment are intimately related to the gospel lesson for this week. Matthew 4.1-11. Here we find Jesus in a similar time of discernment having been driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit just following his baptism. For forty days and forty nights Jesus fasts and prays (two other time honored Christians means of discernment).

When Jesus is sent into the wilderness by the Spirit, it is not to pass an ancient rite of passage for gods and heroes of mythic proportion, but rather, I believe it is to invite Jesus to contemplate and discern his choices for ministry. You see, Jesus’ wilderness experience continues the initiation begun by the ritual of his baptism. Child of God Jesus may be, but here at the beginning of his ministry, he needs this liminal space, this in-between place, to deepen his clarity and to prepare him for what lies ahead.

In this desolate landscape, Jesus comes to a clear and vivid understanding about who he is, what is essential to his ministry and what he values most. It is in the wilderness that Jesus is forced to confront his deepest desires, his greatest longings and his most terrifying fears. Here, in the wilderness Jesus faces all the temptations that seek to lure him from the path of God. The choice was his to make. He could have had abundant wealth, unfathomable security or unlimited power. But none of those choices embodied what he valued most. Having spent forty days in deep discernment, Jesus was able to resist temptations for he knew who he was and wanted to be. It was this process of discernment that clarified for Jesus exactly what he was called to do.

More often than not when we think about the process of making decisions, we imagine the traditional list of pros and cons. Drawing a neat line down the center of a clean sheet of paper, we meticulously list out all the reasons in favor and all the reasons against following a certain line of action. How many of you have made up those lists? This process, we believe, is about logical deduction, right? We use our powers of logic and reason to come up with the most rational decision possible.

The only problem with this method is that human decision making is never based in rational reasoning alone. Although we as a post- Enlightenment people like to believe that it is always the cool hand of Reason that guides us, recent studies in psychology have discovered something else going on in our deliberations.

According to research, there are two primary ways of learning and knowing in the human brain. The first is cognitive; the logical, rational part of our brain that most of us are quite familiar with. It is the side of the brain that looks at decisions in a logical way, deducing from the pros and cons which decision is best. The other way of knowing is affective; the part of our brain that processes emotions and feelings. While cognitive can be thought of as the head of our decision making processes, the affective side is the heart.

Most of us like to believe that we make our decisions solely based on our cognitive reasoning. However, much to the surprise of researchers, studies have shown something quite different. When psychologists looked at persons who for one reason or another did not have access to the affective side of their brain, they discovered that these persons had a very difficult time making decisions, even simple decisions about where to go, what to buy or what to eat. Further research was able to prove the essential role our affective reasoning has on decision making; that is the way in which our emotions, our feelings, our heart direct and guide our concrete actions in the world whether we realize it or not.

Lent offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and delve deeply into our souls as we reflect upon the decisions we have made and will make. These next forty days become for us a time of quiet discernment where we are invited to look more closely at our lives, our actions and the feelings and values that drive them. Instead of the rational, logical way of being and knowing, Lent asks us to look more closely at the stirrings of our own spirits in relationship to the Divine.

Where is the Spirit leading us as we are driven, like Jesus, into this wilderness time?

The Good News is that God always offers us infinite possibilities for making new and different choices. Despite our decisions in the past, God constantly offers us new opportunities to make different choices and change the course of our lives. When in retrospect we find ourselves drifting from the values most important to us, when we find ourselves far from our family, friends and even God, God offers us a new chance to change and do something different. This is what Lent is all about, after all. Lent is the time of discernment when we have the opportunity to examine our lives, to celebrate what we love and examine more closely the things that disturb and distract us.

Over the next six weeks, we at Cambridge Welcoming will explore various practices for spiritual discernment and discipline as a way to examine our personal and communal lives, as well as prepare ourselves for the long journeys ahead of us as we prepare God’s kin-dom on earth. May we use this time in Lent, this liminal, in-between space to draw closer to one another and to God as we step back from the hectic pace of life to discover and discern the way forward through the wilderness and into the promise land.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Liminal Lent: Walking Between the Times

This Lent at CWM, we will be focusing on the liminal, in-between space, of our Lenten journeys as we explore spiritual practices that help us to discern our path with God.

The poem that follows helps orient us as we begin our own 40 day sojourn into the wilderness.

Desert Prayer

I am not asking you
to take this wilderness from me,
to remove this place of starkness
where I come to know
the wildness within me,
where I learn to call the names
of the ravenous beasts
that pace inside me,
to finger the brambles
that snake through my veins,
to taste the thirst
that tugs at my tongue.

But send me
tough angels,
sweet wine,
strong bread:
just enough.

(Prayer © Jan Richardson from In Wisdom’s Path.)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Lenten Soup and Study Series

And the winner is.....From Boys to Men.

Sunday, March 2nd we will gather for the first time to introduce ourselves to the text and discuss our own memories of growing up.

Help choose the book for this year's Soup and Study series.

Which book would you most like to read for CWM's Lenten Soup and Study series?
Middlesex (fiction)
From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up (memoir)
Proverbs of Ashes (non-fiction, atonement)
Show Me the Way (Lenten devotional, Nouwen)
The Non-Violent Atonement (non-fiction)
A New Christianity for a New World (Spong)
Irresistible Revolution (non-fiction)
Living God's Politics (non-fiction)

View Results

If the book you would like to read is not listed, please post a comment including the title of the book and author. People can vote for that book by posting a comment with the same title and author.