It was a muddy March, many years ago now, and my liturgically-minded husband and I attended a small country church in rural Vermont. We had only been attending for a couple of years, but we’d missed the observance of Lent that we had enjoyed at our high-liturgy Episcopal church near our former home. Hesitantly, we approached the pastor and asked if we might be able to lead an Ash Wednesday service, and do a series of Taize services during Lent. He agreed enthusiastically, though cautioned us that the church had never done anything like that before.

As the day approached we had all the preparations in place: a simple liturgy, some reflective hymns, and the all-important ashes. What I was not prepared for was the powerful act of actually marking the foreheads of my beloved church family.

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

One by one they came and stood before me while my husband played quiet instrumental guitar music. One by one I dipped my thumb in the ashes and lifted it to waiting foreheads. I bent to mark the smooth skin of our youngest members. I looked into the eyes of the men and women I considered my spiritual brothers and sisters. But it was the stooped frame of Richard, one of the eldest members of our community, that undid me.  I will never forget the grit of the ash under my thumb as I made the cross on his papery skin.  I could barely choke out my line:

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

In that moment we both knew the truth of the refrain, and that it would come to pass all too soon for him. It was a holy moment, in which the nearness of death was acknowledged without fear.

DSC_0247In our day-to-day lives we live so removed from death–it is almost as if we forget that we will die. Is it too difficult to live with this reality? Is that why we put it out of our minds? In the wake of my father’s death over a year ago now, I have not been fully able to settle back into the familiar forgetfulness of a death-less living. I am all too aware of life’s fragility and ultimate end. But I must say, sad as I am to be without my father, I am grateful for this new reality. Each day is an ordinary gift of grace offered to me, and the chance for me to offer grace to others.

I love this prayer from Alive Now–the invitation to “reacquaint ourselves with our smoldering, crumbling, earthbound nature.”  Today, as you mark countless foreheads with gritty ashes, may you be comforted by the reality of the boundaries of all our lives, and the holy thread of God’s presence that is woven in the space between.

God of all peoples and creatures,
you knew the chaos that swirled before Creation
and the clash of tongues in Babylon;
you raised up humanity from dust by your breath,
and by your Spirit we may still be renewed.

But on this day of dust and ashes,
let us not turn too quickly to the hope of new life.
Let us first reacquaint ourselves
with our smoldering, crumbling, earthbound nature:
our ability to burn down all we have built up;
our tendency to devastate, to ravage, to destroy
every place where God dwells,
where Christ abides and reaches out.

Let us come face to face with all we have failed to honor,
every difference we refuse to celebrate,
every fear-based judgment that drives us away from love,
every certainty that lifts us above our brother, our sister,
our neighbor, our enemy,
our very own Belovedness of God.

We confess we are no more than dust and ashes,
and we desire to turn from our destruction.

God of hope and healing, save us from ourselves;
breathe into us again and restore us as your children.
Draw order out of chaos once more:
let our tongues fall silent until guided by your Spirit;
let our steps fall in line with Christ’s journey through the wilderness;
let our hands reach out in care and re-creation
where your work is still to be done.

And in life, in death, and in life beyond death,
may we be marked and claimed by your cross-shaped love.

Reprinted with permission from Alive Now.

–Caren Swanson

“Is there anything quite like a campfire?”


“In the kingdom of God, there are no outsiders…”

So says the leader of Rend Collective Experiment in this explanation and sample of their 2013 worship album recorded on a beach around a campfire.

“Jesus wants to set the church on fire, so the world can warm themselves around us and find light and safety.”

I am especially struck with this message of hopefulness stemming from a part of the world where the church has experienced a deep rift of brokenness. I’ve found myself encouraged and inspired by the spurring on in this video in particular and hope you, too, might be blessed by it:

The Campfire Story

The full album is available on Amazon and iTunes, both re-imagining old songs and offering new ones.

– Ellie Poole


The Canticle of The Sun


9780763613815_p0_v1_s260x420In honor of the Feast of Saint Francis, I’m sharing one of my favorite prayers, “The Canticle of the Sun.”  My daughter has a children’s book that is an adaptation of the prayer, called The Circle of Days.  One of our favorite ways to end a busy day is to curl up and read it together.  The words have been such a comfort to me through the ups and downs of the last few years.  I trust that they will be an encouragement to you on this sunny Friday.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,saint-francis-of-assisi-detail.jpg!Blogthrough whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy are those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

Homegrown: NC Women’s Preaching Festival


In an article on sustaining pastoral excellence, the Rev. Sally Brower, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, writes:

“For women clergy, sustaining pastoral excellence is not only about spiritual practices and leadership skills. It is also about retaining gifted women pastors for whom ministry is all too often an ordeal of grace under fire.”

As a young female member of my church, my heart warms at the sound of a feminine voice resounding from our pulpit. Hearing the gospel articulated by a woman has a refreshing sense of strength and courage.

Women are not new to ministry — witness Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and her cousin Elizabeth. However, women are relatively new to the world of formal preaching and inclusion in denominational leadership roles, and this still-recent cultural shift can create unique challenges for female pastors.

img_2104 A pregnant minister once told me that the number one question she is asked is, “Are you going to keep preaching?” “Yes, Lord willing,” she frequently replies. It is not a harmful question or an unexpected one, but I don’t believe that male pastors get asked the same question when their wives give birth or when they adopt a child.

On top of the biases that color others’ view of women in ministry are the questions that female pastors often ask themselves (ones that are equally reflective of our cultural expectations): How will I pay for childcare on a pastor’s salary? Make time to cook dinner and clean my house when I’m on call 24/7? Make visits to the hospital with a nursing baby? How do I come across as nurturing but not too soft? How can I be feminine without being hyper-emotional? How can I, as a woman, be unique — but not too different from men?

Do you find yourself longing to be in the company of other female ministers? Worshiping with one another is a way of sustaining one’s ministry and diving into these questions.

Join us at Homegrown: North Carolina’s Women’s Preaching Festival this fall, October 10 and 11 in Durham, N.C. to receive the word from and worship with other female clergy and explore all that women have to offer the church.

–Kelli Sittser

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.

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

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)

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.

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

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)

Centering Prayer Liturgy and Resources


This is Part II in a series on Centering Prayer.  For Part I, please see Pastor Cheryl Lawrence’s guest blog post reflecting on her experience with this spiritual practice.

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Centering Prayer is a response to to the call of the Holy Spirit to consent to God’s presence and action within.  It is based on the format of prayer that Jesus suggests in Matthew 6:6: If you want to pray, enter your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Spirited Life has offered Centering Prayer as a workshop activity for Group 2 pastors, as shared by pastor Cheryl Lawrence on her blog, and we have mentioned it a few times on this blog (here and here).  It is a form of silent prayer using a sacred word to draw focus and attention to interior silence and an intention to consent to God’ presence and action within.  For more information about the method, click here.

Several pastors have shared with us that they are offering Centering Prayer to their congregations, but developing the structure around this time can be challenging.  Below is a liturgy for worship with Centering Prayer.  This particular liturgy is written for ‘the height of this day,’ but could easily be tweaked for whenever your group gathers.  We’ve also indicated a twenty minute sit, which is recommended by Contemplative Outreach, leaders in the Centering Prayer movement.


Each time you gather, you may use the same liturgy and alter the reading and the psalm.  As for material for the reading, consider using a favorite devotional or the week’s Gospel lectionary.  If you are interested in more contemplative materials,  the works of Fr. Thomas Keating, father of Centering Prayer, like Journey To The Center, may be appropriate.  Suggested psalms to use include 23, 46, and 62.

Worried about keeping time during the twenty minutes? Insight Timer has a free meditation timer app for both Android and iPhones.  The app has a variety of chimes to both open and close the twenty minute time of prayer.  To draw the group out of the time of interior silence, the leader may consider praying the Lord’s prayer very softly.

We hope this liturgy will be useful to you for your own centering prayer practice, for leading a group in your congregation, or to use with a group of clergy.

Centering Prayer Liturgy

Call to Worship:

One: The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

All: And also with you.

One: Blessed be the one, holy, and living God.

All: Glory to God for ever and ever.


Loving God, in the height of this day we pause to rest in you.  Quiet our minds that they may be still, fill our hearts that we may abide in love and trust.  Christ, as a light illumine and guide me.  Christ, as a shield overshadow me.  Christ under me; Christ over me; Christ beside me on my left and my right.



Holy God, open our hearts to the silent presence of the Spirit of your Son.  Lead us into that mysterious silence, where your love is revealed to all who call, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’

20 minute sit


Go in peace

Click here for a copy of this liturgy, ready to be printed, copied, and used with a group.

–Catherine Wilson

Image by flickr user ninjapotato 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.

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

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.

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 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.