The life of Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, demonstrates a rhythm of prayer/spiritual retreat and worldly engagement that, I think, is a key to a healthy, holistic, transformational spiritual life. The pattern of discipleship that Jesus modeled was a pattern of solitude and service. Throughout his ministry, Jesus moves back and forth between spiritual retreat and active ministry.
All the Gospels call attention to this movement, but Luke’s Gospel, in particular, places special emphasis on this pattern. It seems that Jesus regularly withdrew from an active, full ministry of healing and teaching to be alone with God.
There are a number of personal, inner disciplines that nurture the spiritual life and many of these overlap: study, spiritual reading, theological reflection, confession, self-examination, silence, solitude, meditation and, of course, the many forms and expressions of prayer.
It is largely through these personal, spiritual disciplines that we find strength to endure the pain of life, the wisdom to guide and sustain us along the way, the courage to cope, and the hope that inspires us not to give up. Through these disciplines of the spirit, we open our lives to the Holy Spirit, to the grace and transforming love of God. We find the power, motivation, passion and courage to engage our world as servants and ministers of the living Christ.
Our corporate life together as the body of Christ involves us in this rhythm of retreat and active service. Some of what we do as a church partakes of the nature of retreat; other activities engage us in ministry and compassionate care for others.
I like what was told the stranger who happened to attend a Quaker meeting by mistake. He waited patiently in the Quaker silence for things to get started. Five minutes turned into 10. When he could bear it no longer, he asked the person seated next to him, “When does the service begin?” The Quaker responded, “When the worship ends.” Whatever form our “worship” takes, it should connect us with the Divine Love in a way that empowers us to live a compassionate life of kindness and service to others.
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Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was a freshman at Johnson Bible College, and Rear Adm. Miller spoke in chapel. He was the highest-ranking chaplain in the military at the time. He had been at Normandy in June on the day of the slaughter, and he described that experience that evening in the dorm to Fred and some of the others. He explained how he went from soldier to soldier, many screaming, crying, dying. With bombs exploding all around, he prayed for them and spoke words of comfort.
Someone asked him, “With shells going off up and down the beach everywhere, why did you do that?”
He answered, “I am a minister.”
In the course of the conversation someone asked him, “But didn’t you ask them if they were Catholic or Protestant or Jew? I mean if you are a minister – ”
Rear Adm. Miller said, “If you are a minister, the only question you ask is, ‘Can I help you?'”
All Christians are ministers and the most important question ministers ask is not, “What do you believe?” but rather, “How can I help you?” When Mother Teresa ministered to the homeless, dying people of Calcutta, she did not ask them what they believed. She knew they were children of God. She helped them to experience God’s love through her kindness and attentiveness. She asked, “How can I help you?” And even when they felt they were beyond help, beaten down so much by life that they did not feel worthy of help, she helped them all the more. And for many under the crushing burden of worthlessness, she helped them feel loved for the first time in their lives, making it possible for them to die with dignity.
It seems to me, that whatever spiritual disciplines we practice, either in personal solitude or corporately with others, we should be compelled to ask, “How can I help you?”