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When We Pray, It Boils

Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and then does strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone. And then contentment comes. – from George Fox’s Epistle X

At our Fall Gathering this past weekend, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship had a pretty amazing experience of prayer. The quality of it was different from anything I had ever experienced before. It was as if we were sitting together in a frying pan, and the spiritual temperature was steadily rising. Simmering. Boiling.

The only way I knew how to describe it afterwards was to say, It felt like the lid was about to come off. The room was literally shaking with the prayers of those present, our bodies and voices trembling under the power of the Spirit.

As a Quaker, this intensity of feeling makes me suspicious. It’s hard to know sometimes whether our emotions are being stirred up for human reasons, or divine ones. Yet, from everything I witnessed, I believe that our time of fervent prayer bore the marks of the Holy Spirit. There was real healing taking place as hidden hurts and heartbreaks came to light.

It has taken me a while to begin processing what I saw and felt this weekend. It was an awesome thing to watch the Spirit of God reach down into our depths and dredge up mercy out of the darkness. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But also beautiful. Cleansing and healing.

I am so grateful for Christ’s presence in our midst this weekend. I am blessed to be part of this community where we approach God together, and receive a clear response. It’s a pure gift, and I’m thankful.

Living in the Power

If but one man or woman were raised by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round. – George Fox, Journal

For the kingdom of God depends not on talk, but on power. – 1 Corinthians 4:20

This weekend I’m headed out to Barnesville, Ohio for the spring gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’ll come together from across the country, listening for how the Holy Spirit wants to gather us, fill us, and send us into a world that is aching for God’s presence.

We will laugh together, and we’ll share our dreams. We will speak words meant to build us up for the mission that Jesus is calling us to. And we’ll be praying for the living Word of God to come and speak in our midst.

We yearn to be a part of a movement that transforms creation, redeeming the face of the earth. We long to shine out in the darkness. Could our lives blaze like the first apostles, the early Christian martyrs, and the Valiant Sixty of the original Quaker movement? As we gather in Barnesville, we cry out to be filled with the power of God that makes all things new.

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We cry out because, despite our highest aspirations, we know that we often get in the way of the change that the Spirit wants to make in our lives. We cling to the comfort of the known, even when life as we know it has grown too drab, stale and false to sustain the kingdom life.

The joy we have been called to in Christ explodes business as usual. The eye of the needle that we’re called to pass through is one that sifts out all smugness and certainty, all self-sufficiency and worldly confidence. The kingdom is revealed in the beautiful handiwork of God in our broken, out-of-control lives.

It is only when we are broken that we are ready to receive healing. Only those who are hungry can be filled. It is only when we surrender control of the future that we can wake up to the present-moment kingdom of God that is hidden in plain sight.

My prayer for this weekend is that God will prepare each one of us to be tender, awakened to our own brokenness and need of God’s grace. I pray that Jesus will be present among us, filling us with his own life and power, shining the light in us to convict us of sin and show us how to love one another as he first loved us.  

Stay Awake

Then [Jesus] came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:40-41

Jesus was praying for his life in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew that his time was at hand; the next day, he’d be tortured to death by the occupying Roman legion. Before that happened, he’d be mocked and beaten by the religious authorities of his own people. The next 24 hours were going to be rough, to say the least.

Sometimes, we emphasize Jesus’ divinity so much that we lose track of the fact that he was also a human being, just like us. Jesus was no invulnerable demigod. He wept. He got angry. He didn’t want to die. In the garden that night, he begged God to show him some other way – any way that didn’t mean being nailed to that cross.

Jesus faced temptation, hardship and suffering. He felt abandoned by his closest friends in his darkest moment. Jesus was facing a horrifying death, yet his inner circle – Peter, James and John – couldn’t even stay awake with him for an hour while he prayed!

How often do I fall asleep to the prayer of Jesus in those around me? How often do I tune out the suffering that I see? So many times, I yield to the temptation to fall asleep in my distractions. What would it look like for me to stay awake with Jesus in the lives of those who are facing the reality of the cross every day – the homeless, the outcast, the unloved?

What would it look like to live in the cross myself, allowing my own will to be submitted to God’s loving desire for my life? Like Jesus, how can I stay awake and alert in prayer, knowing that I need the love and presence of the Holy Spirit in each moment?

Love With Everything You’ve Got

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. – Mark 12:30

Growing up, I always assumed that my mind was the truest, most essential part of me. My thoughts, my memories, my conscious awareness – that’s who I always believed I was.

Many of my most basic understandings changed when I became a Christian, but this set of assumptions about my mind were left mostly unchallenged. Without really considering it too deeply, I continued to apply the logic of “mind over matter” to my relationship with God.

I assumed that a truly deep prayer life would be one in which I was constantly thinking about God, turning my conscious mind towards God. I figured that the point of a prayerful life was to remain mentally vigilant and, whenever I realized that my mind had slipped from awareness of God, to once again orient my mind towards God.

I still think that orienting the mind towards God is an important component of prayer, but lately I’m becoming convinced that this is only one part of being in relationship with God. Have you ever experienced the sensation of waking up from sleep with the feeling that you had been praying in your dreams? Times when your conscious mind was focused on other things, yet your body, your whole being was still somehow, mysteriously connected to God? Sometimes, although I am not mentally thinking about God, I am still loving God with all my heart, soul and strength.

For me, getting too fixated on the mental component can be a stumbling block to a deeper relationship with God. If I make the mistake of thinking that only my mental posture matters, I may miss the ways God wants to be in relationship with me through my heart, my strength, my entire being.

  • What are ways that you have shown love and devotion through parts of yourself other than your mind?
  • How do we show love through our heart, soul and strength, as well as through our mind?
  • Are we loving with everything we’ve got?

Practicing The Presence

I have long been inspired by Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century monk whose writings, compiled in The Practice of the Presence of God, demonstrate the kind of joyous living that is possible if we cultivate a posture of attentiveness to God’s companionship and direction in our everyday activities. Though he was never considered an important person during his lifetime, Lawrence encountered Christ’s real presence throughout the day, in tasks as mundane as washing the dishes.

In my own life, I have experienced periods when God’s presence has been intensely palpable. At times, the Holy Spirit has seemed just as tangibly real as any other person in my life – yes, and somehow realer! Then again, there have been other times when I have not experienced God as present at all, no matter how good my conscious intentions. Most of my life is spent in the space between these two extremes. In general, my awareness of Christ’s presence seems related to my moment-by-moment choice to stay attentive to his still, small voice.

Some days are more challenging than others. I often wake up with half a dozen projects buzzing in my head. My mind flits from task to task, fixated on due dates and the steps between the present moment and the future that I am working for. Yet almost always, if I choose to pay attention, I can hear a voice inviting me deeper. Paying attention to my breath, practicing awareness of my body and my surroundings, God reveals an open space where I can rest in him.

It always amazes me how life simply falls into place when I do choose to accept the invitation to rest in his green pastures. Worries fade, stress falls away, and deadlines somehow still get met – the ones that really needed to get met, anyway. This is the power of Christ’s easy yoke, when I yield to it.

  • How have you experienced Christ’s presence breaking into the midst of your daily routines?
  • Where does the Holy Spirit create space for rest, genuine depth and power in your life?
  • Are there ways that you could choose to become more intentional in practicing of the presence of God?

Restarting A Quaker Church Plant

Do you remember blowing on Nintendo cartridges? Most folks who are around my age will remember the original NES game system. I spent hours playing Nintendo, and I can still hum pretty much the entire soundtrack from Mario Brothers. As much fun as those games were, the thing I remember best is the physical experience of Nintendo. I remember the feel of the controls and the clap of the plastic hood. Above all, I remember the cartridges.

They did not always work. The longer you owned a Nintendo, the more likely it was you were going to have issues with dust collecting on the sensitive electronics at the opening of the cartridge. If the sensors were not clean, the game was liable to have errors that made it unplayable. Blank, white screens and garbled text were common. In order to get games working right, we often resorted to blowing across the sensors. Most of the time, that did the trick. We re-inserted the game and things worked as they were supposed to.
Though we did not realize it at the time, this process of cartridge cleaning taught an important lesson. In Nintendo and in the rest of life, there are moments that call for blowing on the cartridge and starting over. Sometimes, there is nothing we can do but clean the sensor and restart the game.

At Capitol Hill Friends, we have been noticing dust in our system for some time now. Despite a serious and energetic effort over a period of three years, Capitol Hill Friends has not gained the critical mass it needs to ignite a self-sustaining congregation. We have gotten quite good at putting on a weekly event that nurtures those who attend, but we have failed to develop an expanding circle of community.

After an extended period of prayer and corporate discernment, we feel that our present model is no longer an adequate container for the work that God is calling us to do in our city. We sense that our most faithful move at this point is to take a step back and re-evaluate of our entire way of operating as a community. It is time to take the cartridge out and blow on it.
We have been meeting in roughly the same format for almost three years now: We have gathered for Bible reading, singing, worship and a potluck meal. These meetings have generally been very deep, spiritually, and have provided a lot of nurture to those who have come. Yet, the core group of CHF has not substantially changed in the last two years. Probably for a variety of reasons, we have not grown in the way that we need to in order to be a sustainable community.
It feels clear that our present model is not working. The lack of growth over the last few years is equivalent to the White Screen of Death on the old Nintendo. It is time to pull out the cartridge and restart the system. The big question is, what does it look like for Capitol Hill Friends to restart?
Here is what we know right now: The last regular meeting of Capitol Hill Friends for 2012 will be this Sunday, November 4th. For the rest of November and December, the members of Capitol Hill Friends will be doing some intensive visioning and strategizing for the next phase of our life together as a community. We will be doing a lot of praying, and we will continue to listen together to how the Holy Spirit wants to guide and shape us as a community of disciples.
We have a great awareness right now of our deep need for Christ’s life and power in our midst, and we are asking God to clarify our calling, vision and structure as a fellowship. Who are we called to serve? What are we called to teach, and how are we called to teach it? What structures are we called to adopt in order to facilitate the spiritual, emotional and physical thriving of our community, and of the city where we live as a whole? With great awareness of our own weakness and failings, we are seeking God’s way forward for us.

In many ways, the past three years has been a course in what not to do. For my own part, I see that there is a lot of dust on my own sensors – all the illusions that I live in; all the denial that I indulge in. I desperately need the Holy Spirit to blow away the dust so that I can see clearly, and be a faithful vessel of Christ’s love and justice. I have learned a lot in the past three years, both about myself and about some of the realities of organizing a new Christian fellowship in Washington, DC. In many ways, the past three years have been “Seminary: Part 2.” This second dose of ministerial education, though, has been entirely focused on practice, and sometimes the theory has gotten in the way.

Moving forward, I hope to find out what it means for us to be a community of Christian practitioners. What does it mean to practice our faith in ways that tangibly bless the communities where we live? All the teaching in the world is of little use if we are not learning how to live as Christ’s body in the world.
As we continue to engage in this process of discernment, we do have some clarity about how God is calling us to reorganize our meeting format in the coming year. Beginning in January, Capitol Hill Friends plans to adopt a new model that we hope will encourage the development of more bonded community and deeper spiritual practice. Our new format will feature two main components: A weekly small group, and a monthly gathering.
The small group will be a place where each of us can be nurtured in our walk with Jesus, and get equipped for the work that Christ is calling each of us to. This group will be a fellowship for nurturing the spiritual gifts of each person, and developing our capacity to share the good news of Jesus with others in our communities. We will seek to make this an intimate space, where each individual can feel safe bringing their full selves and find support for the journey that Jesus is calling each of us into.
Our monthly gatherings will be creative and energetic programs that engage people from a wide variety of backgrounds and invites them to experience the power of Christ’s living presence in our midst. Each month’s program will be different, and we hope to invite outside presenters to lead our time together. We hope that these monthly gatherings will be a time of edification for our broader community – including Quakers from other Meetings in the area; Christians from other churches; seekers without a faith community; and secular people who are curious about encountering a spiritual faith that is directly dependent on God’s power.
We still have a lot of discernment to do, but these are the basic contours of what our restart looks like: Creating a space for our broader community to creatively explore spiritual teaching and worship, while at the same time nurturing the ongoing development of a smaller core that wants to be part of a mutually supportive community, rooted in Jesus Christ.

As we embark on this next stage of our journey together, please pray for us. If you are living in the DC area, consider whether the small group or our monthly gatherings might be a place for you to plug in and get the support you need for your walk in faith.

Holy Spirit, come blow on us. Clear away all the dust that holds us back from growing in you.

Who Are We Called To Serve?

Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. – Hebrews 13:12-14

There are up-sides to being in crisis, not the least of which is the way that desperation focuses one’s prayer life. If you have been following this blog recently, you know that we at Capitol Hill Friends are wrestling with how to move forward in the face of low energy and the apparent lack of the critical mass necessary to become a self-sustaining community. As you might imagine, God and I have been having some serious conversations lately!

I am learning that I should never underestimate the power of desperate prayer. God truly does draw near to those who are humbled and broken, and coming to the end of my rope has done wonders for my willingness to rely more fully on the Lord’s guidance. In the midst of this soul-searching, I have been amazed at how clearly the Spirit has responded to my prayers. I have asked for direction, and God is providing it.
For years now, one member of Capitol Hill Friends has always been asking, “Who are we called to serve?” Virtually every time we have met together, John has raised this question, to the point that it has become almost a joke among us.
To be quite honest, the question has often annoyed me. I never felt I had a good answer for it, except to say that Capitol Hill Friends is a community for anyone who wants to go deeper in their walk with Christ. I do not not like the idea of picking out a specific market demographic and “selling” God to them. Would we try to be a hipster church for urban twenty-somethings? A family church for couples with small children? A white, middle class church? A multi-racial, inter-class church? To me, “Who are we called to serve?” sounded a lot like, “What is our market niche?”
I am not very interested in viewing the church from a marketing perspective. I do not believe that faith communities are a commodity to be bought and sold. While I understand the need to present the gospel in a way that is culturally appropriate to the place we live, I do not want to pre-determine what demographic our fellowship is aimed at. This commodification cheapens the very idea of the Church. Instead of aspiring to be the body of Christ, our fellowships risk being transformed into little more than social clubs where people of similar class, race and subculture can talk about Jesus.
And yet, the question has nagged at me. Who are we called to serve? What is our particular mission here in the city? There are thousands of local congregations spread out across our region; what use does God have for one more? These questions are not ones of sales pitches and market analysis. These are basic issues of call and spiritual gifts. What is are the specific ways that God wants to use our particular fellowship to reflect the love of Jesus?
As I have prayed about the future of Capitol Hill Friends, God has shown me that there is indeed a particular people that we are called to serve. This people is not a demographic group in any traditional sense. It is not a group bounded by class, ethnicity, sub-culture or political persuasion. Rather, our common experience at Capitol Hill Friends is that we do not match the expectations that the wider culture has of us. In some profound way, we do not quite fit in. We are looking for the city that is to come, not this present one where we reside as sojourners.

In a city that worships power and thrives on appearances, we feel God calling us into friendship with those who are marginal, unimpressive in the eyes of the world. In a culture that glorifies displays of wealth and consumption, we sense God’s invitation to lead lives of simplicity and creativity. In a society that values facts, figures and formal education, we long for God’s true wisdom, which seems like foolishness to the world. In a nation that places a very high value on strength and self-sufficiency, we know that we are weak and in need of God’s help.

Capitol Hill Friends stands in solidarity with those who do not fit into this world’s conceptions of wisdom and power and wealth. We are called to serve those who stand outside the gate of the city, rejected by polite society. Rather than playing dress-up and pretending to be successful, God calls us to stand with the misfits. Because the truth is, we are misfits, too.