SPIRITUALITY - WHAT IS IT?
Ben H. Swett
Christian Church-Capital Area,
27 February 1988
What is this new interest in spirituality I keep
Rev. Donald L. Jones, pastor of Third Christian Church, Indianapolis Indiana,
presented a powerful sermon on the need for spirituality at the 1987 General
Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He said:
Do I need it?
Something is missing in our congregational
life, which makes it hard for us to have the energy to carry out the ministry
to which God has called us in today's world. The discovery of that something
missing will enable and empower us.
What is missing is something Jesus claimed to be fundamental
when he said, `What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose
his own soul?' What is missing in our congregational life is a lively sense
What we need is the discovery or rediscovery of the
vital spiritual center of the human being. We need to recover the quality
of spirituality in which we are enlivened and animated and energized by
the presence of God penetrating to the very core of who we are. For lack
of this quality, there is no dynamic energy at the center, out of which
we may live and witness and serve.
We have proclaimed the message of Jesus, and we have
manifest the behavior of Jesus in good works toward others, but we have
ignored the fact that both the message and the behavior of Jesus were created
out of the spirituality of Jesus. His own inner life was the energy center
for everything he said and everything he did.
It is the same for us. Spirituality is the prerequisite
for witness and for service. The primary purpose of the congregation is
to help people discover or rediscover their own souls. But church life in
most of our congregations militates against that very purpose. It consists
of a demanding round of extraverted activities which leaves our people exhausted
in body and hungry in spirit. More and more of our local church leaders
are saying, "It seems like I'm giving out and giving out all the time,
with not much coming back. I don't need another job. I don't need another
challenge. I need nurture."
We had better listen to that, for it is the cry of
an overburdened and undernourished human soul. It is the cry of an inner
emptiness that can be ignored only at the peril of the whole Christian enterprise.
For if even the pillars of the church are hollow, the church cannot stand.
The best kept secret in our contemporary church life is the passionate religious
yearning that is hidden within those who sit passively in the pews, or even
more, in the lives of those whose feverish activity keeps the organization
But thank God for the increased spiritual restlessness
in a growing number of key people in our congregations, brave church leaders
who are no longer willing to be silent about their spiritual hunger but
are beginning to demand a parish church that can be a crucible of transformation
and discovery for them, and for their contemporary church-goers.
It is time for Disciples to quit being embarrassed
about, or apologetic for, our spirituality. For all too long, we have been
silent because we didn't want to sound too pious. That is the Disciple disease:
a fear of sharing our spirituality with each other. We bend over backwards
not to sound or to seem pious, but we cheat ourselves out of a lot of things
we ought to be saying to each other, about the depth and wonder of our own
souls, and about those experiences of inner intimacy with God which have
shaped and continue to shape who we are.
It is as though we participate in a conspiracy of
silence about our spirituality, in the embarrassed hope that, if we don't
talk about it, maybe it will go away. And of course, that is exactly what
happens, in time. If the Disciples of Christ, as one of the mainline Protestant
denominations, is withering away, it is not because we have lost our theological
identity, nor because we have lost our evangelical fervor, nor yet because
we have lost our commitment to peace with justice. It is because we have
lost our soul. We have lost touch with the deeper springs of religious feeling,
with the reality of the spirit in everything we do.
Our beginning point has to be the breaking of the
conspiracy of silence, with each other, in our personal conversations in
the local congregation, in clergy groups, in regional and national meetings
of all kinds. Everything has to start here, with creative dialogue, especially
with something as elusive as spirituality.
OK, if spirituality is so elusive, what are we
One of the best and least biased sources from which we can start toward
an answer to that question is Webster's Dictionary.
spirituality 1. the spiritual character, quality, or nature. 2. [often
plural] the rights, jurisdiction, tithes, etc., belonging to the church
or to an ecclesiastic. 3. the fact or state of being incorporeal.
spiritual 1. of the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the body
or material matters. 2. of, from, or concerned with the intellect; intellectual.
3. of or consisting of spirit; not corporeal. 4. characterized by the ascendency
of the spirit; showing much refinement of thought and feeling. 5. of religion
or the church; sacred, devotional, or ecclesiastical. 6. spiritualistic
incorporeal 1. not consisting of matter; without material body or
substance. 2. of spirits or angels.
spirited full of spirit; lively, vigorous, energetic, animated.
spiritless lacking spirit, energy or vigor; listless, depressed.
soul 1. an entity which is regarded as being the immortal or spiritual
part of a person and, though having no physical or material reality, is
credited with the functions of thinking and willing, and hence determining
all behavior. 2. the moral or emotional nature of man. 3. spiritual warmth,
force, etc., or evidence of this. 4. vital or essential part, quality or
principle. 5. the person who leads or dominates. 6. embodiment, personification.
7. a person. 8. the spirit of a dead person, thought of as separate from
the body and leading an existence of its own.
soul-less lacking soul, sensitivity, or deepness of feeling; without
spirit or inspiration: shallow, trivial, meaningless, empty, inert, dead,
What are the opposites of spiritual and spirituality?
material 1. of matter; of substance; relating to or consisting of
what occupies space; physical. 2. of the body or bodily needs, satisfactions,
etc.; corporeal, sensual, or sensuous; of or fond of comfort, pleasure,
wealth, etc., rather than spiritual or intellectual values; worldly. 3.
important, essential or pertinent [to a matter under discussion]. Antonyms:
spiritual, mental, psychical.
materialism 1. the philosophical doctrine that matter is the only
reality, and that everything in the world, including thought and feeling,
can be explained only in terms of matter. 2. the tendency to be more concerned
with material than with spiritual or intellectual goals or values.
Where do those definitions leave us?
From the dictionary definitions, I define spirituality as belief in those
aspects of reality which are not of this world or this material universe.
I contrast spirituality with atheism, materialism, humanism, communism and
capitalism, nationalism, and all such worldly ideologies. I believe that
life, even in this world, can only be properly understood and appreciated
from the larger perspective that spirituality affords.
Therefore, I believe that spirituality is, first and foremost, a point of
view. It starts with one's basic belief about the nature of reality. If
one believes that only material things are real, that person has no starting
point for spirituality. If one believes all reports of spiritual experiences
are merely products of human imagination and wishful thinking, that person
has no basis for spirituality.
You can tell where a person is coming from in this regard:
Reverend Jones is right: something is missing. From the dictionary definitions
of the words involved, that something has to do with things which are not
of this world. I have heard that feeling again and again, from elders and
ministers and members of the congregation. It shows up in statements like
- A bright five-year-old recently said, "I'm not going to believe
in God or Jesus, because I can't see them."
- When my mother died, a church friend wrote, "I'm sure you must
take great comfort from knowing that she will always live on in your memories."
- In his Easter sermon, one minister kept referring to "the Easter
story" and "the Easter myth." Later, when he was asked how
the myth of Christ's resurrection differed from the myth of the Easter Bunny,
he hung his head and said, "I wish you hadn't asked me that."
Those are tough words and tough problems. But Reverend Jones is also correct
in saying that a major restlessness is beginning to appear. Something is
happening in this world, and it is by no means limited to the Christian
- I'm tired of trivialities, make-work and busy-work. Maybe I'm wrong,
but it just seems like everything we do in church is basically meaningless.
- My friends who go to fundamentalist, charismatic or Pentecostal churches
seem to be finding something that we don't even talk about.
- Some members of my congregation say they have had experience with
good and bad ghosts, and they asked me about it, but as their minister,
I have no tools, no instruction, nothing. The church has abandoned this
whole area to the occult.
- I know something is missing, but I'm not sure what. And I'm not sure
more prayer is the answer. I know a man who tried praying for an hour every
night for two years, but nothing happened. So now, he doesn't go to church
any more. He says it's all just a bunch of nonsense and wishful thinking.
There was a good article on this subject in the Washington Times last Wednesday
(February 24, 1988) by Patrick Buchanan, entitled, "The Need to Believe:
Laughter a Bit Hollow?" After commenting on last Sunday's televised
confession of sin by Assemblies of God Minister Jimmy Swaggart, Mr. Buchanan
went on to say:
Nevertheless, reports of the demise of
the electronic church are ... greatly exaggerated. The number and reach
of Christian broadcasters has grown geometrically in this decade, despite
the hugely publicized flaws and failings of the few. For these churches
are providing, for millions, answers to questions the mainline Protestant
churches, caught up with their trendy social gospels, no longer provide.
(At 3 million members, the Assemblies of God is among the fastest-growing
denominations in the United States.)
This is what is happening: There is a new resurgence of the ancient
human hunger for a larger view of life. Neither materialists nor humanists
can feed that hunger, because they refuse to believe that man does not live
by bread alone, but they work diligently to undermine the efforts of those
who can. They say we invented the idea of God, and of life after
death, because we need to believe. Their's is a diabolically clever doctrine
that strikes at the very roots of religious faith. But what if they are
right? Are we just deluding ourselves because we need to believe? Or are
the materialists and humanists systematically deluding themselves and each
other, and trying to delude us, because they have a fervent, almost
religious need to disbelieve? That is the issue.
While this is not offered in defense of Jimmy Swaggart,
a preeminent Catholic-baiter of our era, the laughter of the secular world
today should be ringing a bit hollow. For, looking about the nation and
the world, it is the secular faiths, from Marxism in the East to humanism
in the West, that appear to be desiccated and dying.
More than half a century ago, John Dewey set about
to replace Christianity, which he considered outdated and inadequate for
modern America, with a new humanist `common faith,' using the nation's public
school classrooms as its pulpits. The secularist takeover of the public
schools is now complete; but the fruits of that victory, evident today,
are surely not what Dewey & Co. had in mind. The godless children coming
out of America's public schools are growing up to make a mess of American
civilization; and many of these children, raised in a secularized environment,
are actively searching for God to save them from their world of disbelief.
Indeed, some of the best and brightest of the young,
emerging from the moral wilderness of our secularized schools, thirsting
for transcendence, are even inventing new religions. The newest of these
is the New Age philosophy, the so-called yuppies' religion. Common to many
of its adherents are a belief in reincarnation, in astrology, in the miraculous
powers of quartz crystals, in trance channelers or mediums--individuals
with the psychic power to summon up voices from centuries ago. Mysticism
for the masses. "The New Age is upon us," Marla Donato wrote recently
in the Chicago Tribune. "Just look around. There are now New Age churches,
radio programs, stores, tapes, newsletters, magazines, seminars and classes.
Jewelry, featuring quartz crystals and other `healing' stones, is in vogue."
In the Communist East, too, atheism in is retreat.
From the Soviet Union come reports of Christian clubs cropping up in Moscow,
of visions of the Virgin Mary in the Ukraine. Millions have made the pilgrimage
to Medjugorge in Yugoslavia, where similar visions are reported. In Czechoslovakia,
the Catholic Church, long suppressed, is reasserting itself; the same is
true in China. Marxism appears to be as dead a faith in the Soviet Union
as modernized Anglicanism is in Great Britain.
For the truth is that the central tenet of all secularist
and secularized faiths--i.e., that God does not exist, that we ourselves
must depend wholly upon ourselves--is at war with the unchanging and unchangeable
nature of created man. Ultimately, secularism is futility. For when belief
in the God of the Gospels has been extirpated, after so much effort, the
beneficiaries of that secularist indoctrination soon set out to find another
God. If the search fails, they invent one. This is the history of the human
race. The necessity to believe is part of human nature; it is written upon
the soul; it cannot be erased. Whatever his sins, Brother Swaggart is on
the winning side."
How can such an issue be resolved? Only by learning the truth--the truth
that sets us free from such delusions, one way or the other. And how can
we seek for spiritual truth? The same way we seek for any other kind of
truth, except we must remember that our subject matter is incorporeal. Therefore,
our tools are: personal experience, but not sensory experience; observable
evidence, but not physical evidence; other people's testimony, provided
we have reason for faith in the veracity of their witness; and logical inference
from specific cases to general principles, provided we test each principle
against the preponderance of evidence, experience, and testimony.
OK, suppose we don't have any personal experience
in this area. Where can we go for evidence or testimony?
The Bible? Yes! The Bible is full of information on spirituality.
It has been the primary text for two thousand years. However, the Bible
itself is now being tested, so first look within yourself. If, in your inner
honesty, you find the Bible is being tested in you, then you cannot use
it for proof; you can only use it for reference.
Saints and mystics of the past? Yes, there is some great reading
there. You can study their methods and perhaps imitate some of their self-disciplines,
but you should not expect too much by way of results unless you also share
their premises--the basic beliefs which were their starting points. You
also need to know a good deal about the historic and religious context in
which they lived in order to understand them.
Science? The natural sciences have done great things within their
self-imposed, materialistic limitations, but if you are interested in spirituality,
you will find little or no help there, because the very subject-matter of
your inquiry has been dismissed as unreal. Unfortunately, the same is true
of the social sciences. They have strictly limited their concept of reality
to this world and the worldly affairs of human beings. For example, behavioral
psychologists have it exactly backward. Jesus said, "The spirit gives
life, the flesh is of no avail," but they say, "The flesh gives
life, the `spirit' is merely a by-product of the flesh." So don't expect
any help from them.
Fundamentalist, Charismatic, or Pentecostal churches? They still
talk about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit as realities rather than myths,
but they require blind faith--that is, unquestioning acceptance of their
own doctrines, dogmas and tests of faith. Disciples tend to be mavericks
in this regard. We typically want to do our own thinking, so we tend to
run into trouble where individual inquiry is restricted or too narrowly
Psychic research? Yes, there is information relevant to spirituality
in these areas of inquiry which have been laughed at by science and scorned
or feared by religion. I have found more thoughtful discussion of spiritual
realities in books on ESP, parapsychology, psychic research and spiritualism
than I have in recent books on mainline Christianity. For example, the Interpreter's
Dictionary of the Bible is practically useless as a source of information
on spirituality. For me, and for many other sincere seekers, the mainstream
has dried up. Therefore, I either had to quit seeking or look elsewhere.
I have looked elsewhere; however, this type of research is not something
that everyone needs to pursue.
What's left? The personal testimony of trusted friends, people you
know well enough to take their word for anything they may wish to say. This
is the kind of people upon whom Jesus relied to be his witnesses; that is,
to tell others what they had seen and heard and experienced with him, "in
Jerusalem, and in Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
This is the kind of people we are called upon to be, to the extent we have
personal experience with spiritual realities, and more especially if we
have experience with the quality of spirituality that centers on Jesus.
What do you mean by "quality of spirituality?"
There are many kinds of spirituality. Some are good for us and some are
Superstitious spirituality comes from the notion that God is Master of Mysteries,
Lord of the Unknown, and the Last Resort of our frustrated attempts to explain.
Falsely spiritual interpretations of natural phenomena such as thunder and
lightning and earthquakes have been the starting point for many superstitions.
We must make sure we don't do that sort of thing ourselves. Instead, we
should worship God in truth, as Jesus said, by knowing that He inspires
the discovery of truth. That way, we can see and appreciate His handiwork
in what we know and what we are learning, rather than worshiping Him only
in what we do not know.
Amoral spirituality. The problem with spiritualism and psychic research
is that the researchers don't make any significant moral distinctions. They
don't know a good spirit from a bad one, and they don't seem to think that
the difference is important. As a result, they wind up listening to a lot
of confused folks and outright liars, both corporeal and incorporeal. The
New Age spirituality is also amoral. Most of what the New Age folks are
rediscovering is actually ancient, and not all of it should be dismissed
lightly, but that's not the problem. The real problem is their lack of moral
distinctions, spiritual direction, and higher calling.
Dualistic spirituality. Some people attribute far too much power to the
devil. They are so afraid of bad spirits that they make them seem far more
powerful than they are. "The Devil made me do it" is a cop-out,
an evasion of personal responsibility.
Magical spirituality. Trying to use spirituality to get what we want is
an ancient and primitive approach to religion. That's the real inner purpose
of magic and sorcery. Science is replacing religion as a means of getting
what we want, and it's just as well, as Harry Emerson Fosdick pointed out
more than sixty years ago in his book Adventurous Religion.
Emotional spirituality can be similar to magical spirituality, if the real
purpose is to get something we want. When people use physical exercises
such as dancing and chanting and beating on drums for the (perhaps hidden)
purpose of working themselves up into an emotional fervor, they are practicing
a primitive type of spirituality found in most pagan religions. There are
some forms of meditation that can produce an emotional high. In any case,
when people become so addicted to their own emotions that they simply go
on one "bliss trip" after another, they are of no earthly or heavenly
use, to God or man or themselves.
Preferential spirituality is a disguised form of elitism. For example, speaking
in tongues is famous for splitting churches, but it isn't the speaking in
tongues that does it. What splits churches is the arrogance of those who
make this little manifestation of spiritual activity a test of faith or
membership or status. They make the same mistake the First Century church
at Corinth made: they forget that Jesus did not say, "By their
gifts you will know them." He said, "By their fruits you
will know them." And Paul very nicely lists for us the fruit of the
Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness,
mercy, and self-control. These are indeed evidence that the spirit involved
is Holy, but spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues are not even proof
that one is a Christian, much less a special Christian. All sorts of pagans
have had such spiritual gifts.
Judgmental spirituality. This is the kind of spirituality that concentrates
on who is saved and who is damned, who's going to heaven and who's going
to hell. This type of spirituality slanders God by making Him seem harsh
and condemning rather than loving and merciful. For example, most doctrines
of the atonement paint the mental image of a bloodthirsty, vengeful, unforgiving
god who must be placated by blood sacrifice--even that of his own son. Many
disbelievers have become so because they rejected this kind of spirituality
and didn't know there is any other kind.
Rational spirituality. I think the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
needs to and eventually will develop its own unique quality of spirituality.
And I think our spirituality will be rational; that is, it will not require
one to set aside or deny the integrity of the intellect. However, it also
needs a moral component; that is, it should distinguish between good and
bad actions, and motives, based on their fruits. I think that we may have
a ways to go in this regard, because many Disciples seem to confuse the
necessity of distinguishing between right and wrong with the error of being
Solitary spirituality. Brian Donst pointed out in the November, 1986, issue
of The Christian Ministry, "Most of us cannot survive in the
desert for long without becoming distracted, deceived or deluded. Not many
are called or empowered by God to spend their lives in the desert."
That is true, but then he went on and rather over-extended his point by
adding, "Yet how many desert hermits are still to be found in our churches?
Pastors who search for God in the shuttered privacy of their studies; parishioners
who know the intimacy of God only in the shuttered privacy of a prayer closet;
pilgrims who imagine that private prayer and secluded meditation are the
surest way to find God and their truest selves--all are following a desert
wisdom." That is not necessarily true. Private prayer and meditation
are not the same as being a hermit. The people he mentions may be simply
obeying the Lord's instructions: "When you pray, go into your private
room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret." That is
exactly what I believe and what I do. I have proved for myself that it works.
However, it is true that, unlike a hermit, we need someone with whom to
share our inner lives, our struggles, our failures and our silent achievements.
Gracious spirituality. There is a high and holy spirituality that is based
on the theology of a loving God and reflects that theology in those who
practice it. This kind of spirituality can be seen in the lives of people
like Brother Lawrence (The Practice of the Presence of God). It goes
beyond ethics to inner morality, and it demonstrates the quality of graciousness.
It begins in simple spirituality, such as the kind you are practicing when
you quietly and reverently hum a hymn as you go about your work. Although
I think we all have a long way to go before we attain the quality of spirituality
shown by people like Brother Lawrence, I firmly believe it is possible with
What can we do to improve our own spirituality?
Open your mind, if you have not already done so. Admit the possibility that
there are aspects of reality you cannot perceive with your physical senses.
Read the Bible from a spiritual point of view. It often speaks of things
which are not of this physical, material, self-centered world. Even Jesus'
disciples failed to understand what he said when they interpreted his words
in earthly terms. For example, he said, "Beware the leaven of the Scribes
and Pharisees," and they started worrying about the fact they forgot
to bring along any bread for lunch.
Study the words of the great hymns. Read them slowly and let their meaning
soak into you. There is much testimony to spiritual realities in the great
hymns of the church, but you may have to hunt up some old hymn-books in
order to find it.
Expand your reading. Study some of the saints and mystics, and see if what
they say makes sense to you. Study some of the psychics, if you wish, and
then decide for yourself if what they say is worthwhile. Samples of both
are in the partial bibliography at the end of this paper. One caution: remember
there is a lot of garbage in this field, some rocks and some wolves. So
look carefully, look quietly, and don't be quick to join any groups.
Distinguish between spiritual activities that are appropriate for groups
of various sizes. There are some spiritual exercises you must do alone,
in your private room, in silence and solitude. There are some that can only
be done in small groups, where two or three are gathered together in His
name. Some are best done in medium-sized groups, such as a Sunday School
class, a fellowship circle, or a special retreat. And some are appropriate
for a public worship service.
Control yourself. People forget that self-control is a fruit of the Holy
Spirit. They also forget that bad spirits (whether in a physical body or
not) typically try to get us to relinquish our self-control to them, often
by pretending to be holy. This key difference is one of the major ways to
test the spirits. Bad spirits want to control us; they are hungry
for power. Good spirits do not want to control us; they want us to
decide for ourselves.
Do not inflame your own or anyone else's sensuality. Genuine contemplatives
for thousands of years have found that sensuality inhibits spirituality,
and vice-versa. They all warn us that addiction to anything because it "feels
good" will not get us to heaven; it binds us to earth. Therefore, anything
that encourages sensuality is working against spirituality.
Note the difference between reading about spirituality, talking about it,
and doing it. Holy spiritual exercises include singing, fasting, temporarily
or permanently abstaining from sex, solitude, silence (stilling the senses),
centering, confession, compassion, worship, prayer, the act of blessing,
meditation, contemplation, and inner silence (stilling the mind). No one
can do these things for you.
Insist on a bit of solitude. You may not be able to get away very often,
to the mountain or a religious retreat, but for the sake of your sanity
as well as your soul, you need a little quiet time every day, just as you
need food and water.
Record your dreams. Keep a notebook in the bathroom, where you can write
in it at night without disturbing anyone else. Use it to jot down a quick
sketch of significant dreams if you awaken in the night, and before you
put on your face or shave it in the morning. If you don't write down your
dreams, they usually fade from memory before you finish shaving or powdering
Ask yourself, "What do I expect the results of prayer to be?"
It may be that your own expectations are getting in the way. Don't assume
that your prayers were answered just because you got what you wanted, and
don't assume that God is mad at you just because you didn't get what you
wanted. Assume that God will reply to you, in one way or another, sooner
or later. That reply is the real answer to prayer. It is referred to in
the Bible as "the word of God"--and it means an understandable
message from God to man, no matter how it is delivered.
Learn to listen. When you pray, give God a chance to get a word in edgewise.
Don't just tell Him what He already knows, or ask Him to care for those
He already loves. Ask for His guidance, as His servant. Then stop and listen:
quiet the inner noise of your own thoughts for a moment and see what pops
into your mind. Make a note of it, so you can review it later, because,
of course, every thought that pops into your mind is not the word of God.
You have to evaluate the content of the thought, and you may have to ask
a trusted friend to help you evaluate it, to see if it is kinder and wiser
than you are, but at least you will have given God a chance to speak to
Be prepared to encounter some tempters, as Jesus did when he went out into
the desert to pray. Don't be afraid of them. Always remember that tempters
and threateners are liars. They offer what you want and threaten what you
fear and try to make you think they are powerful, but in fact they have
no power over you other than what you give them by believing what they say.
"Resist the devil and he will flee from you," are the words of
a Christian spiritual director (named James), and it is a disservice to
encourage anyone to try to listen to God without explaining this point.
Distinguish between spirituality and piety. Spirituality deals with the
substance of inner life. Piety is devotion to religious duties and practices:
it stresses outward appearance, dutiful conduct, and scrupulous adherence
to detail. It was typical of the Pharisees. Jesus said, "Beware of
practicing your piety before men, that you may be seen by them," and
went on to give several examples. Therefore, we do well to avoid being pious,
but not when we confuse piety with spirituality.
Share your spiritual observations and experiences. First, share with one
or two of your close friends, in private. Then, when you find they really
don't eat you alive after all, share with a few more people you can trust.
As you build your courage, you may find that you can share with your Sunday
School class, fellowship circle, or similar group. Share your doubts and
frustrations as well as your moments of high communion. Dare to share. Then
we can learn from each other.
OK, all that is for after we go home. I'll think
about it. Now what?
As Reverend Jones said, it's time to break the conspiracy of silence. In
a little while, I'll ask you to rearrange yourselves into small groups of
about ten people, to share some of the spiritual experiences you have had
or have heard about. In the meantime, while you are thinking about what
you would like to share, I'll try to practice what he preached. Granted,
my way may not be your way. What feeds me may not feed you--and that's Okay.
I tend to go about these things backward: that is, I start with facts and
work back toward faith. I start with observations and then find that some
of them remind me of something in the Bible.
Inspired sermons and inspired prayers
Our minister and I had discussed the functioning of divine inspiration on
several occasions. Then, one Sunday, he preached a sermon on the Apostle
Paul's statements concerning the role of women in church. It was a gutsy
topic, and he handled it beautifully. The key line of his message was: "I
think that God would say to us, `Don't be too hard on my servant, Paul.
For all his human fallibility, he did right well with his life.'"
Later I asked him where he found that view of such a controversial topic.
He said, "You know, that's funny. I wasn't going to present it that
way, but I always have to go to the bathroom just before the service, and
while I was in there, that line, `Don't be too hard on my servant, Paul,'
just popped into my mind. So I rebuilt the sermon around that theme."
I said, "Oh," and we went our ways, but shortly thereafter, I
had to go out of town, and I kept thinking about what he said. So I wrote
to him, "After thinking it over, I'm not surprised at what you said
about that sermon on Paul; it sounded to me like inspired interpretation.
And besides, your methodology was scriptural. As Jesus said, `When you pray,
go into your private room and shut the door.' Where else can you find a
more private room, these days?"
In his reply, he wrote, "That sounds to me like inspired interpretation!"
Elders sometimes find themselves praying other than they intended: for example,
unplanned words may come into their minds while they are praying at the
Communion table. Many elders have had this experience, and not always, but
fairly often, someone will come up to them after the service, mention those
very words, and say, "Thanks, I needed that."
I remember one elder's prayer that seemed to have read my mind, put a finger
on exactly what was bothering me, and resolved it by indicating a different
way of looking at it. In his prayer, he said, "Help us to forgive those
who trespass against us as the best of our friends have forgiven our trespasses
In 1968, I was invited to address a meeting of the Ministerial Alliance
of Ponca City, Oklahoma. The night before the meeting, I prayed for guidance,
but didn't receive any, so--remembering that the Lord doesn't do our homework
for us--I drafted up the bones of an after-dinner speech.
Next day at the luncheon, I found myself looking at those ministers. I knew
several of them fairly well, and I knew they really cared for their people.
They were ministers in fact as well as in name. My heart went out to them,
because I had very little to offer that might be of use to them.
Then, when I stood up and opened my mouth to speak, what came out was as
much a surprise to me as it was to them: "Good afternoon. I'm pleased
I was invited to address this meeting of the Corpus Christi Cattlemen's
They all looked blank for a couple of seconds. Then I saw laughter begin
to crinkle the corners of several people's eyes as they recognized the English
meaning of Corpus Cristi.
"Well, we're all interested in the care and feeding of sheep, and little
lambs, and kids, and old goats, and workhorses, nags, and bull-headed parishioners
... I'd like to talk about fodder."
From that point on, I just relayed each thought as it came into my mind.
The talk was an extended analogy on the spiritual feeding of human beings,
and the main point was that we don't all eat the same things. It was a good
message--I saw the ministers making notes on napkins--and I knew full well
that it was far superior to anything I had ever thought or heard on that
> James 1:5 "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives
to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him."
The draining and refilling of spiritual energy.
My mother-in-law spent many days visiting an old friend in a nursing home.
Each time she went, she came away tired and drained, while her friend seemed
far more filled with life and energy at the end of the visit than she was
at the beginning. This is a very common experience among care-givers of
all kinds. The problem is that few of them realize the spiritual significance
of such an exchange. They think it's all in their minds, but it is often
more like a spiritual transfusion, and if they don't know how to open themselves
to the Lord so that energy can be replenished, they tend to dry up or burn
The wife of one of our elders was in a nursing home for almost eight years.
During all that time, Roy was there every day, for 8 to 12 hours, visiting
her and conducting what amounted to a full-time Christian ministry in that
Sometimes I took the Communion and went with him to several of the people
there. On the lower floor were patients with mental as well as physical
problems: little scraps of humanity sleeping in their wheelchairs. I saw
him go among them like a source of light, and I saw them come to life--rousing
from their stupor, straightening in their wheelchairs and turning toward
him in a wave like an expanding circle as little weak voices whispered,
"Roy's here. Roy's coming."
He never did anything profound or spectacular. A touch on an old lady's
arm, "Oh, Gertie, have you lost one of your slippers?" and he
had a whole circle of patients looking for that slipper. "Martha, is
that seat-belt coming loose? Wouldn't want you to fall out when you go racing
around the corners."
I saw the light drain out of him as he worked. Then, when he looked old
and tired himself, he would go to the water fountain, drink, stand there
for a few moments, and re-center himself. He must have been opening himself
inwardly and refilling from another sort of water fountain, because I saw
the light come back in him before he moved away to continue his work.
To the rest of the world, Roy was just a little old retired Washington,
D.C. bus driver, but to the people in that nursing home he was a saint.
And the spiritual exercise by which he opened himself to be refilled would
be worthy of comment in recording the life of any canonized saint.
An older member of our church discussion group fell off a high cut-bank
at the edge of her lawn and sprained practically everything she owned. Her
doctor had put a thick rubber collar around her neck, and she needed help
to walk. As the discussion group was breaking up, she said, "Ben, would
you lay your hands on me and pray for me?"
I didn't have the foggiest idea what was wrong with her or how to fix it,
and I know I'm not a doctor, but I said to myself, "I'm an elder of
the church. She has asked. I have to try."
I stepped behind her chair and placed my hands on her shoulders, but I couldn't
think of anything to say except, "This is my prayer, too." Then
I just stood there, not really thinking or praying at all.
After a moment, I felt something on my own shoulders, like a warm, tingling,
effervescent fluid. It flowed down over my arms and forearms, but not through
them. As it flowed over my hands, I felt her back straighten as though she
suddenly sat more upright in her chair.
I tried not to think. I didn't want to get excited or do anything that might
shut off the flow. It went on for some little time and then gradually tapered
off. When it stopped, I dropped my hands and stepped back. I felt somewhat
detached and in reverie, which I recognized as a slightly altered state
Rosemarie turned around in her chair and asked, "Are you drained?"
I said, "No," and I didn't feel as though I had used any of my
own energy at all. Then a thought like a vision came into my mind--a picture
of me standing behind her chair, and someone standing behind me with his
hands on my shoulders, and someone standing behind him with his hands on
his shoulders--on and on, like a chain of helpers, or elders, farther than
I could see. I understood that the energy had come down through that linkage,
from the Source of all such energy, to the one who needed it. I was only
a link in the chain, or a piece of the plumbing.
At the next meeting, Rosemarie was no longer wearing the rubber collar,
and she walked without help, although she was still a little stiff and lame.
Thereafter, she recovered completely. That's what counts.
> Mark 5:30, Luke 5:17 "The power of the Lord was present to heal
One night as I went to sleep, I was thinking about the members of a discussion
group that met at our church. They all seemed to have grown spiritually,
but some much more so than others. I fell asleep wondering what I could
do to help those who were not progressing as fast as the rest.
I had a dream. In the dream, I saw a green field--like a lawn--with a planter
in the middle of it. The planter was a small plot of tilled earth surrounded
by a border of bricks set up on their corners.
Then I saw a series of pictures, like slides being flashed on a screen,
of various kinds of house-plants, alternating with pictures of people's
faces. I'm not too bright, especially when I'm asleep, so it took me awhile
to figure that out. But finally I said, "OK ... plants are like people
... or people are like plants."
The slide-show stopped immediately. It was replaced by a film clip, like
a time-lapse motion picture of two plants growing together, side by side,
in the planter. They looked like the young shoots of cannas or corn.
As I watched, the plant on the right grew much faster than the one on the
left. It soon became two, three, four, five, six times as tall as its neighbor.
I thought, "I wonder what's wrong with the little one," and as
the scene continued, I became more and more worried about that poor little
I thought about making sure it had enough water, and adding some fertilizer,
and loosening the dirt around it. I wondered if a cutworm had eaten its
Just then both plants blossomed. The one on the right was a sunflower ...
and the one on the left was a perfectly beautiful tulip.
Later, when I remembered I had gone to sleep thinking about the members
of the discussion group, I got the message.
In the late 1960s a group of people in Ponca City, Oklahoma, were discussing
answers to prayer. One was an old deacon from the First Christian Church.
He said, "I never really thought of it this way before, and I haven't
told very many people about it, but I'll tell you something that happened
to me several years ago and you can see what you think.
"You remember, when John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address, he
said, `Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for
your country.' Well, that thought kept going around in my head.
"A few nights later, as I was going to sleep, it rearranged itself,
`Ask not what your God can do for you, ask what you can do for your God.'
So I said, `Okay, God, what can I do for you?' Nothing happened, so I went
to sleep, but later that night I had a strange dream.
"In the dream, I was coming into the sanctuary of our church and found
my attention drawn to that big chandelier that hangs over the middle of
the room. Then I woke up. That's all there was to it. `That was strange,'
I thought, and went back to sleep. But I had the same dream again, only
this time I was coming into the sanctuary from the other side, and my attention
was just almost forcibly drawn up to that chandelier. I woke up and lay
there for a long time, wondering about that dream.
"The next morning it was still bothering me, so I went to the church
and looked at that chandelier. There was nothing to be seen, but I was so
bothered that I went and got a tall ladder and climbed up to take a closer
look. The bottom link of the main support chain, hidden down inside the
top of the chandelier, was worn almost through. When I saw it, the hair
went up the back of my neck like I had seen a rattlesnake come out of a
box. I got some of the men together, and we had that thing safe and secure
before the next Lord's Day.
"But like I said, I never really put all this together before. I never
thought of it as an answer to prayer, but now I'm not so sure. What do you
> Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21 "Your sons and your daughters shall
prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream
If you have not done so, I suggest that you read Return From Tomorrow
by Dr. Ritchie and Life After Life by Dr. Moody. They are not the
final word on life after death, by any means, but they do provide some modern
My father-in-law had just such an experience in 1967, before any of those
books came out. He died several times while being operated on for cancer
of the esophagus, and they had to restart his heart.
Later, he tried to tell me about it. Lawrence was not a man of words, so
it was difficult for him to express what he experienced. He said he remembered
leaving his body and floating up to the corner of the operating room. He
saw the doctors working on his body. They used "something that looked
like a pair of those old-fashioned flat-irons, like we used to heat on the
stove," just before he was drawn back into the body. This happened
"Then," he said, "I sort of floated away from there, to some
"What was it like?"
"Well ... it was different. It was like I was swimming in light ...
golden light ... all around me ... and above me and below me."
"Were other people there?"
"Anyone you recognized?"
"Well..." He thought about it. Then he turned and looked directly
at me: "I'll tell you what it was like. It was like when you were a
little kid at home and knew that everybody loved you." A pause ...
then, "I'm not afraid any more."
> First Corinthians 15--the entire chapter
Thoughts that are not your own
A family in our congregation was in need. As I lifted them up in prayer
just before going to sleep, it occurred to me that God might answer my prayer
by inspiring someone else to go and help them. So I modified my prayer along
those lines: "Lord, somebody needs to go help those people." I
got an immediate and unmistakable reply, like a voice in the top of my head,
"Well?" So I went.
Elders need prayer even more than other people do, because we need the Lord's
guidance in the exercise of our responsibilities. None of us are wise enough,
or kind enough, to meet our neighbors' deepest needs out of our own resources.
Therefore, "the elder's prayer" is a request for guidance, followed
by silent, receptive waiting for the Lord's reply.
The wait need not be long. For example, I was called at work by the secretary
of our church--one of our members had suffered a massive heart attack and
was in the intensive care ward at a local hospital. Through his wife, he
was asking for the pastor, but our pastor was on leave. I made a couple
of phone calls but couldn't locate a pastor, so I went to the hospital.
The attendant at the door of the intensive care ward didn't want to let
me in, so I pulled rank on him. I told him I was an elder of the church
and one of his patients was asking for ministerial support. He had no idea
what an elder might be, so he took no chances and let me in.
I sat on a little stool at the side of the bed. Bill was in bad shape--full
of tubes and laboring for breath. I held his hand and asked if he wanted
me to pray with him. He nodded, so I softly asked for his relief from pain
and for healing if possible. He squeezed my hand, quickly, to stop me. In
his labored, gasping breath, he said, "Maybe ... don't ... want to
That struck me as a little odd, because it was pretty obvious he was not
going to get well, so I asked, "Then, what's the problem?"
"Afraid ... of judgment."
That was above my pay grade. I don't know what anyone will face in judgment,
and I don't want to know. I had no idea what to say to him, so I internalized
my own, one-word prayer: "Help!"
The answer came immediately; I merely relayed it aloud: "Oh, you remember
... Jesus receives mercifully all who come to him humbly."
He squeezed my hand, hard: "Say it ... again."
"Jesus is merciful. He accepts every one who comes to him humbly."
"Oh ..." he said. "Oh ... I forgot that." I felt the
tension drain out of him. He relaxed, and I thought he smiled. Twenty minutes
later he was gone.
> Matthew 10:19 "In that hour, the words shall be given you..."
While I was stationed at the Pentagon, I often had lunch with a friend from
the same suite of offices. One time we got to talking about spiritual experiences.
He said he had heard of some, but never had any himself. Then he stopped
and said, "But I did have some nightmares about my mother when I was
I asked him to tell me about them. He said, "My mother died when I
was about three. When I was about five, I had the nightmares, three or four
times, just alike. I thought she came into my room and stood at the foot
of my bed. I got frightened and started screaming. My father and stepmother
came in, and when I told them, they said it was just a nightmare."
"What made you think it was your mother in the room?"
"Oh, I knew who it was. I remembered her."
"Then what made you so frightened?"
"I don't know. I guess she looked different, or strange, or something."
"What did she do?"
"Not much. She just stood there, by the foot of my bed ... and she
was carrying something ... a thick quilt or a blanket ... over her arm."
Something clicked in my mind: "What did your family call that particular
kind of quilt or blanket when you were a kid?"
A long pause while he looked down at the table, then his expression changed
and he looked back up at me with tears in his eyes. "A comforter,"
he said, "We always called that kind of blanket a comforter."
There is a conspiracy of silence on this subject, and it is not new. Almost
24 years ago, I was asked to lead a seminar for a Unitarian Church in Portsmouth,
New Hampshire, on a variety of topics. One of those topics was life after
I discussed some of the many references to life after death in the Bible
and in other religions, read from a few of the monumental mass of evidential
reports that have been collected by psychic researchers and spiritualists,
passed along some first-person testimony that I have no reason to doubt,
and shared a couple of personal experiences. When I finished, I opened the
meeting for discussion.
One old man cleared his throat and said, "Well, if you're not afraid
to talk about it, I guess I oughtn't be. I had four brothers. They've all
gone on before me. And they've all been back to talk with me. So there!"
And he turned and glared at the old man sitting next to him. The other old
man stared back at him for a moment, and then asked softly, "You, too,
I found out later they had been good friends and active members of that
church for twenty years without ever mentioning the subject.
> Mark 9:4 "There appeared to them Elijah and Moses ... talking
An exercise in breaking the conspiracy of silence
(Rearrange in groups of about ten people for small-group sharing)
No report is required from the groups. What you have shared is yours to
keep and to share with others. We will close by singing "Take Time
To Be Holy." Sing it softly. Get into it and let it get into you. This
is one of the great codifications of Christian spirituality. It tells much
of what we are to do, and it indicates the purpose, the end-product, of
what we are trying to be.
TAKE TIME TO BE HOLY
by W. D. Longstaff (1822-1894)
Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord.
Abide in Him always, and feed on His word.
Make friends of God's children; help those who are
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on.
Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be.
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.
Take time to be holy, let Him be thy Guide,
And run not before Him, whatever betide.
In joy or in sorrow, still follow thy Lord.
And looking to Jesus, still trust in His word.
Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul;
Each thought and each motive beneath His control.
Thus led by His Spirit to fountains of love,
Thou soon shall be fitted for service above.
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