Freedom From Infirmity: A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:10-17


Welcome to the eighth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our eighth guest post is by W. Joseph Mann, reflecting on Luke 13:10-17.* 

In his woodcut, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the artist Robert Hodgell depicts a man bent over, not unlike the woman in today’s scripture from Luke. Strapped to the man’s back are large rocks, and written on them is the question, “What shall I do to be saved?” He tries to walk forward, but his burden is too great. Behind him are laughing faces, deriding him and adding to his woe.

This “pilgrim” makes little progress because he has burdened himself with the weight of his own salvation. This ill-health is deeply spiritual, marked by our human desire to save ourselves, rather than to accept the freedom that Jesus offers us.

458px-Juan_Rodríguez_Juárez_-_Jesus_with_the_Sick_Woman_-_Google_Art_ProjectLike the pilgrim and the ailing woman in this passage from Luke, many of us have seen the forces in life that can cripple us. We have seen parishioners burdened by the weight of grief, sadness, loss of work, economic woes, the failure of important relationships, or the inability to meet their own goals or others’ expectations. This weight can literally cripple and bend us over – we can see the pain in faces, in slumped shoulders, and in the broken rhythms of life. This ill-health taxes all of our abilities to cope, and we lose a sense of hope and promise.

We cannot straighten up, and we fear we never will. And there are those crippled by devastating diseases, diseases that make crooked our bones and leave us, as the woman in Luke, “bent over.” Those who are bent know diminished freedom and individual power. Such illness requires remarkable adaptation to the “healthy” world, a world where bones, at least for the moment, are straight and strong and allow us to move wherever we want to go. To revive us and give us health and freedom, we seek doctors, clinics, and hospitals – we seek to heal ourselves. But often, like this woman in the synagogue, health care cannot straighten us, cannot unbend us.

So this woman went to the synagogue. What a remarkable thing that preachers look out each Sunday and see a congregation of people, who, like this woman, are bent over by sin, illness, and burdens too heavy for them to bear. Why did this woman come? Did she come to synagogue as any observant Jew would, as her Sabbath right and duty? She does not appear to come asking for anything. She does not call out to Jesus – Jesus calls out to her. Wesleyans understand the wooing grace of God, a grace that comes to us before we call upon it.

And Jesus saw her. What a remarkable blessing: this woman is seen by our Savior, and in this seeing comes a call to him, a healing touch, and a response of praise. The church is the Body of Christ, and Jesus reaches out to us and calls us as well. Our opportunity, like that of Jesus, is to look about us and see. We can see those bent over and unable to stand, crippled by a spirit, and we can offer healing to them.

We can announce the Good News that Christ Jesus sees and knows our burdens and illness. We can be set free, even on the Sabbath, for such work is of the Lord. We only give praise. Praise that we all are made whole in Jesus Christ. Praise that we can participate in this healing work. All of us stand before God as broken sinners, unable to straighten up. In the church we confess our human condition and create solidarity with all like us who are broken. And we celebrate that the eyes of Christ are upon us. In the fellowship of the church we are called and touched and embraced.

In this story the woman is healed; she is made straight. We know that when we see, touch, and announce freedom from the burdens that weigh us down, not all of us are cured. But as in this Gospel story, we are all set free and given wholeness, purpose, and promise through Jesus Christ.

Joseph Mann File 0728/02  frame 26A © Duke University Photography  Jim WallaceW. Joseph Mann is adjunct professor of parish work at Duke Divinity School and an ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection:

• There is a deep indignity in that bent-over pilgrim in Hodgell’s woodcut and in the woman in Luke 13: neither of them is able to look another human being in the face. Grace empowers us to see Christ face-to-face, but in that eye contact there is obligation. Do we cling to unhealthy aspects of ourselves because we fear the moment of being straightened and obliged to look Christ in the eye?

• The woman in Luke’s story still comes faithfully to synagogue, despite her illness, seemingly called or driven by something. When congregants bring their woundedness to church, what are the risks to the pastor’s own health and well-being? What resources help clergy manage the risk?

The Contest of Faith and the Christian Athlete: Reflections on Hebrews 11:29-12:2


Welcome to the seventh in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our sixth guest post is by J. Warren Smith, reflecting on Hebrews 11:29-12:2.* 

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As a teacher of early Christian history, I often hear students who have an introductory knowledge of the early Church pose two criticisms of the Church Fathers. First, they feel that the early Christians disregard the literal meaning of Scripture and instead focus on the spiritual meaning of the passage. The second criticism is that the Church Fathers have a dualistic view of the soul and the body and so denigrate the body and glorify the soul.

Yet when we, as modern Christians, read in Hebrews the comparison of Christian life to an athlete running a race, we are the ones who are quick to offer a spiritual interpretation. We see the image of the race as mere metaphor, so we interpret the advice about “laying aside every weight and sin which clings close” not as instructions concerning the bodily disciplines, but the spiritual ones. We tell ourselves, “It simply means that we must eliminate any form of sin, any excessive or inappropriate love of anything other than God.”

At a profound level, that is true. But by spiritualizing the metaphor of the runner in the race, we fail to take seriously the relationship between disciplines for the soul and disciplines for the body. We do not see that because the soul and body are united, the spiritual disciplines include care for the body as well as the soul. The body, as Gregory of Nyssa said, outwardly mirrors the emotional and mental stress of the soul. Yet we act as if the soul is unaffected by what happens to the body, as if our intellectual judgments can be detached from our bodily habits.

In the area of spirituality, this bifurcation of the soul and the body often begins innocently enough. For example, to help people get beyond the childhood forms of prayer (kneeling with hands folded by their bedside) we tell them, “That you pray is what is important, not how you pray. You can pray anytime, anyplace, in whatever posture is comfortable.” While the basic point is certainly right – that we should not get hung up on the forms of prayer – we are naïve if we think that the position of the body has no influence on how well the mind can concentrate in prayer. As if we can be as attentive to God lying down in a soft, warm bed as we can while sitting upright on the floor with legs crossed! An athlete knows better; she knows that mental and physical disciplines are inseparable. And so did the teachers of the early Church.


The image of the athletic contest (agôn) occurs repeatedly in the letters attributed to Paul. In I and II Timothy the author, writing as an old man, speaks of having “fought the good fight of faith” and having “finished the race.” In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul tells his readers that he possesses the virtue – self-control – required of all athletes who run the race to win the victor’s crown. For without self-control, the athlete would never endure the rigors and hardships of training. The regimen of diet and exercise not only conditions the body by building up strength and endurance, it also prepares the body for the contest by simulating the pain and adversity of the contest. Because of this preparation, the athlete will be not be surprised by the strain and pain of the race or the boxing arena. Indeed, Paul says that he can endure the hardships of his apostolic ministry because he disciplines his body, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

This athletic self-control is necessary for the contest of discipleship. For the goal of self-control is subduing our bodily appetites, making our body, as well as our mind, captive to Christ. Only if the whole person is ordered toward one prize can the Christian finish the race. As Jesus said, “A slave cannot serve two masters. For he will hate one and love the other.” Likewise, we can’t do whatever we want with our body while still faithfully serving God with our minds. When we live into the metaphor of the athlete and view the physical regimen of diet and exercise as a spiritual discipline, the body and its appetites can be ordered to the service of Christ and his Church. Only then can the body be an instrument for the Kingdom. Then at last we will discover true wholeness, the unity of soul and body under the headship of him who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.


J. Warren Smith is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Duke Divinity School.


Questions for Reflection

• To read John Wesley’s journal is to marvel at his energy. He rose early every morning, prayed, read his Greek New Testament, wrote and answered letters, then kept a list of appointments. Often he spoke of walking miles from one place to the next, thinking it nothing unusual. Do you think his care of the body strengthened him spiritually for the work of the ministry? How much weariness of soul might be healed by following Wesley’s example?

• American culture is sometimes criticized for its emphases on youth and beauty, setting up ideals that are beyond the reach of most people. Do these cultural ideals discourage us from honoring the bodies we have? Why do we cede so much authority to secular ideals at the expense of appropriate self-care? Is this a theological problem that we need to name and confront?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Strength in Numbers: Reflections on Luke 12:32-40


Welcome to the sixth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our sixth guest post is by Rev. Jason Byassee, reflecting on Luke 12:32-40.* 

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There are many versions of Christianity that hold the faith to be merely a matter of belief. We might ask potential believers, “Can you swallow that the world was created by a good God who sustains it in existence?” “Would you buy that Jesus is the Son of this God?” “Ok, if that’s not too much, can you handle a Holy Spirit who revolutionizes our existence?” And maybe they can. But such questions don’t require us to do much more than hold those beliefs in the space between our temples.

In Luke 12, Jesus is in one of his demanding moods. He wants us to act. “Sell your possessions, give alms, be ready for the end.” These are the sorts of demands that can set us to intellectual dissembling. “He didn’t really mean…” or “Viewed in its historical context…” I wonder instead whether life built on the strength of community could make some of this discipline seem . . . doable.

In the last six months or so a friend and I have tried to train for a marathon. Only we each have some pounds to lose. Or dozens. We’re Methodist ministers, we go to potlucks; it’s not easy, ok? The first few times we tried to run, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. The alarm would go off at 6 a.m., and I would rejoice to see that it was raining outside. Can’t possibly run today. Or I’d think of an excuse before I ever set the alarm the night before. Anything to avoid the date with soreness and sleepiness the next day.

Then something happened. I realized that whether I made it out there or not, my friend would be there. If I didn’t show up, he’d run alone in the dark. Suddenly the decision of whether or not to run wasn’t just about me and my level of comfort or tiredness or athleticism. It was about my friend, who, if I failed to get up, would be left alone to struggle against his body and the trail. I started showing up more.

3658043028_2102714e18_bAs we ran, we got to listening to one another’s stories differently. Something happens as you crawl toward 26.2: first we hit six miles, then eight, 10, then a half marathon. And it takes us hours. We’ve taken to calling each other “cellmate.” We’re beginning to finish each other’s sentences and to ask for retellings of stories about each other’s cousins.

This is how relationships are supposed to work. You can’t cram it all into a power lunch.
You have to have long stretches of unstructured time where you’ve both long since run out
of things to say.

Something else happened: our bodies started to change. We’d run for hours and feel great all day – energized, like we’re flying. We pressed through injuries so that weak muscles and joints went from wounded to better to strong. We began to run not just for negative reasons, like guilt. And we made progress through friendship to health. Now we wouldn’t not run.

This is how the early Methodists pursued God. Theirs was a mutual, corporate sort of holiness. They banded together in small groups to ask one another how their pursuit of God had gone: “So, did anyone sin this week?” They also had to do works of mercy like visiting in prisons and feeding the hungry. And they had to give financially to the group to support mission.

Notice: all these acts are public, bodily, externally verifiable – done together, never alone. Methodists loved the individual pursuit of holiness too. But a relationship between me and Jesus was never enough. St. Basil asked Christians in the fourth century, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash? Who will wash yours?”

People who work in public health know that you can’t correct a public malady with individual solutions alone. Want to stamp out smoking? You don’t just pass out information and trade on guilt. You also tax the bejezus out of cigarettes. You make smoking illegal in many places. And you build a culture of disapproval around it. You have to change a whole ecology of behavior.

So too with holiness. Ancient Methodists knew that you would need friends, communities, churches, and eventually whole societies to pursue holiness if you wanted individuals to do the same. It’s no accident my friend and I are running. We’re in a town that’s built running trails. There are shops that provide the gear. Our culture increasingly frowns on fatness. In fact, our culture’s banging of the drum of health runs the risk of substituting for faith – are we seeking eternal life as we bound around the track?

My friend and I are only halfway to 26. But I’ll bet we’ll get there. Not because either one of us can do it alone, but because (and only because) we’ve done it together. And that’s how to pursue selling possessions, giving alms, and waiting actively for Jesus’ return. …And how to avoid the doughnut shop.


Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference and a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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Questions for reflection:

• There’s a long history in America of talking about Jesus as “my personal savior,” and of “getting right with God” so that I can go to heaven. How does this emphasis on individual faith stand against the need to wash another’s feet, and to submit to having one’s own feet washed?

• Is the time right for a community-based campaign against obesity, as it once was for a unified effort against smoking? Does obesity compromise the church’s witness in the world by diminishing the energy and well-being of laity and clergy, and in so doing, constitute an impediment to the Holy Spirit?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Pray Without Ceasing


The following is a guest post from John Bryant, a participant in Group 2 of Spirited Life. He is the pastor at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Misenheimer, NC.  His blog can be found here:

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“Pray without ceasing.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:17

John on Galilee

I’ve never considered myself a very accomplished pray-er.  I have difficulty finding the words I want to say, especially when I’m praying extemporaneously.  It’s one reason I found such peace in services of Morning Prayer while at Duke; I never needed my own words but could lean on the words of others.

Needless to say, Paul’s admonition has always filled me with dread.  Without ceasing? Really? It’s hard enough already!  That verse creates such a high standard that I can never live up to. I can’t constantly be in a state of prayer can I? What does it mean when I fail? The pressure mounted to the point that I figured it was better not to even try.  Pray at meal times, in church, upon request, and call that good enough.

Galilee Stone

So imagine my surprise when a trinket ended up providing me with an answer.  I bought this stone on my recent trip to the Holy Land. We were sailing on the Sea of Galilee (See above: John and his wife Kathy on the Sea of Galilee), which was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip. We visited a number of churches where tradition states some event happened (and maybe it did), but the Sea is the Sea. On this body of water, the disciples fished and Jesus traveled and taught. There’s no changing that. So I bought this stone, over-priced as it certainly was, as a reminder of the trip and how meaningful that moment was to me.

I thought about simply carrying the stone in my pocket, but I was afraid of losing it if it caught on something while I was retrieving my keys or phone. Instead, since it came with a cord, I decided to wear it around my neck. I leave it under my shirt because I don’t like to be flashy about these sorts of things and it had a tendency to knock into things whenever I leaned over.

I’m still not used to wearing it, so I find myself adjusting or at least noticing it several times during the day. It finally occurred to me that this was a great reminder to pray.

In the mornings, when I put it around my neck, I pause to say the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. In the evenings, when I take it off, I pray over my day using a practice called the Daily Examen. And during the day, whenever I adjust or notice it, I pray a simple breath prayer.  Breath prayers are simple, one sentence prayers that can be said in the time it takes to breath in and out. I typically pray something like “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This pattern is by no means perfect and I still have a lot of growth before me in my personal prayer life. Yet having something as simple as a small stone has given me cues that remind me of how important prayer is.

What helps you to pray without ceasing?

Click for Rev. Bryant’s post, The Practice of Paying Attention.

Being Rich Towards God: a Lectionary Reflection


This is the fifth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our fifth guest post is by Susan Pendleton Jones, reflecting on the lectionary reading from Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

One word holds together the assigned gospel, epistle, and Old Testament lessons for this week: greed – the unhealthy, human tendency to trust primarily in ourselves and what we can acquire rather than putting our trust in God.

3400039523_ec5b55a7ecIn Luke, a man who has recently lost his parents wants Jesus to make his brother divide the estate with him. It appears that the man wants an advocate, someone who will be on his side, not a judge who will make a fair ruling. Jesus senses the man’s greed and responds by telling him a parable. A rich farmer, whose crops are so plentiful that he runs out of room in his barns, tears down his small barns and builds bigger ones. He decides to store up his abundance for many years to come, reasoning that, “then will I eat, drink, and be merry,” not knowing that later that very night he would die. In these verses, the man uses the words “I” or “me” twelve times. This farmer’s problem is not so much with his actions as with the motivation behind his actions. He believes himself to be in total control of his life and destiny. Seeing this lack of faith, God calls him a fool.

Greed takes the form of idolatry in Colossians, as the apostle admonishes his audience: “put to death” all earthly things such as evil desire and greed. Similarly, the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Hosea is framed in the context of the people of Israel not being satisfied with Yahweh and desiring idols who will please them more. Even though Yahweh calls his “son” Israel out of bondage in Egypt, the people turn to other gods: sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols. They refuse to be content with the good that Yahweh has done for them even though they have been gently led, even cradled, by a loving, forgiving God through the wilderness. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Each of these lessons on the problem of human greed offers a similar solution: the discontented, overly self-concerned person needs to have a fresh encounter with God. In the gospel lesson Jesus, who speaks more about money than any other topic, reminds his listeners that there is far more to life than the abundance of one’s possessions. If we store up and rely primarily on our “earthly treasures,” then we will have a much more difficult time being rich toward God, seeking first life in God’s Kingdom, which keeps us in communion with God and others.


Colossians invites readers to turn from “earthly” temptations, things such as impurity, evil desire, and greed, by appealing to Christ, the one who was raised from the dead. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ has ultimately conquered these “earthly” things, the “powers of death.” If Christians have died and been raised with Christ through baptism, and if their minds and their lives are truly “hidden” with Christ in God, then they will not succumb to the temptation of these powers. Christians, he writes, are to clothe themselves with the “new self ” that is lived in the image of its creator.

In the Old Testament lesson, the God of Hosea responds to Israel’s ingratitude by offering forgiveness, an opportunity for a new and renewed relationship with Him: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” In all of these lessons God offers Himself anew to the one who is moving down a path toward self-destruction.

So, how do we escape the snares of acute selfishness that manifests itself as greed? How do we find the renewal that brings us to wholeness? The answer to our deepest longing is not to turn inward to self-obsession or to turn outward to false gods of material goods or fleeting promises. It is to look “otherward” – toward a God whose arms are outstretched, not only in a cruciform, self-giving fashion, but also in a loving embrace that offers forgiveness and welcomes us home. Only when we allow the One who has come to give his very life for us to truly befriend us, will our affections and our yearnings be changed. And we know this, first and foremost, as a gift. It is not something else to attain, particularly not on our own – for doing so would be adding to the original problem. Rather, when we accept God’s love and forgiveness as a gift freely offered and when we then live into our baptism, we respond with glad and generous hearts that seek to please God and God’s people. By living our lives in harmony with God’s desires, we store up treasures, not for ourselves and our earthly consumption, but for the Kingdom of God and our blessed participation in it.


Susan Pendleton Jones is associate dean for United Methodist initiatives and ministerial formation and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection:

  • From Enron to Goldman Sachs to angry, confrontational politics, greed appears to be endemic in our society. If the beginning of greed is dissatisfaction with who and what we are – the Israelites leave Yahweh for Baal, the farmer yearns for ever larger barns – then what is the origin of this dissatisfaction? Whose voice has captured us?
  • What would it look like authentically to “live into our baptism?” In our vows, we promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “reject the evil powers of this world,” but we don’t name them. If we were asked to name what we renounce and reject when we’re baptized, what would we say?

(Images by flickr users Mykl Roventine and Great Beyond, both via Creative Commons)

Stoic Christianity


In our feature piece in Christian Century, our research director, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, said that if she could magically accomplish one cultural change, she would “shift the way that congregants think about their pastor.” No matter the responsibilities a pastor is entrusted with, he or she is still a human being “with flaws and graces…a person who has a life that needs fulfillment.”

This is a change many pastors desperately desire. As one pastor said, “I don’t think our congregations know how unhealthy our vocation can be. They seem to think we are super-men and -women…I keep telling them our vocation is hazardous to our health. They just don’t understand that.”

While pastors feel this pressure uniquely, it’s by no means foreign to most people. Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at Baylor University, recently reflected on the stoic values popular in the American Midwest and South, and he recounted a time when the tacit code that one suffers in silence became unmistakably clear.

When my wife was seriously ill some time ago, people from our church contacted me to ask if we needed anything. When I replied that it was nice of people to offer meals but that Teri’s chief problem was simple loneliness — no one to talk to, as she lay in her sickbed, except a very busy husband — people were, not to put too fine a point on it, shocked. I had said something unexpectedly shameful. One person even commiserated with Teri: how difficult it must have been for her to have a husband who so openly admitted that she had personal needs in her illness.

1024px-Michael_Ancher_001Let me highlight that this was not the experience of a pastor, but of a lay person, who tried to be vulnerable with his congregation and was shut down. Expressing weakness in shameful not only among pastors, but among many segments of our culture in which class and status and power are incongruent with dependency and loneliness and desire. As Alanis Morisette sings, no matter what pain we’re experiencing, we prefer to stick one hand in our pockets while explaining, “what it all comes down to my friends, Is that everything’s just fine fine fine.” Nothing to see here, folks.

In a follow-up piece, Jacobs concludes that that the Christian scriptures encourage us “to accept suffering but not to pretend that we don’t hurt or that we are somehow above the pain. Rather, we are to seek out our brothers and sisters for sympathy and support.”

Parishioners may want a pastor who is superhuman, but perhaps what they need is a pastor who is utterly human, someone who bravely opens up space for it to be okay to be weak and have needs. Pastors may not be the only ones ready to scream under the suffocating silence of stoicism.

Tommy Grimm

(Painting by Michael Ancher, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Abundant Life of Bread: Lectionary Reflections on Luke 11:1-3


This is the fourth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our fourth guest post is by Professor Norman Wirzba, reflecting on the lectionary reading from Luke 11:1-3

We worship a God who loves bread. This should not be surprising to us, particularly if we recognize that in the sharing of bread we become companions to one another. A companion is someone who comes with (com) bread (panis). Companions share and nurture life, giving daily routines a flavor that lasts long after they have physically departed from us. When people gather around freshly baked slices they share stories, express hopes, find help, and confess their worries.

We need companions to make it through life. We need bread daily to keep us alive. This is why we ask, “Give us each day our daily bread.” But what happens when we forget to ask, or think it silly to ask? After all, why ask for bread when we can just as well go into a store and purchase a loaf from among the multiple varieties on the shelf? Who has time to bake bread, let alone sit around and eat it slowly with others?

The Lord’s Prayer is a daily prayer because we need a constant reminder that God is interested in companionship as much as he is in the feeding of our physical bodies. God wants us to know life in its fullness and abundance. God wants us to taste and experience the inexhaustible, triune communion life that welcomes, nurtures, and celebrates the world. That nurture begins with the feeding of our physical bodies, but it extends into the feeding of our social bodies and souls. It extends, even, to God’s daily feeding of the entire creation, so that altogether we can be healthy, whole, and at peace.


In my house, there is no greater excitement than the aroma of bread baking in the oven. We all become fairly giddy with anticipation, jostling for position as we each seek the first slice. When we calm down, pass the butter and jam, and stop smacking our lips, we then rest in each other’s company and in the love of our bread baker. We slow down. We talk about the day. We step out of our own obsessions and preoccupations so that we can attend to each other. We don’t spend hours doing this. But we do enough to know that what makes our living possible and a joy is the simplicity of bread and the fellowship it makes possible.

In a world where fragmentation, loneliness, and speed rule, and where bread is little more than a product, we need the fellowship of companions more than ever before. The fullness of life is diminished when we mostly eat alone or on the run. Though our bellies may be full, even overfull, we are left craving for the fulfillment that comes from being in reconciled relationships with God and our neighbors. Sometimes the craving for companionship is so powerful that we might, like the midnight seeker in Luke, go pounding on the door of a friend to ask for bread. The need is so great that we will not take “No” for an answer.

Sometimes “No” is all we get. Or we find the bread but not the fellowship. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the people we knew were like God, whose door is always welcoming and whose oven is always baking? Luke shows us that God is not only a heavenly Father – God is also a heavenly Baker. Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness if our churches were places where the ovens are always baking, extending genuine fellowship to a lonely world in need of communion?


In the Eucharist, Christ has become our food and drink so that we can become the food that nurtures others into his abundant, communion-building life. As John’s Gospel puts it, Christ is the “bread of life,” the bread “come down from heaven.” When we partake of this bread we are transformed from the inside so that we can be hospitable to each other as God has been hospitable to us from the beginning of time. When Christians gather around the Lord’s Table they gradually learn that every table is a place for fellowship, a place around which bodies are nurtured, souls are inspired, and relationships are healed and reconciled.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” I can’t think of a better place for pastors and church members to rethink their life together. What could be more wonderful than to share and enjoy the bread of fellowship that unites us to each other and to God? What could be more necessary than to receive and give again the transforming “bread of life” that sustains and heals our bodies and souls, our neighborhoods and communities, indeed the whole of creation?

147608_norman_wirzba_highresNorman Wirzba is professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School. Read more here.

Questions for reflection:

  • The first resurrection appearance in Luke’s Gospel is at Emmaus, when Jesus breaks the bread. In that moment, the disciples recognize him as the Lord. Charles Wesley used this text as basis for his hymn, “O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread,” which affirms that we meet the Risen Christ in the Eucharist. How many United Methodist congregations understand this part of their heritage? Would a renewed understanding be health-giving to pastors and congregations?
  • The words “company” and “companion” both derive from the image of shared bread. In uttering the Lord’s Prayer, a request to God to help us satisfy a physical need (bread), we also admit our hunger for companionship. How are loneliness and isolation – the loss of companionship – destructive of health, and what are ways the church may offer healing?

(Images by flickr users madlyinlovewithlife and MattGerlachPhotography via Creative Commons)

Beyond the Gospel of Us: Reflections on Colossians 1:15-28


This is the third in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our third guest post is by Rev. William H. Lamar IV, reflecting on Colossians 1:15-28.

The Christ of whom we sing gives us “stuff.” Intangible stuff like love, joy, peace, and hope. Tangible stuff like family, friends, food, and shelter. I do not disparage these good and necessary gifts, nor the gracious giver, but much of what I hear (and often say) about Christ sounds transactional. Christ seems to be praised and worshiped because of what we get from Christ. Churches grow because Christ provides us with well-behaved children, prosperity, and decent parking and seating to first-time visitors. We preach 
of Christ’s Visa-like ability to be “everywhere you want to be.” Stretched beyond the boundaries of any interpretive charity, this can seem like a plain and simple quid pro quo.

Would our pews be emptier if we talked more about God and less about what God can do for us? Should we begin our God-talk by stating plainly that God’s past performance is not indicative of God’s future results? Must we always be at the center?


I was talking not long ago with a leader of a faithful, prosperous congregation. This congregation has a children’s ministry that is second to none. Its facilities for the young 
are Disneyesque. The teachers are well trained. There is always a waiting list for the ministry’s activities. The leader told me that she was accosted one day by some parents complaining about the ministry’s deficiencies. The leader was taken aback. She had heard only glowing reviews about the ministry in the past. But she was confident that the ministry could be enriched and improved. When she met with the parents she asked if there were problems with curricula, with biblical concepts, with formation. The answer – an emphatic no! The problem? A church not far away had better technology for their children’s ministry, and the parents wanted to know when they could expect an upgrade in the ministry’s technological infrastructure. Their children could not do Jesus 2.0 in a Jesus 3.0 world!

The hymn in this passage seems to say, “Lift up your heads!” Lift your heads above what you want and what you can get, and focus on Christ and what he embodies. Songs and speech begin and end in Christ.

The work of Christ begins and 
ends in God. This Christ hymn 
does not begin with the needs of 
the Colossians, although the author 
is both aware of those needs and 
concerned about them. Rather, it 
implies that the best way for the
 Colossians (and for us) to live “with all the strength that comes from his glorious power (1:11)” is to look into the mystery of the Triune God and to worship. Not to mold mystery into a formula that is easily understood and so domesticated that it can carry none of the power that prepares us “to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father (1:11-12),” but to experience it in its wildness.

Christ is the image of the invisible God. All things, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is 
the beginning, the firstborn of the dead. In him, in his body, 
all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Could it be that the early church was on to something by grounding speech and act in the reality of God in Christ?

So what to do with all of this Christ-talk, all of this God-talk in today’s church, with its focus on “what can God do for you”?

We must proclaim that to see Christ in a brother or sister is to see God. We must proclaim that no power, principality, or ruler exists who was not created through Christ and for Christ. We must proclaim that Christ is before all things – nation, race, political party, and socioeconomic status. We
 must proclaim that Christ holds all things together – the Haitian earthquake, the Gulf oil spill, the war-torn lands of the earth, 
the disease and infirmity and stress and fatigue that plague our health and the well-being of those around us. We must proclaim that Christ is the head of the church, especially when it appears that we, the church’s leaders, have lost our way. We must proclaim that in Christ’s incarnate body the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

Imagine song and speech in our churches where Christ is subject. The needs of our bodies and hearts are subsumed in his body and sacred heart. Proclaiming the justice and joy that Christ brings is proclaiming what we need. This proclamation, and this proclamation alone, alerts the world that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”

That is good news.

bill lamarWilliam H. Lamar IV is pastor of Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Md., and a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where he designs, resources and facilitates educational opportunities related to Christian leadership and pastoral imagination. 

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Questions to Consider:

In our liturgy for the Eucharist, we proclaim as Christian
community “the mystery of faith,” which is, “Christ has
died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How often in
our ministries do we preach and teach mystery as central
to the faith? When God is projected as a cosmic ATM
and faith as purely transactional, could the theological
problem be a loss of mystery?

Jesus told Nicodemus that, unless he was born from
above, he would not see the Kingdom of God. What
we see is not only physical, but also spiritual. When we
cannot discern Christ in a brother or sister and in that
discernment see God, is that symptomatic of our spiritual
unhealthiness? Is spiritual wellness prerequisite to seeing
the Kingdom of God?

These reflections and the accompanying questions to consider first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

A Reflection on Centering Prayer


Cheryl LThe Clergy Health Initiative recognizes that strong spiritual wellness lays the foundation for all other spheres of health. During our Spirited Life workshops, we introduce or reacquaint pastors to a variety of spiritual practices that they can continue on their own. Following a workshop that featured centering prayer, one pastor, Cheryl Lawrence, shared the experience on her blog; it is reprinted here with her permission. Thank you, Cheryl!

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It seems surprising that in all the years I have been a pastor or preparing to become a pastor, I never really had an experience with “centering prayer.” No one ever explained it well, and I had never been invited to pray a centering prayer. At least I don’t remember ever doing it — until this week, when I was at a “Spirited Life” retreat in Wilmington.

“Spirited Life” is part of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, which focuses on the holistic wellness of United Methodist clergy in our conference and the Western NC Conference. The retreat planners had invited a Presbyterian pastor from Durham to come explain centering prayer and then to lead the fifty or so participants in a centering prayer.

The Presbyterian pastor said that centering prayer had saved her ministry. We were all listening closely after that.

Centering prayer is contemplative prayer — now, THAT I had read about as a practice of highly spiritual Christians through the centuries. But I had never heard it explained so simply and so well. Centering prayer is “the teaching of earlier times in an updated form,” according to the leader’s information.

The centering prayer often comes after our prayers of petition.  It is, simply, coming before God in silence. It is a method of prayer that moves beyond conversation with Christ to communion with him. You don’t converse with God, you don’t ask God for anything, you just sit quietly in the presence of the Almighty, for twenty minutes.

Easier said than done, believe me.

From the information: Centering prayer is a way of cultivating a deeper relationship with Christ. It is not a relaxation exercise nor a form of self-hypnosis. It is “resting in God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.”

First, you prayerfully choose a “sacred word” as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within (this comes from the book Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating). Our leader said her sacred word was “peace,” but it could be one of many spiritual words like Jesus, Abba, Father, Faith, Trust, Love, Mercy.

You sit straight but comfortably (don’t want to fall asleep), close your eyes, sit quietly in the presence of Christ, and introduce the sacred word very gently whenever a thought of any kind intrudes. The sacred word is supposed to gently push away any thought that comes. Any thought…for twenty minutes. When your mind is as hyperactive as mine is, this is difficult to do.

I managed to pray the centering prayer during the workshop because the leader was there, and I was with fifty other pastors who also were praying (although some of them fell asleep). Once I got over the difficult initial period of focusing and pushing away intrusive thoughts (I’m not sure how long), the centering prayer was … awesome.  It made me hungry for more.

Since returning home, I have prayed the centering prayer several times, although I have not managed to sit silently in the presence of Christ for the full twenty minutes. This afternoon as I prayed, I fell asleep quite unintentionally, and I had a vivid dream that I was having a conversation with a colleague. When I woke, the memory of the dream was very clear, and I felt strongly led to pray for this colleague. So I did.

I am going to keep praying the centering prayer, and all I can say is — Christ is very close.

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Please check back NEXT MONDAY for a follow-up post offering some resources on practicing centering prayer.

Have We Fruit? Reflections on Colossians 1:1-14


This is the second in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 Our second guest post is by Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick, reflecting on Colossians 1:1-14.

“Have they fruit?” John Wesley asked of his would-be preachers. Could those who were seeking ordination show anything for their service? Was there at least one person who had found faith through the word they proclaimed? A single person whose spiritual practices had been enlivened by what they taught? A hungry person who found bread? A homeless person who found shelter? Was there any sign that the ministry exercised by this person was waking the world to the dream of God?

Grapes on grapevine, close-up.

Have they fruit? It’s not a bad question for would-be preachers, and as a denomination, we’ve been asking it for more than two hundred years.

It’s also not a bad question for congregations to ask themselves.  Imagine the discussion that would ensue at the next administrative board or church council meeting if the question were asked, “Have we fruit?”  Imagine the conversation if the topic at the meeting became, “What evidence is there? What can we point to that demonstrates that the community in which we live is better, healthier, and more faithful because of the presence of our church? Are our ministries making any kind of difference to our neighbors? Is the Spirit, through us, actually changing lives, deepening faith, seeding hope in this neighborhood? Or are we just taking up space on a corner in town, an antiquated placeholder on this block?” I imagine a lively scene as a congregation deliberates and discusses its missional role in its own context, all the while answering the question, “Have we fruit?”

432463317_52f8853cfbCautionary tales of churches that can point to no fruit, churches that have lost their way and whose ministries have grown stagnant, are legion. One that has stayed with me since I first read it is in Mark Nepo’s book Surviving Has Made Me Crazy. He tells of a town in New England in which one church’s bells had rung to mark every hour of every day for generations. After decades of decline, that church was closed and eventually taken down. Years later, the farmers of that community were talking, and they all agreed – they missed the bells, not the church. While asking, “Have we fruit?” might not have prevented that church’s decline, it could have revealed that the church served no other role in their community than that of clock. You know similar stories…

But if the cautionary tales linger in our imagination, so, too, should the exemplary communities of faith – the churches that are bearing much fruit and are themselves signs of hope in and for the world. In the beginning of the letter to First Church Colossae, the writers praise the church for its fidelity; the Church there had earned a reputation as the kind of place that bore good fruit: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints.” A few verses later, they go on: “just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it.” The writers are explicit – if the question was asked of the Colossians, “Have they fruit?” the answer would be a resounding and enthusiastic yes.

Which makes it all the more profound that, even as they praise, the writers of Colossians also pray for the community in powerful and passionate ways: “may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks.” This intercession is a subtle – and not so subtle – reminder of the fact that faith communities that today are bearing much fruit can quickly wither. We can abandon our best practices of compassionate ministry, forsake our disciplines of outreach, and turn inward again.

Here, an analogy to health and wellness seems somehow fitting. The health we enjoy today, the wellness we have worked hard to achieve, can be lost to us if our discipline falters. Our weight can creep back up if we ignore what we know about proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. It is the daily discipline of good choices and the long-term practices of self-care that bear the good fruit of wellness.

So it is in our faith journeys. If our congregations are to emulate the faithfulness of the Colossians, if we corporately and individually are to keep bearing fruit that is salutary for the communities and contexts of our ministries, then we must attend both to the daily disciplines and the long-term practices of the faith. In so doing, we are readying soil, planting seeds, pruning vines, and bearing much fruit.

And the promise of the Scriptures?  That as we do so, saints here and saints above will be praying for us, celebrating our faithfulness, and rejoicing in the light of the love of God.


Nathan E. Kirkpatrick is managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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  • On October 2, 2006, Carl Roberts shot five young Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa., before taking his own life. The world watched in disbelief as the Amish brought the shooter’s family food, offered forgiveness, and – after attending their daughters’ funerals – joined the mourners as Roberts was laid to rest. Hell fears nothing so much as a proliferation of the Amish. Would it even notice if United Methodists were to double in number? What and where is our fruit?  

  • Much church growth literature is derivative of secular culture in its measures of success. Fruit equals more and younger folk in the pews, more programs, and more money for mission. This model sometimes overlooks the purpose of fruit, which is to serve as a vehicle for the seed. Where is the evidence in American culture that the real seed of the Gospel is taking root? Would some clarity about genuine fruit be conducive to the health of our souls?

These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.