Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 4: Death and Failure

4. Death and Failure

Before we get to Part 5, where the hope is (and, unfortunately, the portion I may not get to for a while), there are two other ways that this frenetic spirit seems to manifest in this story:

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:25-28, NRSV)

So much happens so quickly here. Jesus exorcises the demon, but since the disciples had failed in the same task, and because the father has likely seen others make the same attempt, the terrible convulsion that follows may not have seemed any different than past experiences. But then the boy seems “like a corpse,” and they believe him dead. One of our greatest anxieties pokes his head into the story. (I say one of because I once heard Jerry Seinfeld reference a study that indicated people were more afraid of public speaking than death, suggesting that if at a funeral we’d rather be the one in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy.)

The specter of death seems to drive so much of our behavior. I’ve read we often spend more in medical care in the last months of a person’s life than in their entire life to that point. Poet Dylan Thomas wrote, as his father lay dying, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In Act 3 of Hamlet, Shakespeare gives its titular character the following lines, reflecting on the fear of death:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

While some people strong in faith have, perhaps, faced death well(1), our own mortality seems a universal anxiety that we struggle with from time to time…

And so, too, is the specter of failure. We idolize success, and often look down upon failure. So, when the disciples ask Jesus about why he could cast out this spirit and they could not, they are struggling with their own failure.

It’s important to note that earlier in the Gospel of Mark the disciples were not only given authority and power to act out demons (Mark 3:13-15; 6:7), but they actually have some success!

13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:13, NRSV)

But now they are faced with the question; why, when something worked before, did it not work now? Why did they fail?

Sadly, I think too many of our churches seem to be asking the same question in some form or other these days…

We are so afraid of failure that sometimes it immobilizes us from trying. At least in the disciples’ defense, they made some attempt at casting out this demon, unsuccessful though they may have been. What have we left undone, untried, or un-risked because we feared failure?


(1) There’s an article at Seedbed about how members of my “tribe” once faced death with perhaps more contentment and dignity than we do today.

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Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 2: The Boy

Part 2. The Boy (and possession by reactivity)

20 And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. (Mk 9:20, NRSV)

Herein we ostensibly encounter for the first time the titular spirit of this conversation. Convulsing its host, the spirit seems to take control of the boy, overwhelming him. Earlier in the story, the father described much the same kind of activity, adding to it that the spirit kept the boy mute:

“he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…” (9:17-18)

There are a variety of ways modern Christians respond to passages of Scripture about demons and demon-possession. While some argue for the literal truth of such passages, insisting that evil spirits are real and pose a threat, others argue for more scientifically-nuanced readings of such passages, suggesting we de-mythologize the Biblical authors’ attributions of a variety of conditions to “demon-possession” that we would categorize differently today. Like most biblical scholarship, people range a wide spectrum between the fundamentalist extremes of conservative literalism and liberal progressivism.

I would humbly suggest that, however you read and interpret demons and demon-possession in the Bible, I can attest to this truth: many people wrestle with demons today. There are those who attest to the presence and influence of evil external to themselves; and others who eschew the anthropomorphism of powers of darkness but attest to the lure of evil within. And a variety of maladies, illness, or addictions that we might be able to name are often metaphorically referred to as demons that someone struggles with.

In discussing such passages with me growing up, my father tried to explain away such stories of demon-possession maladies as epilepsy or other diseases we now know the cure to. At the same time, the specter of his own mother’s alcoholism was the proverbial “demon in a bottle” that haunted him his life; he never fully shed the sway that it had held over him growing up.

Years later, a church member I deeply respect shared her own experience of a demonic presence. One night she had woken to the sight of glowing eyes and an oppressiveness that surrounded her; one that retreated from her as she began to pray.

Whatever they may be or we may call them, I find that there are demons in our world, lives, and hearts that threaten us. There are those sources of fear, anxiety, and even violence that seem beyond our control. One need only watch the news to be anxious that destruction threatens us from without. Yet as I read the passage of late, a particular manifestation of this frenetic spirit makes itself known to me.

I find beyond the original source, the perspective with which we read it, or the intent of this tale of the demon-possessed boy, there is in the story of possession a grain of truth that speaks to me. We are told that the boy has been possessed by something since his childhood, and that it often contributes to him losing control. That lack of control threatens his very life.

We are all beset by something from childhood that can lead us to lose control, and even threatens the health of our self. By nature and nurture, as we grow we learn how to respond to the world around us; and we generally all learn an unhealthy response, one wherein we lost control, which without consulting another text I’ll refer to as “emotional reactivity.”

Even if I’m mis-using the term or the science, you can recognize emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever returned home, only to feel yourself being treated like, and perhaps even responding, as when you were a child, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever found yourself lashing out at your child in a way that goes against what you desire in your better nature(1) but seem to neglect in the acute moment of misbehavior, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever thought “I sound like my mother/father,” you know emotional reactivity. We learn how to react to situations, often in unbidden ways.

More often than I care to admit, I am not the parent I desire to be. I do not consistently respond with the patience, care, and levity that I know would benefit myself and my children. Instead, I respond with the same kind of reactivity I grew up with. I lash out in anger and frustration, by word or deed. It is not for nothing that we can often hear said of an emotionally reactive parent that he or she has “lost control.”

Where an addict might see the frenetic spirit of the boy in one light, as a struggling parent I suddenly see in myself the possibility of the same frenetic spirit, capable of convulsing me into losing control…


(1) Is it coincidental that just as we refer to the evils we struggle against as demons, since Abraham Lincoln we have heard our best selves referred to as our “better angels.”

Frenetic Spirit (Intro)

Frenetic Spirit (Introduction)

People around me are anxious. While national newscasts spark concern, debate, and ire, I’ve sat with parents whose children cried themselves to sleep for (irrational) fear of deportation. As medical tests suggest the promise of clarity for treatment, I’ve commiserated with people uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. Amid deepening divisions within my theological tribe, there is angst and anxiety about whether we can truly remain United, Methodist, or even a Church. And if I’m honest, even as I volunteer in our local school, I know some degree of anxiety from time to time about whether my children are getting the best education they might. Fears and uncertainty seem to be widespread, and I am certain you could add your own to this brief list.

So, today I am inviting you in to an ongoing conversation. As I organize and put these thoughts to paper (or keyboard, anyway!), I do so with an awareness that what I have to share is not some authoritative theological treatise, nor a life-changing book on spirituality. Instead, as I give myself time to muse in a generic text editor, I’m sharing with you reflections on a conversation that I believe God has begun with me and, I’m fairly certain, is keen for me to get back to.

As a bit of background, this particular conversation began during a recent Bible Study I led at my local church, Trinity Heights U.M.C. As part of an ongoing devotional reading and study of the New Testament, each week we begin with a shortened version of Lectio Divina. Latin for “divine reading,” Lectio Divina is a prayer form that integrates reading of Scripture with meditation, reflection, and conversation with God. On the night in question, as we slowly read and pondered the following passage three times, God began this conversation that I hope to share with you in five subsequent parts (too long for a sermon; too short for a book).

The likely-familiar story in question takes place in the Gospel of Mark immediately following the “transfiguration” experience of Jesus and three disciples (I’ve briefly touched on this here). It’s the story of a demon-possessed boy and his father, who have come to Jesus for healing. In years’ past, I’ve often been struck by v. 24 – “I believe; help my unbelief!”, which I’ll share a bit about in part 3. This time, however, as we read through the pericope, I encountered a new focus I hadn’t really read before.

Below is the passage in question. I invite you to perhaps read it slowly and repeatedly on your own, and see what inspiration it/God speaks to you before moving on to my ramblings that follow:

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”

17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out,[a] “I believe; help my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

[a]Mark 9:24 Other ancient authorities add ‘with tears’
(Mark 9:14-29, scripture and notation, NRSV, c. 1989)

As a new conversation emerged from this recent reading of this text, I find that it draws me/us first through four different, difficult movements of conversation before bringing me/us to a word of hope and good news…

Peacemakers and “Core Values”

You probably already know Matthew 5:9, which in the more common NIV reads:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

But as I prepare for our 90 Days in the New Testament endeavor this spring, I’ve been listening to Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, as I drive. And I was struck by how he phrased the same verse:

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.
That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

If you follow me on Facebook, you may have already seen that in early December the LEGO Robotics team that I help coach – “R2-Determined,” from Thomas Elementary School – did well at the local regional qualifying tournament. Well enough that not only did the team advance to state competition, but they won the “Judges Award.” They did great!

Except in one area. As part of the competition, the team goes into a room with judges who give them a task to work on together, and then evaluate their teamwork in relation to a variety of “core values” set by the FIRST LEGO League. These are actually good behavioral values the students need to learn to do well in life… and in that room, that day, they did not do well. At all.

That particular failure was particularly crushing to me, even with the excitement of going on to state competition; given my vocation, how could I have failed so much to help encourage their positive behavior? (I will share that in the mean time, we’ve been working a lot on teamwork, and reflecting on how they work together.)

This week, Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus’ familiar “blessed are the peacemakers” opened the verse up to me in a new way. Of course, peacemaking is about more than just resolving conflict! Of course, peacemaking has to do with helping people cooperate and live and work together! And, yes! When I am faithful at pursuing peacemaking in this way, I do experience a degree of fullness; I do know a bit more who I am inside; I do experience my place as a child of God.

 

Don’t “Give Up” Something For Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. I’m writing this a few days too late, I fear, but I also am saddened when a technology blog can make an important point about a spiritual tradition that is popularly celebrated in a fundamentally flawed way.

To that end, I want to encourage you: do not “give up” something for Lent. In this season intended for prayer and repentance, some folks wear their spirituality on their sleeve, broadly announcing some form of fast they have taken on to commemorate the 40 days of Lent. My problem with this popular phenomenon is that it misses the point, in essence losing the forest for the trees.

Yes, fasting is a traditional ascetical spiritual practice for the season of Lent. For two millenia, devout Christians have utilized the practice of fasting as a means of growing closer to God. For centuries, good Catholics have avoided meat on the Fridays of Lent in accordance with their church’s practice. For decades, modern Protestants have avoided chocolate or coffee or sugary soda to show they are commemorating the 40 Days of Lent. For years, spiritual progressives have opted to log off Facebook for Lent because it’s what you do…

Do you see what I did there? Granted, I’m being overly simplistic in my analysis, but I think that we’ve lost the true focus of a Lenten discipline being something that helps us to grow closer to God – and, specifically to this season, a discipline that helps us to be aware of our short-fallings and trust God’s grace for forgiveness! In an act that is eerily akin to the general critique of those who are “spiritual but not religious,” we’ve replaced the sincerity and relevance of the act with the ritual.

Frankly, I could argue that we need to “give up” far more than one thing in order to truly give attention to our relationship with God. We are so hyper-scheduled, over-programmed, non-stop-busy, that we actually need to fast and disconnect from many things, learning how to re-align our time with God’s presence and activity in our hearts and world… But I digress…

I am encouraging, asking, begging, even, you not to “give up” something for Lent. Ignore the empty austerity of “giving up” what generally tend to be insignificant things. Instead, I implore you to “take on” something for Lent. Make a commitment to something that matters.

That sounds a bit harder, doesn’t it? We’re all very busy. We’re over-scheduled. We can’t possibly add anything else to our day’s calendar of events…

That’s the lie we tell ourselves, perhaps the single greatest one that we should, in this season of true self-reflection and repentance, confess and repent of. Before our time is ours, it is God’s. We are stewards of what time we have, and to think that we haven’t the time to give attention to growing in love for God does great damage to our spiritual health.

So, don’t “give up” something, take something on to grow in love for God. Granted…

  • If Facebook is such a vice that it becomes a black hole for your time, perhaps you should consider logging off and spending some of that time with God in some other way. But I would encourage you, then, not to just stop there: log off all of your Social Networking or Social Media sites. But, again, it isn’t enough just to stop – you have to actively choose what you replace it with.
  • If you recognize you spend too much time channel flipping/surfing, then by all means a fast from television could be a positive experience for you. (Several years ago, Lynn and I realized this was true for us. Rather than going cold-turkey, we made the conscious decision we would only have the television on for two things during the week: (1) morning news and (2) Friends on Thursday night. In hindsight, perhaps we still missed the mark a bit; but we did find  that season we had more time to read and pray than we had been experiencing…)
  • If there is a fast that can be truly meaningful, and which can help you to connect to the presence of the holy in your life, by all means take that on.

But, generally speaking, I would encourage you to worry less about what you give up and focus more on taking on even just one thing that might help you know God’s love and forgiveness.

Worried you might not have the time? Or know what to do? Consider these options:

  • You can pray as you commute. Find an audio devotional book that you can listen to; check out the podcast for “Pray As You Go,” a ministry of Jesuit Media Initiatives; memorize a short prayer you can say as you sit at a stoplight, or when merging onto the highway, or when someone cuts in front of you…
  • Want to engage the Bible, don’t know where to start? Try a daily devotional. Resources such as The Upper Room or Moravian Daily Texts or even our own United Methodist Church have daily devotionals you can receive online or via email. (The UMC and British Methodist Church both have apps for your smartphone that include daily prayers/devotionals.)
  • Have a few minutes to engage a spiritual practice? There are many ancient practices that can help you grow in love for God and neighbor. Bible reading, daily prayer, spiritual journaling, meditation, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, Ignatian reading…. Find one that engages your intellect, touches your heart, and nurtures your spirit, and God will be present within and through it.
  • Want to go really deep? Get together with two or three Christian friends you truly trust. Engage together in a small group study about the spiritual practices, or use a book about them as the source for discussion and prayer together. Share about your successes and struggles and pray for one another.

In our tradition, we define such spiritual practices as “means of grace,” because they are the ways in which God works in our hearts, in our lives, and through us to transform the world. This Lent, I encourage you not to worry too much about what you will give up, but how you might engage a means of grace to grow in your love for God, for self, for family, for neighbor, and for the world.

In which my subconscious convicts me of hubris…

…take heed, not to seek your own praise herein, not to desire any honour to yourselves. But let it be your sole aim, that all who see your good works may “glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

(Excerpt from John Wesley, “Sermon 24: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4.” Sermons on Several Occasions – Kindle Edition)

Today’s reflection starts with a dream.

Saturday night / Sunday morning, I had a vivid dream. This is not unusual in itself, as I often have such dreams. In fact, in the last few days I have had vivid dreams about being called back to London to teach, meeting my father poolside in an indoor Roman-bath-like structure, and that I was a wandering constable in His Majesty’s service in the 14th century seeking out my lost wife (who was herself half dryad) who had been abducted by a dragon in disguise.

As generally happens, only a snippet of the dream in question resurfaced in my conscious mind, but it did so as I was driving to worship. In this particular dream, I was preaching in a great and ornate building to a fair sized congregation. I set my scant notes on a music stand, with the prideful recognition that my upcoming delivery, with minimal reference to said notes, was going to impress.

As this image came back to mind on my drive to worship Sunday morning, I realized how much it spoke of my personal ego; my desire to “impress” when I preach (or teach); my subconscious need to excel. It spoke of pride. What a far cry from wanting to bring honor and glory to God! In short, my own subconscious convicted me.

I prayed; confessing and asking for forgiveness for placing too much emphasis on my own performance; and humbly asking that I might simply be a vessel for God’s word. And I went on with my duties more as I should, trying to stay centered in Christ and not self.

(It may almost be counter-productive to share this experience, since some might see blogging as bordering on ego nurturing narcissism! But I share in the spirit of honest self-reflection…)

I’ve been reminded of the experience throughout the week – particularly when I read today’s sermon from Wesley. And it occurs to me that in the last few weeks, my reflections on Wesley – from journeying where he once did, to re-visiting his theology and spirituality, to the direct reading of his published sermons – have given me both a reminder of the core of Christian faith and guidance for future preaching.

In short, my study in Wesley is helping me to recognize that perhaps I ought to focus on the four primary areas of our Christian life:

1) We’re incomplete

In Christian parlance, terms such as “depraved,” “sinful,” “original sin,” “fallen,” and even “natural man” have all been used to describe the same basic ontological dilemma we all face. Originally created “in the image of God,” we are now far from that image; and to some degree, in our innermost being we know it. As St. Augustine (who developed the doctrine of “original sin”) famously described it, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”

Early in the Sermons, Wesley expresses in various Biblical terms the existential angst which is the human condition. He details the sin and depravity, but one image that he particularly picks up and repeats is that we are, essentially, “asleep.” He further utilizes the analogy of a fetus in the womb, he shares how we have senses but are not yet using them (he goes on to share how, through faith, we “wake up”; how we enter the world and suddenly see and hear and feel…).

In more modern terms, I have heard that we have a “God-shaped hole” inside each of us; that we are “spiritually yearning;” or (the terms I appreciate most, and give all due props to Rev. Adam Hamilton from whom I first heard them) that we are all  “broken and messed up.”

All of these point out our situation; we are incomplete. Broken, even. And, in the midst of our brokenness…

2) God invites us to wholeness

Faith is, first and foremost, the work of God. Our faith is the work of God’s Holy Spirit within our hearts, inviting us to recognize that we are asleep; to realize that are senses are blinded. This is what we can the work of preventing or “prevenient” grace – the grace that goes before (e.g. pre-event).

Before what? In theological terms, we call the continuing work of God’s Holy Spirit to be justification and sanctification (which are #s 3 and 4 below, respectively!). But before any of that occurs – before we open our eyes to the wonders of God and the awesome possibilities of humanity – we first recognize our own inability to do much of anything about our ontological state. The Holy Spirit opens us up to the reality of our own situation, and our basic powerlessness.

And then the Holy Spirit opens us up to the good news, and by grace…

3) We experience God’s love (e.g. “justification”)

Wesley’s moment of coming to truly know God’s forgiveness is that of his well-known Aldersgate experience, of which he famously (for Methodists, anyway) writes:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…

In doctrinal language, through Christ’s sacrificial death on a cross, the debt of “original sin” is eliminated; we are set free of the consequences of “the fall,” set free from both the guilt and power of sin.

In simpler, more modern terms, by faith we come to know that we are freely forgiven the consequences of our brokenness. We experience for ourselves the amazing love of God, a love of grace and forgiveness, a love that does not hold our imperfection against us. And that is not all, but God also begins a work of restoration – re-creation – within us. As the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts…

4) We respond by growing in love (e.g. “sanctification”)

As John said, “we love because He first loved us.” Indeed, all of what might be described as “Christian” life and ethics are bound up in the process of God’s work in our hearts and lives. Yet God’s work in us is not – sadly – instantaneous. We do not immediately become better, holier people; but God invites us to work alongside, in a journey of self-discovery and enrichment.

(Indeed, Wesley’s initial sermons on the Sermon on the Mount share a great explanation that the initial beatitudes of Matthew 5 are the work of God within us to burn away negative attitudes such as anger and pride.)

In this, I am reminded of Trevor Hudson’s wonderful little book comparing Christian spirituality with his experience in AA, One Day At A Time. Without grabbing the book off my shelf to double-check, as I remember he makes the analogy that growing in faith is much like the daily steps alcoholics take; that every day presents a new opportunity to go one step further toward the goal we have in mind.

And all of this is, essentially, the story that we have to tell. A story I hope to be able to share with humility, recognizing that it is a story we all share.

(I’m also reminded in all of this of a beautiful image from the movie Joshua, based on the book by Joseph Girzone. In the film, a woman’s husband, in a fit of rage, breaks a glass cup(? – I forget exactly) that Joshua had previously given her. She brings the pieces to him, and later she finds it, returned to her; the broken pieces put back together into a beautiful ballerina. I think this well captures the analogy of faith that Wesley so regularly preaches on: all we have to offer to God is our brokenness, but God takes it and makes something new and wonderful with it.)

Disparate Thoughts on Generals and Birds

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons.

I think it impossible to consider the legacy of Wesley and not contemplate how events of his life contributed to the development of his faith and the movement he led. Indeed, throughout the week we have reflected on the likely lingering impact of his mother, Susanna, on John’s disciplined spirituality.

And throughout the week, I’ve contemplated what might “be next” for me. After all, part of our decision for me to attend this summer course was to consider Cliff College and the University of Manchester as a possible joint location to begin pursuing a PhD focused around Wesleyan studies. At one point, amid the flurry of mental questions and anxieties about such a change, a significant thought occurred to me:

If there had not been a General Oglethorpe to invite the two Wesleys to Savannah, would John have had the formative experiences he had (e.g. during the storm with the Moravians)? Without that invitation of another to lead him in the direction God was clearly going to inspire/move him, would the Methodist movement have ever been what it became?

We can not underestimate the importance of the sense of assurance that Wesley experienced because of his interaction with his Moravian brothers and sisters; nor would the famed Aldersgate experience have occurred for him as it did were it not for the continued mentoring relationship he had with Peter Bohler upon returning to London. And all of these were in one way or another connected to Wesley’s acceptance of Oglethorpe’s invitation to Georgia.

So I wonder if and from what quarter God may issue the next invitation to me to consider following…  Who and where might my general be?

***

It was evening, in that leisurely time between dinner and sleep, when a group of us gathered on the rooftop terrace. We sat around in conversation: me (the [at the time!] quiet American); P–, a retired commander from the Nigerian army turned preacher; M–, an evangelical Irishman; a woman from Sri Lanka; and a few Britons, Methodists and a Baptist.

I came to the conversation late, actually. P– and M– both seemed particularly and passionately engaged with one another in conversation. It seems it began rooted around the call of God and the care (particularly financial) of ministers. P– spoke passionately about giving up quite a bit, and trusting in God’s providence. M–’s conversation, however, seemed to be more cynical of the Church, and it actually struck me as a bit of self-promotion – especially when he spoke of having found favor with a former captain of the IRA.

All the while, there was a family of birds – sparrows or starlings, I think – nestling in under the eaves for the night. As the men’s conversation shifted from seeming to give witness to God’s providence to criticisms of the church and others, the birds chirped and sang.

And it reminded me of a lesson of St. Francis, how he once encouraged the birds of the air to go about their business, chirping and singing, as it was their act of giving glory to God.

As these two passionate and opinionated men talked – and most of us just sat by quietly during this time – it occurred to me that I would hope that my conversation might be more like the singing of the birds; that my words might give witness to God and not my own promotion or opinions…

…though, I fear, all-too-often my conversation is likely as vain or seemingly opinionated to others.

And then today, a few days after this experience, I read Wesley’s sermon 12, “The Witness of Our Own Spirit” based upon 2 Corinthians 1:12. And in this sermon, Wesley writes several related words that I thought I would share:

As soon as ever the grace of God in the former sense, his pardoning love, is manifested to our souls, the grace of God in the latter sense, the power of his Spirit, takes place therein. And now we can perform, through God, what to man was impossible. Now we can order our conversation aright. We can do all things in the light and power of that love, through Christ which strengtheneth us. We now have “the testimony of our conscience,” which we could never have by fleshly wisdom, “that in simplicity and godly sincerity, we have our conversation in the world.

Wesley writes that this is the true ground of a Christian’s joy – not only knowing holy conversation (and life) but being enabled, by the Spirit of God, to that very thing!

Once again, I am alerted to the fact that my journey is not complete, but that the commands and expectations of our Lord are also his promises! My conversation – and yours! – can become as glorifying to God as the singing of the birds.