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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Prayer

Prayer is the foundation of intimacy with God, the “inward movement” that we make toward God. Thomas Merton broadens this vision by writing that prayer “means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him.” Sharing this vision, Geoffrey Wainwright maintains that spirituality is nothing less than the “combination of prayer and living.”

All I know is that when I pray, I draw near to God. When I don’t, my soul and spirit drift far, far away.

The purpose of the ancient monastic movement – the opus Dei – was to create a life of prayer as the “work of God,” that act whereby we “place God upon our heart.” Scripture may be the foundation of the relationship itself, for it is through revelation that this God is named and known, but intimacy with this revealed God is gained through the “presence” that comes in an act of prayer. As Quaker writer Douglas Steere has written:

It is not that he is not present at other times but that by this voluntary act of ours, the act of prayer, we are enabled to break with our outer preoccupations and to become aware of the presence and of what that presence does to search and to transform and to renew us and to send us back into life again.

But this is difficult. Teresa of Avila, a saint who has taught so many about prayer, confessed, “Very often I was more occupied with the wish to see the end of my hour for prayer. I used to actually watch the sandglass. And the sadness that I sometimes felt on entering my prayer-chapel was so great that it required all my courage to force myself inside.”

I know how she felt.

But prayer is not meant to be an experience-driven event. If it were, I know that I would be extremely frustrated and greatly discouraged. I doubt I would pray as often as I do. Instead, prayer is relationship driven. I pray because I am in a relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, and apart from prayer I would not have much of a relationship.

I enter into communication, conversation and communion with God through prayer. It is when I lay out the pieces of my life on God’s altar, and when He then returns them to me anew (Psalm 5:3).

So, like many others, I come to God daily for prayer.

Often empty, often having to woodenly plod through the acrostic ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) as my soul often needs help to find its way, I tell God I love Him, and offer Him praise for who He is; I confess my sins – specifically, graphically – as my mind scrolls through the day before; I thank God for all that I have been given, acknowledging that every good and perfect gift comes from above; and I ask Him for help – to intervene, to provide, to come to my rescue.          

And it matters.

I have found that prayer, no matter how dry, forced, or mechanical it might be, opens my life to a longer conversation and communication with God throughout the day. It is as if my morning prayer invites Him into the flow of things and sets Him prominently in the forefront of my thoughts and feelings. From this, I am able to engage the world I live in – and which lives in me – with a transcendent mooring instead of a temporal one. My inner world is transformed, for it is wrenched away from life lived on the hurried, frantic level of activity and thrust into the eternity of soul and spirit.

There God speaks, corrects, reminds, renews. I then find myself able to walk through the world with sharpened eyes, increased sensitivity to the Spirit’s promptings, heightened insight and deepened wisdom.

Even more, when I have come to God in prayer and asked for Him to infuse my life with His power and provision, I tap into the resources of heaven itself.

Apart from this, I can do nothing.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (InterVarsity Press). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

First Symbol

I had the good fortune of seeing the exhibit “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” at the British Museum in London. For medieval Christians, contact with relics of Christ and the saints provided a unique bridge between earth and heaven. The relics themselves were often ordinary objects – a bone, a fragment of clothing. But they held great spiritual value because of whose bone it might have been, or who the clothing had belonged to.

I was able to “see” such things as wood from the True Cross, hair from the apostle John, milk from Mary’s breast, and a thorn from the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head. I say “see” because by the time of the Reformation, many shared Calvin’s skepticism about relics in general: “How do we know that we are venerating the bone of a saint and not the bone of some thief, or of an ass, or of a dog, or of a horse? How do we know that we are venerating the ring and the comb of the Virgin Mary rather than the baubles of some harlot?”

Yet many of the most precious relics were gathered early on by Helen, the mother of Constantine, from her trips to the Holy Land. For example, it was during one such trip in AD 326 that she discovered the True Cross.

Intriguingly, when such relics have been allowed to be examined in more recent years, many have been found to bear the mark of authenticity. Consider the famed Tooth of St. John the Baptist: a dentist confirmed that it was indeed that of a thirty-year-old man from that era who ate a coarse diet.

The relics themselves were stored in ornate containers called reliquaries, made by the most skilled goldsmiths from the finest materials available. These relics then served as a personal focus for prayer, and they also were presented with great ceremony in public rituals. The locations of these relics became the destination of vast numbers of pilgrims.

I was struck by what dominated early Christian life in terms of image and symbol. If I asked you for the central symbol of the Christian faith, you would understandably say, “the cross.” And perhaps today it is.

It wasn’t to the first and earliest Christians. The cross as a symbol came on to the scene later, blossoming during the medieval era, often as reliquaries holding bits of wood from the True Cross. Called “speaking” reliquaries, the idea was that if the reliquary was to hold the bone of a hand, it was best to make your reliquary in the shape of a hand; if it was the heart of a saint, it was best to house it in a reliquary the shape of a heart.

Fragments of the True Cross were put into small crucifixes to represent what the reliquary held. But early on, no one tried to put forward the cross itself as the symbol of the Christian faith. 

And for good reason.

It would have been like putting forward the image of an electric chair or a hangman’s noose to honor a martyr in our day. The cross was not a work of art, much less something hung around your neck. It was a symbol of death and torture. Yes, Jesus died on a cross, but that didn’t elevate the cross to anything more than a dark reminder.

So what was the prominent Christian symbol? When you survey early Christian art, and specifically reliquaries and tombs, it is the name of Christ Himself. Or at least the first two letters.

Here is what dominated early Christian symbolism and art:

The X is actually a reflection of the Greek letter chi and the P is the Greek letter rho. Together, chi-rho was the first two letters of Christ in the Greek language. Often superimposed on each other, they became the symbol for Christ and, as a result, the Christian faith.

If the cross was involved at all, it was portrayed with the chi-rho situated prominently at the top, reflecting how the cross had been stripped of its associations with humiliation and instead had become a symbol of triumph.

It was Christ’s triumph over and through the cross, not the cross itself, that was the point.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

I was having coffee with a fellow pastor who needed more than caffeine to pick himself up. Summer attendance was down. Key people were leaving because of disagreements about the direction of the church. And money was very, very tight.

I felt nothing but empathy. Yep, been there, felt that.

“Jim,” he said, “I knew seasons like this would come. I just didn't know how stressful they would be.”

Neither did I. To this day, the disappointments can still blindside me. Nothing prepares you for how ministry can drain you emotionally, leaving you in pain or, even worse, feeling numb or in despair or with seething anger. This is why so many good men and women in ministry have careened into moral ditches and many more still soldier on with plastic smiles and burned-out souls. 

A few years ago, my wife Susan and I were part of a mentoring retreat with about a dozen couples, all well-known leaders of large and thriving churches. We started off with an open-ended question: “What are your key issues right now?”

As we went around the room, the recurring answer in each of their lives was “emotional survival.” We shared our stories about the hits and hurts that come our way in ministry as occupational hazards and how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, our creativity, and our missional stamina. They leave us dreaming of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink – permanently.

So how do you manage your emotional survival?

First, the bad news. There’s not a quick fix. Ministry is just flat-out tough and often emotionally draining. You won’t ever escape the hits and the hurts. They come with the territory. 

Now, the good news. You can develop a way of life that protects, strengthens and replenishes you emotionally. You can cultivate a set of activities and choices that allow God to restore your soul. Some things are obvious like regular days off and annual study breaks if you can get them. And you’ll need to get a lot more savvy about people and how to deal with them.

So here are two choices I wish I had made much earlier in my life. They may seem far removed from what caused the emotional hit in the first place, but they are key to ensuring you have a full emotional tank and can keep putting gas into it for the long haul.

Clear boundaries regarding giftedness.

First, how you serve is critical. Ministry is tough enough. But if you consistently serve outside of your primary areas of giftedness, you won’t last very long under the stress and strain that comes with the territory. I really don’t hear this talked about very much, if at all. But there’s something about large amounts of time spent serving against the grain of your natural gifting that saps your emotional and spiritual energy.  

I've had to learn to be very up front with folks about my areas of giftedness, and how those gifts are supposed to operate in the mix with other people's gifts in the body. That’s because what happens in a church, even one where spiritual gifts are taught and celebrated, is that the pastor is still expected to have them all – and to operate in them all. The danger is that you’ll let yourself try, and soon you’ll be wiped out with little or no reserves for the daily toil.

Related to this is operating outside of your personality type. A surprising number of pastors are, ironically, introverts. It’s not that they don’t love people or aren’t good with people – most are even charismatic in terms of their leadership and speaking ability – but they are, in fact, introverts in terms of emotional makeup. As a result, many pastors get their emotional energy from being alone. If such realities are not acknowledged and managed, you will find yourself emotionally spent and soon burned-out.

So yes, even as a pastor, you need to guard how you serve.   

Emotionally replenishing experiences.

Second, I’ve had to learn to intentionally pursue emotionally replenishing experiences. When you hurt, if you don't find something God-honoring to fill your tank with, you'll find something that isn't God-honoring. Or at the very least, you’ll be vulnerable to something that isn’t. I am convinced this is why so many pastors struggle with pornography – it offers a quick emotional hit. 

To prevent that, I’ve had to learn to do things that channel deep emotional joy into my life. For some folks it's boating, or golf, or gardening. For me, it’s travel, reading, time alone with family, and enjoying anything outdoors – particularly the mountains.

Several years ago, a man I had invited into my life in a mentoring relationship asked, “Jim, what do you do that really puts gas back into your tank? If you could do one thing that would rejuvenate you spiritually and emotionally, what would it be?”

I didn’t have to think very long, or hard. I knew the answer: “I would go to the mountains and be alone.”

For as long as I can remember, the mountains have held significance for my spirit and emotions that I cannot explain. Being there alone is particularly rich, as I gain my deepest emotional energies apart from others. 

He said, “Good. You should do that once a month.”

I laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. Once a month? The mountains? I don’t have the time! My life is too busy, too full, to put something like that into my schedule.”

Then he said something I will never forget. “If you don’t, you will end up in a ditch. You will burn out, lose your ministry, perhaps even your family, and become a casualty of the cause.” 

I knew he was right. I was already seeing the edges of my life fraying, and knew how easily my world could unravel. 

I went to the mountains.

My first trip found me staying in a budget hotel, just overnight, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I remember it to this day. It was like water on a dry desert. I felt energy and emotional renewal flowing into the deepest recesses of my inner being. I came home walking on air. I entered our foyer, hugged my kids, and kissed my wife. She thought I had been drinking. 

I had – from the well of emotional renewal which God intends for all of us to take deep draughts of living water.

Now I escape to the mountains to a little bed-and-breakfast monthly. Every month I leave on a Thursday afternoon, and as I drive toward the cool air and clear skies, I feel the weight of the world fall off my shoulders. I feast off of it for weeks. Four, to be exact, when I venture to my precious emotional retreat once again. 

On the front-end I would have told you that it was impossible to put this into my life. Looking back, I will tell you that it is unthinkable not to have it.  

So here’s my question for you: 

If you could do one thing that would rejuvenate you emotionally, what would it be?

Now here’s my challenge:

For your sake, and your ministry’s, do it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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