Adult Education

Want to revive your soul?  Try some Spiritual Renewal.

You might be surprised how spending just 10 or 20 minutes a day in quiet reflection and prayer can improve your spiritual health and well-being, as you are drawn closer to the heart of God in Christ.  Not only did Jesus constantly look for opportunities to get away from the crowds and pray, he urged his disciples to do the same.  “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” he says in Mark 6:31.  Realizing that many of us really are too busy for a traditional adult education class inside the church building, my hope for you is that these on-line lessons – largely based on the work of Flora Wuellner in her 1998 book Feed My Shepherds (Nashville: Upper Room) – provide you with both “food for thought” and rest and renewal for your soul.  As you try out these prayer exercises on your own, please get in touch with me and let me know how you’re doing, or how I might be able to answer your questions.

Blessings,

 Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Senior Pastor
Congregational Church of Brookfield

                        e-mail:  bryn@uccb.org


Spiritual Renewal: Session 1   
Jesus: The Heart of Christian Spirituality

In Feed My Shepherds, Flora Wuellner writes “Surprisingly Jesus actually said little about prayer, though obviously his life was drenched with prayer.  He gave the model of what we call the Lord’s Prayer because his disciples pointedly asked for it.”[1]

Read this famous passage from Matthew, listening for what Jesus does have to say to his disciples about prayer:

Matthew 6:5-13

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

  • What does Jesus teach about prayer in this passage?
  • In what way do you follow, or don’t follow, the guidelines Jesus gives to his disciples in Matthew?  Why or why not?
  • What does Jesus say to you in this that may help you in your prayer life?

 

In Feed My Shepherds, Flora Wuellner writes, “Christian leaders have debated whether Christianity is a religion about Jesus or the religion of Jesus.  I have problems with both definitions.  A religion about Jesus eternalizes him: it puts him ‘out there’ as a kind of Superman model, an external master of perfection to whom we must submit…. But I find the religion of Jesus equally unhelpful.  This definition turns Jesus into a kindly elder brother, a role model, a teacher, and a guide.  This interpretation invites me to share and imitate Jesus….”  But that is not so easy, as we might find with other great people we might emulate, because, “They are not with me now.  They do not call me by name.  They do not transform me.… I suggest a third alternative: Christianity is a religion through Jesus.”[2]

  • Do you have a “high” or “low” Christology?  In other words, do you tend to WORSHIP Jesus as divine or FOLLOW Jesus as a great human example? 
  • Do you like her “third alternative,” practicing faith THROUGH Jesus (allowing your relationship with Him to empower your Christian life)?

Wuellner believes having a relationship with Jesus Christ, like the experience of falling in love, enhances life and contributes to joy.  If we remain open to an ongoing prayer connection with Christ, then, we will be strengthened and transformed.

  • Has that been true, in your experience?

John 20:1-18

20Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

 

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

  • What do you do when you confront the empty tomb, when you try to pray and experience the dark emptiness of unknowing, fear, and doubt?
  • How does it feel to hear Jesus call your name? 
  • What have you learned about your own relationship to Jesus in prayer?
  • Jesus says to Mary “don’t touch,” but is not uncaring to her: What is the “right” distance for you if you try to pray to Jesus?

 

Spiritual Renewal Exercises for Week 1

Try this practice again, sometime during your week, of praying alone in your room directly to Jesus, aloud or silently.  If this is hard for you, you might try journaling, as in writing a letter to Jesus with the current joys, questions, or concerns of your daily life right now.  Or just repeat the reading of John 20:1-18 or Matthew 6:5-13 (perhaps praying The Lord’s Prayer a few times, if the other techniques feel too uncomfortable). 

Another exercise is just to sit in silence, imagining Jesus at whatever distance from you seems comfortable, simply giving you “unconditional positive regard” – as a smile, a steadying and supportive hand, or an embrace.  Allow yourself to experience whatever emotions or thoughts arise from you.  Write them in your journal if that is helpful.


[1]   Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership,
by Flora Wuellner (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), p. 33.

[2]   Feed My Shepherds, p. 34.

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 2       
Hungry & Empty: Spiritual Desolation

In Feed My Shepherds, Flora Wuellner writes that “No one had taught me that if the branch detaches itself from the vine and tries to be the vine itself, it will wither and die. … I had never thought to take personally that powerful, poignant Resurrection story in John’s Gospel:  The risen Christ builds the fire, cooks, and serves breakfast to the disciples; he heals Peter’s guilt and shame – all before he sends them out to feed the hungry sheep of the world.” (pp. 20-21)

Read this passage from John, listening for how Jesus does feed his shepherds before he asks them to feed others:

John 21:1-17

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

 

  • Do you allow Jesus to feed you in your life and spiritual practice?
  • In what way can you best stay connected to your source in Christ (the vine) so that he can nourish you and strengthen you in your discipleship?

Flora Wuellner has confessed that for years she tried to adopt a daily prayer discipline as she felt she “should”—using a set formula and praying at a regular, set time of day (usually early in the morning) – and yet nothing “worked” for her.  In Feed My Shepherds, she writes, “Our growing closeness with God was never intended to be a burden or one more task added to all the other tasks.  Personal relationship with God was meant to remove the sense of burden and to infuse all tasks with new vitality.” (p. 25)

Especially as you reflect on last week’s session & prayer homework,

  • What sort of prayer feeds you spiritually, lifts your burdens, and gives you “new vitality”? 
  • What prayer disciplines have you tried (and perhaps rejected) as unworkable for you?

Wuellner writes (p. 24) that before she “understood what relationship with God really meant, … I did not trust God with the ‘shadow side’ of much of my unfaced, unacknowledged inner self.  I had not realized that Jesus’ primary mission was not to teach us a bigger and better prayer discipline but to enable us to bring the wholeness of ourselves into relationship with God.” (p. 25)

  • Do you suspect that there are parts of yourself have you hidden from God, or even from yourself?  Can you imagine allowing Christ to be your companion and guide in “cleaning out the basement” of your inner life and helping you let go of those things that no longer serve your soul’s “wholeness”?
     

Spiritual Renewal Exercises for Week 2

If it has been helpful to you in the past week, continue to speak to Jesus (or just sit in his presence) during your prayer or meditation time.  But if that did not help you or work for you, allow yourself to take God’s presence “on faith.”  Complain to God and call Christ to come to you, or just permit yourself to sit outside the “empty tomb” – in the darkness and solitude of your experience of emptiness.  Wuellner writes about “praying that underlies praying when one is too tired or overwrought to pray.”  (p. 24) Whatever feelings that arise, know that they are OK, and you can give them to God.  Write them in your journal if that is helpful. 

Also, sometimes we feel we must know what we need and then ask God to help us.  You might try, in your prayer, to just ask Christ, your "Good Shepherd," to let you know how He would like to help or feed you.  Sometimes, as in the stress of a busy day when we forget to stop to eat, we actually become unaware of how spiritually "hungry and empty" we have become -- and God, like a caring mother ready with an after-school snack, can remind us of what we need and what is available to us if we were willing to stop and receive what She can offer.

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 3       
Healing Prayer, Part 1

As you reflect back on last week’s spiritual renewal exercises:

·        What (if any) technique did you put into practice that was helpful for you?

·        What did you learn new about yourself or about God? 

·        How is listening prayer working for you in general?

Spend some time in Lectio Divina meditation on the death and resurrection narrative in John’s Gospel:

John 19: Jesus on the Cross (vv. 1-5, 14-18, 25-30, 31-34, 36-37)

19Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. 4Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 5So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. …Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled …“They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

John 20: Jesus Reveals his Wounds (vv. 19-29)

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear … Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

  • What does the cross mean to you?  Is it a symbol that has ever been helpful to you in prayer or worship?
  • Do any of the images of Jesus suffering help you feel Christ’s presence with you in your own pain?  His physical pain?  His humiliation?  His experience of persecution and injustice?
  • Can you identify with the experience of the witnesses at the foot of the cross?  Does knowing their suffering help you in any way, as they grieve?
  • Why do you think the risen Christ showed the disciples his wounds and allowed Thomas to touch them?

 

Spiritual Renewal Exercises for Week 3

As Protestants, we don’t often venerate a crucifix or meditate upon the wounds of Christ.  In the coming week, you might want to try such a practice, simply allowing yourself to experience the love of God shown to us in that painful sacrifice.  Remember we do not have to pray only with eyes closed.  You may have a favorite icon, statue, or painting of Jesus, a photograph or some other visual art form, or even a candle, that you can see to help focus your prayer.  If auditory cues help you more, try listening to a beautiful piece of music, such as a Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy) that evokes for you the depth and beauty of Christ’s suffering.  In prayer, offer your own suffering to Christ, with prayer for healing, for yourself.  This is important to remember to do, especially as we offer prayers for others.

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 4       
Healing Prayer, Part 2 (Forgiveness) 

As you reflect back on last week’s prayer “homework.” 

·        What (if any) technique did you put into practice that was helpful for you?

·        What did you learn new about yourself or about God? 

Review the Process of Forgiveness outlined by Flora Wuellner in Feed My Shcpherds, chapter 6, “Walking with Christ to Deep, Wounded Memories.” (see below)
 

Process of Forgiveness
(note: steps are not necessarily in order)[1]

  • We need to name the hurt, abuse, injustice, or trauma.
  • We need to take steps to feel safe by setting firm limits, emotional distancing, or leaving the situation if necessary.  Also, if the trauma is more severe (such as war, rape, incest, violent crime or natural disaster, etc.), it is wise to work with a prayer partner or trained counselor.
  • We need to claim our own power and freedom.  In other words, we need to remind ourselves of two important points: 1) Christ is strong enough to support us in this healing work; as Paul says in Philippians, we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us, and 2) we can leave our healing prayer at any time with no judgment and come back to it when ready.  Wuellner writes, “Your not continuing to pray does not mean that you have left God’s presence or that you lack faith.  It may mean that you can work through this particular memory best with a trained counselor or with an experienced group or that you need more time to feel safe and empowered before working through this memory.”[2]
  • We need to release any feelings of guilt or shame around the wound, and begin rebuilding our sense of self-esteem. 
  • We need to take time to work through grief and anger, sharing what we feel with others we can trust.
  • We need to commit to an intentional process of healing prayer, making sure the method or guide we choose does not push us but gives us the freedom to set the pace or stop when necessary.
  • We need to realize that the process of forgiveness moves slowly – we should not rush ourselves to “get over it” or feel loving toward those who have wounded us.  At the same time, we begin to release the other from unrealistic expectations.  In other words, no one can ever really “make up” for past harm.  What we can hope for is to be able to release our own wounded feelings.  We may or may not be able to establish a new and healthy relationship with the other.  The other person’s change, or transformation, is in God’s hands and not in our own control.  Our job is to only to tell the truth in love – to God, and to the other if it’s safe.
  • Finally, during and after the forgiveness process, we may begin to ask what we might learn from our experience.  What have we learned about ourselves, other people, God, or perhaps a future “call” to help or heal others?  Be careful not to jump to conclusions, or lapse into self-blame for our own victimization.

 

Forgiveness Meditation

“When I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again and will take you to myself,
that where I am you may be also.”
John 14:3 (RSV)

Take some deep breaths and then begin to relax your breathing and relax your body, trusting that you are in a safe place, supported and surrounded by the steadfast love of God.  Know that Christ, your healer, is close – however that is most comfortable for you to imagine.  You might envision Jesus near you, feel his touch or embrace, or simply sense his presence as warmth or light.  Trust whatever seems to come to you. 

Whether through visualization or another sense memory, settle yourself into a place that feels completely “safe” to you.  Imagine a securely locked though transparent door nearby into a separate room and, inside that other room, allow God to show you a hurt that may be ready to be healed – either a person or people, or a situation or location, where that hurt occurred.  You do not need to do anything – other than feel God’s complete and unfailing protection of you right now. 

Even if you believe, or suspect, you contributed to your own hurt, allow Christ the healer to forgive you and release you from your past.  Just as a “redeemer” in ancient times might purchase freedom for a slave, imagine Jesus “posting bail” for whatever you believe you may have done wrong.  Then just sit for a while longer, absorbing the amazing grace of God’s unconditional love for you.

When you feel ready, allow Jesus to bid you “farewell” in some way and approach the locked door to the other room.  As he leaves, however, allow the light or warmth of his presence to remain with you.  Recall that the Risen Christ passed easily into the dark and locked “upper room” where the disciples were hiding in fear after his crucifixion, so Christ the healer can pass easily into the room that is holding the person or scene or your past hurt and fear.  Imagine the light of Christ absorbing the darkness or toxic energy of that situation, or Christ the healer embracing and transforming the one who hurt you.

You may want to end your prayer here, but especially if you notice that Christ’s love for the one who hurt you brings up strong feelings, invite Jesus back into the room with you.  Let yourself feel whatever it is you feel, with the confidence (again) of Christ’s great love for you.  Imagine yourself expressing your true feelings to Jesus – whether anger, grief, outrage, disappointment, or sadness – about the hurtful person or situation. 

After a while, or perhaps after you’ve prayed like this for several days in a row, you may wish to speak with the person or people in the other room, in the presence of Christ the healer.  You may be able to hear more about that person’s wounds, fear, anger, or grief.  But remember that Christ, your Savior, always stands ready to protect and defend you.  Feelings of forgiveness may come to you, but know that if they do, it is a gift of God’s grace, and not something you need to force yourself to do or feel.  Jesus Christ, not you, has the job of “reconciling the world to himself.”  If you need to continue to distance yourself from the one who wounded you, Christ can do the work of forgiveness for you.  You may want to end this prayer with thanks to the Lord for helping you on this path toward forgiveness, as you bring your awareness back to the room and your daily life.


[1] Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership,
by Flora Wuellner (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), pp. 100-101.

[2]   FMS, p. 102.

 

Spiritual Renewal Exercise for Week 4

Practice the forgiveness meditation daily (if possible) during your week. 

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 5       
Spiritual Release

As you reflect back on last week’s prayer “homework.” 

·        What did you learn about God or about yourself in doing the Forgiveness Meditation?

Take time to do the following

Lectio Divina Meditation

on Jesus appearing to Thomas, from John 20.

Read the passage through 3 times.

1. First time through, just gently notice what word or phrase seems to reach out at you, "shimmer" or stand out, or that simply resonates more strongly in your ears.

2. Second time you read the passage, listen for connections between that word or phrase and something that's going on for you in your life right now.

3. On third reading, ask God to show you something new that you might learn or hear or change about your life, as a reaction or response to the passage.

 Flora Wuellner writes[1], “This story shows the love of God that honors the choice to lock a door, the love that will not force a door but whose love cannot be barred out by a door.  That love came through gently with power….The love spoke shalom, the peace that translates as “well-being” and “wholeness,” in the midst of dark fear and shame.  Love was with them, sharing wounds and vulnerability; Love breathed the empowering Spirit upon them.  In this story we see love that is pervasive without being invasive.”

John 20:19-29

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Of this process, Wuellner says[2], “What a merciful way to call oneself or another into relationship – by gradual stages: first to look, then to touch, then to enter covenant.  Nothing is forced; nothing is rushed; no one is condemned.”


 

Love Mandate Meditation[3]

In John 15:15, Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants,
for the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

If we allowed ourselves to believe Jesus, Flora Wuellner writes, “We would move out of the realm of master-servant, dominance-submission, conquest-surrender.  We would experience voluntary self-render (a giving to), not surrender (a giving up to).  Our free giving of ourselves would bring us into intimate bonding with God, into that spontaneous grace in which those who love do indeed serve one another, not as servants but as lovers.  Jesus’ covenant emphasizes the bondedness not the bondage, the covenant not the obedience, the communion not the submission.  We would not do things so much for God as with God and within God.”

Yet Jesus also says, in John 15, verses 12 and 14, 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Flora Wuellner responds with the reminder that, as with the authority given to a nation’s embassy on foreign soil by its home government, “The Greek roots of command also mean authorization… Therefore the basic meaning of command is not an act of disempowering another.  It refers to the use of power placed into one’s hand in the name of the one who delegates, backed by the full power of the delegator. …So, when Jesus ‘commands’ us in the name of love to act with love, it is an empowerment given into our hand… We do not so much represent God as actually embody God’s heart at that moment and in that situation.”

In other words, she says, “The difference between a legal mandate and God’s mandate is that God’s love, experienced through Jesus, is not a legalistic matter.  We are not just a means to an end.  We are not ‘instruments’ of God’s will.  We are the beloved.  God’s mandate, God’s empowerment in us and through us …brings blessing upon the one who acts and the one acted upon.  It is akin to the marriage union in which the lovers confer God’s sacramental power upon each other.  Lovers do not so much surrender to each other, but rather both give themselves, render themselves, to the love that unites them.

“Ron DelBene expresses[4]…the love-drenched nature of God’s mandate: ‘Unfortunately, many people view the will of God as rather like a ten-ton elephant hanging overhead, ready to fall on them if they don’t make the right decision.  Actually, the word which we translate into English as will comes from both a Hebrew and a Greek word which mean ‘yearning.’ It is the yearning which lovers have for one another.’

“The relationship, not the rules, builds the strength of the inner life.  From the relationship, not the rules, healing takes place and transformation happens. … We begin to change… For example, we find it increasingly natural to pray for rather than curse an enemy.  The mandate, the conferred empowerment to become the embodiment of God’s love, flows into our bloodstream, our lifestream, our very core.”

 

Read through the following Spiritual Release Meditation:
 

Spiritual Release Meditation[5]

Relax your body and allow your breathing to become slow, easy, and regular.  Allow the love of God through Jesus to envelop you with gentle light.  Know the joy of being fully understood and fully loved forever.

When (or if) you feel ready, think of some part of yourself that may feel locked up, or closed off.  Is there anything in you that you sense does not want to come out into the open?  Does this manifest itself through tight muscles anywhere in your body?  If you do become aware of some tension or vulnerability, do not try to do anything forcibly about it.  Don’t even try to analyze it.  Just quietly note the existence of the place within you.

Claim the love of God now as a strong protection from whatever emotions arise for you.  Allow the light of Christ to gently enfold this closed inner place like a cocoon.  If that is too constricting for you, imagine just a crack of light showing under the closed door of the locked and dark place inside.  Remember you may leave this meditation at any time.

But if you feel safe and want to continue, allow the healing presence to gently penetrate inside the door.  But do not permit anything to be broken down or torn away.  Christ the Comforter is there on the inside with your fear.  Your fear is not alone in the dark.

Just rest and breathe in the presence of unconditional love that does not condemn.  If you feel ready, allow Jesus to speak to you the same words he spoke to his friends in the upper room, “Peace be with you.”

Focus on the word “peace.”  Allow the peace of the living Christ to speak and breathe well-being to the very center of your fear, that vulnerable place deep inside.  Allow your defended place to drink in the love of Christ for you.  Take all the time you need to “receive the Holy Spirit” as the first disciples were allowed to do.

 

When you feel ready, come back to the presence of the room.

If further reflection would be helpful to you, write about it in your journal, or talk about it with a friend or other trusted spiritual companion.

Spiritual Renewal Exercise for Week 5

As it feels safe for you, practice the one of these three meditations daily this week.  If you want, you could also meet once with a partner to read a meditation to each other and offer support in reflecting afterward.


 

[1] From Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership,
by Flora Wuellner (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), pp. 45.

[2] Adapted from Feed My Shepherds, pp.46.

[3] Selections from Feed My Shepherds, pp. 48-50.

[4] Ron DelBene, The Breath of Life: A Simple Way to Pray (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1981), 15-16.

[5] Adapted from Feed My Shepherds, pp. 55-58.

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 6        Incarnational Spirituality

As you reflect back on last week’s prayer “homework.” 

·        What did you learn about God or about yourself in doing Lectio Divina or the Spiritual Release Meditation?

Take some time to journal or reflect on the following questions:

·        What images leap to mind when you hear the word “spiritual”?

·        What did Jesus do that seems to you “spiritual”? 

·        What did Jesus do that seemed to elevate the condition of the human body?

Flora Wuellner writes[1], of the connection between matter and spirit:  “Our bodies are vibratory manifestations of the spirit, just as matter is a form of energy perceptible to our five senses. … The natural world was meant eventually to be a perfect manifestation of God’s radiant love. … We are not human beings trying to be spiritual; we are spiritual beings trying to be human.”

She quotes the great French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, who in his Hymn of the Universe, writes as God’s voice to humanity:

“You hoped that the more thoroughly you rejected the tangible, the closer you would be to spirit; that you would be more divine if you lived in the world of pure thought, or at least more angelic if you had fled the corporeal?  Well, you were like to have perished of hunger…

Purity does not lie in separation from, but in a deeper penetration into the universe…

Oh, the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth!”[2]

 

Meditation on Incarnational Spirituality

Ezekiel 34:11-16

11For these are the words of the Lord God: “ Now I myself will ask after my sheep, and will go in search of them.… I will rescue them, no matter where they were scattered in dark and cloudy days.… there will they rest, there in good pasture… 15I myself will tend my flock, I myself pen them in their fold. … 16I will search for the lost, recover the straggler, bandage the hurt, strengthen the sick, but leave the healthy and strong to play, and give them their proper food.” (NEB)

John 1:14

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.  

Become aware of your breath moving in and out of your body.  Rest in the presence of God’s enfolding love, shown so fully through Jesus. 

Let your attention wander gently throughout your bodily self.  Note (without trying to change anything) where your muscles may feel tight, injured, or defensive.  Is there a part where your body feels the most vulnerable?  Or do you dislike certain bodily areas?  Think of each of these parts as touched by God’s hand.

Listen to what your body may want to tell you through these stressed, hurt, vulnerable or disliked areas.  What are they trying to tell you about what is happening in your life?  Ask your body what it needs – what you need, deep down.  Listen and observe quietly what feelings, words, pictures, memories, or longings arise.

Now let the light of Christ flow like a river of light throughout your whole body, into the tight muscles, warming and relaxing them; flowing into the vulnerable parts that feel unprotected, forming a protective warm blanket around them.

John 1

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

When you feel ready, come back to the presence of the room.

If further reflection would be helpful to you, write about it in your journal, or talk about it with a friend or other trusted spiritual companion.

Spiritual Renewal Exercise for Week 6

As it feels safe for you, practice meditation with one or all of these scriptures this week.  Allow yourself to focus your awareness on your body, relaxing your muscles and slowing your breathing, and quiet your active mind (what Buddhists like to call "monkey mind," which tends to go off swinging from tree to tree with stray thoughts.) If you want, you could also meet once with a partner to read a meditation to each other and offer support in reflecting afterward.


[1] From Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership,
by Flora Wuellner (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), pp. 63-64, 72.

[2] From Hymne de l’Univers, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 64-65.

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 7       
Spiritual Protection in Toxic Relationships

As you reflect back on last week’s prayer “homework.” 

·        What did you learn about God or about yourself in doing any of the meditations last week?

Flora Wuellner uses the analogy of “fire jumpers” who parachute into dangerous wildfires wearing strong, flame-retardant suits as protection, to help Christians take seriously the very real spiritual dangers we face when we begin to seriously undertake the work of Christian discipleship.[1] She writes:

”The more one becomes open and sensitively intuitive through prayer, the more one also becomes open to the deep, unspoken levels of others’ needs, expectations, projections, and darkness.  In the same way, the more one is open to compassionate awareness for communal bodies and the pain of the whole world, the more one is also open, inwardly as well as outwardly, to the deep toxicity of unhealed communal wounds….Spiritual growth must include wisdom, discernment, and the intentional deepened bonding with the heart of Jesus Christ as we move into risk and danger.”

Wuellner points out two key scriptures that she believes encourages Christians to claim real spiritual protection for ourselves:

Matthew 10.16-42

16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Luke 24.49-50

49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.

There is a subtle shift in thinking here – that is, we don’t have to be intentionally weak or passive in order to serve God with kindness and humility.  Neither do we have to pretend to be tough and strong for God.  That is both dangerous and foolish, in the face of the very real spiritual dangers that often surround us and threaten us.  Instead, it’s OK to clothe ourselves with real strength – with God’s own power and wisdom – in order to do God’s work.  Being compassionate and caring may REQUIRE us to be well-protected, just as medical professionals are REQUIRED to wear gloves and masks and be vaccinated against disease so that they can remain strong enough to do their work.  Efforts to protect themselves are NOT selfish, but for the good of the people they serve. 

As you meditate on the following scripture, try to think of these words of Jesus to his disciples not as any kind of hellfire preaching or scolding or condemnation, but rather as a description of how spiritual “burnout” happens and what it feels like – as well as how to “tap into Christ” as a reservoir of spiritual strength.  When we become detached from our true source in Christ, we do become more brittle and sensitive, even to the point of breaking and burning out.  On the other hand, this scripture urges us to claim real spiritual power, for the glory of God the Father and in order to “bear much fruit” for the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed.

John 15:4-8

4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Questions for further reflection:

·        Is it hard for you to be “wise as a serpent” as Jesus advises?  In other words, do you name evil and strategize to combat it in your life?  Or did you get a message that Christians are to just always be “sheep,” or passive victims, of whatever attacks come our way?

·        What would it feel like to you to be “clothed with power from on high,” as Jesus promises?

·        What “fruit” do you want you to be strong and healthy enough to produce for the glory of God? 

 

Flora Wuellner identifies four types of spiritual assault, and a question to help us identify times when we are under spiritual attack or suffering from damaged boundaries:

1.      Draining:  Do I or others often “wilt” or grow annoyed or restless when in the presence of this person or group?

2.      Projection:  Do I feel that this person or group is pushing me to act a part, live up to something, or react in ways that are not typical of me?

3.      Internalization:  Do I feel I have started to take into myself the problems or darkness of others?

4.      Inherited communal toxicity: Do I feel trapped in this group or find it difficult to express my own truth or needs, or do I exhibit escapist symptoms (such as dreams of flight, addictive behavior)?

 

Wuellner also recommends various visualization techniques to help us disconnect from damaging relationships.  She writes:

1.      “Since I no longer try to imitate Jesus but have learned to abide in that vine, I no longer see myself as a channel or connecting wire.  Now I see myself as…the risen Christ acts within me and the other simultaneously.  The healing, transforming presence does not run through me to others but exists already in me fully and in all others.”

2.      “Sometimes it helps to picture Jesus between me and the other, giving us both the healing touch.”

3.      Similarly, she would envision herself in one hand of the Jesus and the other person held in the other hand, “both equally loved and held.”

4.      “If I sense that another person has formed an inappropriate or draining attachment to me, I inwardly visualize or just ask the Christ to remove, gently but firmly, that umbilical cord between myself and the other; then to plant the cord in God’s heart where the deep hunger will be fed from the source.”

5.      Meditating on “the whole armor of God” can help us ask for God’s help in spiritual protection. 

Ephesians 6:10-18  (The Whole Armor of God)

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.


[1] From Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership,
by Flora Wuellner (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), pp. 141-161.

 


Spiritual Renewal: Session 8       
Prayer for Personal Transformation
(How God can turn our deepest flaw into our greatest gift)

Read Matthew 2:1-12

Flora Wuellner, in her 1989 book, Prayer, Fear, and Our Powers,[1] points out that gold, frankincense, and myrrh are not just the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus, but also symbols for three types of spiritual gifts for discipleship that the Holy Spirit gives to us. 

Meditation on 3 Spiritual Gifts from the Wise Men

Close your eyes and make yourself comfortable, allowing your breathing to become slow and easy.  Feel the security of the earth supporting you and allow your muscles to relax.  As you listen to the description of the 3 gifts, allow yourself to envision each one and discern (with God’s help) in what quantity you believe each has been given to you.

Gold is a symbol of wealth and elegance and power – good stewardship of gold gets things done.  The gift of gold is the gift of powerful leadership, as in an ancient king or queen.  Those with a really large gift of gold may actually seem to sparkle or glitter when they enter a room.  They have a commanding presence, what the performing world calls “charisma,” which comes from the Greek word “kharisma” or “divine gift.” When they speak, people listen; when they command, people want to follow.  Wuellner calls this gift “the radiant inborn gift to inspire and invoke the enthusiastic cooperation of others.”[2] 
What quantity of gold has been given to you?

Frankincense was a valuable spice burned in worship for its aromatic smoke.  The gift of frankincense is the gift of spiritual wisdom, as in an ancient high priest or priestess.  Those with a generous gift of frankincense are those who, as Wullener says, “delves into mysteries, explores he unknown, who connects the human and divine,” but they are also people with a good amount of technical know-how and common sense.  People with this gift make good teachers, parents, coaches, writers, speakers, theologians, and scientists.  What quantity of frankincense has been given to you?

Myrrh is a soothing herbal ointment, used both for healing wounds and anointing bodies for burial.  The gift of myrrh is the gift of a compassionate caregiver, as an ancient healer.  Those with a overflowing gift of myrrh are those who, as Wullener says, “are especially enabled to listen, comfort, counsel, and heal.”  They have much “compassion, and sensitive intuition,” and are often servant leaders who quietly work in the background of a busy church – making sure that important ministries of outreach and care get done.
What quantity of myrrh has been given to you?

Discussion Questions:

·        In the meditation, what did you sense was your greatest gift, and why?

·        If God gave you this gift, how well do you think you are using it?

 

10:05 am Read Luke 11:35 and Matthew 6:23:

“Be careful lest the light in you be darkness…
If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Flora Wuellner writes, “For each of us, our greatest gift is always potentially our most destructive power.”[3]  Using the example St. Peter, she cites several stories of Peter’s courageous impulsiveness and raw passion, including:

1.      He was the first disciple to openly name Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God (Matthew 16:16).  But he also is pig-headed enough to contradict Jesus and insist that he NOT suffer or be crucified (Matthew 16:21-23). 

2.      He disrupts the glorious and mystical moment of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:4) by suggesting they build 3 booths there on the top of the mountain for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

3.      He was the one who tried to walk on water to Jesus when he saw Jesus walking toward them in their boat – and then sank! (Matthew 14:25-32) 

4.      He was the one who impulsively draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave when they came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane. (John 18:10)

5.      He sneaked into the High Priest’s courtyard (Mark 14:53-72), the only disciple brave enough to do that, probably with the hope of somehow maneuvering a rescue attempt.  (She points out that our tendency to focus on his 3-time denial of Jesus, undoubtedly to remain undetected long enough to figure out a plan, leads us to focus on his failure and miss his greatest gift.)

6.      In John’s Easter story (John 20:1-10), as soon as Peter hears from the women of the resurrection he immediately races another disciple to the tomb.  When the other disciples gets there first and yet stops short of going inside, Peter rushes in.

7.      Peter was the one who abandoned his great catch of fish, threw on his clothes and “sprang into the sea” to get to Jesus faster, when he heard it was the risen Christ there on the shore talking to them. (John 21:4-7)

Wuellner says she believes Jesus saw in Peter potential gifts that would help spread the Good News, if he were chosen as the leader of the disciples after the crucifixion.  She writes, “Jesus had recognized in Peter the flame of love that would enable Peter to be the ‘rock’ of the church.  This strong warmth comes down through the ages to us today in its fire, its humanness, its risk-taking enthusiasm, its heartfelt commitment.”

But Wuellner also says Jesus probably saw in Peter potential flaws that could easily have been his undoing.  She writes, “But Peter’s central gift of fiery, empowered love needed healing.  The dark shadow side of fiery love is a controlling possessiveness that judges what is best for others and tries to force them into that agenda.  This controlling possessiveness has been the dark flaw of the Christian church through the ages!”

Meditation on Spiritual Gifts as Wandering Sheep[4]

Meditate on Psalm 139, remembering how deeply your Creator loves you, and how "fearfully and wonderfully made" you were -- with specific gifts the Lord hoped you would use to further the Reign of God's love.

Ezekiel 34:11-16

11For these are the words of the Lord God: “ Now I myself will ask after my sheep, and will go in search of them.… I will rescue them, no matter where they were scattered in dark and cloudy days… 16I will search for the lost, recover the straggler, bandage the hurt, strengthen the sick, but leave the healthy and strong to play.” (NEB)

Begin by meditating on the passage above.  How do those verses apply to you?  Do you have gifts that have become wounded or have gone off-track in some way, like Ezekiel's scattered sheep?  Or have some of your gifts become weak from disuse, or overpowering from overuse?

How is this flawed spiritual gift affecting your life and the people closest to you?

Ask the risen living Christ to be close to you as you look at or think about this inner flaw.  You may have condemned or even hated this part of yourself -- but Jesus sees and understands you more deeply than you could ever know yourself.  So when you feel ready, imagine the Christ the Good Shepherd asking your inner flawed "sheep" to share how it feels and what it needs.  Allow Christ the Healer to anoint your flaw with healing sacramental oil, just as earthly shepherds care for the wounds of their sheep.

In closing, allow Christ to bless you with these words, and if you have a prayer partner, have them read these words to you aloud:

"I anoint you in the name of God, the Holy One, that you may be
healed, forgiven, restored, and released
to your God-Given light and wholeness."

 

[1] (Nashville: Upper Room), pp. 52-53.

[2] From Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership, by Flora Slosson Wuellner (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), p. 133.

[3] Feed My Shepherds, p. 131.

[4] Feed My Shepherds, pp. 135-137.


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