The Bible is not inerrant, in history, science, and ethics - nor is it inerrant in theology.
And . . . it does not need to be in order to ground, guide, and sustain Christian identity.
~Delwin Brown

Alpha-Omega

Answering the Contemplative Call & Earthy Mysticism – Two Book Reviews

Lists:

Sets of instructions. How-to steps.These are really helpful if you are putting together a book shelf or bicycle or even if you are trying to fix a problem on a Linux operating system like Xubuntu.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about such things as they relate to personal or spiritual things. They tend to imply, “If you’ll only follow these X number of steps, you’ll be okay – you’ll succeed.”

I just can’t believe such things are that simple, that cut and dried, that black and white. And yet, I wonder how much money is spent each year by people trying to find the list that will answer their questions and fix their problems. I bet it’s millions of dollars.


 One Book:

I received a copy of Carl McColman’s Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path to review from the good folk over at The Speakeasy.  I requested a copy as I’ve been interested in reading some different authors with different perspectives. Plus, more importantly, mysticism is something that has become of interest to me in recent years, partly because “mystical language” and the seeking by so many of the “mystical path” have become prevalent.

I thoroughly enjoyed Part One of the book, entitled “Recognizing the Call.”  In it, McColman does a good and interesting job of defining the mystery of contemplation or mysticism while leaving the definition open enough for others to have mystical experiences that are a bit different.  He does this by giving us glimpses into the different contemplative lives of people such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Evelyn Underhill, Teresa of Avila, Richard Rohr, and Meister Eckhart, just to name a few.  He even spends one chapter, “Three Tales of Awakening,” looking at Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton.

Part Two, “Preparing for the Journey,” is a focus on preparing for the “adventure of falling ever more deeply in love with the Divine” (pg. 43).  For me, this section was still somewhat enjoyable, but he over used and over extended the metaphor of preparing for a trip to a distant place to the point of being too “whimsical” (his word from the “Introduction”) or cheesy (my word).

The deeper I got into Part Three, “Embarking on the Journey,” the less connected with the book I became.  He went to great pains to say that everybody will do things differently, which I appreciate.  But then he’d counter with something like, “But you really ought to follow these steps.”  For instance, McColman did a good job in the chapter on “Befriending Silence” to make clear that we can never fully find silence.  Even in nature, we’ll hear the sounds of nature.  As much as we try to silence our minds, our minds are likely to keep chattering except for an occasional period (possibly very brief period) of silence.  Then in the chapter, “Praying the Silence,” he countered with a list (which I have been upfront about not liking):

  • Set aside a time of uninterrupted silence;
  • Have good posture;
  • Have good breathing;
  • Focus on an object and / or repeat a phrase or a word.

I know this is helpful for some people. I have even led folks through some of these steps as I know it works for them. My frustration is that it feels like he implies if I’m to respond to the call of contemplative prayer, I need to do this. This has not worked for me. I’ve tried it again and again and I find it far from nurturing for me (at least in this time of my life).


The Other Book:

All the while that I read McColman’s book – both the parts that I loved and the parts I liked less – one book kept coming to mind:  Tex Sample’s Earthy Mysticism.  This is a book I purchased on my own a few years ago to use as part of a faith study with a group called The Society of St. Simeon at First United Methodist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas (as an aside, part of our opening liturgy for each session was very similar to McColman’s steps listed above).

In all honesty, Tex’s understanding of mysticism has become my understanding for me.  The ways he has had mystical moments are like mine.  Thus, it is no wonder his book kept coming to mind.  For instance, he writes in the Introduction entitled “A God Who Will Goose You:”

I am not helped much by conventional approaches to spirituality. I find it almost impossible to do “devotions.” Daily Bible study in the sense of devoting twenty to thirty minutes a day never worked for me. I cannot get around to scheduled times for prayer on my knees with head bowed. I find labyrinths and prayer beads boring. I am ever and again distracted in silent meditation. I simply cannot sustain a spirituality based in such things. Yet, Bible study, prayer, worship, and Eucharist form the heart of my practices, but it is a different spirituality (pg. xiv).

What I love about his book after the introduction is that they are essentially just stories from his life in which he has in some way been surprised by God who arrived “in the ordinary and the seamy.”  They are “about mystical moments when clearly the only thing that finally matters is this God who will never leave us alone, especially in the ordinary and angular places of life” (pg. xv).

Through stories like the death of his son, the conniving of an insurance salesman, participating in a march on Selma, and comforting his vomiting wife, Tex creates opportunities for us to see God in our own painful, mean, inspiring, and mundane events.  And for me, one of the beauties in the ways he tells these stories is that he seldom says, “Well, this is how I experienced God.”  More often than not, he kind of leaves it hanging (like some of Jesus’ parables) for us to wrestle with where God was “goosing” Tex in the story and where God might be goosing us.  We are left with deciding what is “mystical.”  We aren’t told what is and is not or whether we arrived at it in a “correct” way.


Contemplatives:

I experienced a real epiphany in McColman’s book.  I noticed that the word, “contemplative” (aka mystic), is based on the word, “contemplate.”  Contemplate.  To know God more fully, we must contemplate the mystery of God.  We must consider again and again this God that will goose us.

I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet that Tex Sample didn’t always know that the stories he told were mystical in the moment.  That has certainly been my experience.  It has been most often in retrospect that I more fully see the action of God.  It is in contemplation that God becomes more apparent.


 Both Books:

McColman’s book has much to offer, especially for people who are predisposed to living out their spiritual life in a more disciplined way.  It provides many insights for anybody, but the last part was less edifying for me.

No matter your predisposition, I thoroughly recommend Sample’s book.  It may open you to new ways of knowing the mystical life.


About the Authors:

Carl McColman is a writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual director. His blog, www.anamchara.com, celebrates the mystical and contemplative dimensions of both Christian and world spirituality. He is a regular contributor to Patheos, and his writing has also appeared in the Huffington Post.

He studied Christian meditation at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and received additional training in the art of spiritual direction from the Institute for Pastoral Studies in Atlanta. He is a professed member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, a community under the spiritual guidance of the Trappist monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. As a Lay Cistercian, his spirituality is ordered toward what Walter Hilton called “the mixed life” — devoted to the practice of contemplation within the context of marriage and family, outside of a traditional monastery.

Carl lives near Stone Mountain, Georgia, with his wife and stepdaughter.

Tex Sample is the Robert B. And Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at The Saint Paul School of Theology where he taught for 32 years. He holds a B.A. degree from Millsaps College, an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology, a Ph.D. from the Boston University Graduate School. and a D.D. from Coe College.

Sample is a freelance lecturer and speaker in North America and overseas and has been active throughout his career in both the church and in the community. While living in Arizona, he was heavily involved in the Valley Interfaith Project, a broad-based organizing effort associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. He was also active in the Arizona Interfaith Movement, an interfaith group that includes 25 different faith traditions.

Sample is married to Peggy Sanford Sample, who is a watermedia artist and a musician. They have three children, one of whom is deceased.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Answering the Contemplative Call free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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A Prayer for Resurrection

O God, we read in the Bible how You never change,
and yet we look around our lives,
and it seems that ALL we see is change.
We are thankful O God that you are the one constant
in our lives that can keep us on track
against so much that would throw us off track.

O God, we all experience change.
Some change is good:
We get a new job or a new task that we enjoy; or
We meet that special someone; or
We have a child; or
We get a new house; or
We get healthy.

Of course, some change is bad:
We lose a job; or
Our task at work changes to something we don’t enjoy; or
We lose a loved one; or
We lose our home; or
We lose our health.

And yet, whether change is good or bad,
it can still be difficult as life is no longer the same.
Thus, we are in need of new life with hope.
We need resurrection.
We need You, O Lord, to breathe the Spirit of Life
into us again to help us to cope.
We need Your grace that can,
if we are willing,
lift us up to face the challenges of life.
All thing, O God, are possible with You,
and in that promise, we take comfort.

O God, we pray such a resurrection of new life
for those who are in the hospital.
May they experience new life in their health.

We also pray for such a resurrection of new life
for those who have lost love ones.
May they experience new life
through the process of their grieving.

O God, it is in Your grace that we pray.
Amen.


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A Prayer for Maundy Thursday

Abba, Father. As we remember Jesus’ last supper today,
we are mindful that with you all things are possible.
Yet, like Peter, James, & John, we don’t stay awake.
We don’t pay attention to what you have called us to do.
We don’t pay attention to all the miraculous things you have a part of in this world.
All too often, we are only concerned with what we want individually.
We aren’t concerned with the needs of others or with what You want from us.
Help us to stay awake and to pay attention.
Help us to be like Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served.
Help us to be like Jesus, who would have liked to have side-stepped the death that was facing him;
Yet, he looked not to his own interests, but to the interests of You, O God, and of others.
Help us to be like Jesus, who stood up to the principalities and powers of this world
to show the kind of love You have for the world.
Remind us, O God, as Jesus knew
that there is nothing that this world can do to us
that You can’t overcome by Your love and grace.
Grant that we, like Jesus, will not seek our own wills
but that Your will be done in our lives and in this world as it is in heaven.

AMEN.


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Living Stones?

. . . a sculptor starts with a block of stone to arrive at a statue:
by chipping away what something isn’t,
you reveal the contours of what it is.

Robert Owens Scott

I know I’ve read the passage before (several times, in fact), but I’d never noticed the absurdity of one of the images painted in words there until my friend, Ali DeLeo, asked the question:

“How can a stone be living?
Aren’t stones dead?”

She was referring to 1 Peter 2:1-5, which we were studying at the Wednesday morning Bible Study that is part of the Our Daily Bread food and friendship breakfast ministry with the unhoused neighbors of Capitol Hill United Methodist in Washington, DC.

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (NRSV)

Without missing a beat, Rob Farley, who oversees Our Daily Bread, explained it in such an eloquent way that I could never fully write what he said, but here’s a brief summation.

A living stone is one that is “willing” to be molded into another form.  It is vulnerable, allowing another to shape it in a new way.  One need only look at the snaking of the Colorado River in a satellite view of the Grand Canyon to see the “dead stone” that refused to yield to the water that was attempting to shape and use that which was stripped away for another purpose.  And yet, the beauty of the canyon displays the living character of the stones that have been sculpted by the water.

John 4:10-11 speaks of Christ as the source of living water.  Yet, how often do we fail to yield to this life-giving source that seeks to turn us into living stones?

Of course, we often want to personalize this passage from 1 Peter, but as Fred Craddock and M. Eugene Boring are quick to point out in The People’s New Testament Commentary, this letter is not written to an individual, asking that person to become a living stone.  It is written to a community believers that are being asked to be living stones to be built into a spiritual house – and more than that – a holy (set apart) priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices.

Yet, how quick are we to leave a church or community we aren’t willing to work with? Maybe they are channeling the living water to us.  Maybe we are to be the one to channel living water to them!  (As an aside, the emphasis here is on quick as I recall Jesus calling disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on if not heard – see Luke 10:1-12).

How quick are communities to turn their backs on those who would like to join because the “newbies” are different in some way: demographics (age, ethnicity, social standing, etc.), worship style, theology, way of doing things, etc?

As I think about the broader context of the passage in 1 Peter 2, we get some insights.

  • We (as a community) are to grow into salvation.  For a spiritual building to grow, sometimes walls have be moved and new walls built to incorporate what the Spirit is inviting us to include.  Are we willing to allow growth and change?
  • We (as a community) are to be a holy priesthood willing to sacrifice – ourselves, our wants, our pre-conceived notions, our traditions – for the community as a whole.  Jesus sacrificed and accepted even though he was rejected.  Are we willing to be vulnerable, to sacrifice and include (as opposed to rejecting) even if we are rejected?

Are we willing to be sculpted by God, letting the rock chips become pavement for others to find their way?

Are we willing to be eroded by living water, letting the dust  become soil for another’s growth downstream?

Lord, give us the nourishment we need to become the people you have created us to be!


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Rants to Revelations – A Book Review

It’s easy to get stuck in ruts, isn’t it?

Even thinking about books (particularly theological books), I essentially have to force myself to read books by people I don’t know as I’m often stuck in a rut.  It’s easy for me to fall back on old favorites like Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, etc. even though they often say the same things again and again.  If I run across an author that I am not familiar with, I’ll look on the back of the book for endorsements by some of my faves, and if there are endorsements by those I don’t trust, I’ll pass!

Sometimes, though, a new author (to me) won’t have such an endorsement.  I then look at the publisher as there are some publishers I will typically pass up, some that I will typically trust, and some that I’m careful with.

But what do I do when I’m not familiar with the author or publisher, and there is no endorsements by folks I trust?  I’ll look at the brief biographical information.  What seminary did they attend?  What denomination are they affiliated with?  What are they interested in?

Sometimes after this less-than-in-depth search, I’m still left with unanswered questions, and unless something about the book or its description has piqued my interest, I generally pass.  That is exactly what happened with this book initially.

TheSpeakEasy.info had offered Rants to Revelations: Unabashedly Honest Reflections on Life, Spirituality, and the Meaning of God by Ogun R. Holder for review.  After doing my less-than-in-depth search, I was left with too many unanswered questions.  I didn’t know the author, I didn’t know the publisher (Unity), there were no endorsements, and I didn’t know anything about his denomination (Unity).  On top of all of that, it just didn’t pique my interest.

A short time later, SpeakEasy.info offered another book I wasn’t interested in and noted that they still had copies of Rants to Revelations.  I passed again.  Shortly after that another book was offered, and again, it was noted that copies of this book were still available.  Honestly, I felt sorry for Holder since it appeared (at least on the surface) that not many people wanted to try his book.  Then I noticed that the book included illustrations by David Hayward (aka The Naked Pastor), someone I’ve seen many religious cartoons from.  So, this time I requested a copy and got it.

Honestly, I remained skeptical until page 8 when I read these words about prayer:

I started to see that prayers weren’t just words. Any action that expressed my divine nature was, in effect, a prayer. When I was in service to others, I was being a prayer. When I was immersed in any experience that let me touch the depth and vastness of what lay beyond what I could perceive with my senses or imagine with my mind, I was in prayer. When I would sit at the piano and let my fingers effortlessly play notes that transported me deep within myself, I was praying.

It was then that I knew I had met in this book sort of a kindred spirit.  The road of life and faith isn’t simply about talk but action.

In story after story from his own life, we see a man who kept finding himself in various ruts:  unfulfilling job, non-edifying religious tradition, doubts, rebellion towards family and God, marital difficulties, and more.  Yet, time and again, we see how God was active in his life and especially in himself to bring him new insights about himself, others, and God, to bring about transformation and growth.  Each time, he is pulled out of the rut by working with God to the point of finding himself back on that narrow path of life and faith, hopefully with new knowledge to help him avoid other ruts on the journey.

I enjoyed his willingness to be vulnerable and (I assume) to be honest in telling his own story in relation to God, his loved ones, and himself.  By doing so, I think he makes it easy for a reader to be able to relate to at least some part of his life story.  Plus, his writing style felt very conversational and thus very readable.  I really hope people will decide to try this book as I think it can be helpful for those wanting to discover their God-given potential in life, relationships, and ministry (lay and clergy).


About the Author

Ogun R. Holder is an ordained Unity Minister. His many titles include speaker, teacher, author, radio show host, blogger, musician, husband, parent, social media consultant, and self-proclaimed geek.

He’s written articles for Unity’s Daily Word [about 3,000,000 readers], Unity Magazine, and Contact Magazine. He also co-hosts Unity Family Matters a Unity Online Radio show about conscious parenting with my wife Rev. Jennifer Holder.

Holder is also the Executive Director of Unity For All, a nonprofit  on a mission of Global Transformation through Spiritual Education, Empowerment, and Engagement, and he’s had the honor of speaking at churches and spiritual centers across the country.

Originally from Barbados, he moved to the USA in 1994 to pursue a degree in Music Therapy. As a Music Therapist he worked successfully with a variety of populations in schools, hospitals, adult day-care facilities, and in his own private practice.

He currently live in the Washington, DC metro area with his wife and their daughter Joy.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.


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A Prayer for the New Year

O God, we read that You make all things new.
You do not make all new things,
replacing that which has imperfections.
You are more about transformation,
making a new creation out of that which is
flawed, void, or without the correct form.

Yet, Lord, we get stuck in a rut.
We are unwilling to hear something new
or different than what we were taught
years ago, back in the good old days.
We assume there can be only one meaning
to certain passages of Scripture,
we will not open our minds
to something new.

Yet, we are called to love You
with all of our minds.
The Apostle Paul called us to
be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Help us to discern Your desires
for us as individuals and for the world.
In humility, like children, let us
be teachable again,
not knowing all of the answers,
but being willing to hear something new.
Help us to be transformed in this new year.
Amen.


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