Spirituality - What Is It?


Ben H. Swett
Elders' Retreat
Christian Church-Capital Area,
27 February 1988

What is this new interest in spirituality I keep hearing about?
Do I need it?

Rev. Donald L. Jones, pastor of Third Christian Church, Indianapolis Indiana, presented a powerful sermon on the need for spirituality at the 1987 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He said:
Something is missing in our congregational life, which makes it hard for us to have the energy to carry out the ministry to which God has called us in today's world. The discovery of that something missing will enable and empower us.

What is missing is something Jesus claimed to be fundamental when he said, `What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' What is missing in our congregational life is a lively sense of soul.

What we need is the discovery or rediscovery of the vital spiritual center of the human being. We need to recover the quality of spirituality in which we are enlivened and animated and energized by the presence of God penetrating to the very core of who we are. For lack of this quality, there is no dynamic energy at the center, out of which we may live and witness and serve.

We have proclaimed the message of Jesus, and we have manifest the behavior of Jesus in good works toward others, but we have ignored the fact that both the message and the behavior of Jesus were created out of the spirituality of Jesus. His own inner life was the energy center for everything he said and everything he did.

It is the same for us. Spirituality is the prerequisite for witness and for service. The primary purpose of the congregation is to help people discover or rediscover their own souls. But church life in most of our congregations militates against that very purpose. It consists of a demanding round of extraverted activities which leaves our people exhausted in body and hungry in spirit. More and more of our local church leaders are saying, "It seems like I'm giving out and giving out all the time, with not much coming back. I don't need another job. I don't need another challenge. I need nurture."

We had better listen to that, for it is the cry of an overburdened and undernourished human soul. It is the cry of an inner emptiness that can be ignored only at the peril of the whole Christian enterprise. For if even the pillars of the church are hollow, the church cannot stand. The best kept secret in our contemporary church life is the passionate religious yearning that is hidden within those who sit passively in the pews, or even more, in the lives of those whose feverish activity keeps the organization going.

But thank God for the increased spiritual restlessness in a growing number of key people in our congregations, brave church leaders who are no longer willing to be silent about their spiritual hunger but are beginning to demand a parish church that can be a crucible of transformation and discovery for them, and for their contemporary church-goers.

It is time for Disciples to quit being embarrassed about, or apologetic for, our spirituality. For all too long, we have been silent because we didn't want to sound too pious. That is the Disciple disease: a fear of sharing our spirituality with each other. We bend over backwards not to sound or to seem pious, but we cheat ourselves out of a lot of things we ought to be saying to each other, about the depth and wonder of our own souls, and about those experiences of inner intimacy with God which have shaped and continue to shape who we are.

It is as though we participate in a conspiracy of silence about our spirituality, in the embarrassed hope that, if we don't talk about it, maybe it will go away. And of course, that is exactly what happens, in time. If the Disciples of Christ, as one of the mainline Protestant denominations, is withering away, it is not because we have lost our theological identity, nor because we have lost our evangelical fervor, nor yet because we have lost our commitment to peace with justice. It is because we have lost our soul. We have lost touch with the deeper springs of religious feeling, with the reality of the spirit in everything we do.

Our beginning point has to be the breaking of the conspiracy of silence, with each other, in our personal conversations in the local congregation, in clergy groups, in regional and national meetings of all kinds. Everything has to start here, with creative dialogue, especially with something as elusive as spirituality.

OK, if spirituality is so elusive, what are we talking about?

One of the best and least biased sources from which we can start toward an answer to that question is Webster's Dictionary.

spirituality 1. the spiritual character, quality, or nature. 2. [often plural] the rights, jurisdiction, tithes, etc., belonging to the church or to an ecclesiastic. 3. the fact or state of being incorporeal.

spiritual 1. of the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the body or material matters. 2. of, from, or concerned with the intellect; intellectual. 3. of or consisting of spirit; not corporeal. 4. characterized by the ascendency of the spirit; showing much refinement of thought and feeling. 5. of religion or the church; sacred, devotional, or ecclesiastical. 6. spiritualistic or supernatural.

incorporeal 1. not consisting of matter; without material body or substance. 2. of spirits or angels.

spirited full of spirit; lively, vigorous, energetic, animated.

spiritless lacking spirit, energy or vigor; listless, depressed.

soul 1. an entity which is regarded as being the immortal or spiritual part of a person and, though having no physical or material reality, is credited with the functions of thinking and willing, and hence determining all behavior. 2. the moral or emotional nature of man. 3. spiritual warmth, force, etc., or evidence of this. 4. vital or essential part, quality or principle. 5. the person who leads or dominates. 6. embodiment, personification. 7. a person. 8. the spirit of a dead person, thought of as separate from the body and leading an existence of its own.

soul-less lacking soul, sensitivity, or deepness of feeling; without spirit or inspiration: shallow, trivial, meaningless, empty, inert, dead, inorganic.

What are the opposites of spiritual and spirituality?

material 1. of matter; of substance; relating to or consisting of what occupies space; physical. 2. of the body or bodily needs, satisfactions, etc.; corporeal, sensual, or sensuous; of or fond of comfort, pleasure, wealth, etc., rather than spiritual or intellectual values; worldly. 3. important, essential or pertinent [to a matter under discussion]. Antonyms: spiritual, mental, psychical.

materialism 1. the philosophical doctrine that matter is the only reality, and that everything in the world, including thought and feeling, can be explained only in terms of matter. 2. the tendency to be more concerned with material than with spiritual or intellectual goals or values.

Where do those definitions leave us?

From the dictionary definitions, I define spirituality as belief in those aspects of reality which are not of this world or this material universe.

I contrast spirituality with atheism, materialism, humanism, communism and capitalism, nationalism, and all such worldly ideologies. I believe that life, even in this world, can only be properly understood and appreciated from the larger perspective that spirituality affords.

Therefore, I believe that spirituality is, first and foremost, a point of view. It starts with one's basic belief about the nature of reality. If one believes that only material things are real, that person has no starting point for spirituality. If one believes all reports of spiritual experiences are merely products of human imagination and wishful thinking, that person has no basis for spirituality.

You can tell where a person is coming from in this regard:
  • A bright five-year-old recently said, "I'm not going to believe in God or Jesus, because I can't see them."

  • When my mother died, a church friend wrote, "I'm sure you must take great comfort from knowing that she will always live on in your memories."

  • In his Easter sermon, one minister kept referring to "the Easter story" and "the Easter myth." Later, when he was asked how the myth of Christ's resurrection differed from the myth of the Easter Bunny, he hung his head and said, "I wish you hadn't asked me that."
Reverend Jones is right: something is missing. From the dictionary definitions of the words involved, that something has to do with things which are not of this world. I have heard that feeling again and again, from elders and ministers and members of the congregation. It shows up in statements like this:
  • I'm tired of trivialities, make-work and busy-work. Maybe I'm wrong, but it just seems like everything we do in church is basically meaningless.

  • My friends who go to fundamentalist, charismatic or Pentecostal churches seem to be finding something that we don't even talk about.

  • Some members of my congregation say they have had experience with good and bad ghosts, and they asked me about it, but as their minister, I have no tools, no instruction, nothing. The church has abandoned this whole area to the occult.

  • I know something is missing, but I'm not sure what. And I'm not sure more prayer is the answer. I know a man who tried praying for an hour every night for two years, but nothing happened. So now, he doesn't go to church any more. He says it's all just a bunch of nonsense and wishful thinking.
Those are tough words and tough problems. But Reverend Jones is also correct in saying that a major restlessness is beginning to appear. Something is happening in this world, and it is by no means limited to the Christian Church.

There was a good article on this subject in the Washington Times last Wednesday (February 24, 1988) by Patrick Buchanan, entitled, "The Need to Believe: Laughter a Bit Hollow?" After commenting on last Sunday's televised confession of sin by Assemblies of God Minister Jimmy Swaggart, Mr. Buchanan went on to say:
Nevertheless, reports of the demise of the electronic church are ... greatly exaggerated. The number and reach of Christian broadcasters has grown geometrically in this decade, despite the hugely publicized flaws and failings of the few. For these churches are providing, for millions, answers to questions the mainline Protestant churches, caught up with their trendy social gospels, no longer provide. (At 3 million members, the Assemblies of God is among the fastest-growing denominations in the United States.)

While this is not offered in defense of Jimmy Swaggart, a preeminent Catholic-baiter of our era, the laughter of the secular world today should be ringing a bit hollow. For, looking about the nation and the world, it is the secular faiths, from Marxism in the East to humanism in the West, that appear to be desiccated and dying.

More than half a century ago, John Dewey set about to replace Christianity, which he considered outdated and inadequate for modern America, with a new humanist `common faith,' using the nation's public school classrooms as its pulpits. The secularist takeover of the public schools is now complete; but the fruits of that victory, evident today, are surely not what Dewey & Co. had in mind. The godless children coming out of America's public schools are growing up to make a mess of American civilization; and many of these children, raised in a secularized environment, are actively searching for God to save them from their world of disbelief.

Indeed, some of the best and brightest of the young, emerging from the moral wilderness of our secularized schools, thirsting for transcendence, are even inventing new religions. The newest of these is the New Age philosophy, the so-called yuppies' religion. Common to many of its adherents are a belief in reincarnation, in astrology, in the miraculous powers of quartz crystals, in trance channelers or mediums--individuals with the psychic power to summon up voices from centuries ago. Mysticism for the masses. "The New Age is upon us," Marla Donato wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune. "Just look around. There are now New Age churches, radio programs, stores, tapes, newsletters, magazines, seminars and classes. Jewelry, featuring quartz crystals and other `healing' stones, is in vogue."

In the Communist East, too, atheism in is retreat. From the Soviet Union come reports of Christian clubs cropping up in Moscow, of visions of the Virgin Mary in the Ukraine. Millions have made the pilgrimage to Medjugorge in Yugoslavia, where similar visions are reported. In Czecho-slovakia, the Catholic Church, long suppressed, is reasserting itself; the same is true in China. Marxism appears to be as dead a faith in the Soviet Union as modernized Anglicanism is in Great Britain.

For the truth is that the central tenet of all secularist and secularized faiths--i.e., that God does not exist, that we ourselves must depend wholly upon ourselves--is at war with the unchanging and unchangeable nature of created man. Ultimately, secularism is futility. For when belief in the God of the Gospels has been extirpated, after so much effort, the bene-ficiaries of that secularist indoctrination soon set out to find another God. If the search fails, they invent one. This is the history of the human race. The necessity to believe is part of human nature; it is written upon the soul; it cannot be erased. Whatever his sins, Brother Swaggart is on the winning side."
This is what is happening: There is a new resurgence of the ancient human hunger for a larger view of life. Neither materialists nor humanists can feed that hunger, because they refuse to believe that man does not live by bread alone, but they work diligently to undermine the efforts of those who can. They say we invented the idea of God, and of life after death, because we need to believe. Their's is a diabolically clever doctrine that strikes at the very roots of religious faith. But what if they are right? Are we just deluding ourselves because we need to believe? Or are the materialists and humanists systematically deluding themselves and each other, and trying to delude us, because they have a fervent, almost religious need to disbelieve? That is the issue.

How can such an issue be resolved? Only by learning the truth--the truth that sets us free from such delusions, one way or the other. And how can we seek for spiritual truth? The same way we seek for any other kind of truth, except we must remember that our subject matter is incorporeal. Therefore, our tools are: personal experience, but not sensory experience; observable evidence, but not physical evidence; other people's testimony, provided we have reason for faith in the veracity of their witness; and logical inference from specific cases to general principles, provided we test each principle against the preponderance of evidence, experience, and testimony.

OK, suppose we don't have any personal experience in this area. Where can we go for evidence or testimony?

The Bible? Yes! The Bible is full of information on spirituality. It has been the primary text for two thousand years. However, the Bible itself is now being tested, so first look within yourself. If, in your inner honesty, you find the Bible is being tested in you, then you cannot use it for proof; you can only use it for reference.

Saints and mystics of the past? Yes, there is some great reading there. You can study their methods and perhaps imitate some of their self-disciplines, but you should not expect too much by way of results unless you also share their premises--the basic beliefs which were their starting points. You also need to know a good deal about the historic and religious context in which they lived in order to understand them.

Science? The natural sciences have done great things within their self-imposed, materialistic limitations, but if you are interested in spirituality, you will find little or no help there, because the very subject-matter of your inquiry has been dismissed as unreal. Unfortunately, the same is true of the social sciences. They have strictly limited their concept of reality to this world and the worldly affairs of human beings. For example, behavioral psychologists have it exactly backward. Jesus said, "The spirit gives life, the flesh is of no avail," but they say, "The flesh gives life, the `spirit' is merely a by-product of the flesh." So don't expect any help from them.

Fundamentalist, Charismatic, or Pentecostal churches? They still talk about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit as realities rather than myths, but they require blind faith--that is, unquestioning acceptance of their own doctrines, dogmas and tests of faith. Disciples tend to be mavericks in this regard. We typically want to do our own thinking, so we tend to run into trouble where individual inquiry is restricted or too narrowly defined.

Psychic research? Yes, there is information relevant to spirituality in these areas of inquiry which have been laughed at by science and scorned or feared by religion. I have found more thoughtful discussion of spiritual realities in books on ESP, parapsychology, psychic research and spiritualism than I have in recent books on mainline Christianity. For example, the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible is practically useless as a source of information on spirituality. For me, and for many other sincere seekers, the mainstream has dried up. Therefore, I either had to quit seeking or look elsewhere. I have looked elsewhere; however, this type of research is not something that everyone needs to pursue.

What's left? The personal testimony of trusted friends, people you know well enough to take their word for anything they may wish to say. This is the kind of people upon whom Jesus relied to be his witnesses; that is, to tell others what they had seen and heard and experienced with him, "in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." This is the kind of people we are called upon to be, to the extent we have personal experience with spiritual realities, and more especially if we have experience with the quality of spirituality that centers on Jesus.

What do you mean by "quality of spirituality?"

There are many kinds of spirituality. Some are good for us and some are not.

Superstitious spirituality comes from the notion that God is Master of Mysteries, Lord of the Unknown, and the Last Resort of our frustrated attempts to explain. Falsely spiritual interpretations of natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning and earthquakes have been the starting point for many superstitions. We must make sure we don't do that sort of thing ourselves. Instead, we should worship God in truth, as Jesus said, by knowing that He inspires the discovery of truth. That way, we can see and appreciate His handiwork in what we know and what we are learning, rather than worshiping Him only in what we do not know.

Amoral spirituality. The problem with spiritualism and psychic research is that the researchers don't make any significant moral distinctions. They don't know a good spirit from a bad one, and they don't seem to think that the difference is important. As a result, they wind up listening to a lot of confused folks and outright liars, both corporeal and incorporeal. The New Age spirituality is also amoral. Most of what the New Age folks are rediscovering is actually ancient, and not all of it should be dismissed lightly, but that's not the problem. The real problem is their lack of moral distinctions, spiritual direction, and higher calling.

Dualistic spirituality. Some people attribute far too much power to the devil. They are so afraid of bad spirits that they make them seem far more powerful than they are. "The Devil made me do it" is a cop-out, an evasion of personal responsibility.

Magical spirituality. Trying to use spirituality to get what we want is an ancient and primitive approach to religion. That's the real inner purpose of magic and sorcery. Science is replacing religion as a means of getting what we want, and it's just as well, as Harry Emerson Fosdick pointed out more than sixty years ago in his book Adventurous Religion.

Emotional spirituality can be similar to magical spirituality, if the real purpose is to get something we want. When people use physical exercises such as dancing and chanting and beating on drums for the (perhaps hidden) purpose of working themselves up into an emotional fervor, they are practicing a primitive type of spirituality found in most pagan religions. There are some forms of meditation that can produce an emotional high. In any case, when people become so addicted to their own emotions that they simply go on one "bliss trip" after another, they are of no earthly or heavenly use, to God or man or themselves.

Preferential spirituality is a disguised form of elitism. For example, speaking in tongues is famous for splitting churches, but it isn't the speaking in tongues that does it. What splits churches is the arrogance of those who make this little manifestation of spiritual activity a test of faith or membership or status. They make the same mistake the First Century church at Corinth made: they forget that Jesus did not say, "By their gifts you will know them." He said, "By their fruits you will know them." And Paul very nicely lists for us the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, mercy, and self-control. These are indeed evidence that the spirit involved is Holy, but spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues are not even proof that one is a Christian, much less a special Christian. All sorts of pagans have had such spiritual gifts.

Judgmental spirituality. This is the kind of spirituality that concentrates on who is saved and who is damned, who's going to heaven and who's going to hell. This type of spirituality slanders God by making Him seem harsh and condemning rather than loving and merciful. For example, most doctrines of the atonement paint the mental image of a bloodthirsty, vengeful, unforgiving god who must be placated by blood sacrifice--even that of his own son. Many disbelievers have become so because they rejected this kind of spirituality and didn't know there is any other kind.

Rational spirituality. I think the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) needs to and eventually will develop its own unique quality of spirituality. And I think our spirituality will be rational; that is, it will not require one to set aside or deny the integrity of the intellect. However, it also needs a moral component; that is, it should distinguish between good and bad actions, and motives, based on their fruits. I think that we may have a ways to go in this regard, because many Disciples seem to confuse the necessity of distinguishing between right and wrong with the error of being judgmental.

Solitary spirituality. Brian Donst pointed out in the November, 1986, issue of The Christian Ministry, "Most of us cannot survive in the desert for long without becoming distracted, deceived or deluded. Not many are called or empowered by God to spend their lives in the desert." That is true, but then he went on and rather over-extended his point by adding, "Yet how many desert hermits are still to be found in our churches? Pastors who search for God in the shuttered privacy of their studies; parishioners who know the intimacy of God only in the shuttered privacy of a prayer closet; pilgrims who imagine that private prayer and secluded meditation are the surest way to find God and their truest selves--all are following a desert wisdom." That is not necessarily true. Private prayer and meditation are not the same as being a hermit. The people he mentions may be simply obeying the Lord's instructions: "When you pray, go into your private room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret." That is exactly what I believe and what I do. I have proved for myself that it works. However, it is true that, unlike a hermit, we need someone with whom to share our inner lives, our struggles, our failures and our silent achievements.

Gracious spirituality. There is a high and holy spirituality that is based on the theology of a loving God and reflects that theology in those who practice it. This kind of spirituality can be seen in the lives of people like Brother Lawrence (The Practice of the Presence of God). It goes beyond ethics to inner morality, and it demonstrates the quality of graciousness. It begins in simple spirituality, such as the kind you are practicing when you quietly and reverently hum a hymn as you go about your work. Although I think we all have a long way to go before we attain the quality of spirituality shown by people like Brother Lawrence, I firmly believe it is possible with God's help.

What can we do to improve our own spirituality?

Open your mind, if you have not already done so. Admit the possibility that there are aspects of reality you cannot perceive with your physical senses.

Read the Bible from a spiritual point of view. It often speaks of things which are not of this physical, material, self-centered world. Even Jesus' disciples failed to understand what he said when they interpreted his words in earthly terms. For example, he said, "Beware the leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees," and they started worrying about the fact they forgot to bring along any bread for lunch.

Study the words of the great hymns. Read them slowly and let their meaning soak into you. There is much testimony to spiritual realities in the great hymns of the church, but you may have to hunt up some old hymn-books in order to find it.

Expand your reading. Study some of the saints and mystics, and see if what they say makes sense to you. Study some of the psychics, if you wish, and then decide for yourself if what they say is worthwhile. Samples of both are in the partial bibliography at the end of this paper. One caution: remember there is a lot of garbage in this field, some rocks and some wolves. So look carefully, look quietly, and don't be quick to join any groups.

Distinguish between spiritual activities that are appropriate for groups of various sizes. There are some spiritual exercises you must do alone, in your private room, in silence and solitude. There are some that can only be done in small groups, where two or three are gathered together in His name. Some are best done in medium-sized groups, such as a Sunday School class, a fellowship circle, or a special retreat. And some are appropriate for a public worship service.

Control yourself. People forget that self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. They also forget that bad spirits (whether in a physical body or not) typically try to get us to relinquish our self-control to them, often by pretending to be holy. This key difference is one of the major ways to test the spirits. Bad spirits want to control us; they are hungry for power. Good spirits do not want to control us; they want us to decide for ourselves.

Do not inflame your own or anyone else's sensuality. Genuine contemplatives for thousands of years have found that sensuality inhibits spirituality, and vice-versa. They all warn us that addiction to anything because it "feels good" will not get us to heaven; it binds us to earth. Therefore, anything that encourages sensuality is working against spirituality.

Note the difference between reading about spirituality, talking about it, and doing it. Holy spiritual exercises include singing, fasting, temporarily or permanently abstaining from sex, solitude, silence (stilling the senses), centering, confession, compassion, worship, prayer, the act of blessing, meditation, contemplation, and inner silence (stilling the mind). No one can do these things for you.

Insist on a bit of solitude. You may not be able to get away very often, to the mountain or a religious retreat, but for the sake of your sanity as well as your soul, you need a little quiet time every day, just as you need food and water.

Record your dreams. Keep a notebook in the bathroom, where you can write in it at night without disturbing anyone else. Use it to jot down a quick sketch of significant dreams if you awaken in the night, and before you put on your face or shave it in the morning. If you don't write down your dreams, they usually fade from memory before you finish shaving or powdering your nose.

Ask yourself, "What do I expect the results of prayer to be?" It may be that your own expectations are getting in the way. Don't assume that your prayers were answered just because you got what you wanted, and don't assume that God is mad at you just because you didn't get what you wanted. Assume that God will reply to you, in one way or another, sooner or later. That reply is the real answer to prayer. It is referred to in the Bible as "the word of God"--and it means an understandable message from God to man, no matter how it is delivered.

Learn to listen. When you pray, give God a chance to get a word in edgewise. Don't just tell Him what He already knows, or ask Him to care for those He already loves. Ask for His guidance, as His servant. Then stop and listen: quiet the inner noise of your own thoughts for a moment and see what pops into your mind. Make a note of it, so you can review it later, because, of course, every thought that pops into your mind is not the word of God. You have to evaluate the content of the thought, and you may have to ask a trusted friend to help you evaluate it, to see if it is kinder and wiser than you are, but at least you will have given God a chance to speak to you.

Be prepared to encounter some tempters, as Jesus did when he went out into the desert to pray. Don't be afraid of them. Always remember that tempters and threateners are liars. They offer what you want and threaten what you fear and try to make you think they are powerful, but in fact they have no power over you other than what you give them by believing what they say. "Resist the devil and he will flee from you," are the words of a Christian spiritual director (named James), and it is a disservice to encourage anyone to try to listen to God without explaining this point.

Distinguish between spirituality and piety. Spirituality deals with the substance of inner life. Piety is devotion to religious duties and practices: it stresses outward appearance, dutiful conduct, and scrupulous adherence to detail. It was typical of the Pharisees. Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before men, that you may be seen by them," and went on to give several examples. Therefore, we do well to avoid being pious, but not when we confuse piety with spirituality.

Share your spiritual observations and experiences. First, share with one or two of your close friends, in private. Then, when you find they really don't eat you alive after all, share with a few more people you can trust. As you build your courage, you may find that you can share with your Sunday School class, fellowship circle, or similar group. Share your doubts and frustrations as well as your moments of high communion. Dare to share. Then we can learn from each other.

OK, all that is for after we go home. I'll think about it. Now what?

As Reverend Jones said, it's time to break the conspiracy of silence. In a little while, I'll ask you to rearrange yourselves into small groups of about ten people, to share some of the spiritual experiences you have had or have heard about. In the meantime, while you are thinking about what you would like to share, I'll try to practice what he preached. Granted, my way may not be your way. What feeds me may not feed you--and that's Okay. I tend to go about these things backward: that is, I start with facts and work back toward faith. I start with observations and then find that some of them remind me of something in the Bible.

Inspired sermons and inspired prayers

Our minister and I had discussed the functioning of divine inspiration on several occasions. Then, one Sunday, he preached a sermon on the Apostle Paul's statements concerning the role of women in church. It was a gutsy topic, and he handled it beautifully. The key line of his message was: "I think that God would say to us, `Don't be too hard on my servant, Paul. For all his human fallibility, he did right well with his life.'"

Later I asked him where he found that view of such a controversial topic. He said, "You know, that's funny. I wasn't going to present it that way, but I always have to go to the bathroom just before the service, and while I was in there, that line, `Don't be too hard on my servant, Paul,' just popped into my mind. So I rebuilt the sermon around that theme."

I said, "Oh," and we went our ways, but shortly thereafter, I had to go out of town, and I kept thinking about what he said. So I wrote to him, "After thinking it over, I'm not surprised at what you said about that sermon on Paul; it sounded to me like inspired interpretation. And besides, your methodology was scriptural. As Jesus said, `When you pray, go into your private room and shut the door.' Where else can you find a more private room, these days?"

In his reply, he wrote, "That sounds to me like inspired interpretation!"

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Elders sometimes find themselves praying other than they intended: for example, unplanned words may come into their minds while they are praying at the Communion table. Many elders have had this experience, and not always, but fairly often, someone will come up to them after the service, mention those very words, and say, "Thanks, I needed that."

I remember one elder's prayer that seemed to have read my mind, put a finger on exactly what was bothering me, and resolved it by indicating a different way of looking at it. In his prayer, he said, "Help us to forgive those who trespass against us as the best of our friends have forgiven our trespasses against them."

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In 1968, I was invited to address a meeting of the Ministerial Alliance of Ponca City, Oklahoma. The night before the meeting, I prayed for guidance, but didn't receive any, so--remembering that the Lord doesn't do our homework for us--I drafted up the bones of an after-dinner speech.

Next day at the luncheon, I found myself looking at those ministers. I knew several of them fairly well, and I knew they really cared for their people. They were ministers in fact as well as in name. My heart went out to them, because I had very little to offer that might be of use to them.

Then, when I stood up and opened my mouth to speak, what came out was as much a surprise to me as it was to them: "Good afternoon. I'm pleased I was invited to address this meeting of the Corpus Christi Cattlemen's Association."

They all looked blank for a couple of seconds. Then I saw laughter begin to crinkle the corners of several people's eyes as they recognized the English meaning of Corpus Cristi.

"Well, we're all interested in the care and feeding of sheep, and little lambs, and kids, and old goats, and workhorses, nags, and bull-headed parishioners ... I'd like to talk about fodder."

From that point on, I just relayed each thought as it came into my mind. The talk was an extended analogy on the spiritual feeding of human beings, and the main point was that we don't all eat the same things. It was a good message--I saw the ministers making notes on napkins--and I knew full well that it was far superior to anything I had ever thought or heard on that subject.

> James 1:5 "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him."

The draining and refilling of spiritual energy.

My mother-in-law spent many days visiting an old friend in a nursing home. Each time she went, she came away tired and drained, while her friend seemed far more filled with life and energy at the end of the visit than she was at the beginning. This is a very common experience among care-givers of all kinds. The problem is that few of them realize the spiritual significance of such an exchange. They think it's all in their minds, but it is often more like a spiritual transfusion, and if they don't know how to open themselves to the Lord so that energy can be replenished, they tend to dry up or burn out.

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The wife of one of our elders was in a nursing home for almost eight years. During all that time, Roy was there every day, for 8 to 12 hours, visiting her and conducting what amounted to a full-time Christian ministry in that home.

Sometimes I took the Communion and went with him to several of the people there. On the lower floor were patients with mental as well as physical problems: little scraps of humanity sleeping in their wheelchairs. I saw him go among them like a source of light, and I saw them come to life--rousing from their stupor, straightening in their wheelchairs and turning toward him in a wave like an expanding circle as little weak voices whispered, "Roy's here. Roy's coming."

He never did anything profound or spectacular. A touch on an old lady's arm, "Oh, Gertie, have you lost one of your slippers?" and he had a whole circle of patients looking for that slipper. "Martha, is that seat-belt coming loose? Wouldn't want you to fall out when you go racing around the corners."

I saw the light drain out of him as he worked. Then, when he looked old and tired himself, he would go to the water fountain, drink, stand there for a few moments, and re-center himself. He must have been opening himself inwardly and refilling from another sort of water fountain, because I saw the light come back in him before he moved away to continue his work.

To the rest of the world, Roy was just a little old retired Washington, D.C. bus driver, but to the people in that nursing home he was a saint. And the spiritual exercise by which he opened himself to be refilled would be worthy of comment in recording the life of any canonized saint.

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An older member of our church discussion group fell off a high cut-bank at the edge of her lawn and sprained practically everything she owned. Her doctor had put a thick rubber collar around her neck, and she needed help to walk. As the discussion group was breaking up, she said, "Ben, would you lay your hands on me and pray for me?"

I didn't have the foggiest idea what was wrong with her. or how to fix it, and I know I'm not a doctor, but I said to myself, "I'm an elder of the church. She has asked. I have to try."

I stepped behind her chair and placed my hands on her shoulders, but I couldn't think of anything to say except, "This is my prayer, too." Then I just stood there, not really thinking or praying at all.

After a moment, I felt something on my own shoulders, like a warm, tingling, effervescent fluid. It flowed down over my arms and forearms, but not through them. As it flowed over my hands, I felt her back straighten as though she suddenly sat more upright in her chair.

I tried not to think. I didn't want to get excited or do anything that might shut off the flow. It went on for some little time and then gradually tapered off. When it stopped, I dropped my hands and stepped back. I felt somewhat detached and in reverie, which I recognized as a slightly altered state of consciousness.

Rosemarie turned around in her chair and asked, "Are you drained?"

I said, "No," and I didn't feel as though I had used any of my own energy at all. Then a thought like a vision came into my mind--a picture of me standing behind her chair, and someone standing behind me with his hands on my shoulders, and someone standing behind him with his hands on his shoulders--on and on, like a chain of helpers, or elders, farther than I could see. I understood that the energy had come down through that linkage, from the Source of all such energy, to the one who needed it. I was only a link in the chain, or a piece of the plumbing.

At the next meeting, Rosemarie was no longer wearing the rubber collar, and she walked without help, although she was still a little stiff and lame. Thereafter, she recovered completely. That's what counts.

> Mark 5:30, Luke 5:17 "The power of the Lord was present to heal them."

Meaningful dreams

One night as I went to sleep, I was thinking about the members of a discussion group that met at our church. They all seemed to have grown spiritually, but some much more so than others. I fell asleep wondering what I could do to help those who were not progressing as fast as the rest.

I had a dream. In the dream, I saw a green field--like a lawn--with a planter in the middle of it. The planter was a small plot of tilled earth surrounded by a border of bricks set up on their corners.

Then I saw a series of pictures, like slides being flashed on a screen, of various kinds of house-plants, alternating with pictures of people's faces. I'm not too bright, especially when I'm asleep, so it took me awhile to figure that out. But finally I said, "OK ... plants are like people ... or people are like plants."

The slide-show stopped immediately. It was replaced by a film clip, like a time-lapse motion picture of two plants growing together, side by side, in the planter. They looked like the young shoots of cannas or corn.

As I watched, the plant on the right grew much faster than the one on the left. It soon became two, three, four, five, six times as tall as its neighbor. I thought, "I wonder what's wrong with the little one," and as the scene continued, I became more and more worried about that poor little plant.

I thought about making sure it had enough water, and adding some fertilizer, and loosening the dirt around it. I wondered if a cutworm had eaten its roots.

Just then both plants blossomed. The one on the right was a sunflower ... and the one on the left was a perfectly beautiful tulip.

Later, when I remembered I had gone to sleep thinking about the members of the discussion group, I got the message.

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In the late 1960s a group of people in Ponca City, Oklahoma, were discussing answers to prayer. One was an old deacon from the First Christian Church. He said, "I never really thought of it this way before, and I haven't told very many people about it, but I'll tell you something that happened to me several years ago and you can see what you think.

"You remember, when John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address, he said, `Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' Well, that thought kept going around in my head.

"A few nights later, as I was going to sleep, it rearranged itself, `Ask not what your God can do for you, ask what you can do for your God.' So I said, `Okay, God, what can I do for you?' Nothing happened, so I went to sleep, but later that night I had a strange dream.

"In the dream, I was coming into the sanctuary of our church and found my attention drawn to that big chandelier that hangs over the middle of the room. Then I woke up. That's all there was to it. `That was strange,' I thought, and went back to sleep. But I had the same dream again, only this time I was coming into the sanctuary from the other side, and my attention was just almost forcibly drawn up to that chandelier. I woke up and lay there for a long time, wondering about that dream.

"The next morning it was still bothering me, so I went to the church and looked at that chandelier. There was nothing to be seen, but I was so bothered that I went and got a tall ladder and climbed up to take a closer look. The bottom link of the main support chain, hidden down inside the top of the chandelier, was worn almost through. When I saw it, the hair went up the back of my neck like I had seen a rattlesnake come out of a box. I got some of the men together, and we had that thing safe and secure before the next Lord's Day.

"But like I said, I never really put all this together before. I never thought of it as an answer to prayer, but now I'm not so sure. What do you think?"

> Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21 "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams..."

Near-death experiences

If you have not done so, I suggest that you read Return From Tomorrow by Dr. Ritchie and Life After Life by Dr. Moody. They are not the final word on life after death, by any means, but they do provide some modern testimony.

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My father-in-law had just such an experience in 1967, before any of those books came out. He died several times while being operated on for cancer of the esophagus, and they had to restart his heart.

Later, he tried to tell me about it. Lawrence was not a man of words, so it was difficult for him to express what he experienced. He said he remembered leaving his body and floating up to the corner of the operating room. He saw the doctors working on his body. They used "something that looked like a pair of those old-fashioned flat-irons, like we used to heat on the stove," just before he was drawn back into the body. This happened several times.

"Then," he said, "I sort of floated away from there, to some other place."

"What was it like?"

"Well ... it was different. It was like I was swimming in light ... golden light ... all around me ... and above me and below me."

"Were other people there?"

"Yes."

"Anyone you recognized?"

"Well..." He thought about it. Then he turned and looked directly at me: "I'll tell you what it was like. It was like when you were a little kid at home and knew that everybody loved you." A pause ... then, "I'm not afraid any more."

> First Corinthians 15--the entire chapter

Thoughts that are not your own

A family in our congregation was in need. As I lifted them up in prayer just before going to sleep, it occurred to me that God might answer my prayer by inspiring someone else to go and help them. So I modified my prayer along those lines: "Lord, somebody needs to go help those people." I got an immediate and unmistakable reply, like a voice in the top of my head, "Well?" So I went.

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Elders need prayer even more than other people do, because we need the Lord's guidance in the exercise of our responsibilities. None of us are wise enough, or kind enough, to meet our neighbors' deepest needs out of our own resources. Therefore, "the elder's prayer" is a request for guidance, followed by silent, receptive waiting for the Lord's reply.

The wait need not be long. For example, I was called at work by the secretary of our church--one of our members had suffered a massive heart attack and was in the intensive care ward at a local hospital. Through his wife, he was asking for the pastor, but our pastor was on leave. I made a couple of phone calls but couldn't locate a pastor, so I went to the hospital.

The attendant at the door of the intensive care ward didn't want to let me in, so I pulled rank on him. I told him I was an elder of the church and one of his patients was asking for ministerial support. He had no idea what an elder might be, so he took no chances and let me in.

I sat on a little stool at the side of the bed. Bill was in bad shape--full of tubes and laboring for breath. I held his hand and asked if he wanted me to pray with him. He nodded, so I softly asked for his relief from pain and for healing if possible. He squeezed my hand, quickly, to stop me. In his labored, gasping breath, he said, "Maybe ... don't ... want to get well."

That struck me as a little odd, because it was pretty obvious he was not going to get well, so I asked, "Then, what's the problem?"

"Afraid ... of judgment."

That was above my pay grade. I don't know what anyone will face in judgment, and I don't want to know. I had no idea what to say to him, so I internalized my own, one-word prayer: "Help!"

The answer came immediately; I merely relayed it aloud: "Oh, you remember ... Jesus receives mercifully all who come to him humbly."

He squeezed my hand, hard: "Say it ... again."

"Jesus is merciful. He accepts every one who comes to him humbly."

"Oh ..." he said. "Oh ... I forgot that." I felt the tension drain out of him. He relaxed, and I thought he smiled. Twenty minutes later he was gone.

> Matthew 10:19 "In that hour, the words shall be given you..."

Visitations

While I was stationed at the Pentagon, I often had lunch with a friend from the same suite of offices. One time we got to talking about spiritual experiences. He said he had heard of some, but never had any himself. Then he stopped and said, "But I did have some nightmares about my mother when I was a kid."

I asked him to tell me about them. He said, "My mother died when I was about three. When I was about five, I had the nightmares, three or four times, just alike. I thought she came into my room and stood at the foot of my bed. I got frightened and started screaming. My father and stepmother came in, and when I told them, they said it was just a nightmare."

"What made you think it was your mother in the room?"

"Oh, I knew who it was. I remembered her."

"Then what made you so frightened?"

"I don't know. I guess she looked different, or strange, or something."

"What did she do?"

"Not much. She just stood there, by the foot of my bed ... and she was carrying something ... a thick quilt or a blanket ... over her arm."

Something clicked in my mind: "What did your family call that particular kind of quilt or blanket when you were a kid?"

A long pause while he looked down at the table, then his expression changed and he looked back up at me with tears in his eyes. "A comforter," he said, "We always called that kind of blanket a comforter."

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There is a conspiracy of silence on this subject, and it is not new. Almost 24 years ago, I was asked to lead a seminar for a Unitarian Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a variety of topics. One of those topics was life after death.

I discussed some of the many references to life after death in the Bible and in other religions, read from a few of the monumental mass of evidential reports that have been collected by psychic researchers and spiritualists, passed along some first-person testimony that I have no reason to doubt, and shared a couple of personal experiences. When I finished, I opened the meeting for discussion.

One old man cleared his throat and said, "Well, if you're not afraid to talk about it, I guess I oughtn't be. I had four brothers. They've all gone on before me. And they've all been back to talk with me. So there!" And he turned and glared at the old man sitting next to him. The other old man stared back at him for a moment, and then asked softly, "You, too, John?"

I found out later they had been good friends and active members of that church for twenty years without ever mentioning the subject.

> Mark 9:4 "There appeared to them Elijah and Moses ... talking to Jesus."

An exercise in breaking the conspiracy of silence

(Rearrange in groups of about ten people for small-group sharing)

Closing

No report is required from the groups. What you have shared is yours to keep and to share with others. We will close by singing "Take Time To Be Holy." Sing it softly. Get into it and let it get into you. This is one of the great codifications of Christian spirituality. It tells much of what we are to do, and it indicates the purpose, the end-product, of what we are trying to be.
TAKE TIME TO BE HOLY
by W. D. Longstaff (1822-1894)

Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord.
Abide in Him always, and feed on His word.
Make friends of God's children; help those who are weak;
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.

Take time to be holy, the world rushes on.
Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be.
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.

Take time to be holy, let Him be thy Guide,
And run not before Him, whatever betide.
In joy or in sorrow, still follow thy Lord.
And looking to Jesus, still trust in His word.

Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul;
Each thought and each motive beneath His control.
Thus led by His Spirit to fountains of love,
Thou soon shall be fitted for service above.