God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Since entering full-time ministry in 2002, I have had a desire to partner with the people of my church in deep reflection, study, and prayer. As a youth minister, I would write two week devotional guides for my students. I published weekly Scripture guides in my first pastoral appointment. These guides, placed in the worship bulletin, encouraged church members to prepare for the upcoming Sunday by wrestling with the Scripture I would preach on the next week. In February 2016, The Word and Spirit premiered as an online guide that served the same purpose of the old print guide. In the following years, The Word and Spirit Guides got cluttered with more activity and less focus. Recently, a more basic structure has been given to The Word and Spirit Guides to reflect the original intention, which is explained in what follows.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, he spoke these words to her: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus identifies himself as “the truth” (John 14:6). This One who is “the truth” is also identified by the evangelist as “the Word” (John 1:1-18). Jesus told the woman at the well that worship of God must reflect God’s very being. It did not matter that she was a Samaritan, nor would it have mattered if she were a Jew or a Gentile. She, and all who desire to worship God, must ground their worship in God and his being. It is a rather simple directive, but it is contrary to how we oftentimes approach all matters of faith – theology, Christian anthropology, ecclesiology, etc. Often, we begin with ourselves and move toward God. However, we are called to begin with God and only then can we discover our true self. Those who approach God are to do so not in their own power, but in Spirit and Truth.
What does this mean? We can understand more clearly when we consider the two “avenues” of revelation that God has used as final revelations of God’s true self – namely, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit reveal God fully because they share in the very essence of God the Father. This also explains why we cannot be ultimate sources of revelation, because we do not share in God’s being. The Word is the living testimony of Jesus Christ, found in Scripture and spread through the preaching (kerygma) of the Apostles. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit, engaged through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, meditation, worship, service, confession, solitude, etc. (so wonderfully detailed by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline).
This blog, therefore, seeks to explore how we encounter God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit – that is Word and Spirit. In the context of the local church, it means that we will intentionally engage the Scripture for the upcoming Sunday all week long, expecting Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to commune with us in our times of reading, reflection, and prayer.
In these posts you will hear an invitation. You are being called to connect to and to commune with the God who creates you, who saves you, and who sustains you, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Insofar as these Word and Spirit Guides enable you to hear and respond to that grace, utilize them. If anything in these guides becomes a hindrance to hearing or responding to the grace of God, set it aside and attend to that which will connect you to the God of grace.
What you have in these guides is a tool. Just like a hammer or a tractor or a compass, it has a telos, or a purpose. If used correctly, such tools can aid you in building, planting, or navigating your way on an unfamiliar road. In a similar fashion, these guides can aid you in navigating your spiritual journey of devotion to God through an encounter with the Living Word and the Holy Spirit. These guides can help focus you on God, encourage you to participate in those practices that draw you close to God, and help you find your way along your spiritual journey in the middle of a confusing world.
However, if used incorrectly, if using these guides becomes a law or a compulsion or a list of things you must do, then these guides can become a distraction and hinder your spiritual growth. For instance, if you use a hammer to drive nails into wood, using it for its intended purpose, then it can aid you in being quite productive, helping you to build things that were previously not there. Yet, if you use it apart from its intended purpose, say to brush your teeth, it can be utterly destructive! If you use these guides as tools to assist you in your spiritual growth, tailoring their contents to your context, they can help refresh your soul. If these guides become just an outline of prayers you must pray or Scripture passages you must read or Christian practices you must attend to, then they will rob you of the joy and life that comes from serving God.
Furthermore, these guides are designed to be an aid for the people of First United Methodist Church in Warner Robins, GA. Our worship and congregational life for the church year will follow the structure of these Word and Spirit Guides. However, these guides can become a useful tool as well for those outside of the specific life of this church.
SEASONS OF GRACE
The Christian year is made up of six seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost (or Kingdomtide). This gives to the Christian year a certain rhythm of birth, life, struggle, death, resurrection, and new life. We see this rhythm reflected in the life of Jesus Christ. Since we are his disciples, we find our own lives reflecting these rhythms as well. We come alive to God in Christ, we discover patterns of living for God, we face struggles and experience sorrow while finding our way through life, we enter into seasons of disappointment and failure, we are made new through redemption, and we come alive again to new works of the Holy Spirit within and through us.
Within the rhythm of the Christian year there are three high holy days of the Church: Christmas, Easter, and the Day of Pentecost. There are other holy days which we celebrate throughout the year as well: Ash Wednesday, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, Christ the King Sunday, and others.
And yet, any day of the Christian year has the potential to be a day in which we come into life-changing communion with the grace and holiness of God. It all depends on if we spend that day connected to God in Word and Spirit. Any day in which we intentionally commune with and pay attention to the working of the Word and the Spirit can be transformed into a season of grace or into a high holy day.
WHAT TO DO
Each Word and Spirit guide will be broken up into two sections: appropriately, Word and Spirit. In the Word section, the focus will be on Scripture and how we interact with Scripture. The Word of God speaks on its own in both its original context and its timeless truthfulness. In this sense, the Word speaks objectively. However,the Word also speaks to our present context, subjectively. We must remember, though, that the Word only speaks to us subjectively when we have first allowed it to speak objectively. Thus, there are two basic ways of reading Scripture. One way is the reading of Scripture critically and the other way is the reading of Scripture devotionally. When we read critically, we read to know the Scripture, and when we read devotionally, we read to grow from our encounter with Scripture. Also, we must allow Scripture to “hold a mirror up” to us. What do we learn about ourselves and our world through the witness of Scripture?
Every week the Word section will include the Scripture for the week, Explore questions, and the Sacred Reading. While the Scripture for the week and the audio recording of the Scripture will change with the week, the questions and framework of the Sacred Reading will remain the same. The questions are modeled off of the work of Dr. Robert A. Traina in his book Methodical Bible Study (a seminary staple), Bishop James King, and my own work with Scripture. I mostly preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and so the Scripture for the week is chosen from those standard weekly readings.
In the Spirit section, we will participate in those Christian practices that place us in the middle of the flow of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit section will include an image reflection (based on the Scripture and the image that accompanies the post) and a short Breath Prayer. A Breath Prayer can be used one of two ways. Firstly, it can be prayed almost intuitively and contemplatively with the rhythms of your breathing. Secondly, it can serve as a catalyst to a personal time of prayer that explores the topic of the Breath Prayer more deeply. Through prayer and meditation, we experience the truth we read in the Word firsthand. Occasionally, we will explore additional spiritual disciplines in the Spirit section.
What I have discovered about The Word and Spirit Guides is that the process is more important than the content. That is why The Word and Spirit Guides have recently moved away from focusing on producing content and toward emphasizing the process, which will hopefully become second nature to us. When the Spirit and the Word work together, they draw us into the Living Word and allow us to commune with and worship the Father. As you pray during the week, be guided by what you read in the Word and how the Spirit speaks presently to you. May your prayers be an personal expression of the living Word abiding within you. Meditate on the Word and allow it to move through your soul, listening as the Spirit whispers words of grace and love into your mind. May the Living Word renew your mind through communion with and focus on God. Throughout your week, as you find yourself in moments of challenge, need, or reflection, breathe in the truth of the Word and the presence of the Spirit, and breathe out the simple phrase of trusting petition found in the breath prayer. May the Living Word connect you at all times with the mercy and compassion of God.
These Word and Spirit guides are designed as weekly guides and not daily guides. They can be used daily, of course. However, the theme lasts for the whole week. Too often we use daily devotional guides that change themes daily. We rush through the Scripture, through the practice, through the theme, and end up consuming our devotional life instead of intentionally practicing communion with God. The weekly guide gives us the latitude to sit with one passage and theme for a whole week, so that the Word and Spirit might work through our whole selves, like the yeast from the gospel parable of Jesus. In this way, we are more thoroughly transformed than when we rush into and out of scattered daily devotions, allowing us to space out what can be very meaningful spiritual practices. This also prepares us to come to Sunday morning worship with a deeper yearning for and understanding of the Scripture. We learn to abide in God through the Word and Spirit, rather than simply utilizing Scripture and spiritual practices to check off another box of daily devotion.
Each new weekly Word and Spirit Guide will be uploaded on Tuesday and will cover Tuesday through the following Monday. Monday is considered a sabbath day for the purpose of the Word and Spirit Guides, a day to rest from worship preparation after coming together on Sunday morning. Of course, though, even in our times of sabbath God is willing and desiring to commune with us in grace and joy. Thus, there will still be a Monday Scripture reading and we are always encouraged to continue praying on Monday. On Mondays the audio sermon from Sunday will be uploaded and listed as the “Pastoral Response” to the previous week’s Word and Spirit Guide.
Brothers and sisters, this is an invitation to grace through the Word and Spirit. Pray these prayers, read these Scriptures, meditate on the images and themes, and be willing to place yourself within the stories so that you might encounter the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in deep communion and in the power of the Holy Spirit!