Meditating with Saint Christopher

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st christopherI’ve been meditating on the story of Saint Christopher. It’s got my imagination fired up and my soul is energized by the images and icons of service that he represents. You can research the story here or here or here, as a few places to start. The story is readily available.

For some it will sound very odd to be meditating with or on a Saint. I didn’t grow up with the Saints, so I understand… it’s been a relatively new thing in my life, for about 6 years now, to read about and explore the lives of the Saints. My recent prayers, focusing on the short litany, “Let me love. Let me learn. Let me serve.” have brought me to the study of St. Christopher. Well, that and finding a sweet St. Christopher medallion at a flea market. =)

This Saint’s story is one of honest searching for a king worthy of serving. It’s a story about one’s strength and giftedness being used as a blessing to others. It’s a story that shows how we aren’t all the same in our coming to Christ or in our following of Christ. I like the story a lot. It’s a story of the divine in the mundane, and reminds me of a quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”

Don’t faint when you realize that we aren’t sure if he lived in the 3rd or 4th Century. Don’t give up on him because of the interesting divergence of details among the myriad traditions. The story of Christopher is not scripture, so we aren’t looking in it for that kind of divine revelation… but we can find in it divine vibrations… we can find in it a picture of humanity that points us to the divine.

Who can’t relate to the redemption of Christopher? Who can’t relate at some time in life to physically standing out, by our stature or appearance. Who can’t relate to seeking someone worthy of our service and fidelity? Who among us doesn’t live next to “raging rivers of life” that force us to journey together? I like the story. It inspires me.

I want to be a Christopher. I want to serve with fidelity and strength. I want to be a useful neighbor in the world. I want my service in this life to be service to the One who gives life. Perhaps one day we’ll each get across this river and wipe our tired brow, and sigh real big, and look around and say, “Dude, I just barely made it through.” And our Christ is going to high-five us and say, “No way. We rocked!”

A New Word for Prayer

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sacred unease“Prayer” is just a word, and the word is not the reality of actually praying. I’m kinda tired of the word to be honest. In my own life it’s just accumulated too much baggage and confusing background noise. I want to pray, but I’m tired of trying to pray. I find myself wanting prayer, but what I need is to pray.

Back in the day, the New Testament most often used a handy compound Greek word for prayer that signified both intimacy and longing. In Hebrew we have the history of an even more amazing word that conveys attachment and self-evaluation. I’m not going to painstakingly link my readings in for you. I usually do, yes, but this time I’ll let you do some Googling and digging if you’re interested.

In English we have a nice latinized word we are all used to, “Pray.” Our good friends Merriam and Webster tell us that the word has two general meanings: 1) to ask for or entreat (the linguistic roots of the word), and 2) to address God (the general historic use of the word for the last bunch of centuries).

But I’m more interested these days in praying than in prayer. I picked up a quote some years ago from my reading of Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ,  “I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it.” Let me to just say “Right freaking on!” to that sentiment. That statement can be made of many things, not just our bigger more complicated terms like compunction. It’s how I feel about prayer. I need to experience something bigger than the word.

So, thinking about the Hebrew roots and the Greek roots and thinking of the way Jesus taught and practiced praying, what is a word for what I’m looking to find and do? What word captures what prayer would be in my life if prayer becomes freed from some of the baggage it’s been carrying?

I think often of a lost word for most of us in the West: meditation. Years ago, as in like over 20 years ago, I heard of “soaking.” Soaking was the practice of laying in bed or sitting in a chair with the lights down and headphones on, letting music guide you into a meditative state for connecting with God. It’s good stuff. Worthy of a try or two.

In Mother Teresa’s “Simple Path” prayer is sandwiched between silence and faith. Hmmmmm. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Rumi has an amazing quote about passion, what I will call “passionate swimming“: “With passion pray.
With passion make love. With passion eat and drink and dance and play. Why look like a dead fish in this ocean of God?” But I’m not sure that replacing prayer with passionate swimming will be useful for me in a daily way. He does though capture in a beautiful style the desire to revel in the fully present and enlivening God.

A quick look around shows an affinity we have with linking dance and prayer, and not just among those who follow Christ. Like swimming, I think dancing embraces an immanence that I want to experience in prayer. But I’m not even a bad dancer. I just don’t dance.

I want to have a word like imagining. I want to have a word like creating. I want a prayer experience that is foundational to a constant becoming. I want a word that can include riding my scooter, painting, crying to God in anguish, singing a hymn and journaling. I want a word for the capture and crafting of a soul.

I need a word for at one moment losing and finding myself in God. I need a word for at moment experiencing and re-creating the reality in which I live. I already know that hugging one of my sons is praying. I know that every kiss I give my wife is a prayer.

I’m still looking, and still trying to find it, even if I can’t define it. I am hopeful and expectant, that even a simple blog post becomes prayer, an imagining and a rooting of myself in something unseen and yet present. And for a while, in a moment of time and place, my soul is remade a little closer to the image of God’s heart.

Some Afternoon Body Prayer

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lifting hands to God

“I lift my hands to your commands, which I love,
and meditate on your decrees.” Psalm 119:48

I’m practicing some body prayer at my desk this afternoon as I read my Midday Psalms. You’re invited to do this with me. My prayer is: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Sitting at my desk I straighten my back (though it can be done standing) and cross my arms on my chest, hands open and flat against each shoulder. Throwing my head slowly back I look up and raise my hands into the air, gradually bringing them apart in a circular sweep outward until both rest at my sides. I do this several times praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

And I am awakened.

So much better than drinking another cup of caffeine, my afternoon changes as my joints pop and I feel my back loosen a bit. My prayer is no longer just whispered or thought, but now it seeps into my body in newly opened places.

Stop, Drop and Paint…

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I’ve been working on “Thoughts on Preaching: Part 2,” but this afternoon I just had to stop thinking for a while and do some painting. Painting is prayer, a form of meditation for me. I make no claims to be good at it or have a style I can all my own, but it is one of the most freeing times for me.

I’ve been reading and thinking about St. Francis of Assisi for a few days and I was thinking of doing a self-portrait, so I combined the two and came up with this painting, today… an acrylic meditation on the first line of St. Francis’ formative prayer,

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”

I worked two hours straight on it from the beginning to completion, and it’s drying now in our bedroom. I have a spot on the wall all picked our for it. Don’t worry, I am under no delusions about the difference between myself and the great saint. I just used a little artistic liberty to focus my efforts.

Our congregational email on Praying for & Helping Haiti… 01-14-10

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Good morning, folks…

It’s been a horrific few days watching the images and scenes coming from the devastated streets and lives of our neighbors in Haiti. Time and time again we’ve seen the prayers being lifted for the suffering in Haiti and we’ve lifted our own. Many efforts have begun to get aid to the people who need it most, and to get it to them in ways that will be effective and handled with the greatest care and stewardship. I wanted to drop a note today to share a few thoughts on praying for Haiti and an opportunity to help with the needs brought by this disaster.

First, I did not know until this week that our own Luke Campbell has a sister (Deborah Baker) living outside of Port Au Prince, living and working with her husband (Kyrk Baker) and children, for Baptist Haiti Mission, assisting churches and operating hospitals and school programs. They are weathering the storm as best as possible with no loses of life within their family, but now the huge stresses of being first responders and completely overwhelmed. Fortunately, they have medical facilities still standing and are receiving people coming from the city. They have a blog about their life and work in Haiti, and I’m listing it along with a link to Baptist Haiti Mission:

With the myriad of ways offered to us to contribute and send aid as individuals to the hurting people of Haiti, I was glad to know that we have a connection with people there working and serving in such an immediate way. We will have a prayer station set up this Sunday to offer not only prayers but also contributions as a church family that will be sent to help the Bakers as they respond to the crisis as God’s hands and feet in the midst of such pain.

Praying for the People of Haiti…
It’s going to be a given that we are offering  prayers for the hurting souls of this devastation. Some of the poorest and most disenfranchised people are suffering through a situation that no one is ever prepared to face. So, we pray for the people of Haiti, for the hurting and the for the dead. Your prayers are so important in the coming days as victims and responders deal with the loss and pain they face. I’m including a link to where you can light a virtual candle in prayer for Haiti. We also used to have the “Prayer Lava Lamp” set up in our Sanctuary, though it’s been a while. If you’d like to open it and have it on your desktop to remind you and facilitate prayers, I’m linking it in as well.

Praying for the First Responders…
I’d also like to ask you to pray for the first responders, the folks like Luke’s family and many other aid workers, working for different types of church missions and for the many governmental agencies, who are on the ground in the midst of the situation. Some of them have lost a lot in the last couple of days, and still will be looked to for help. I’ve also been touched by the stories of Haitians tearing through rubble with bare hands to affect rescues and recoveries of people trapped in collapsed buildings or giving what medical and rescue assistance they could, even with no training. We pray for the people who are saving and serving their neighbors, right now. They will have a long road of healing of their own. There’s a good list of prayer points on the National Prayer Center’s website, and I’m linking it in (shortened by Tiny URL).

And we pray for the US Military and US Rescue Personnel…
I’m including a link about our mobilization of military medical personnel, supplies and ships, and many other responders who are on their way to Haiti to serve. These folks will face some very harrowing days ahead, and they need our prayers of support. I am always so proud when our military’s medical fleet is prepped and sent to respond to disasters around the globe, providing supplies, help and security.

So, I hope to see you on Sunday. I know that there are many ways to send aid and support to the people of Haiti, and I would never expect you to neglect the other connections you might have to directly serve with friends and family who are there helping in the aftermath. However, I’d also ask you to think about the amount which you would be able to bring on Sunday to help with the needed supplies and materials for helping stabilize and heal our hurting neighbors in Haiti. We’ll pray and do what we can as a church family to be the neighbors they need in us, now. And I’d invite you in your prayers to even consider what the future may hold for our church family as global neighbors with Haiti. Just a few weeks ago I shared with you that I’ve had it on my heart to find the way in which we might engage the world this year in missions, and from our previous support of Brooke in Haiti, to the connections we find developing now, I wonder if we’re not being asked to consider a longer-term commitment of prayer and service to the people of Haiti? Let’s lift that question to God as well. Thanks.

With All Peace,
Todd Thomas
Church in Bethesda

Christians Being Rude…

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sighing jesusI recently threw out a tweet that also went to my facebook expressing my shame at the actions of some Christians a few weeks back who felt it was somehow in the Spirit of Christ to go disturb their Muslim neighbors who had gathered at the National Mall for a day of prayer. While the people tried to pray, some stood to the side with bullhorns and tried to “evangelize” them, and then got in arguments with the DC police. Sheesh.

Really, that’s who we are supposed to be? The persecutors? We somehow have been granted the licence to rudeness? Really?

So, I went to my Sunni next-door neighbor and apologized, even though he wasn’t there that day. He was so great. He said something like, “We know all Christians aren’t like that.” He then looked over my shoulder to the view of my church building down the street, and he looked at the Presbyterian church across the street, and turned back and said something to the tune of, “My wife and I are so happy to have the churches here so close, we feel it is a sign of peace for us.” Sorry, it wasn’t a news interview so I have to do some paraphrasing.

I also spent some time trying to find an email for the fella who planned the whole prayer event at the Mall. I finally found one and sent him an apology, as a local Christian Pastor who was embarrassed by the angry, rude Christians. I wanted to share the reply I received yesterday, because I thought it was very gracious…

“Dear Reverend Thomas,
Thank you very much for your kind words and prayers. We did receive opposition from Christians but it didn’t prevent us from having a most wonderful prayer service on Capitol Hill.       We prayed for the good of America, for all people of all races, religions, etc.  Many of us who participated were born in America.  We deeply care for and love America.
Take good care and may the peace of God (the one creator) be with you always.
Peace and blessings,

There’s no doubt that there are Muslims in the world who don’t love America. Heck, there are Christians in the world who don’t love America. And I’m not going to jump onto a bandwagon of condemnation for the Christians with bullhorns… as I recently heard the late, great Rich Mullins say in video, “I’m not saying they’re bad, they’re just wrong.” Scripture directs us to be the righteous ones, so that observers have no true basis to make derisive remakes about our behavior. Scripture also says that our anger does not accomplish the will of God. And common sense says that interrupting someone else’s prayer does nothing to help my prayer.

So, I’ll just close with sincere apologies to the artist of the icon with which I took certain liberties when trying to do something visually clever for this post.  Sorry, my friend.