William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theological Educator

Category: Spirituality (Page 1 of 4)

Learning about the Gospel from Self-Help, AA and Tony Robbins

[This post originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

The kind of religion many people in America grew up with went something like this: do or believe these things in order to be “right with God.” But as experience will show, following either of these directives tends to lead to greater frustration, disillusionment and anxiety. “Am I really good enough?” “Am I really saved?” This encounter with church or Christianity for many did not enable a more joyful, tranquil and abundant life. It did the opposite. Sometimes it told folks they had to vote Republican. In other instances, it made them feel like they couldn’t trust science or enjoy the arts.

This is not to say there aren’t more thoughtful and grace-centered versions of Christianity out there. There are. But examples of bad faith still abound, and these lead many people to doubt, despair, or simply accept that they’re just not very “religious.”

The self-help industry, popular psychology and new age spirituality all have something of a stigma in most Christian circles, and for some good reasons. I too have tended to be a skeptic, but I’ve also been fairly ignorant about these movements. And in light of the sort of religion I’ve just described, is it really any wonder that we’ve seen the growth of such “unorthodox” spiritual schools of thought in recent decades?

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Can Missional Evangelicals be Mystical? Another Way Forward After the Election

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog]

A week later, what has transpired with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is still stunning. It’s hard to imagine that the country could be more divided than it is right now. The division runs deep, and it is not just political. It is also spiritual.

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Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

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A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15, 2016.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

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I am Thirsty

John 19:28

“I am thirsty.”

In almost feels underwhelming statement, for someone who is being crucified. It reminds me of other times when the Bible seems to have a way of understating things. Like, after Jesus fasted for 40 days, it just says, he was hungry. Yeah, I imagine he was! And “I am thirsty,” is certainly not as dramatic as the saying from last Sunday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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Thinking, Feeling and Doing: Three Kinds of Repentance for the Truly Human Life

[This post originally appeared last week on the Missio Alliance blog]

In the Christian liturgical year, Lent is a season especially dedicated to spiritual discipline and repentance. The purpose of this discipline is movement toward the resurrection life that is made available to us in Christ, and we repent because the path we naturally follow doesn’t lead to this life. But repentance is a hard thing to manufacture. If the prompting doesn’t come from a place of genuine conviction, discipline is likely to either be motivated by guilt or to produce self-righteousness. In either case, the outcome doesn’t sustain real change.

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Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

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Contemplative Prayer and Lectio Divina: A Short Introduction

“We do not build the kingdom of God on earth by our own efforts (however assisted by grace); the most we can do through genuine prayer, is to make as much room as possible, in ourselves and in the world, for the kingdom of God, so that its energies can go to work. All that we can show our contemporaries of the reality of God springs from contemplation.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

I. Communicative, or “Thinking” prayer (Consciousness-centered Prayer) consists of

Prayers that make use of our conscious mind, such as adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition. These kinds of prayers are intended to increase awareness of dependence on God and trust in God for everything. They also enable us to become agents who desire what God desire at the level of our thinking, doing, feeling and sensing (i.e., at the level of consciousness).

II. Non-Communicative, or Non-thinking Prayer (Unconsciousness-centered Prayer)

Evangelical Protestants have traditionally emphasized verbal prayer, preaching and singing as a means of encouraging a life-changing encounter with Christ. In the process, we have downplayed many of the practices that deal with the unconscious dimensions of the human personality. Slow, quiet, simple prayers, whether through meditation, contemplation, or simply listening to God, serve to open the unconscious self to God’s healing grace.

Awakening to our Authentic Self:

Why “open the unconscious self”? Because this is how we can grow free to live out of the authentic self as opposed to the small self.

  • The small self is what some might refer to as a social construct. By and large it is created externally and has a great deal to do with what others expect of you, what’s fashionable, and what is valued in the community.
  • So this “self” tends to be fashioned and controlled by (when we’re unaware of it) the world. And by “the world” we mean, expectations of others, demands of the culture, inner conflicts, insecurities, and deep wounds, habits… Sin and sins — all that is in the physical realm (the world of sense). As a rule, when the authentic self is unknown… the small self will be controlled (Burt Burleson).

Thomas Keating says that we will find the needs of the small self (or “false” self) in one of three areas:

  1. Needs for security and survival. (some would add pleasure here)
  2. Needs for esteem and affection.
  3. Needs for power and control.

Not coincidentally, these are the same three areas in which Jesus is tempted by Satan in the gospels before beginning his public ministry. Once we have identified with our small self “thinking,” and are blind to the way these three desires entice us, we will have no choice but to be swept up into the mainstream current of these felt needs.

Contemplative Prayer equips us to Resist this Current:

  • In quiet, contemplative, or non-communicative prayer, we are forced to stop trying to control things. We stop asking God to do stuff. This stillness and silence, in which we wait before God, is pregnant with presence (Betty Talbert). Prayers with words or images reduce our awareness of God to what our conscious (read thinking) minds can conceive, which is infinitely less than God is.
  • Contemplative prayer is a gateway to the non-ego-driven life. The ego reigns supreme in most of our everyday endeavors that are constantly focused on analyzing, doing, or emoting something. With practice, contemplative prayer slowly brings us into union and participation with the Divine Life — that is, it sanctifies us. Communicative or thinking prayer is simply not as effective at accomplishing this.
  • Contemplative, non-thinking prayer also frees us from the tyranny of being controlled by time, and allows us instead to simply be. In practicing what is a completely non-performative form of prayer, we’re trying neither to come up with nor read the right words. This creates a safer place for honesty and growth.

In many ways, Contemplative prayer comes after we know God as a Parent who knows everything about us, and yet still chooses to be our permanent Caretaker. Protestants have stressed that, though we are undeserving sinners, we are nonetheless loved unconditionally by God through Christ. The parallel promise of Contemplative prayer is the discovery that, though we are not control, but we are nonetheless safe in God through Christ.

Contemplative prayer is not, however, 1) a relaxation exercise (though over time, it should lead to peace, rest and reduced anxiety), 2) a charismatic gift, or 3) a para-psychological experience.

A Few Types of Contemplative Prayer practices are:

  • The Jesus Prayer, which comes from Scripture and the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
  • Lectio Divina, which began in the Western monastic tradition, and is a four-part process that starts with 1) reading Scripture and 2) meditating upon it with the mind. Then, 3) one responds with feelings and will to the Word one has heard. Finally, 4) one moves through the Word to rest in the presence of God. In this way, it is both apophatic and cataphatic. It also tends to appeal especially to Myers-Briggs types with SF, ST, and SJ personalities.
  • Centering prayer is a modern form of the fourteenth Century practiced outlined in the “Cloud of Unknowing” in which the Christian tries to reach out to God in silent love. It consists primarily in meditation on one focal word or phrase for extended time (5-20 min).

Lectio Divina: Preparation for Prayer

  1. Spend a few minutes in silence, clearing your mind and heart. Concentrate on releasing concerns of the day. (Sometimes it is good to make a list of concerns and problems during this period and promise yourself that you will deal with them later in the day).
  2. Spend a few moments being aware of your body. Ask yourself where you are uncomfortable. Be certain that you are allowing your chair to bear your full weight. Ask your body to relax as you concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly ten times.

Examples of Verses that Encourage Silence and Centering Prayer before God:

“Be still and know that I am God!” Psalm 46:10a

“In the path of your judgments, Oh Lord, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul’s desire. My soul years for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.” Isaiah 26:8-9a

“One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” Psalm 27:4

Jesus answered him, “Those who live me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

“Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength.” Isaiah 41:1a

“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge o the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:6

Christian Wiman Quotes: "O Thou Mastering Light"

I share the following quotes that struck me as I was reading Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. They come from the chapter entitled “O Thou Mastering Light”:

mybrightabyss“Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being” (p. 48).

“You can certainly enjoy life . . . you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that [if] life remains merely something to be enjoyed, [then] not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, [and] mute” (p. 59).

“Spiritual innocence is not naivete. Quite the opposite. Spiritual incense is a state of mind – or, if you prefer, a state of heart – in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting” (p. 64).

“The void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross” (p. 68).

“The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced” (p. 71).

“The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, [but] strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs [the strength that is required for] flexibility” (p. 71).

“Perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the making of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it” (p. 72).

“This is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself” (p. 75).

Jean Vanier, "From Brokenness to Community"

The following is adapted from a talk that Jean Vanier gave at Harvard for the Herold M. Witt lectures. The transcript was published in 1992 by Paulist Press.

jean vanierIt is my belief that in our mad world, where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality and depression, that it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, and counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals, as well as for our world…

Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain, because it is a place of truth and of growth — the revelation of our pride, our fear and our brokenness.

Jesus says to his followers: “Now go! Go out to the world and bring the good news the others; do not keep it for yourselves. Heal, liberate and bring life and hope to others, especially to the poor, the weak, the blind and the lame…

When we talk of the poor or of announcing the good news to the poor, we should never idealize the poor. Poor people are hurt; they are in pain; they can be very angry, in revolt or in depression…

When such pain becomes too much, people tend to slip into a world of dream.  Reality is just too painful. The world of dream or of psychosis can in someway be easier to bear. The greatest pain is rejection, the feeling that nobody really wants you “like that.” The feeling that you are seen as ugly, dirty, a burden, of no value…

Many people in our world today are living in deep inner pain and anguish because as children they were not valued, welcomed, and loved.  My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted, and loved as they are, and that they have a place, then we witnessed a real transformation — I would even say resurrection.  Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful, and trusting.  As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a family, the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge…

To love someone is not first of all to do things for them but to reveal to them their beauty and value. To be in communion with someone also means to walk with them… For many people in pain there is no solution…

It is a liberating experience for them to realize they do not have to conform to any preconceived idea about how they should be.  Communion in fact gives freedom to grow. It is not possessiveness. It entails a deep listening to others, helping them to become more fully themselves.

People have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish; the fear of being devalued are pushed aside; the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or a feeling helpless in front of others and pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.  I discovered something which I had never confronted before — that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart.

Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team… The important thing is to become conscious of those from brokenness...forces and us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts, not outside.

I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor — the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.

The love and support of community gives you the certitude that you are loved just as you are, with all your wounds, and that you can grow through all that. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace and compassion and love through our wounds.

When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing!

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community

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