The Reverend Billy Graham, 1918–2018

Today the world lost a spiritual giant whose ministry was shared around the world in some 90 countries, and here in the United States with huge crowds of people and with every US President from Harry Truman to George W. Bush.

He still has wisdom to teach us.

Years ago when Billy Graham was perhaps in his 80s, he was asked by Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch, “If you had your life to live all over again, would you do anything different?”

Billy Graham replied, “Yes, I would study more, read the Bible more, and pray more. I’ve let other things interfere with that too much.” If such a man as he could make such a statement, how much could every one of the rest of us learn from it.

In sermons, he also stated that the whole Bible could be summed up in one verse: John 3:16.—  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

           

Keep Your Church Alive

A friend recently lent me a fascinating and reader-friendly book entitled Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Without her recommendation, I would never have picked up this book because the title clearly emphasizes churches that die out. She advised focusing on the subtitle, which, of course, is the opposite emphasis—how to prevent the dieout.

This 2014 book, by the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, grew out of a desire to understand why so many churches that were once vibrant congregations have in recent years seriously declined and ultimately closed their doors and sold off their properties.

Whether your church is seeing a decline in its numbers of worshippers as the Sundays go by, or is still in the upswing of its church life cycle, this is a book that offers valuable insight into what keeps a church alive. Even though the choir and music ministers are still working hard and serving up beautiful music, even though the pastor still works hard on his/her sermon each week, there may be shifts occurring that don’t bode well for the future.

Rainer writes: “The decline is in the vibrant ministries that once existed. The decline is in the prayer lives of the members who remain. The decline is in the outward focus of the church. The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.”

That’s a lot of decline, but the problem is that each shift may be subtle and quite easy to overlook, even when it’s building on previous overlooked changes.

“More than any one item,” writes Rainer, “these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.”

Two fundamentals of critical importance are meaningful prayer (both individual and corporate), and actively caring for the surrounding community. No matter whether the church is on the upswing or the downswing, these two fundamentals make all the difference in whether the church is Christ-centered, likely to remain strong, and able to continue long-term to provide a healthy place of worship.

           

Confidently Receiving from God

The Bible offers a lot of promises, but there may be none more extraordinary than the one in I John 5:14-15:

“And this is the confidence (the assurance, the privilege of boldness) which we have in Him: [we are sure] that if we ask anything (make any request) according to His will (in agreement with His own plan), He listens to and hears us. And if (since) we [positively] know that He listens to us in whatever we ask, we also know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted us as our present possessions] the requests made of Him.”

That is from the Amplified Bible, which throws in lots of clarifications to make sure we really get the point. Here it is from the NIV, the stripped-down version:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”

The Message gives us the same point but with updated language: “And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.”

There is one inviolate phrase that all three versions leave intact: “according to His will.” Whatever we ask according to His will, we can be sure that He hears us and will grant us that request. How do we know what His will is? There are two ways. One is to make a concerted effort of Bible study until the assurance grows within you that you understand God’s will for you. The other is to put these verses into practice: Ask God in regular prayer what His will is for you, and when you feel the assurance that He has heard you, and has responded to you, then adjust your life accordingly.

           

Community

I think I’ve discussed community before on this blog, sometime in its six or seven years of existence. There have been times, I’d have to admit, when I was a little hazy myself on the importance of community, especially in relation to the issue of spirituality. It’s a temptation for an introvert to focus her spirituality into avenues that are not dependent on the presence or participation of other people.

So, I was intrigued by how much my attention was drawn to, and has returned to, a paragraph in Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter.

The paragraph is presented as the public comment of a character named Burley Coulter (one of my favorite characters in the story), who is known for referring to residents of the village of Port William, Kentucky, as all being part of a membership. The paragraph reads as follows:

“Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, we are members one of another. The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work.”

We’ve all heard expressions of similar concepts: “We are all one.” “We’re all in this together.” “No man is an island.”  But somehow Burley’s statement about membership strikes a chord that the others don’t quite manage. The difference, for me, is between anonymity and known identity. Burley’s statement eliminates anonymity in favor of a sense of belonging. And with belonging goes a natural, mutual responsibility for the others in the membership. Even an introvert likes to know where she belongs.

So, what does that have to do with “everyday spirituality”? What comes immediately to mind is the passage in Isaiah 54, recorded in The Message this way: “Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big! Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep. You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family….” [This passage of Scripture also figured in the September 22, 2016, post.]

“Your growing family” is another phrase for your membership. The more deeply you go into your spiritual self, the more your spiritual world can expand the coverage of its tent to recognize others as part of your membership.

As Burley would say: Do you recognize your membership or do you don’t?

           

Spiritual Direction

Today is my spiritual direction session — a once-monthly meeting with my spiritual director. It is an opportunity to take an hour to reflect purposefully, with the aid of another, on my ongoing relationship with the Divine. We might talk about where I have seen God’s touch in my life or where there appears to be (or needs to be) guidance concerning an issue now or going forward. My spiritual director has known me for many years, so she is able to draw connections with past conversations and past events in my life. Because she is also a widow, she has valuable insights into the feelings and movements of the grief process.

Spiritual direction can occur between two people of the same faith, or two people of differing faith traditions. The sessions offer a grounding with the Sacred through the listening presence and companionship of another person, one who has committed to set aside her/his own personal issues for the duration of the session in order to focus on those of the directee. In an ideal session, the director serves prayerfully as a conduit for the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual directors are available virtually all over the world. Where in-person, face-to-face sessions are not convenient, telephone or Skype sessions might be arranged. If you have an interest in learning more, or in contacting a spiritual director, visit the website www.sdiworld.org. The menu under “Find a Spiritual Director” offers as its first item the “Seek and Find Guide,” with instructions for using the Guide as well as listings for thousands of directors.

Spiritual direction is a valuable practice in everyday spirituality.

           

Giving Thanks In All Things

You’ve surely heard the Biblical instruction “give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you.” It is Verse 18 of I Thessalonians 5. You certainly heard it if you were in a Christian church on Thanksgiving Sunday. Most people who point to this verse emphasize that we are instructed to give thanks IN all things, not FOR all things, indicating a prevailing attitude of trust and gratitude that we should maintain no matter what is going on in our lives.

But I would like to point out something else that I don’t usually hear mentioned. This verse is one of three exhortations in one sentence. They are verses 16, 17, and 18 from I Thessalonians 5, and together they form a single sentence. It reads: “(16) Rejoice always, (17) pray constantly, (18) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That’s how the NIV puts it. The International Standard Version reads, “(16) Always be joyful, (17) continually be prayerful, (18) in everything be thankful, because this is God’s will in Christ Jesus for you.”

If all you read was the International Standard Version, you might think that only the third part, giving thanks in all things, is God’s will for you, but if you see the NIV, you can’t miss that semicolon—which brings both of the earlier two parts under the same umbrella. All three are God’s will for you.

The Message makes that last point especially clear. Set off in a paragraph by themselves are verses 16–18: “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

Happy Thanksgiving, joyfully, prayerfully.

           

Grief Progression

A friend sat down beside me Sunday before church and told me that she misses me. I knew, and so did she, that I haven’t missed any Sunday services. She meant something else, so I explained that it feels to me as though a buffer of gauze exists between me and the world. It’s that buffer that she senses. On Sunday it was 15 months to the day since my partner died. This gauze buffer is the current state of grief for me. My friend seemed to think it might be two years or more, so we surprised each other.

People are still offering advice about how to deal with grief. Some people think I’m going too slow; others, that I’m trying to go too fast. In truth, I’m not doing either but just being here, day to day, doing my work, tending to the dogs, and thinking constantly of how to deal with the aging cat.

I seek advice on the latter from God and from my departed partner and somehow the needed answers come. I’m not certain from Whom/whom, only that the answer has come from the Spirit world. And that’s enough.

           

Faith: a matter of spurning the opposites

Marcus Borg’s Days of Awe and Wonder, is one of many books my friend Linda and I have read together to share the points that amaze us or help further our own spiritual journeys. The subtitle is “How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century,” so it’s no small task set for this compilation of Borg articles, sermons, essays, speeches, interviews, and lectures published posthumously.

Though a book like this offers almost unlimited starting points for a blog entitled “Everyday Spirituality,” I have continued to think about a small section of a sermon on faith delivered by Marcus Borg in 2005.

Four meanings are given to faith in the Christian tradition, says Borg. “Faith as believing” is the one commonly put forward—believing the doctrines of the tradition, believing that there is a God, believing that Jesus is divine, and so forth. Borg concludes that this meaning of faith is not only a modern distortion but absolutely impotent in our lives. “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable,” he writes.

So he turns to three other meanings that he considers more ancient and authentic. The first is faith as trust, faith as radical trust in God, which may have very little to do with where a person lands on the beliefs continuum. Here is the key for me: the opposite of this definition of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. This provides a sure-fire way to measure the depth of your faith.

The second of the ancient meanings of faith is faith as fidelity to a relationship, specifically a relationship with God. The opposite, therefore, is unfaithfulness. Borg writes that unfaithfulness has frequently been referred to as adultery; however, the prophets were not talking about sexual conduct, but rather about unfaithfulness to God. It’s hard not to think of the commandment here: You shall have no other gods before Me.

The third of the ancient meanings has to do with a way of seeing “the whole of that in which we live and move and have our being,” writes Borg. Is it hostile to us? indifferent to us? or is it the gracious force that created us and continues to nourish and support us?

These meanings may not be the usual “definitions” of faith we are given, but they seem practical for everyday life. The faith that enables me to see the whole in a way that sustains me is the one that is based in trust in God and faithfulness in my relationship with God.

           

Today Is Ours

 

American poet and actress Beah Richards passed away in 2000 at the age of 80. One of her contributions to the world is the following poem:

 

Today is ours. Let’s live it.

And love is strong. Let’s give it.

A song can help. Let’s sing it.

And peace is dear. Let’s bring it.

The past is gone. Don’t rue it.

Our work is here. Let’s do it.

Our world is wrong. Let’s right it.

The battle is hard. Let’s fight it.

The road is rough. Let’s clear it.

The future is vast. Don’t fear it.

Is faith asleep? Let’s wake it.

Today is ours. Let’s take it.

           

Manna

It may be impossible to think of manna without thinking of the story in Exodus of God providing daily provision to the Israelites in the wilderness. Manna was that strange substance that fed them and all they had to do was pick it up off the ground. But each person had a daily portion, to be gathered on the day of its use. The only day of the week they could gather a double portion without the oversupply “going bad” was in preparation for the Sabbath.

I have come to think of “everyday spirituality” as a kind of manna. It seems to be part of our human nature that life works best for us when we renew our spiritual provisions every day. We are best served, best fed, by pursuing on an everyday basis the spiritual practices that keep us in touch with the Divine. Skipping days works only to our own detriment. The gathering is easy because we are offered a wide range of spiritual practices, and the blessings that come as a result are renewed for us every day. And unlike the Israelites, we are free to gather as much as we want. There are no limits to this daily provision.

           

(Author photo by Mark Bennington.)