The Bristlecone Pine

25 08 2011

by JERRY W. NIEFT, Kirtland Spiritual Formation Team

I am a bristlecone pine, poised on a rocky cliff. I am very old, one of the oldest living creations of God on Earth.

I know something about life, how to live with hope and joy. To live so long, one must know at least three things: how to flex, how to heal, and how to give. I learned these three lessons well over thousands of years, and they are available to you.

I grew from a tiny seed, shed in adversity and trapped in a crack on a precarious, craggy ledge near the western coast of North America. I sprouted and sent my roots as deeply as I could into the shallow soil. It is windy here. I had to hold on for dear life. There were long dry periods when all I could do was wait. When it did rain, I grew and pried the crack in the rock wider. My roots slowly dissolved the hard rock and gave me a good foundation.

The relentless wind banged me onto the rocks over and over. As a young sprig, I could bend double, but I was tender. My bark bruised, and I grew calluses. I continued to bend with the wind instead of resisting it. Others I knew became too rigid and unyielding. They broke years ago.

At first I resented the wind, and I disliked what it did to me. It sculpted me into a shape I did not want to choose. I grew in twists and knurls so my silhouette bespeaks time and the durable joy of life.

Lightning struck me several times, pruning me and burning off what I thought were my best branches. I grew around the wounds and healed. Sometimes I had to sprout again from a stump and start all over. Yes, life is about healing. Growing and living is always about healing.

I receive of the earth and the sun, and I give in return. I breathe the breath of the animals, and breathe my breath of life in return to them. I make soil with my roots and house the birds. I please the eye of the one who beholds me and wonders. I am a bristlecone pine, and I have experienced the wisdom of life.

Ask any tree. To grow you must bend, you must heal, and you must give as you receive. There is beauty in a life that knows that. Ask the walnut tree. The veneer of its wood—its record of the past—is beautiful in the good times. But the veneer that comes from the wound, the crotch, the stump is exquisite burl and highly valued.

Healing produces a beautiful grain in one’s life.

Ask Jesus. He knows. He worked as a craftsman with wood. He died on a tree, and arose to heal the nations, one person at a time.

Spiritual Practice
Spend prayerful time with a tree. Be drawn to a living tree in your environment or find an image of a tree that speaks to you. What do you notice as you give the tree your reverent, grateful attention? What lessons of divine presence and grace does the tree offer? Give thanks.


22 07 2011

by Edith Gallaher, Spiritual Formation Team

About a year ago I bought my childhood home. It is in a rural, unpopulated area with woods and hills surrounding it.

I took most of the year having the place remodeled. I spent hours painting, scrubbing, decision-making, supervising, and traveling from one home to the other. It was exhausting and rewarding.

I knew from the beginning I wanted the place for family gatherings and for a get-away for me. I also felt like it would be involved someway in my ministry. I wasn’t sure how.

Slowly I began to dream of using the place for small retreats and started to develop ideas of what might occur and how. It felt right until I began to talk about it to others who might help and to those who might attend.

Then I heard a huge “Stop!” in my heart. As a group, we do some good work with workshops and instruction, but that was not what this place felt like it wanted to become. It called for a different sense of connection.

Through prayer and a little experimentation I began to sense a real need for true retreat. It feels now like this place is to be used exactly that way.

It is a sanctuary for those who need rest, renewal, and time to contemplate and pray. It is a space for those who want time to reconnect to the Spirit and again feel the breath of Christ. It is a place to remember the sacredness of creation. It is a place to again hear Jesus say, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus often went away to spend time alone and pray. When we take the time to be in nature, to release our schedules and busyness, we give ourselves a better chance of sensing and hearing the Spirit speak to us.

Take the opportunity to schedule some retreat time. Intentionally choose two or three days (or more, if possible) to leave your usual surroundings. Do not take work with you. Leave your computer at home, and turn off your cell phone. Don’t take an agenda other than just to “be.” Allow yourself periods of silence and “let the Spirit breathe.”

At the end of your time, journal about your experience and thank God for the time.

Looking for Jesus

13 06 2011

by Carolyn Brock
Spiritual Formation and Wholeness Ministries

Who is Jesus, really? How do my ideas, images, and experiences of Jesus impact my spiritual life? Am I really a disciple of Jesus? Is his way, his vision, his life pattern, his consciousness, his oneness with the Divine the way I am willing to have my identity and choices be shaped? Am I willing to follow Jesus into wilderness places of ego-unraveling, soul-forming encounters with God?

Am I willing to receive sacred sight, a compassionate heart, inner hearing, radical courage, and a blazing vision of healing and justice for the creation of God? Do I really want to go that far, be that counter-cultural, work that hard, die that much, or be that consumed by divine stirrings and longings?

How deep and real is this Jesus thing? And what would it mean for his radical way of knowing, and being, and yearning, and yielding, and healing, and dying to become the door, the gate, the path, the center through which I am drawn into oneness with the Holy One he loved?

These questions haunt me. They feed my ongoing, flawed pursuit of the real Jesus; the yet-alive and accessible Jesus. We are called to pursue the mission of Jesus Christ with renewed clarity and fervor. We are told that passion for mission begins in transformative encounters with Spirit. How do I learn this truth from Jesus?

How do I go with him into the cave of the heart, the still, empty, receptive place where Spirit blows and speaks, caresses and shapes? How do I feel one wave of the divine longing, see one glimmer of the passing holiness, hear one whisper of the eternal voice that so captivated and compelled Jesus? How am I sent into mission from this place of encounter intimately known by Christ?

Lots of questions. Perhaps endless answers based on our diverse spiritualities and Christological perspectives. The two spiritual practices on this page support my search for the Spirit-drenched Jesus. Both involve the gift of divine imagination and the practice of spiritual attention.

Listen for the Song of God’s Voices

19 05 2011

by LAURIE GORDON, Spiritual Formation Team

The morning is still and gently yellow with sunshine. A faint breeze rustles the leafy canopy. I anchor my wandering mind by listening intently, counting the variety of twitters, whistles, warbles, and trills. At least 10 bird species share this moment.

Some calls are easy to identify, like the scolding burr of an Anna’s hummingbird as it sips nectar in my flower garden, or the flurried peeping of bushtits foraging in the tree overhead. Some songs are less familiar; in this morning’s symphony is a solitary whistler whose rising and falling inflections I cannot place. And some voices are missing; I long to hear a mourning dove, whose haunting lament stirs my heart with intimations of God.

Hidden nuances in this avian chorus signal alien intentions I barely can grasp. So, too, God sounds infinite love everywhere and all the time in strange and unexpected tones that go unrecognized. Sifting through the noisy cacophony of competing voices in my life, I wonder: What does God’s voice sound like?

Consider Elijah. He cowers inside a dark mountaintop cave, desperate for God’s voice. He listens for it in fierce winds, but the breath of God is not howling in the storm. He listens for it in the earthquake but, no, the Divine Mover of Creation is not rumbling in splitting rocks. He listens for it in the fire, but again, no, the God of the Burning Bush is not in the crackling flames.

Then the world goes still.

In the depths of inner darkness, Elijah hears God in the “sound of sheer silence” (I Kings 19:12, NRSV). Unexpected, indeed.

The birder in me likes to think God sings, rather than merely speaks, to us—and not so much one-pitch vocalizations as multilayered harmonies. If God sings to us in tones of inner stillness and the sheer silence between words, how are we word-bound creatures to discern God’s melodies? If God calls us amid the complex symphony of life experience, how are we to intuit the divine invitation?

Like a birder identifying birds, or Elijah seeking God’s voice, we listen, we pay attention to what we hear (and don’t hear), and then we listen even more deeply.

It is daunting to recognize meaning beyond the safe familiarity of words. It requires deep, constant attention to learn the identifying variations of pulse and tone in a bird’s song. It takes intention, awareness, study, practice, humble patience, and wise companions to discern the unfamiliar thoughts and ways of God’s living mystery.

As spiritual seekers we listen for the sheer sound of God’s silence in the complex cadences of life. We examine the pitch, rhythm, tempo, and quality of our experiences. We pay attention to grace. We hear God calling in the desperation and sorrow of others, as well as in the joys of life and shared community.

Listen! God is singing God’s great love for you, and for all creation.

Praying with the Soul

25 04 2011

by KATHY SHOCKLEY, Spiritual Formation Team

The fourth dimension of prayer comes from the soul. Our soul is our direct connection to God. It is that piece of God that gives us life. It is the breath of God, which transforms us from dust into a living soul.

And I, the Lord God, formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.—Genesis 2:8 IV

To pray with the soul is to tap into the Divine within us and use it to reach to its source, God. Christ lived in perpetual spiritual connection with God as shown when he said:

Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. —John 14:11 NRSV

How do we know when we have contacted the Divine? How do we discern between our own desires and God’s?

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he lists the fruits of the Spirit, in other words, what God feels like. Paul had recognized that when we are aligned with God, the Spirit stirs our soul, increasing certain qualities that we feel. By naming those qualities, he gives us an important tool. He gives us a spiritual compass.

…The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.—Galatians 5:22–23 NRSV

As we align ourselves with God our soul resonates with the qualities of God. When the Holy Spirit touches our spirit, the fruits of the Spirit grow within us, and we take on the Christ-like life a little more fully.

For this exercise of praying with the soul create a worshipful space. Use something that symbolizes your soul, such as the flame of a candle. Assume a prayer posture with arms open and palms up. Breathe slowly and deeply. Select one of the spiritual fruits. As you breathe, imagine it expanding within you. Ask God to help you experience it as Christ experienced it.

Do this for each quality until you experience all nine. You may want to spread this exercise across several days, focusing on one or two during each prayer time.

Take a bit of time after praying with each spiritual fruit to reflect on what you felt during your prayer. Here are a few questions to help you:

  • What was your experience of each “fruit of the Spirit”? Was it strong or weak? 
  • Which ones come naturally? Which are struggles?
  • When have you experienced an increase in this spiritual quality before? At the time did you recognize the experience as God stirring your soul?

Finish your prayer time with a benediction: God of my soul, thank you for the work you have done in me today. Live in me more fully each day until I am full and overflowing with your love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As in Christ, so in me. Amen.

Praying the Heart Dimension

26 03 2011

by KATHY SHOCKLEY, Spiritual Formation Team

The Series

This is the third prayer exercise in this series, which explores praying with all four dimensions of our being. Christ identifies these in the Great Commandment in Mark 12:30 as the heart, soul, mind, and our strength, meaning body.

Long ago the heart became linked with emotions, making prayers of the heart those from our deepest feelings.

Perhaps the best examples are in the psalms. Richard Wagner, author of Psalms: The Heart of Prayer, states, “What’s striking about the Psalms is that they’re real, brutally honest outpourings of emotion along the roller coasters of life.” The psalms can help us get in touch with the depth and breadth of our emotions, breaking us open so we can take them to the Lord in prayer.

Just as a sprinkle of salt flavors a whole dish, so a bit of emotion can color our entire outlook and attitude. Emotion is very much a part of who and what we are.

Prepare for this prayer by doing an emotional inventory of your heart. Look deep within and identify your joy, trust, fear, sadness, disgust, anger, loneliness, love—all that you find there. Read some of the psalms that speak to what you are feeling.

Next consider how you carry each emotion. Where and how do you feel it within yourself? Is there a particular posture that reflects the emotion? For those who recently have traveled the Worshiper’s Path in the Temple, the three sculptures near the end show powerful emotional postures.

For your prayer select three or four of the strongest emotions you would like to pray with. Use the following meditation for each.

Breathe slowly and deeply. Each time you inhale, imagine God’s love surrounding you outside and filling you inside. Assume the posture you link with this emotion or place both hands over your heart, feeling the emotion as fully as possible. Present it to the Lord, using one of the following:

1. For each positive emotion allow the Lord to expand and purify it.

2. For each negative emotion allow the Lord to help you overcome, transform, or wash it away.

3. For each wound or hurt allow the Lord to comfort and heal it.

Reflect on your experience.

• What was it like to do an inventory of your heart’s emotions? Did you find any surprises? Remember, awareness is the first step in transformation.

• What was your awareness of God as you offered each emotion?

• Are there places in your heart where you didn’t want to invite God? If so, what does that mean?

This type of prayer is about putting our whole self in the presence of God. Four-dimensional prayers seek to move us to a more-conscious and intentional prayer life. In the words of theologian Joan Chittister, “When we have prayed prayers long enough, all the words drop away, and we begin to live in the presence of God. Then prayer is finally real.”

Praying the Body Dimension

21 02 2011

by Kathy Shockley, Spiritual Formation Team

For many, prayer is a mental exercise occurring while the body is doing other things: driving, dishes, mowing, etc. But when we want to be completely at prayer, the body needs to be intentionally included, as well. Praying with all four dimensions of our being means giving God our undivided attention.

In Romans 12:1 Paul issues this challenge: “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” In body prayers we present our bodies to God as a living prayer.

Smelling a rose can be a prayer if we do it in the spirit of prayer. In the same way, fixing a meal, walking, washing the car can all be an act of prayer. What makes an action a prayer is our attitude and intention. Our ability to see, hear, touch, taste, smell, move, and even breathe all have prayer potential.

The following prayer exercise uses movement and the senses to engage the body in prayer. You will need a small bowl of water and a place without interruptions.

Place your bowl in front of you, close enough to reach easily. In your mind, be intentional about preparing to pray. You are creating a worship space. When you have prepared your space, take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Reach out with your heart and soul to imagine purifying your space, including your bowl and water. They symbolize the Holy Spirit and the living water of Jesus’ teachings. Invite God’s presence.

When you are ready, dip some fingers into the water (do not use just one finger). Slowly and intentionally do the following prayer:

  • Touch your forehead, praying: “Help me love you with all my mind.”
  • Touch your lips, praying: “Help me love you with all the words of my mouth.”
  • Touch your heart, praying: “Help me love you with all the affections of my heart.”
  • Touch your wet fingers to your dry ones. Open your hands and hold them palms up, praying: “Help me love you with all my acts.”

Remain with your palms up for a few moments as you take in all you are feeling.

When you are ready, dip your fingers into the living water again. You will use the same motions, but this time substitute “Help me serve you…” for “Help me love you…”

Once again, after you complete all four motion prayers, remain with your palms up.

When you are ready, dip your fingers a final time into the water of the Spirit. This time substitute “Help me praise you…” for “Help me love you…”

Remain with your palms up and simply be in the presence of God.

These prayer exercises offer various forms. Embrace the ones that work for you and leave the rest behind. Go where God’s Spirit leads.

Praying in Four Dimensions

22 01 2011

BY KATHY SHOCKLEY, Spiritual Formation Team

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.—Mark 12:30 NRSV

This is the great commandment, which tells us to love God with our whole self, defined as our heart, soul, mind, and strength—the four dimensions of our being. If we can love God with our whole self, shouldn’t we be able to pray that way, too?

To pray with all four dimensions puts our whole self in communion with God. It means giving God undivided attention.

Praying with the mind is about engaging the word, whether it is written, spoken, or thought. With our minds we use our intelligence, form our intentions, and integrate our experiences of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit to expand our understanding.

Names are meaningful and powerful, especially our names for God. They reflect how we know God and how we want to know God. The following practice invites you to pray on names for God. The following list of names is included for possible use.

  • Almighty God
  • Creator of the Universe
  • All Merciful
  • Source of all Life
  • Infinite Love
  • My Shepherd
  • Everlasting to Everlasting
  • Our Father
  • The Most-high
  • Fountain of Compassion
  • Perfect Wisdom
  • Alpha and Omega
  • Wonderful, Marvelous
  • Painter of Sunsets
  • Sustainer and Protector
  • Great Guardian of my Soul
  • Master Gardener
  • Grandmother
  • Author of Salvation
  • • All-seeing, All-hearing

What we do with our bodies (our strength) can help focus our prayer. For this prayer you will need prayer beads, a knotted cord, or a small pile of stones. Read the following scriptures as preparation.

“Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” —Nehemiah 9:5 NRSV

You are blessed, O God of mercy! May your name be blessed for ever, and may all things you have made bless you everlastingly.—Tobit 3:11 NJB

Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth.—Psalms 48:10 NRSV

Bow your head. Breathe slowly and deeply. Be aware in your mind, body, heart, and soul that you are moving from ordinary time to sacred time. Be intentional about claiming the space around you as sacred space for the next several minutes.

Holding one bead, knot, or stone between your finger and thumb, speak aloud a name of God. Continue to hold the object as you pray the name with your heart and soul. Allow the name to fill you completely. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Where does the name take you? Move to another bead, knot, or stone only when you are ready to move to the next name.
When you complete your prayer time, take a few moments to record the names that particularly connected you to God. Record anything else you especially want to remember about your prayer experience.

As you cultivate your prayer life, remember we each have a unique relationship with God, including how we pray. Through these articles, you are invited to try different prayer practices. Embrace those that work for you and leave the rest behind.

Praying the Nativity

25 12 2010

Spiritual Formation Team

The iconic images of Christmas for the Christian world are found in the Nativity and the star. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials, from the heirloom lovingly unpacked each year to the colorful cartoon stickers awarded to our young Sunday scholars.

Our gracious and generous God uses all manner of things to call attention to the divine presence in the world. How fitting during this Advent to look to the Nativity as an ever-present flow of symbols, altars, and worship centers, reaching out to us in what for many is the year’s most-hectic season. In the days ahead spend time contemplating all the characters and what spiritual invitation each might have for you.

Consider the young woman asked to bear God’s son with all the challenge, privilege, and heartache that would mean. Mary said “Yes” to the task, and “the Word became flesh.” How will the Word become flesh in you this Advent?

Consider Joseph, moving in faith with the angel’s message. Ignoring the possibility of scandal, he becomes protector and provider to the Incarnation. Who have been your protectors and providers as you have sought to bring forth your God-given gifts?

Consider the shepherds tending their sheep when an angelic host inserts itself into their ordinary lives. God can break into our lives at unexpected times and in unexpected places. How can you prepare for God to break into your life this Advent?

Consider the Wise Men. We have no way of knowing how long they had been on their journey to find the Christ child. We don’t know what obstacles they overcame, what challenges they faced, or what their journey cost them. What we do know is that they persevered. They followed the light of his star, and it led them to Christ, the light and life of the world. What fills you with light and life? How can you be more faithful to the journey before you?

Let each Nativity scene you encounter this Advent invite you to your own new, expanded understanding of the messages and symbols found there.

Spiritual Practice

Breathe the light of the Christmas star. The following images may help you during personal or congregational meditations.

Imagine being bathed in the light of the star. With each breath, bring that light into yourself, filling you until you are aglow with Christ’s light. Shine that loving light on others for the rest of the day.

Imagine the light of the Christmas star penetrating your heart and illuminating the Christ child there.

With each breath the light grows brighter, and Christ grows within you.

Imagine looking up at the Christmas star. Its light is God’s unconditional love for you. As this light of love engulfs you, it begins to draw you upward into Christ’s open arms. With each breath you move closer to that loving embrace. You might want to go outside on a clear evening and look for a bright star for this meditation.

Reverence for Life

8 11 2010

The Practice of Listening

by MARVIN RICE, Spiritual Formation Ministries

Gerry died last week. She was a small-town person all of her life, and her funeral would begin at a small-town mortuary and conclude at her graveside in another small town.

Leaving the mortuary, the funeral procession slowly turned right from the parking lot onto the main road. As we drove through the town and passed the obligatory fast-food restaurants and farm-supply store, cars on both sides of the road pulled to the shoulder. In the next small town, an elderly man on the sidewalk, wearing bib overalls, removed his gray-striped cap and placed it over his heart.

Turning left toward the cemetery, we met a work crew that had the road down to one lane, with a flagman at each end of the construction. As we passed the first man, the one holding the “slow” sign, he removed his hard hat in respect for a person he never knew. As we drove past the road crew, one-by-one, all removed their hard hats in a similar show of respect.

The next day I was in the city. A funeral procession pulled onto the wide, four-lane street from a mortuary on the right. It stopped our two lanes of traffic and turned left, into the inside lane next to us.

Then I noticed a car coming from a business and going in the same direction as the funeral procession. Recognizing what was ahead, he took the outside lane and, with engine roaring, zoomed past the hearse and line of family and friends that followed. The driver seemed determined not to let the funeral delay his plans.

It was impossible not to compare the experiences of the two days. One was of recognition and respect; the other of annoyance that a slight delay might occur.

It brought to mind the great 20th-century humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, and his writings and intense focus on what he called “Reverence for Life.” He said that all life—human, animal, and even insect—held a sacred, interrelated place as part of God’s creation.

To injure or intentionally kill anything was an attack on that sacred creation. Reverence for life is consistent with Community of Christ scriptures.

In Genesis, God creates life and blesses it. In Matthew, Jesus directs us to consider the lilies of the field and later tells us that not even a sparrow falls to earth without God’s knowledge. Section 85:4 of Doctrine and Covenants states, “…the spirit and the body is the soul of man.”

The question then becomes, do we take time to revere life? Can we look at flowers, trees, ants, and animals with awe? Can we look intentionally into the eyes of other people and appreciate their physical existence and the gift of their spirit? Do we pause a few minutes each day and exercise our reverence for life? Or are pressures so great that we must zoom by and not be disturbed?