Monday, September 20, 2010

Take Comfort in Rituals... Really?

A number of bloggers have offered comment on the new sign that appears on the doors of Starbucks Coffee around the country: "Take Comfort in Rituals."

You see the warm cup of coffee right above it, and you can almost taste the comfort, right? Come in here frequently, make a ritual of it, it beckons. Get this cup of steaming brew, made to your order, and take comfort. 

Come in here, escape from your "other daily grind," and for the time it takes to sit down on one of the couches and sip your java, let comfort waft over you. You know it will feel so, so good. 


I won't argue with the logic of this marketing campaign. I think it makes good sense for Starbucks to be saying something like this.

But I do wish to make a distinction that Starbucks doesn't make here-- between rituals and ritual. Rituals (the plural) refers in common parlance to regularly repeated patterned actions. One's process for getting ready in the morning, the particular breakfast one eats (or skips), reading the paper or checking in with your RSS reader for the latest updates on the news/blogs you follow, the shows or podcasts you listen to on the way into work or school, how you greet the folks you meet at your school or workplace, when you go to lunch and how long you take for lunch, what you do everyday on the way back to your home, and what particular shows you watch or places you go in the evening on a given day-- these are all examples of regularly repeated patterned actions, or rituals. One might even call them routines or habits.

I'd certainly hope that something like definitive times for prayer during the day are included in your daily schedule of rituals. But if I follow the research findings about United Methodists and prayer from my colleague Dan Dick and the US Congregational Life Study, I would generally conclude that for most of us that isn't happening.

Still, whether you build prayer into your daily rituals or not, the fact that any patterned behavior is repeated does tend to generate a level of comfort, or at least reduce any level of discomfort the more it is practiced. Our brains are wired so that, in fact, we do take comfort in rituals. Repeating them, over time, with perhaps some slight variations from time to time, not only makes us more efficient at them, but also releases "reward chemicals" that make us feel good, that give us a sense of well-being. Our brains are also wired so that when we skip one, or something interferes with our usual schedule, we sense the loss and may even find ourselves more than a bit "discombobulated."

Christian Ritual
But I would like to suggest that the purpose of Christian ritual-- the usually repeated patterned actions that constitute our practices of worship and devotion, corporate or personal-- is just about the opposite of taking comfort for oneself.

Comfort is not and never has been the goal of Christian (or Jewish or Muslim!)  ritual. 

Now, to be sure we've always had folks alongside us who insisted that it was. But the Bible has a name for practicing worship ritual for our own comfort-- idolatry. We may have other names today, but the biblical one still applies.

The goal of Christian ritual is to embody and be embodied faithfully as the body of Christ within the Holy Trinity. 

This is why we pray over the bread and wine at the Eucharist, "Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood." 

Having a clear ritual, a defined set of regularly repeated patterned practices, does generate some measure of comfort in us-- but not for that end. The comfort Christian ritual generates when well practiced is rather the background or backdrop or even growth medium, if you will, for our full transformation into the image of Christ.  

Comfort isn't the endpoint, but a step along the way. 

Christian ritual itself is the ecosystem that generates just enough comfort so that the Spirit can radically disturb, alter, and rewire us even as the Spirit also sustains and reinforces the ongoing work of wiring that keeps us moving toward sanctification.

Put in sociological terms (Peter Berger), Christian ritual provides a "plausibility structure" that can open us to the whole of the Holy, the depths of  the Compassionate One and the Power of the One Poured Out.

Not self-centered comfort-- but its subversion into ever-flowing Love.

Because the One Poured Out, Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily, is himself pleased to dwell and pour out his power primarily among those who know little comfort, to exalt the lowly and the meek, to send the rich empty away. 

Empty away.

Revealed as having nothing in their cups-- even if they've taken comfort in any number of rituals or ritual. 




An emptiness, a void, and a Nothing that devours the world as we know it.

We feel the angst of it as it gnaws at the edges of our souls.

But we mislabel it as a sorrow to be soothed, a discomfort to be comforted.

So we take comfort in rituals.

And sometimes in Christian ritual.

All comfort is sweet. It is a balm. It soothes. 

But comfort is not the end, but perhaps a necessary step along the way, not so that we ourselves may be comforted, but so that the love of God that brings true comfort may be poured abroad through us and especially among those who encounter few if any signs of comfort in this life.

Blessed are the poor, and the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of God.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Photo credit: from The Daily Honesty Box

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Agenda for Our Prayer

We were gathered in MacGregor Park in Derry, New Hampshire for the second of our “Summer Services in the Park.” It was damp and the weather uncertain - rain was forecast for later in the day The sound system was up and running and people had begun to arrive, most bringing their own lawn chairs.

The Service is a blend of traditional worship in an easy going outdoor setting - simple symbols of worship - familiar songs - scripture and ‘sermon.’ Pastor Catherine Sprigg, speaking about the story of ‘the bent-over woman’ in the Gospel of Luke, was inviting us to look at our own ‘spiritual dis-ease’ ... to look at how we lived up to the potential God has for our lives. She observed: “We are so focused on our own little patch of ground that we donut see the vastness of the world and the possibilities of our life in it.”

As she was speaking, a jet, hidden by the low hanging clouds, circled low as it made its approach to the Manchester, NH airport. The loud whine of the engines was intrusive and distracting. At first I was annoyed and then I remembered leading worship in a church very near a firehouse. From time to time the pulsating fire horn would go off, followed by the sirens and horns of the fire and rescue trucks. We simply had to stop whatever we were doing and wait. One Sunday, it happened during my sermon, and inspired I am sure by the Spirit, I paused and said: “As we wait for the sound to pass, let us be in a spirit of prayer - for those whose emergency has caused the response, and for those who are responding.” That day something shifted - an intrusive noise became an occasion for prayer.

The sound of the jet's engines began to fade, but, instead of being annoyed, I began to pray: pray for the pilots and crew who were working on Sunday; and for the travelers, some of whom may have come in response to a family emergency, some of whom may have come for a long needed vacation or on business. I began to look around at the park. The flag was at half-staff, and I recalled that a young New Hampshire soldier had died in Afghanistan. The POW-MIA flag and the cenotaphs reminded me of the fallen of other wars, and I was moved to pray for the fallen, and their families, and for peace. Soon, the traffic passing by, walkers and runners, the adjacent library, the homes and the apartments all became occasions for prayer. And I realized that when you worship outdoors in a public park, you can't hide from the needs of the world.

Marty Haugen has written: “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away, but here in this place the new light is shining, now is the Kingdom, now is the day. Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own; gather us in all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”

I love church buildings. The great cathedrals lift my spirit. The country chapels ground me in the earth. The neighborhood churches connect me to communities. When it comes to worship, words are important, but we can also learn a great deal about a people's faith from the buildings they use. A worship space always communicates our faith, whether we intend it or not. And, as Haugen rightly observes, buildings can be dark and confining. Buildings can lock us in, or shut others out. Buildings can insulate us from the world where we are called to serve. But they donut have to. Instead of being focused on our own little patch of ground, we can choose to set our worship and prayer in the context of the vastness of the world and the possibilities of our life in it. Whether we like it our not, the world will set an agenda for our prayer.

Prayer was integral to Jesus’ life, but when he commended the righteous, he looked at what they had done for the hungry and the thirsty, for the stranger and the naked, for the sick and those in prison. Paul, speaking of the marks of a Christian [Romans 12:12-16], writes: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” And he connected it to extending hospitality to strangers, blessing those who persecute you, weeping with those who weep, living in harmony with one another, associating with the lowly.” Prayer has its personal dimensions, but it is always connected to the world, challenging us with possibilities, showing us that here in this place new light is shining, and gathering us together with all people as God's own.

We are called to be people for whom prayer is integral to our life of faith, but the world will set an agenda for our prayer, and it should.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Prayer: A Collect for Grace

O Lord, our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day:
Defend us in the same with thy mighty power;
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger;
but that we, being ordered by thy governance,
may do always what is righteous in thy sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For those Methodists who were using Mr. Wesley's Sunday Service in the late 18th century, the prayer above would likely have been offered at least every Sunday morning near the end of Morning Prayer, which would have immediately preceded the service of Word and Table. For Anglicans, it was (and remains) a prayer that may have been (and by many still is) offered every day at morning prayer. A number of United Methodists who are part of the Order of Saint Luke, the Order of St. Brigid or other religious orders who pray the daily office may pray it frequently, if not daily, as well.

The language of this collect is particularly evocative. It says exactly what we need to say as we begin the day. God has brought us through the night, and we are grateful. We have another day before us. But we confess here that we're poor stewards, bad managers of this gift. 

And we confess why. 

It seems to us that powers beyond our control try to push us and pull us in nearly every direction but that which reflects the good governance of God. We find ourselves often tossed to and fro, carried about by every passing breeze of doctrine, feeling, or demand. We are prone to fall into sin, not even meaning to. We live in a fog, in a sort of perpetual attention deficit disorder toward God. Our minds race, and in our anxious state we run into all sorts of danger. We need nothing less than the mighty power of God to defend us against this onslaught of distractions and traps-- some from within ourselves, others from outside sources, none under our command-- so that we may, indeed, be ordered by God's governance and always do what is righteous in God's sight. 

We need grace that sustains us and defends us, grace that forgives us, and grace that reminds us to do one thing needful that can help re-center and maintain the centering of our lives in God-- prayer. 

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer! 
 that calls me from a world of care, 
 and bids me at my Father's throne 
 make all my wants and wishes known. 
 In seasons of distress and grief, 
 my soul has often found relief, 
 and oft escaped the tempter's snare 
 by thy return, sweet hour of prayer!  
(William Walford, 1772-1850. Public Domain) 
While Walford's familiar text probably refers to time for personal prayer-- which,
among early Methodists, was literally an hour every morning, starting at 4:30 a.m.
if we're following John Wesley and Francis Asbury as guides-- prayer can also be a true
source of relief from distress and deliverance from the tempter, individually and corporately,
in services of public worship-- if we give time and attentiveness enough for it where we are.

And if we teach our worshiping communities both to expect and how to receive such relief
and deliverance as we pray together in worship and in daily personal practices of prayer.

But relief and deliverance alone are not all the collect asks for. The purpose of prayer is not
to make us feel better, but to enable us and our neighbors to live better. We ask that we may
live "ordered by thy governance, that we may always do what is righteous in thy sight."
God's governance not only rescues us from sin and error, but leads us into all righteousness
and truth.

Living under God's governance isn't accomplished through prayer as a quick fix. It is only
accomplished through regular, ongoing and attentive practice.

Considering that the majority of those you see in worship on Sunday morning may have no
real practices of prayer in their daily lives, what do you do in worship-- and what will you
do next-- to ensure that more of those who gather will have a genuine opportunity to
experience relief and deliverance through prayer in worship? 

And then, what do you do and what will you do to offer prayer and invite people into practices of prayer that enable their lives to be more ordered by God's governance so they may learn to "do always what is righteous in God's sight?"

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: "Riders and Runners" on an ancient Etruscan amphora, The Louvre. 
Public Domain.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On Prayer: With Our Whole Minds

Ever had the feeling that your personal prayers were bouncing off the ceiling, if they even got that far?

I am sure most of us have at one time or another. There’s a reason for that feeling, rooted in the way our brains work.

Most of our conscious life and our everyday conversations with others happen while our brains are functioning  at a relatively high dominant frequency, greater than 30 Hz (called Beta waves, or if over 40 Hz, Gamma waves). At this frequency, we tend to feel like we are communicating only with those we can see or who are in a relatively close range to us.  We’re in a kind of “tunnel vision.” 

This is great when you’re trying to solve problems, or work hands on with a team. 

It’s less helpful when you’re seeking to address someone who is not visibly present or whose voice you cannot directly hear. Or when you’re trying to express the longings of your heart, unless at the time those longings are accompanied by a good deal of fear or anxiety. 

At those brainwave frequencies, that may be about as far toward "longings" as you can get. While it’s not necessarily the case that your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling in such times, it might be that your brainwaves are!

So for us to feel our prayers moving “from the depths to the Depth,” we need to find ways for at least some part of our praying to arise from slower brain wave frequencies. Relaxation, meditation, and slow deep breathing for 15-20 minutes are all ways to slow down not only our bodies, but our brains. Freed from fear, anger, anxiety and the need for control that may be experienced at higher frequencies, the more relaxed brain (lower Beta and Alpha ranges, 10-25 Hz) is more open to awareness, encounter and listening.

Psalm 131 expresses prayer from this place perhaps better than any in the collection.

A Song of Ascents. By David.
131:1 Yahweh, my heart isn’t haughty, nor my eyes lofty;
nor do I concern myself with great matters,
or things too wonderful for me.
131:2 Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with his mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
131:3 Israel, hope in Yahweh,
from this time forth and forevermore.

(World English Bible. Public Domain).

We have been given brains that function at many frequencies, and we can pray at all of them. Remember that the next time your prayers seem to “hit the ceiling,” and take the time to still and quiet your soul—and your brain!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Public Domain.