The Sermon Mall



I Know Where God Is

There is an apocryphal story about a man who went for a walk in the woods. He was not aware that he was walking toward an abandoned well covered with sticks and leaves. Falling to the bottom of the well, far in the woods, he thought he would never be found. He prayed ceaselessly, asking for Jesus to help him. Several hours later he had the insight into how to extract himself from the well, and he climbed free.
The man experienced a religious conversion as a result of his rescue and gave Jesus the credit for giving him the revelation which led to his freedom. Thereafter, every time the man met someone who did not know Jesus, he took him for a walk in the woods and pushed him into the well.
Where do you expect to find God? The common assumption is that people attend worship and Sunday school to find God, in the company of their friends in the faith. We are aware of others who claim a higher likelihood of finding God in the out-of-doors, on the golf course, or in their respective “wells.”
Perhaps a better question to ask is not “Where do we find God?” but “How do we find God?” The possibilities are numerous. There are several ways in which people get in touch with their spirituality or engage in spiritual growth, regardless of their denomination or religious tradition.
The first category has been called, “the way of works.” Those who follow this spirituality find God in the observance of rituals: attending worship, receiving communion, singing hymns, and adhering to Sabbath prohibitions (no cutting grass, shopping, etc.) and ethical standards (especially related to drinking, gambling, and so forth). Social activists and humanitarians also fall into this category, for their “works” are a faith commissioning (Matthew 28: 19-20) or are the result of a moral mandate to be in service to others. Both worship and service are “works.”
The second category has been delineated as “the way of devotion.” We may be most familiar with this practice through the faith of our parents or grandparents, or through televised Pentecostal-style worship services. The way of devotion stresses the personal effect of one’s spirituality (“personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” in our tradition) and is frequently described as an emotional experience by the adherent. An overwhelming sense of sin and forgiveness, love, acceptance, or gratitude are common attributes in this spirituality which may be defined as “heartfelt.”
A characterization of “the way of devotion” is found in a satirical book published in 1969 by the late United Methodist pastor Charles Merrill Smith. Entitled, How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious, the book was originally published under a pseudonym (for obvious reasons). The author espoused pastoral virtues which ensured denominational ladder-climbing. His advice for effective preaching: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, and make ‘em feel religious”Ca clear reference to those who relate to their faith on an emotional level.
The third category of spirituality and spiritual growth has been defined as “the way of wisdom and knowledge.” Adherents to the way of knowledge are philosophical about their faith, seeking a worldview--scientific and religious--which incorporates their human experience with the work of God in a cohesive whole. These persons are intellectual and serious students of their faith. To find an adherent of this spirituality, pay a visit to a local Bible study group or stop by the faculty lounge at a local seminary.
The beauty of the above typologies is that they describe not only our Christian tradition, but also the Jewish and Muslim spiritual practices, too. In fact, they come from the Hindu tradition![1]
I remember being a part of a conversation in a peer group at seminary. We were sharing our respective life stories and our calls to the ministry. It was noted that none of those present had what would be called a “conversion experience”; that is, a powerful emotional experience in which we turned from the error of our ways and “saw the light.” Everyone present took parallel paths: our calls to the ministry were slow, deliberate and intentional, sometimes with detours along the way. Some of those present questioned their call because they lacked what was assumed to be a normative experience for genuine Christians: an unexpected, momentous conversion with strong feelings, as is associated with evangelistic or Pentecostal worship. I later came to realize that a conversion experience is not necessary for inclusion in the Christian faith, but is one avenue through which persons come to Christ (probably those who adhere to “the way of devotion”). Other paths to Christ have their integrity too.
A question is begging to be asked: which route to God is most spiritual, most sincere? The answer is, of course, none. Each of the above categories, which may be further divided into sub-types, provides an accepted means through which to express our spirituality. None is any better nor any worse than the other.
Which of the above categories is most prone to abuse? All of them. No matter how we practice our faith, our practices are prone to distortion when pushed to an extreme. The person who spends hours in prayer each day, without any concern for the less advantaged, has become so spiritual he is “no earthly good.” The person who spends his time in service, without caring for his own spiritual health, may start resembling a humanist. The secret is to find the balance that is right for us without going to extremes.
Our preferred mode of spiritual practice is, not surprisingly, related to our age and temperament. Middle-age investment analysts are not likely to be seen in a charismatic worship service; neither do recent high school graduates typically seek a worship service which is highly liturgical.
Not only worship, but also our preference for prayer style, is linked to our temperament. Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey, in their book, Prayer and Temperament (The Open Door, Inc., Charlottesville, Va., 1984), have delineated five different styles of prayer, based upon the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (which is in turn founded upon Dr. Carl Jung’s personality types). They are the Benedictine, Ignatian, Augustinian, Franciscan, and Thomistic prayers, each named for a spiritual leader in Christian history. Each style of prayer is different, but each has its own integrity. A brief description of each prayer style follows:
The Benedictine (St. Benedict) is the most ancient style of prayer in the Christian community and uses scripture passages as the medium toward meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The Benedictine pray-er is open to the work of the Holy Spirit for new insights and perceptions in his longed-for union with God. The traditional stages of Benedictine prayer include the lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation period), oratoria (accepting the word of God as it has come to us), and the contemplatio (contemplating the truth God has given in prayer), in the aforementioned order.
Ignatian prayer (St. Ignatius of Loyola , founder of the Jesuit order) was used by the Israelites at least 1000 BC and is the prayerful contemplation of an event in salvation history. By remembering God’s salvation in times past, the pray-er relives and makes the past a present reality, through his imagination, drawing practical spiritual fruit for his life today. Ignatian prayer is appropriate for those who have a strong sense of duty toward God and their fellow human beings. This style of prayer is often experienced in worship during Holy Week in the Christian community.
In Augustinian prayer (St. Augustine) the pray-er imagines biblical figures from the past appearing today, with whom one has a conversation. Augustinians reflect on the meaning of scripture today for the purpose of applying eternal truths to present-day situations. Augustinian prayer is used most frequently by creative, energetic, optimistic, or outspoken Christians who also have the reputation of being visionary. Augustinian prayer seeks a “personal relationship with God” with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit and an interest in the end-times (i.e. the book of Revelation).
Franciscan (St. Francis, 13th Century monk and creator of the nativity) is well suited for those who are impulsive or consider themselves a “free spirit.” Probably the most popular type of prayer, Franciscans find that devoting themselves to the service of others is their prayer, and that all of creation, not just the Bible, is an expression of God. Hence, Franciscans pray each moment of the day through all their senses: the chirp of the birds, the rush of a river, the cry of a newborn. Often charismatic in their worship, Franciscans have the least need for a structured, formal prayer time and do not tolerate long periods of silence well.
Thomistic prayer (St. Thomas Acquinas) stresses rational thought and is often critiqued by others as a study period, rather than prayer. Thomistic prayer focuses on the pray-ers’ personal attributes and liabilities, expressing appreciation for his virtues and seeking guidance for overcoming his faults. A Thomist is self-disciplined and will set spiritual goals for himself and systematically proceed through them on his way to perfection. Thomists are rarely satisfied, but continually seek their self-advancement toward lofty virtues: truth, goodness, unity, and purity. The purpose of the Thomistic prayer is self-change.
What Michael and Norrisey suggest, and what we might anticipate, is that a style or wording of prayer which is meaningful to one person may leave another wanting.
Preferences for worship formats and prayer styles have implications for conducting worship just as much as the choice of hymns or contemporary Christian music. No one style of worship will suit everyone all the time. Even a particular “pastoral prayer” offered on Sunday morning may speak for some but not for others (hence the inclination for a pastor to include different prayer styles in morning worship). What are the ramifications for a pastor who is “works” oriented, leading a congregation which is primarily “devotion” oriented, or for a parishioner who prays with typically Franciscan themes when the worship leader, week after week, prays with themes typical of Thomistic prayer? This is often an area where “different” is perceived as “not good.”
The implications for the above are far-reaching for any pastor: a pastor’s spirituality or prayer life, considered exemplary by some, will be deemed insignificant by others. This is simply an acknowledgment of personal preference, depending upon our temperament, and may explain why parishioners perceive their pastoral “leadership” as they do
Where will we go looking for God? More important, how will we look for God, and where will we find him? Most of us already know how we will search for God, for we have already found the best route to reach him. And where will we find God? We will meet God precisely where we have found him before.
--Rev. Haydn McLean
New Holland United Methodist Church
120 W. Main St.
New Holland, Pa. 17557
(717) 354-0226