O Guiding Night – Pastor James

“O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover.” So reads the fifth stanza of “Dark Night,” the poem from which we get the saying, “the dark night of the soul.” But notice how the poet—the sixteenth century mystic John of the Cross—doesn’t convey a sense of fear or anxiety. Instead, this song is about the “beloved” who has found solace in God. But it took the cover of “darkness” for this transformation to occur.

This week we find ourselves at the culmination of the 2021 Lenten season. Just like in the biblical account, the weeks leading up to this moment seem to have been a blur. But now time is slowing down again, sharpening our view as things come to a screeching halt at Good Friday. But given what occurs, many have asked, “what’s so good about it?”

Luke’s Gospel has Jesus proclaim with his last breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23.46). While this verse is familiar, it portends a voyage into the darkness. The ecumenical version of the Apostles’ Creed tells us that Jesus “descended to the dead” during this time, a mission of plumbing the depths of desolation and despair as only God could. It is a time of silence. It is a time of mystery. It is a time of deep, abiding trust. And the “darkness” of Good Friday is one through which all Christians must pass.

The mystery of Friday—and Saturday—is a time of transformation. It’s under the cover of this darkness that God comes to us, softly, silently. But before we can respond, we have to “descend” into the depths of our very selves and face the demons that would blind us to the loving reality of the cross. We must die to the old self, imitating Christ’s self-emptying for us, and trusting in the Spirit’s promise to enliven us once again.

The first “Good Friday” inaugurated a new age. In the years since, many have commemorated this time by setting aside these final hours of Lent as sacred moments of reflection and introspection. My prayer as the season winds down, in this liminal time between Friday and Easter, is that we the beloved remain faithfully grounded in love and can share in the refrain, “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn!” That makes for a “good” Friday—and every day beyond.

 


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The Discipline of Prayer – Pastor James

I have the privilege of being one of several faculty members for the Spiritual Direction program at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. One of the primary courses that I facilitate is titled “The Spiritual Disciplines.” As you might imagine, we cover the biblical, historical, and theological sources behind these disciplines, and we discuss the implications these practices have on the lives of the students’ directees and the students themselves. But our emphasis isn’t purely theoretical; we also spend multiple hours experiencing the very topics that we study. Our deep dive includes the disciplines of self-care, attentiveness to others, Scripture reading, and liturgy. But the central focus of the entire practicum—in fact, of the whole course—is prayer.
 
When many people think of prayer they think of a “conversation” with God in which they ask for things for themselves or others. While these petitions and intercessions are absolutely necessary, prayer in its broadest sense is so much more. One writer describes prayer as a “grace-filled attentiveness to God that initiates and sustains a change of consciousness, leading to deepening love of God and neighbor.” What a beautiful idea! In this sense, prayer is not simply a conversation or a devotional time, but it’s an attitude! Defined this way, prayer is about opening up and letting the experience of God transform us in everyday life: working, cooking, reading, running, or simply sitting with someone who needs a listening ear. The entirety of our lives can be a living prayer, or, as Paul says, we can “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5.17). But we have to be intentional in reimagining what our “prayer life” looks like.
 
This view of prayer—and the world—doesn’t happen overnight. That’s where the “discipline” part comes in. We have to practice looking for God in all these so-called mundane spaces. And one of the best places to start is by being still and quiet—by doing nothing at all! If we say we’re going to “converse” with God, we have to learn to be good listeners. Like in a long-standing relationship, we don’t really need words; we simply need to be present with one another, and to be open to what that intimacy reveals. We can do the same with God. Once we’ve got a handle on sitting still, we start to pick up on all sorts of things that never caught our eyes or ears or hearts before: God whispering in the wind through the leaves; God caressing you via the dishwater in the sink; God smiling at you via a panting pup. With this attitude, we begin to see through the false dichotomy of the secular and the holy, and we recognize that God permeates all reality.
 
We should certainly maintain our times of devotion, recitation of memorized prayers, and even grace before meals. These are all beautiful aspects of our expressed faith. However, these acts and others are enriched through the discipline of “grace-filled attentiveness.” In this holistic approach to prayer, we keep God at the forefront of our lives, experiencing the divine presence everywhere and in everyone. That’s the discipline of prayer; that’s praying “without ceasing.”
 
Blessings,
Pastor James
 

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