A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Spong, Meditation, and Lent

In my explorations into alternative theologies, I have read several articles and a book by John Shelby Spong.  There is much I agree with Spong about.  He does a good job of deconstructing Christian theology as it is commonly understood in our society.  He talks about non-theistic beliefs as an option beyond theism or atheism.  He describes belief in a God beyond our explanations and definitions.  This is not a God out there somewhere who grants our wishes if we are very good.  Spong writes:

“Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being.  I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one’s sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone’s benefit.  I do not think it is appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims that they are not." (A New Christianity for a New World, pg. 3)

I very much agree God is beyond our definitions.  When Spong writes of what he calls the theistic God, as described in the quote above, I can agree, for the most part, this is a God who does not ring true as we observe the realities of life.  I very much appreciate John Shelby Spong’s emphasis on living fully and “loving wasefully” (see the video here) However, I also think Spong is too quick to reject traditional theology when sometimes these traditions come from the wisdom of our ancestors as they attempted to find words to describe the indescribable.  Such wisdom is not beyond criticism, of course, but is also not without value. Spong also seems to leave little room for the mystical and seems a bit over confident in his own ability to define the undefinable.  

As I approach this Lenten season, I have decided my Lenten discipline will be to set aside time for meditation each day.  This calls to mind a difficulty I have had since reading Spong and others who emphasize our inability to define God and the transcendence of God beyond a personal being.  It is difficult, with these things in mind, to pray or meditate upon God.  I see immense value in rejecting God as some dude with a long white beard.  However, I struggle to find an image more fitting and without an image I find it difficult to focus myself on prayer.  Spong borrows from Paul Tillich and talks about God as the “ground of all being.”  In some ways this is helpful but it seems to leave God as almost inert, with no agency but just an ever present resource similar to water and air.  I find the Process Theology image of God more helpful (read more about Process Theology in my blog here or at the website http://www.ctr4process.org/ ), thinking of God as a creative force both immanent and transcendent.  Yet this is still a bit abstract and difficult to wrap my mind around.

This is not my greatest struggle with prayer and meditation.  My greatest struggle is to stay awake.  This has always been a struggle for me and it gets worse the older I get.  I think I usually last about two minutes before I am out.  It is not like I am terribly sleep deprived either.  As I ponder this struggle I think to myself, “You would think an encounter with the divine would be exciting enough to keep me awake.”  Perhaps this is part of my problem.  I have done much praying and a good bit of meditating over the years and rarely, if ever, does it result in some grand revelation.  So, I think to myself, “Well, this time is different.  My focus is on finding inner calm.”  But really, how much calmer does one get then sleeping?  Should I just nap away then?  

Help me out here folks:  Are there methods of prayer or meditation you have found helpful?  What images for God do you find meaningful?  Are there books or other resources you would recommend?  What do you think of a non-theistic God or a God who transcends a personal being? (I keep trying to think of a clearer way of phrasing this, God as more than simply the ultimate person,maybe?  Anyone else have a better way of phrasing this idea?)  Please share your thoughts.  
by Sheri Ellwood  


Charlene said...

I like Spong. That's a message it would have done me good to hear once or twice, when I was growing up.

As for meditation: I think the Catholics and the Buddhists knew what they were doing when they made prayer beads. Whether you're repeating the "Hail Mary" or your personal mantra, it does help with staying awake. As does meditating in community, I've found.

Set a timer to bring you out of it at the end, whether you fall asleep or not. Otherwise I find I'm constantly checking the clock, which is not very...meditative.

I'm also a fan of purposeful, guided, meditation. Which involves making or buying a recording that addresses whatever specific issue you're working on.

And keep in mind that it's possible, and maybe even desirable, to meditate while doing other things. Spinning and drawing can both take me there in no time.

Well, that's my 2 cents, anyway. Hope it's helpful!

Sheri Ellwood said...

Thank you so much, Charlene! The prayer beads are a great idea! I did some research and ended up making an Anglican style prayer rope (out of hand spun yarn BTW). It was helpful to focus myself by coming up with a mantra of my own. I think it will take a while before I can use this without having to concentrate so hard on the words but it is a step in the right direction. At least I didn't fall asleep today! Thanks!

Laurie said...

I don't really meditate, I pray. Nonetheless, I do so while stretching. I set a count down repeat timer on my watch for each stretch. Between the blood flow and the timer I stay awake. Pretty good since I do this at 4AM.

I try not to picture God. I know my image is not a person. However, sometimes I do sense God smiling or laughing at me. I would describe it as a warm glow that reacts similarly to the way my parents would have.