At Scottsville’s Chamber of Commerce dinner this week, whether by design or by luck, I sat next to Bruce Lugn, pastor at the Methodist Church. I say by design, because it very well could be that it was the consensus among those already at their tables: “Let’s let those boring clergy types sit together!” But I say luck because it could just be that I came late and Bruce’s wife Alessandra was home sick with a cold—so there we go. At any rate, I sat next to Bruce Lugn, and we had a great time talking religion.
In fact, Bruce and I always have a lot to talk about. We attended the same seminary, so we enjoyed some of the same classes, the same professors. I guess you could say that we speak the same Christian lingo.
Bruce has finished his Masters in Divinity, of course. He did that a few years ago—he’s a midlife-pastor. He has the education “bug,” now, though, so he’s still in school. This year he’s taking a course in spiritual formation. I did that, too, actually, many moons ago as part of my doctoral program. And so spiritual formation was the primary thread of our conversation the other evening. Riveting. Don’t you regret, now, that you weren’t at our table? That conversation brought back memories and I thought I would share some of those with you today.
As part of my course of studies in spiritual formation, I spent two weeks at Scarritt- Bennett, a retreat center, in Nashville Tennessee. One of my professors was Marjorie Thompson. She wrote a book on spiritual formation back in 1995. Although she wrote it a short 20 some years ago, that book is already considered a Christian spiritual classic. It continues to be a best-seller in Christian circles. It was a privilege then, to learn something about Christian spirituality face-to-face, from Marjorie herself.
A brief sketch of Marjorie here. She is a tall, stately woman. She walks gracefully—actually it’s not so much walking--she glides, as I imagine saints and angels do. Her hand movements are slow and almost choreographed, like she is conducting a ballet maybe. She talks slowly as if with great forethought, carefully placing each pearl of her extensive wisdom. One of the things among many that I remember admiring about Marjorie, and I know this sounds silly, but I admired her hair. Every single strand of her smooth, straight hair was in place—every day from early morning to late afternoon. Always, for the two weeks I attended her classes.
All to say, besides our Christianity, Marjorie and I had absolutely nothing in common. And here I should say that although my homiletics professors sometimes praised the content of my sermons, they would admonish me, “Don’t talk so fast! You talk too fast!” I have slowed down, a lot. You already know the rest—my short stature, my not-so-lithe hand movements. At least I have smooth, in-place hair, though, right?
So I am not Marjorie Thompson. My spiritual life is not Marjorie Thompson’s spiritual life, either. I would SO fail as a spiritual director. Mainly that is because I am not disciplined enough. I am disciplined in some things, of course,—or I wouldn’t be an effective pastor—I schedule and attend meetings, prepare agendas, calendars, directories, all on time, or at least mostly on time. In these activities, I am a surprise to myself.
But my thought processes? Oh my goodness! During meditation times with Marjorie, my ears would grow long and wide. They would pick up every little creak of a floor board, every stomach rumble. And those sounds would have my mind off and running like greyhounds around a race track. Or maybe better, like string confetti shooting out of a can. Then, too, as I have already mentioned, I was really, really distracted by Marjorie’s perfect hair.
Before bed, while I was at Scarritt- Bennett, I was to read scripture and meditate according to Marjorie’s teachings. My homework. I would turn to the same scripture passage night after night, reading it over and over again, praying that God would share with me some nuggets that were beyond the written words; and that God would train my will to reflect God’s own.
The scripture passage I used for my nighttime reflection was the Beatitudes. It occurs to me now, that I could not have chosen a better passage. This reading is both ethical and eschatological—that’s according to the notes in my study Bible. It’s absolutely true. We know ethical, right—The beatitudes are at the base of Christian living--treating people with compassion—especially those Jesus mentions: those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are peacemakers—because these are people God holds especially close; and therefore these people are especially deserving of OUR care and respect.
The Beatitudes are also eschatological. That means that the texts point us toward the future. They present us with a goal—it’s what we are striving for. My goodness, if everyone the world over just lived by the beatitudes, what a world we would enjoy!
For at least fifteen tortuous minutes every night or at least until I fell asleep, for two weeks running, I looked at, prayed over, studied the beatitudes. I say tortuous minutes, because they WERE tortuous. During those two weeks, I discovered no new nuggets. I don’t believe my will was transformed or bent, the way God would have it be transformed or bent, either. I was a total disappointment to myself. And as you might have guessed, when I returned home, I gave up that bedtime ritual. Not to say that you shouldn’t try the exercise. Maybe you’ll have better luck.
I have tried other methods of meditation and contemplation. When I was much younger, with children in the house (ages 10-15), I actually converted a closet to a meditation room— there was room in that closet for just one chair, me, my Bible and a flashlight. The closet didn’t have a light, so I needed the flashlight so I could read the Bible. Sadly, though, the closet wasn’t sound proof.
I think I used that closet maybe twice. I was in there one day, and I could hear my daughters talking right outside the closet door. “Where’s Mom? I don’t know, where is she? MOM!” And then of course I felt extremely stupid. I mean should I come bolting out of the closet, saying “Surprise!” Should I come out angry, “Can’t I spend five minutes alone, by myself, in my own closet?!” That was the end of that.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Shalem Institute in DC.? It’s an ecumenical Christian organization “devoted to the support of contemplative spirituality.” I got that description off the internet. It’s a mouthful isn’t it? I dabbled in some classes there.
One class among several I participated in at the Shalem Institute was based on the Quaker practice of discernment in community. The practice is sometimes referred to as the clearness committee or the listening committee. It works like this—one person comes to the committee, or group, with a problem. Then the other group members help the one solve that problem. Rules are important to this discernment process.
Group members are admonished: 1) no fixing, 2) no advising, 3) No encouraging or comforting 4) no emoting, as in “You poor thing! He said that to you?”
The listeners’ job is to listen, obviously, and to talk only for the purpose of asking questions that will allow the one with the problem to move toward a resolution. The time of listening begins with prayer, ends with prayer and there is time for prayer during the listening session. Simple, right? It’s not. How do you keep a poker face, when the one with the problem is crying? And it’s difficult not to offer a “Oh, my brother had that same issue. Let me tell you what he did…”
I DID NOT like that class, I tell you. But in this, I thought I was alone. Then, before one of the class sessions, the instructor called me. “HI. I am sick. I can’t be there today. I know you are a pastor. Would you mind leading the class?” I couldn’t say no. With the instructor gone, and with me in charge, the class mutinied. “We want to talk without following those silly rules.” And so we did.
One more failure in a long succession of failures.
So I have lived with personal defeat. Finally, I laid out my difficulties to a spiritual director. She offered to give me a spiritual formation personality inventory—that inventory is based on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory. According to that, “test” I cannot sustain one spiritual practice for more than a few weeks. I am, by nature, a spiritual butterfly. And that is ok. According to that spiritual director, that is totally ok.
A weight has been lifted.
There is a lesson to be learned from all of this. The lesson to be learned is that method is not as important as practice. The reason we read and study scripture, after all, is to learn the will of God and then to live it.
I believe we are actually living the beatitudes right here at Scottsville Presbyterian. And I want to end with this. Here, is some of Scottsville Presbyterian’s living out of the beatitudes:
- Blessed are you who work full time and have no one to care for and teach your children.
Your children will receive child care and education in a safe and caring environment at Scottsville’s Boys and Girls Club..
- Blessed are you who are hungry.
You will receive food through meals on wheels and the monthly food bank.
- Blessed are you who are homebound. You will receive visits and phone calls from church members..
- Blessed are you who practice mending fences and reconciliation with Chestnut Grove, for you will be the recipient of lasting friendships.
- Blessed are you who are in the hospital. You will be prayed for and you will receive get well cards and hospital visits from your pastor and your friends at Scottsville Presbyterian..
- Blessed are you who worry about sick loved ones, you will be prayed for.
- Blessed are you who are having problems discovering a direction in your life, you will receive guidance in a safe and loving environment, and you will make many friends at the Discovery School. And, you will also receive candy and gifts and coffee and knitted hats from and your accomplishments will be celebrated at Scottsville Presbyterian.
- Blessed are you when a loved one dies for you will receive phone calls and prayers and you will not grieve alone.
May we continue to study and contemplate scripture and may we continue to live the beatitudes. Amen