Coming soon to Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan: Sacred Rhythms

Sneak preview:

When Lent begins later this month, Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan, MN will be using the program Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton. Based on gospel stories and ancient Christian practices, this program includes such topics as longing for more, praying with Scripture, making space for God, finding God in everyday experiences, and cultivating our own sacred rhythms.

“Sacred Rhythms” will be offered at various times beginning mid-Feb:

  • Wednesday afternoons  with Pastor Paul,
  • Sunday evenings with Pastors Kris, Kevin, & Sarah,
  • Monday evenings or Thursday mornings at Chick Talk women’s group with Julie McCarty (yep, that’s me). 

For details on exact times, dates, locations, visit easter.org (click on Lenten worship), or call the parish office,651-452-3680.

If you cannot attend, the Sacred Rhythms book, participant’s guide, and DVD make for great discussions in small groups or as springboard for Lenten journaling.  

More Info (FAQ’s):

  • Want to preview the sessions? Visit YouTube and search “ruth haley barton sacred rhythms.”
  • Which book do I buy? Easter Lutheran will be selling the main text for $15, or you can order from major booksellers online. If you are in a small group that hates reading, you could watch the DVD segments together and do the participant’s guides with your bibles.
  • What if I’m not a member at Easter, or not even Lutheran? Come anyway! All are welcome. No fee except for buying the book if you want.
  • What if I can’t make all the sessions? Slip into one of the other discussion groups that week, or just come whenever you can.
  • Can I bring a friend? Is it for both men and women? Yes! All are welcome! That includes interested teens, too. (Chick Talk, as the title suggests, is a women’s group…)

A Spiritual Word for the New Year

At the end of last year, I decided to try a spiritual practice suggested by writer Christine Valters Paintner’s on her blog, “Abbey of the Arts.” One selects a single word to ponder for an entire year. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the word chooses you. As Christine explains:

In ancient times, wise men and women fled out into the desert to find a place where they could be fully present to God and to their own inner struggles at work within them. The desert became a place to enter into the refiner’s fire. . .   

 Many people followed these ammas and abbas, seeking their wisdom and guidance for a meaningful life. One tradition was to ask for a word – this word or phrase would be something on which to ponder for many days, weeks, months, sometimes a whole lifetime. This practice is connected to lectio divina, where we approach the sacred texts with the same request – “give me a word” we ask – something to nourish me, challenge me, a word I can wrestle with and grow into. —Abbey of the Arts, blog post of  Dec.21, 2011.

Christine embraced the word “savor” one year and “sanctuary” the next, exploring layers of meaning over the course of time. She invited others to post their special words for 2011, so I posted the word “consecrate” (to dedicate something for a special purpose).

Using a personal theme word for a year was so helpful, that I’m selecting another word for 2012. Here’s what I wrote about my word on Christine’s blog:

Co-create” — God, of course, is the Ultimate Creator, but each of us can cooperate with God’s grace to make the world a better place. I want to think about what it would mean to take seriously that God wants to lead me in my daily tasks, writing, painting, even cleaning house (something I hate) to “co-create” something positive, maybe even something graced and holy, something that maybe is a mirror of God’s love for us. Dare I dream of such a thing?

Other readers of Christine’s blog chose words such as “healing,” “birthing,” “welcoming,” “question,” “fallow,” and “loving kindness.”

Is the Spirit inviting you to ponder a word for the upcoming year? If you are not sure how to select a word, I suggest checking out the Abbey of the Arts blog of Dec. 21 for ideas. If you choose to post your special word,  you may qualify for a free gift from the site’s online “abbess.”

Until next time, Amen!

Elizabeth of Hungary: Patroness of “Juggling”

Rising very early before dawn, [Jesus] left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

St. Elizabeth–Spinning to make clothes for the poor–Marianne Stokes

In my Catholic upbringing, I got the impression that the only path to sainthood would be priesthood for men and religious life (becoming a nun) for women. I rarely heard about married women saints, and when I did, they were described to me as holy because of becoming nuns or founding convents after their husbands died.

Because of this, I have a special place in my heart for St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the medieval wife and mother who didn’t merely “tolerate” marriage (after all, the marriage was arranged by one’s parents) but rather genuinely liked her husband.

In her short lifespan of 24 years, Elizabeth integrated many callings: queen, wife, mother, woman of prayer, personal service to the poor and sick, etc. Elizabeth’s example appeals to people of many walks of life for many reasons, but I like to think of her as the patroness of “juggling:”

When I feel overwhelmed with balancing the pieces of my life, I think of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the thirteenth-century queen who could be called “the patroness of juggling.” This young woman not only devoted herself to raising her children and spending time with her husband Ludwig (whom she adored), but she also attended church frequently, managed the castle while Ludwig was away on extended business, developed a rich prayer life, and personally ministered to the poor and sick of the kingdom (something the elite found rather revolting). 

Apparently Elizabeth couldn’t find enough prayer time to satisfy her, so she instructed her maid to sneak into the royal bedroom each night, reach under the bed covers, and pull on her toes to wake her. Elizabeth would slip away without disturbing Ludwig’s sleep to pray in secret. This clever plan worked well for a time, until one night, when the servant girl reached between the sheets, the king suddenly bolted upright in bed. Apparently she had found the wrong toes.

Jesus, too, often had to find ways of stealing away from his busy ministry to catch his breath. [In Mark 1:35-39], it appears that the disciples do not know where he has gone. When they find him, Peter sounds exasperated: “Where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!” It’s as if he thinks Jesus is missing a photo-op and the chance to work the crowd. But Jesus knows his priorities: his work must be grounded in a healthy, personal relationship with his heavenly Father.  

from The Pearl of Great Price: Gospel Wisdom for Christian Marriage (by yours truly, Julie McCarty; published by Liturgical Press)


When we feel pulled in many directions, unsure which task to do next, whether to say yes or no to this or that, or how much time to devote to prayer, we can take heart that others before us (including Jesus!) certainly faced similar human challenges–yet ultimately found their true Christian fulfillment.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary’s feast day is Nov. 17. For more about her read here  or view a slide show here .

Until next time, Amen! 

Holy Vulnerability

For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully.  –St. John Chrysostom*

click on image to enlarge

I was surprised the other day when this lovely bird sitting by the grassy path did not fly away as I approached. He (she?) even allowed me to stand only a few feet away, taking photos.

I don’t know if it was the closeness or the filtered sunlight, but the bird appeared to me the most exquisite, beautiful living thing. (I would later find out it was an ordinary fledgling robin!)

From the bird’s behavior, I thought it was either sick or wounded–indeed, it was no longer living when I passed by it on my return trek. I was saddened, but grateful that in its vulnerable state, I had been able to see the details of its gorgeous feathers.

This experience made me think how God wants to be close to us, but often we fly away, just out of reach. God is always with us, of course, but sometimes we just don’t want to get too up-close-and-personal with God.

I am not sure why this is. We may be afraid because of having been exposed to harsh, wrathful images of God when we were young. Perhaps we are afraid God will ask us to change our ways or take on a new calling. Maybe we are just too busy to spend time with God. 

I think for some of us, it is when we are most vulnerable, like the little bird, that we allow God to come close. When we are suffering prolonged illness, failing relationships, job loss, or grieving, we may cry out to God in our anguish. In our vulnerability, God determines we are ready to receive spiritual growth, new callings, or deeper experiences of being loved.

St. John Chrysostom, an early church father known for his preaching, observed that God uses our vulnerability to draw us to himself. Chrysostom writes that Jesus did not call Matthew at the same time he called Peter and John because Christ knew Matthew was not yet prepared to accept the calling. He notes that others, too, like Paul, were called at various times because it was only when they were finally vulnerable they could really respond fully to the good news. (I wonder, did Paul’s vulnerability cause him to fall off the horse, or did the great fall cause his vulnerability? Ha ha ha ha…)

God knows the best timing for spiritual growth in each unique person. As Chrysostom explains:

click on image to enlarge

For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully. Therefore he did not call them [the apostles] all together at the beginning, when Matthew was still in a hardened condition. Rather, only after countless miracles, after his fame was spread abroad, did he call Matthew. He knew Matthew had been softened for full responsiveness. *

When we have an attitude of openness and “holy vulnerability” before the Lord, we can really listen to what the Spirit desires for our lives. This attitude of vulnerability does not mean cowering in our shoes or belittling ourselves, but rather being open to whatever God has in store for us. Holy vulnerability allows God to draw close, like the little bird allowed me to share in his last few moments of life.

Until next time, Amen!

~~~~~~~~~~

*Quotes and concepts based upon St. John Chrysostom’s The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 30.1, quoted in Give Us This Day (Sept 2011, pp. 219-220). Give Us This Day is a new monthly publication from Liturgical Press centered around the Roman Catholic lectionary (daily Mass readings) with morning and evening prayer. I highly recommend this insightful and convenient daily prayer guide. For more info click here.

What is a Christian contemplative? Part One

Maple tree--photo by Julie McCarty--click to enlarge

Be still and know
that I am God. . .
             
–Psalm 46:10

For many years, I have been attempting to live a contemplative lifestyle that is often puzzling to others, even to professional church leaders. This way of life is grounded in my calling to follow Christ, but has often been difficult to explain in “sound bite” definitions, because this vocation does not fit easily into the Catholic or Protestant paradigms many of us were taught.

In addition, I can hardly begin to describe whatever-this-is that God desires for my life (at least I believe God wills this!), when the contemplative quest is so very difficult for me to grasp myself. So mysterious does all this seem that many times I have tried to keep this calling hidden, feeling others might not understand. (Many of you already know this about me–it is only I who think I need to “come out” of the contemplative closet!)

What I have discovered, ever so gradually over the course of my life, is that I am what could be called a Christian contemplative (also known in some circles as a lay contemplative, or, in my case, a married contemplative). A Christian contemplative is a person wholeheartedly attempting to follow Christ in a concrete way that emphasizes “be-ing” over “do-ing” in their day-to-day attitudes, work, and prayerful lifestyle. Although living “in the world,” a Christian contemplative focuses his or her life more intensely on spiritual values and practices that are often thought of as belonging to monks, such as silence, solitude, Christian meditation, biblical study, simplicity, and digging deep into one’s own soul, searching for the Holy Spirit or ongoing presence of Christ within.

This idea of living monastic values in the midst of the world is, in some ways, new, and in other ways, ancient. Many Western Christians assume a strict delineation between monastic living and those “in the world,” and, indeed there are significant differences between the two ways. For example, as a married lay woman, I am not celibate and I do not live in a monastery setting. On the other hand, monastic values, such as silence, almsgiving, humility, and treating others as brothers and sisters in Christ, are ancient practices found among biblical figures who were family men and women, living “in the world.”

Two books that really helped me understand this lay contemplative calling and how to begin to put it into practice are listed below:

  • The Lay Contemplative: Testimonies, Perspectives, Resources edited by Virginia Manss and Mary Frohlich with Foreword by Tilden Edwards (St. Anthony Messenger Press)
  • Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics by Marsha Sinetar (Paulist Press — I see there is a new edition of this since I last read it.)

I found these books unique because they describe the experiences of other people who are also searching for a quieter, more contemplative lifestyle outside monastery walls.

This is not to say that the contemplative lifestyle is necessarily “better” than those who are called to a more “active” service- or ministerial-oriented lifestyle. However, I think it would be good for those who lead the church to have a grasp on this often misunderstood Christian path. 

click to enlarge

If you feel drawn to a more contemplative lifestyle and would like to share your experiences, or perhaps just want to ask questions, join the conversation! Feel free to post your thoughts, or use the contact tab to write to me privately if you wish.

More to come on this topic in a future post…

Until next time, Amen! 

P.S. Yes, it is always okay with me to forward this post to your friends via e-mail. –Julie

Jesus, Saint Clare, and the Gospel of Prosperity

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  —Mark 10:21-22.

Today is the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), a Christian who fully embraced these words of Jesus. A young woman from a wealthy family, Clare gave up a luxurious lifestyle at age 18 in response to the preaching of the now-famous Francis of Assisi. Like Francis, her goal was to embody the gospel message completely, to imitate Christ so much that her life might become a sort of mirror image of the Savior.

In founding the Poor Clares, a religious order of women who follow Franciscan ideals, Clare made living a life of utter simplicity or “holy poverty,” a foundational principle. Clare wanted to be free of all that might keep her from experiencing the fullness of Christ in her life.

That is not to say that poverty is a glorious thing. It is not glamorous or desirable to be forced into poverty. The Lord does not want people to starve. The key thing here is that those with much wealth and many material things (and most Americans fit into this category) can become so attached to these things that they focus their lives on obtaining more and more things or money rather than focusing their hearts on God.

The man in the gospel reading above goes away “shocked and grieving”–he can’t  believe his ears. He’s kept all the commandments and now Jesus wants him to get rid of his treasured possessions. This man probably spent his whole life amassing those possessions, maintaining them with repair and upkeep, and protecting them from thieves. His “things” were probably his main focus–and Jesus encourages him to get rid of them.

In her time, Clare took these words of Christ very seriously. I’m trying to imagine what this teaching means in our lives today. Certainly Christ desires that we have basic food and shelter. After all, he taught us to pray, “give us this day, our daily bread.” But I rather doubt Christ would want many of us (if any) to pray “give us this day, increased stock dividends,” or “save me from higher taxes.”

Yet, some Christian speakers of today give the impression that following Christ is a recipe for wealth, success, and earthly power. If you pray the right way, or donate to the right ministry, money will come back to you in return. This is known as the “gospel of prosperity.”

I wonder, how does one reconcile the gospel of prosperity with these words of Jesus telling the man to sell all he owned? To build up treasure, not in bank accounts, powerful cars or sleek electronic gadgets (confession: I just bought a Kindle), but rather “treasure in heaven”?

Saint Clare was counter-cultural when she dared to say no to her parents’ plan for her life (prestigious marriage, no doubt) and took up instead the cross of Christ in holy poverty. She even stood her ground on this issue when church officials wanted to release her from her vow of holy poverty because they thought it too strenuous for a woman. “Release me from my sins,” she said, “but never from the vow of holy poverty,” or something to that effect (I regret I can’t find where I read this).

Today we are bombarded with messages that would lead us away from the true way of Christ, some of them coming from people who call themselves “Christian.” May we have the courage of Clare, even when it means giving up wealth, power, or prestige for the sake of the gospel.

Spiritual Aerobics

Think about your possessions. Is there something you own that you could give to someone in need? Perhaps a closet filled with things you never use? Magazines? School supplies? Dishes? A table? Socks? Suitcases? Phones? Radios? Winter coats? School clothes? Books? A musical instrument or sports equipment? Blankets?

The Jesus Prayer

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I mentioned last time, I’m  involved in a small faith group this summer which is exploring various ways to pray. We are using the book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books).

"Christ the Pantocrator--Jesus Creator of All" --Icon by Marian Zidaru 2002--photo by JAMThis week I finished reading the chapter that focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This ancient way of praying reminds us of God’s presence through praying the words the blind man shouted out to Jesus as he passed by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)

The exact wording of this prayer can vary. Some pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or other similar words. I once met a nun who simply prays two words in a slow, meditative fashion, sometimes in rhythm with her breath, “Jesus, mercy.”

This way of praying is not done in order to earn salvation or win God’s favor by repetitive prayer. The short prayer is used to draw one’s attention to God’s love, mercy, and presence in our lives, whether we are eating, sleeping, working, or sitting in church praying. Praying in this way draws our hearts and minds away from trivial, passing things, and into the realm of God’s presence, seeking to follow the instruction of First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).

While reading Wolpert’s book, I was touched by the way he described praying the Jesus Prayer in the wee hours of the night:

One of the best times for me to pray the Jesus Prayer is at night when I cannot sleep. Rather than tossing and turning and getting upset that I am still awake, I simply begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. Remember that the pilgrim was told to pray the prayer even in his sleep! Often I do fall asleep right away. The times when sleep comes more slowly are wonderful periods of prayer. In the deep silence of the night, I can lift my heart and mind to my Creator—a soft voice ringing out into the infinite.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

I, too, on occasion have prayed this prayer in the middle of the night. I like to do the short form, in time with gentle, slow breathing: “Jesus” (while gently inhaling) and “mercy” (while gently exhaling).  It’s like inhaling the presence of God and asking for God’s love and mercy all at once…mercy for my sins, mercy for the one who has hurt me, mercy for the sick and suffering, mercy for the broken and hurting world all around us.

If you think that this prayer practice is nothing but sweetness and light, think again: it is not always so. During an interview I did one time for an article on the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox priest told me the this prayer form “is no picnic.” He explained that if one is serious about the Jesus Prayer, practicing it in the context of truly following Christ, Christ the Pantocrator -- Jesus Creator of All -- Detail --2002 Icon by Marian Zidaru -- photo by JAMthe prayer gradually leads a person to recognize his or her own impurities of word, thought, and deed that previously went unnoticed. This awareness of our own sins and imperfections leads us into a gradually deepening conversion process.

The Jesus Prayer, this priest observed, “is an effective tool in the very difficult work of gaining control of one’s mind in order to center it on the constant remembrance of divine beauty and awakening it to the eternal realities of the Spirit.” The process makes it possible for us to become “servants of divine Compassion, students of the Lord, studying how to die to ego, so that we might be reborn as children of the Spirit.”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Until next time, Amen!

Invitation: Contemplative Spiritual Practices Group

Sunrise beach walk--photo by Julie McCarty--click to enlarge

Every now and then, I find I have to do something to spice up my relationship with God. Like any relationship, God and I can get stuck in a rut, take things for granted, or let things go a little stale. Of course, it’s not really God who is letting things flounder, but rather I am the one who gets a little lazy or distracted.   (Sometimes the feeling of boredom or being stuck in a rut in prayer can really be God calling one to a deeper way of prayer—but that is the subject of another article.)

One way I hope to put a little pizazz into my prayer life this summer is by meeting with a small faith group to explore various contemplative spiritual practices. For six sessions, meeting every other week, we will be exploring different ways from the Christian tradition to pray and relate to God.

We will be meeting every other Wednesday beginning on June 29th, from 7:00 to 8:30 at a member’s home. Because of my background and training in this area, I will be facilitating the first few meetings. This group is part of the small group ministry at Easter Lutheran Church (ELCA) here in Eagan, Minnesota, but one does not have to be a member in order to join us. So you are welcome to attend if you are interested.

To begin with, the book we will be using is called Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert. The author lives up in the area of Crookston, MN, and is a church pastor with many  credentials and experience in teaching Christian prayer. We’ll be looking at only 2 chapters per meeting so as to allow time between sessions to experiment with prayer on your own. The book is available from Amazon, Border’s, and Barnes and Noble for about $11. Local stores would probably order it for you. Topics include how to pray using short passages from Scripture, journaling, praying in nature, integrating prayer and life experience, finding God in silence, and other topics. The book is very helpful, but you do not have to obtain it before the first meeting.

Creating a Life with God explains how to pray with Scripture using the ancient Christian method called lectio divina (sacred reading), the Jesus Prayer, entering into silence and solitude, finding God in day-to-day experiences, journaling, the role of body in prayer, praying in nature, etc.  It looks at how various Christians of the past used these different ways to build their spiritual lives. You can read more about this book at the publisher’s site here  and a review of it here.

As I mentioned, if you live close enough to join us, we would love to have you come. Just contact me for more info and directions to our first meeting location at a member’s home. (Click on contact page above.)

And if you are interested but cannot attend, think about reading the book yourself. Feel free to send questions to be discussed on this blog if you like.

Until next time, God be with you,  Amen! 

Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Married Contemplative

Some Christians think of the month of May as a time for honoring the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, known also as “Mother of God” or the “Theotokos” (the God-Bearer). Where I live, May is the month when the earth comes to life again after the long Minnesota winter, and families celebrate Mother’s Day. Below is a spiritual reflection I wrote about Jesus’ mother, a short excerpt from a book I wrote.
 

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. –Luke 2:19.

Was Mary a nun or a wife? Growing up Catholic, I associated Mary more with nuns than with married women. After all, she wore long, voluminous garments and a veil like that of the nuns who taught my religion class. Her statue was displayed clear across the church from that of Joseph; even in the manger scene they kept a respectful distance. Although I hadn’t a clue about the meaning of the phrase “ever virgin,” I clearly understood that Mary and Joseph were a special case.

The above Scripture verse (along with a similar one, Luke 2:51) is often used to represent the prayerful, contemplative side of Mary. She marvels at the surprise visit of the shepherds, who speak of heavenly beings revealing that her baby is the Messiah and Lord. Mary carefully stores the amazing details into the motherly scrapbook of her heart.

In the Bible, the “heart” is the hidden center of the entire person. In the heart one thinks, discerns, feels, hopes, reasons, and intuits. The heart is the inner space within, the place in which one encounters the Living God. When Mary ponders things in her heart, she is prayerfully mediating on the mystery of God acting in her life. Luke paints a picture, not of a stereotypical peasant woman, thought to be of no account, but of a woman who thinks, reasons, remembers, and meditates, trying to put all the pieces of her life together to make sense of God’s plan.

Because of this, Mary is sometimes called the contemplative par excellence. Yet, contrary to what we might subconsciously think, Mary was not a vowed nun. She experiences God’s presence while cooking for her family, nursing her baby, or stroking her husband’s hair as they drift off to sleep. She meditates while walking to the town well to fetch water and prays while baking bread or weaving fabric. Mary’s heart is open and pure, praying and acting in total communion with God at all times. In short, she is the married contemplative.

–Excerpt from The Pearl of Great Price: Gospel Wisdom for Christian Marriage by Julie McCarty (Liturgical Press), pages 28-29.

Spiritual Aerobics

For journaling or small group discussion 

1. How do I think of prayer and the life of married couples, families, or other laypersons? Is deep holiness and prayer only for those viewed as the “professional religious” (priests, ministers, parish staff, nuns, etc.)? Is that what Jesus taught in the gospel?

2. Get creative: How would you portray Jesus’ mother in drawing, collage, paint, clay, or other art form? You don’t have to be an artist. How do you imagine her daily life? How did she pray when the angel Gabriel wasn’t visibly present?

3. Is every Christian or every human called to be contemplative? Just what does that word “contemplative” mean to you, and what might it mean for the future of Christianity?