Presbyterians Today

FEB-MAR 2018

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Pr e s by te r i a n s To d ay | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2018 23 The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth is believed to have been built at the close of the Crusades, when people could no longer make holy pilgrim- ages to Jerusalem. Thus, the laby- rinth allowed them to embark on a symbolic spiritual pilgrimage. Many Presbyterian churches are now building outdoor labyrinths with the help of grants, as First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, New York, did in 2016, or are finding blessings in eager Boy Scouts seeking to earn their Eagle Scout badge by creating a labyrinth for a church. Last November, Christ Presbyterian Church of Rancho La Costa, in Carlsbad, California, unveiled a winding meditative path that Boy Scouts made out of stone. In 1998, Calvin Church built its own outdoor version of the Chartres labyrinth out of stones and pine needles. While it is always avail- able to anyone, several times a year instructive introductions to the labyrinth are held. As a twist to the labyrinth experience, there were times during these communal walks in which Communion was served as people entered the center — reminding all that on the journey of life, they do not travel alone. One man from the community who had joined in the group labyrinth walk remarked, "I got about halfway through, and it was like all the energy of everyone walking in prayer entered me. I walked into it sad and skeptical. I walked out energized and full of light." Other spiritual practices If a church doesn't have the space or money — or eager Boy Scouts — to build its own labyrinth, other spiri- tual practices can easily be incorpo- rated into the life of a congregation. Calvin Church maintained weekly prayer groups to pray for others, which then became monthly prayer vigils that the whole church was invited to attend. In addition, two contemplative prayer groups were added to the church's schedule each week. As the practices began weaving their way into the church, more nurturing communities emerged. There were small groups rooted in the practice of spiritual reading of great spiritual writings spanning traditions and centu- ries. There was also the start of a healing prayer ministry. Elders and lay leaders were trained in the practice of discerning prayer in decision-making. Even worship was influenced by the growing interest in spiritual practices among the church community. For example, the traditional Presbyterian call to worship was replaced with a Taizé- style chant and a time of silent prayer. Spiritual misconceptions Despite the growing interest in spiritual practices, some misconcep- tions remain. One is that people who engage in spiritual practices become self-consumed and shy away from service and mission. The exact opposite is the truth. Nobody can spend that much time with God in prayer and not find themselves being called to serve in ministries and mission of love. A perfect example is a bicycle repair ministry that began at Calvin Church. Several of the church's elders, who had been steeped in communal prayer, found themselves being nudged to start a bicycle mission to collect bikes for Native American reservations. Their communal prayer life as part of Calvin Church helped them to hear God. One of the elders, Robert Stubenbort, said, "God presented the need to us, and that need is not just the Native Americans who could use the bikes, but also involv- ing youth and adults in the commu- nity. Our church has always been focused on praying and discerning what God is calling us to do. We have a heart for mission." The difficulty of much of the modern spirituality movement, in addition to its individualism, is the tendency to treat spirituality in a functional way. We've often assumed that if someone engages in contemplative prayer, walks a laby- rinth, or becomes part of a spiritual growth group, they will become spiritual. A spiritual community starts with the transformation it seeks in its community, and then adopts a slate of practices and endeavors it hopes will lead people to become transformed. The focus is the con- nection with God. As the spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill said in her book Life as Prayer, "A mystic is not a person who practices unusual forms of prayer, but a person whose life is ruled by this thirst." In other words, being spiritual isn't about the practice. It's about the thirst for a deep connection with God that practices can nurture. The modern church has fallen victim to the Americanization of everything, meaning the individualization of everything. Congregational life has become defined through the quantifying of success — how many are in worship, how many are members, and how much was given? The spiritual life in a congrega- tion is much more qualified — how loving is the congregation, how deep the sense of relatedness with God, how willing to serve? Spiritual practices lead to a deeper quality, but ultimately also to a greater community. The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish is the executive director of Samaritan Counseling Center in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He's the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation.

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