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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
This sermon may be more of a testimony than a sermon. I want to tell you about the evolution of my daily examen.
The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice in the Church. As you may have guessed from its name, in involves examining something. As a spiritual practice, it typically involves examining oneself. The purpose of the practice is to help one see when and where and how God has been at work in one’s life.
The Daily Examen, as the name suggests, is an examen that is done on a daily basis. In other words, if one participates in a daily examen, one spends time, typically at the end of the day, prayerfully examining the day, reflecting in some way on when and where and how God has been at work in one’s day – and when and where and how one has been a faithful disciple of Jesus.
There are many prayer techniques, many ways of doing a daily examen, the most famous of which is probably the one developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius lived through the first decades of the Protestant Reformation and he founded the religious order known as the Jesuits. I don’t know if or how his experience being devoted in obedience to the Pope (as all Jesuits were) or being an instrumental part of the Counterreformation influenced what became his spiritual exercises or the specific form of his daily examen. What I do know is that he is remembered much more for his spiritual exercises than for anything else, except maybe for founding the Jesuits.
As I said, there are many ways of praying a daily examen. I’ve found that there’s a flipbook available to help you with a daily examen. I found a daily examen outline that has an ecological focus. There’s even an app for it.
Whatever technique you use for a daily examen, one of the important element of it is thanksgiving. While it may be a framed less than explicitly, every daily examen that I’ve found has thanksgiving as a core step to it. That’s why about three and a half years ago I decided to make thanksgiving the central part of a prayer practice I started.
I was going to be leading a workshop on social media and spirituality for Christian educators and I started an experiment so I could share my personal experience with my workshop attendees. I decided to write and post on Facebook a prayer of thanksgiving each night (well, almost each night – I missed some over the course of the past three and a half years). This is the form the practice took at first. I would sit at the computer and think about the day. I would think about what happened, where and when and how I sensed the presence of God during the day. I would decide what I wanted to thank God for. And I would write a prayer of thanksgiving and click “post.”
About a year and a half ago, I decided to use journaling for my pre-thanksgiving prayer reflection. I have kept a journal on and off for years – more off than on. But I bought myself a new journal and I had an old fountain pen repaired, and I started journaling. And journaling has been part of my daily examen since then.
Let me just say, if you want to journal as a spiritual practice, find a journal that has paper you enjoy writing on and a pen or pencil you enjoy writing with. It will make the practice much easier to maintain. For some of you, that will mean getting a spiral notebook and a Bic pen. For me, it meant getting a bound journal I liked and getting my fountain pen working again.
Then, last year, my daily examen took another change. Our Ash Wednesday worship service was essentially the same as tonight’s service. We had four scripture readings – the same readings we will use tonight. Each was followed by a question – the same questions we will ask tonight. And we sang hymns after the times of reflecting on those questions – the same hymns we will sing tonight.
The four scriptures and questions were selected in the hopes that each of us would connect to at least one them. Using the work of Corrine Ware, Pastor Brenda and I recognized that some people find their spirituality grounded in thoughtfulness, that some people have what Ware calls “a head spirituality.” Others find their spirituality grounded in feelings, especially feelings evoked through their connections with others. These people have what Ware calls “a heart spirituality.” Others find their spirituality grounded in contemplation and have what Ware calls “a mystic spirituality.” And other find their spirituality grounded in expressing compassion and working for justice. These people have what Ware calls “a kingdom spirituality.”
So last year – like tonight – we had four readings and four questions, each corresponding to one of these four spiritual types. What happened to me after last year’s Ash Wednesday service is that I started asking myself four more questions during Lent I don’t remember how I framed the questions at the beginning of Lent, but I can tell you how I ask them each night now. I ask myself:
- How have you practiced Study today? (head spirituality)
- How have you practiced Community today? (heart spirituality)
- How have you practiced Stillness today? (mystic spirituality) and
- How have you practiced Service today? (kingdom spirituality)
Some days my answer to one or more of those questions is, “Not at all.” Sometimes one of those questions will remind me of something that happened during the day and I will know of one more reason to give thanks.
So, my daily examen now has five steps.
- I sit and center for a moment.
- I journal about the day.
- I ask myself those four questions (and I’ve actually added a fifth, but it is the material for another sermon on another day) and journal my answers.
- I write my prayer of thanksgiving.
- And I post it online.
The result has been a deeper relationship with God, a deeper sense of my own discipleship, an awareness of my growing edges and my spiritual needs, and a life that at least nightly brings me to give thanks no matter how sad or angry or hurt or helpless I’ve felt during the day.
I hope you hear this sharing in a couple ways. I hope you hear that spiritual practices take exactly that – practice. I hope you hear that I have found meaning in our worship services and that sometimes they can even impact my daily life. And I hope you hear an invitation – to explore and experiment with your spiritual practices – and a hope – that you, too, might find something helpful in this worship service not just for tonight, but for the rest of Lent, and maybe even beyond.
For almost a year now, I have had an (almost) daily practice of ending my day with a prayer of thanksgiving. There’s nothing new here. Christians (and people of other religions) have a long history of offering prayers of thanks, often as part of a review of the day just ending. What is different about my practice is that I post my prayers on Facebook wall with a privacy setting that allows anyone to see them.
It started out as an exercise as I prepared a workshop on Facebook and Spiritual Practice that I led last October for Christian Educators (largely UCC, Episcopal, and Presbyterian). I wondered how my prayer life would change as a result of this practice. I wondered how my relationship with God would shift as a result of this practice. I realized that I would be putting these prayers out there in public and I didn’t know how that would impact this prayer practice.
My early prayers are quite specific. They are laundry lists of thanksgivings. “Thank you God for this particular thing, for that particular experience, for this particular relationship.” I assumed that no one would be interested in these prayers because they were about my day, my experiences, my relationships. I was wrong.
There are two primary ways to interact with posts on Facebook: clicking the “like” button and leaving a comment. I was surprised as my prayers collected “likes” and comments. When I missed a night (which happens), I would wake to messages asking me why I didn’t post a prayer. People commented that they were using the prayers as part of their morning spiritual practices. I was stunned. And I am thankful.
I have noticed that the writing of my prayers has shifted. While I still reflect on specific experiences and gifts and relationships, I find I am writing in more general terms (at least most of the time). I find that I am now writing for myself and God (it’s a prayer, after all, so it’s about me offering my thanks to God), and that I’m hoping that my reasons for giving thanks are connecting with reasons others have for giving thanks.
I have also noticed that knowing that there are people (and maybe it’s just a handful, but there are people) out there looking forward to reading my prayers, I feel a little more accountable for offering the prayer. I continue to hold steady with the practice in part because I know it isn’t just for me.
An impact of this prayer practice has been, I think, a little more compassion in my heart and a little more satisfaction in my day. I also feel a little more aware (most days) of the presence of God.
I bring this up for two reason. One reason is simply to share a prayer practice that I am finding helpful in my journey. The other is because of a theme I find myself turning to repeatedly. Not just when I sit to write my evening prayer of thanksgiving, but all through the day, I find myself giving thanks for the amazing commitment and leadership of so many people at Niles Discovery Church.
Especially impressive to me has been the work of our Construction Team, so let me sing their praise for a moment. Over the past couple months, they have and to deal with a General Contractor quitting and a break-in on two of the three containers at the construction site. Most construction projects facing a General Contractor quitting would simply shut down. Our project has continued. Our Construction Team has managed to keep work going, getting the new roofs completed, windows installed (see page 2), a fire hydrant installed, and the list goes on. They have dealt with insurance companies and container companies and the police. They have actually done some of the work for the project itself (ask Marilyn Singer about her intimate knowledge of black paint).
Thank you God for all the leaders and committed members of Niles Discovery Church! Thank you especially for the Construction Team! Amen!
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 6:1, 5-15
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
A minister died and, resplendent in his clerical collar, Geneva robe and colorful stole, waited in line at the Pearly Gates. Just ahead of him was a guy dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. Saint Peter addressed the guy in the leather jacket, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Saint Peter consulted his list, smiled and said to the taxi-driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff, and enter into the Kingdom.” So the taxi-driver entered Heaven with his robe and staff.
The minister, next in line, without being asked, announced, “I am Michael Kenney, head pastor of Saint Paul’s for the last twenty-three years.”
Saint Peter consulted his list and says, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Just a minute,” said the preacher, “that man was a taxi-driver, and you issued him a silken robe and golden staff. But I get wood and cotton. How can this be?”
“Up here, we go by results,” says Saint Peter. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”
We heard the section from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus teaches about prayer. He includes an example of how to pray, a prayer that we know as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Luke also includes a version of this prayer in his gospel. There are differences in the content, but more interestingly, at least for today’s sermon, is the difference in the context.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus is teaching and turns his attention to almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In Luke’s version, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. We assume these were all good Jewish men who would have been praying since they could talk. And yet they ask Jesus to teach them to pray. You may have been praying your whole life and you are still learning. Any music teacher will tell you: practice does not make perfect. Practice makes better.
The advice Jesus’ gives about prayer in Matthew’s gospel is against being showy in your spiritual practices. Whether it’s almsgiving, fasting, or praying, he encourages us to practice for the sake of the practice. Don’t use it to impress others, he says. Is it hyperbole when he says to pray in secret? I think to an extent it is. Yes, he’s encouraging personal prayer time. And he’s encouraging us not to pray to impress or brag. But I think he’s okay with us praying together in worship.
It is a relief that he says not to worry about the words we use. Keep it simple, Jesus seems to be saying. Just talk to God. Whether it’s here in worship or at home or in the car or any other place you’re on your own, just say it.
God, thank you for …
God, I’m concerned about …
God I’m afraid because …
God, I praise you for …
God, I’m sorry about …
God, I’m hurting because …
Just say it.
And I think that’s a great place to begin. But it’s only the beginning of learning to pray. And we’re all still learning.
The story is told of St. Sarapion the Sindonite, a Desert Father of fourth-century Egypt. “He ‘traveled once on pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Sceptical (sic) about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked: “Why are you sitting here?” To this she replied: “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”’”
We are all on a journey. We are all on a spiritual pilgrimage, whether we realize it or not. For me, one of the purposes of prayer, or really of any spiritual practice, is to help me realize that I am on a spiritual pilgrimage, and to help move that pilgrimage, and to deepen that pilgrimage.
We are also all different; that’s something we have in common. The truth is that different personality types, different spiritual types will find different spiritual practices more challenging than others, just as we will find different spiritual practices more fruitful in deepening our journeys into the heart of God. That is why we are looking at different spiritual practices in this sermon series. Some will resonate with you; others won’t.
One way of looking at the differences is to consider two axes. Perhaps it’s the former math teacher in me, but imagine a graph, and x-y plane. One line, say the horizontal line, can represent a scale of how important words or silence are for your spirituality. The other line, say the vertical line, can represent a scale of how important thinking or feelings are for your spirituality.
So, you might be someone for whom thinking about the realities of the world are important, but you don’t need to talk about it. You want to act. So service is an important spiritual practice for you. That’s what we talked about two weeks ago.
Or you might be someone for whom feeling a poem or a song is important, and so you might really be nourished by a Taizé-style worship service. That’s what we experienced last week.
Or you might be someone for whom words and thinking are very important, and so spoken prayers and devotional reading may be important spiritual practices for you. That’s what I’m talking about today.
Or you could be someone for whom stillness and feeling are very important, and so meditation may be an important practice for you. That’s what Pastor Brenda will be talking about next week.
In all of these spiritual practices, for every spiritual type or approach, needs gifts from the other spiritual approaches. We all need:
silence, if our words are to mean anything
reflection, if our actions are to have any significance;
contemplation, if we are to see the world as it really is;
prayer, if we are going to be conscious of God, if we are to “know God and enjoy God forever.”
One of the beauties of being in Taizé for a week was how easy it became to pray. The community was called together three times a day for prayer. In addition, there were early morning eucharist services one could chose to participate in. The structure for the rest of the day was quite simple: Bible study in the morning, some brief work project in the afternoon, and the rest of the afternoon and evening for reflection, reading, taking a walk, etc. There was no distraction from the internet, so I couldn’t do any work (even answering emails) long distance. There were no household chores that needed attention; my house was 5,000 miles away. There were no English language newspapers to haunt me with the latest world crisis (at least none that I found). So I found myself engaging in one from of prayer or another – reading and journaling and being – even when the community was not gathered in the church building.
When I returned from sabbatical I so wanted to keep the slower pace I had learned to love, a pace where there was plenty of room for God. But life rushed in to fill what it perceived was a vacuum. Carving out space for God became, again, an effort.
But carving out that space is important to our spiritual pilgrimages. Making space in our schedules and in our hearts for God is the only way to grow in that relationship. And that’s what the spiritual practice I’m talking about today really comes down to.
Creating a space for a daily devotional is a particular gift of Protestant spirituality to the rest of Christianity. There is even a comic strip that has come out of the practice. The strip, “Coffee with Jesus,” got its name from how some people see their daily devotional time – as sitting down with Jesus for a morning cup of coffee, and having a chat. Other people use daily emails to prompt their daily prayer time. Some use books. Some use booklets that are published monthly or quarterly. I’ll have examples of these at the “tasting” following worship today.
The thing that all these tend to have in common is a piece of scripture (often a single verse), a written reflection of some sort, and a prayer or a prayer prompt. Some people add journaling to this daily practice.
Sometimes, the daily devotional guides will include a time for intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is prayer offered on behalf of others. It happens any time we pray, any time we intercede on behalf of someone else or some situation outside ourselves. It is a type of prayer that can be challenging, for scripture tells us both to tell God what we want and not to treat God like a cosmic bellhop.
So I’ve come to see that intercessory prayer is not about changing God’s heart and mind for another person; it’s about joining with God’s desires for another person. When we ask God for a specific outcome for someone or some situation, we are sort of saying that we are smarter than God when it comes to what outcomes would be best. So, instead, I generally do intercessory prayer by simply holding someone in God’s embrace. Sometimes I visualize this. Or I’ll use words like, “God, I place ____ in the care of your unending love.”
Another form of daily prayer that I think is worth mentioning dates back to the early 16th century. St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested a daily prayer called the examen. A friend and colleague, John Mabry, has adapted and modernized it into these five steps:
- Review the day – noticing what leaps out at you, what and when feels emotionally charged, and especially what and when God felt either close or far away.
- Give thanks – praise God for those events of the day that brought you pleasure, joy, or satisfaction. Give thanks, especially for moments of spiritual insight or intimacy.
- Express remorse – Hold before God those things you are not proud of, the things you said or did that you shouldn’t have, and the things you didn’t say or didn’t do that you should have.
- Ask for forgiveness – Ask God to forgive you for those things you feel remorseful about. Also ask for forgiveness for not noticing or appreciating the gifts in your life.
- Ask for grace – Ask God to help you do better tomorrow, to be more mindful of God’s presence in everyone and everything, to notice when the Spirit is speaking and leading.
If a daily devotional is a good way to being the day, the daily examen is a good way to end each day.
Creating some sort of daily prayer practice is good for many reasons. It will deepen your relationship with God. It will nurture your spiritual pilgrimage. It will help you reflect on other spiritual practices you engage it. It will help you turn over you day, even your life, to the will of God.
I’ve been told that C.S. Lewis once said, “Every morning I turn my life over to God, and by the time I finish shaving I’ve taken it back.” If he didn’t say it, well someone else did. And I totally get the sentiment.
Finding some form of daily devotional can help us lengthen the time we let God be God in our lives. And what a gift that is.
 There are lots of versions of this joke floating around. This one is tweaked a bit from a version I found at http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/taxi_driver_made_them_pray_joke (22 March 2014).
 Don Postema, Space for God (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1983) 9; quoting Fr Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p 7.
 This is based on Corinne Ware, Discovery Your Spiritual Type. I was unable to find my copy of the book to get the full credit information. This also means my representation of her work is from my memory.
 Don Postema, op. cit., 16.