Fresh Oil

Today it is still Ascensiontide on the liturgical calendar, the day before Pentecost. Christians are remembering that period of waiting for the spiritual power Jesus promised would come upon about 120 persons, including the twelve disciples. During these few days, Judas was replaced with Matthias to complete the symbolic number for a new Israel, a community gathered to continue Jesus’ mission on Earth. It is a time of waiting, like the longer season of Advent.This waiting is not passive or private, like waiting in line to board a train. or buy groceries. It involves a clear focus, attentive prayer and community.

Yesterday I had an edifying experience preparing to conduct an Ascensiontide healing service. My mind was overflowing with sermon themes and illustrations. I felt like a guest at a banquet of rich ideas. I made three outlines; and each seemed suitable for the occasion. I thought, ” The Lord must be inspiring me with pre-Pentecostal fire!”  Yet, which was the right topic? I prayed the Lord would show me the right choice knowing the leftovers could be part of the overflow just for the preacher. The calling to represent Christ in any capacity often also blesses those who serve.

Then I noticed the oil stock to be used for anointing the sick. It surely needed refreshing. The brass was tarnished and dirty. The oil soaked cotton inside was hardened and green. Gross! Why hadn’t I noticed? It embarrasses me that I can’t remember when I last cleaned it. Of course the oil is a sacramental object the Lord would use to bring healing grace, however rancid the blessed contents, or negligent the vintage priest. I polished the brass to a velvety shine, and sniffed the myrrh laced olive oil soaking into fresh cotton. Careful preparation seemed to me a good part of spiritual waiting,  just as baking fresh bread and setting the table is a hidden but normal part of a fine feast.

Later, at the scheduled worship service, it came time for scripture readings -all about waiting in prayerful community for the promise of God, framed with Psalms of praise and expectation. Then came the time for the sermon. The discourse turned out to be entirely other than the three topics I had prepared. It was an impromptu  response to the concerns of a fellow worshipper at the service. The other ideas from just  hours before were no longer relevant. “New occasions teach new duties,” as the hymn puts it.

And then, as I consecrated the fresh healing unction with prayer, a thought came bubbling into my consciousness. It seemed like a burst of light. There were no sounds, still unmistakably, a communication from the Lord. I can try putting the message into words: “It isn’t the sacramental oil that needs most to be refreshed, or the familiar teachings rephrased. You need to be filled with fresh oil, a new anointing of the Spirit. Empty yourself of old habits, memories and expectations. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. This anointing will be for a new day and more effective work.” The words FRESH OIL flashed like neon on a dark street, urgent and inviting.

I share this personal experience from yesterday, because there may be some faithful person who will also sense God is speaking. If so, empty the old stuff, find some fresh oil, wait on the Lord, and ask that you may receive the Lord’s promise afresh. Then receive a new anointing of the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. There is always more!

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Starting on Pentecost, May 15, I will begin a new series of posts entitled “PRAYING IN 3D” Deepening and maturing in Christian prayer is always the work of God the Spirit.

   “Come Holy Spirit by whose breath
life rises vibrant out of death.

Come to create, renew. inspire;
            come kindle in our hearts your fire”

O Send Out Thy Light (Psalm 43:3)

Film directors and painters never tire of exploring the nuances of light and atmosphere. Some time ago, after having cataracts removed from my aging eyes, I resolved never again to take for granted the clarity, color and gradations of light. There is splendor in the whole of life; with the dimming of years I had gradually forgotten to notice.

In prayer  one may expect a different, interior illumination. Light mysticism is universal and well worth exploring, though it can be a struggle. A friend related his experience with light meditation in a Yoga class. The leader expected participants to perceive and work with visionary light as instructed. Over time my friend continued to look with closed eyes and saw nothing in particular. This did not present problems as he had mostly signed up for the physical benefits of Yoga practice. But then one day it happened. Suddenly a cool, white intensity pulsed before his eyelids. Time came to open his eyes, and he suddenly deflated like a popped balloon; someone had flicked on the florescent lights in the usually dim room. “This ended,” he said, “my pursuit of enlightenment.”

Still, I think there is a rich and energizing range of inner experience open to almost everyone, which trumps our capacity for deception or credulity. There is a vast luminous world of fantasy, visual memory, imagination and dream-scape, and yes, for some, interior revelation. Working with the experience of interior light is positive and nourishing, even for people like me, who are naturally more auditory than visually perceptive. And so, for several months I have been exploring visual meditations grounded in scripture and moving toward bathing in peaceful, healing light. It all began with reflections on the star of Bethlehem, cool and distant, but drawing toward some unknown possibility. This sometimes started with Christmas card scenes in memory, with me joining the Magi on their journey; the period ended with resting in the radiance of the Eastern star. Then I began to work with the Transfiguration stories of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Since each is a bit different, I would note the difference intellectually, and then visualize that uniqueness before entering the scene with Peter, James and John to “behold the glory,” of Jesus on the mountaintop. The shining became so bright I could see only transfiguring light and rest there for a time. (As some may recall, Gregory Palamas centuries ago famously concluded it is possible for human beings to directly experience –not metaphorically, or “by faith”- the divine glory, a touch of heaven in this earthly life. He made an important distinction: though we can not experience God’s essence, the divine energies radiate all the way to those who seek with pure hearts. This doctrine was affirmed by several Eastern Church councils and is a basis for the Orthodox tradition of stillness meditation known as hesychasm.)

All the major world religions have traditional ways of practicing light meditation. The best practical advice I have been able to find is by an Australian from the school of Tibetan Buddhism, Dr. Ian Gawler. His book, “Meditation: An In-depth Guide” (Ian Gawler & Paul Bedson; Jeremy P. Tausher/Penguin, 2011, pp. 315-321.), offers a wonderful meditative scenario which I will summarize. Of course, the original version is somewhat fuller and assumes many elements of meditative technique as these authors expertly present them. He invites us to use it as we can; and so I did.

White Light Healing

1. Take time to relax physically in a quiet place, and in a meditative posture. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm and release tension.

2. Visualize the highest source of power you know…Use your imagination to come into the presence of this being. Converse or pray. Listen.

3. Imagine light coming from the very center of this figure: ”a beam of white light, like a searchlight…but this light also has liquid properties…a bit like a shower or waterfall…warm, liquid, white light…And as this warm light flows down toward you and reaches your head, it quite gently, slowly, softly flows not only over and around your body, but actually through it…a bit like water filtering down through dry sand, quite slowly…warm, liquid, white light, washing away anything that is old, worn or unwanted…and bringing with it a new sense of energy…healing…vitality.”

4. Take time to let the warm, liquid light flow through each part of your body…Notice the light becoming stronger. “It’s almost like turning up a dimmer switch…stronger, clearer, all through your body…radiant light… Let the light flow from your body into your mind…You can almost merge into that light uniting with it…” Just rest in the presence of that light for as long as you are comfortable.

5. “Remember you can come back to this experience at any time you like…and each time you do it will feel easier and more complete…You will be able to go with it more thoroughly and rest in the presence even more completely…Also remember you can have this energy, this presence with you all day…Even while you sleep…This is an infinite energy you are drawing upon…always there…limitless.”



Dream-work Expanded for Groups

Dream-work is the caffeine of the soul. An effective practice will help keep us spiritually awake. Why is this? By intentionally reflecting on our nightly dreams, the process of “noticing and befriending” gives one direct access to unconscious material of all kinds. The dreamscapes of the nightly REM cycles reveal metaphors of feelings and mood, otherwise unacknowledged parts of the personality, seeds of creativity, even messages from God; but this inner development takes place best when we train ourselves to remember and reflect. Those who keep a dream journal, and expand the material into conscious awareness, those who sometimes share content and insights with family members and spiritual directors are following  an ancient practice; it was widely commended, then forgotten, and is now returning in post-modernity.

Until recently, I thought prudence encouraged limited sharing of dream material, apart from intimate relationships and those trained in dream-work. There may be dangers in manipulative interpretation, broken confidences and group pressure.  Attending the annual summer Haden Institute Dream Conference has broadened my perspective on this issue. The small group technique developed by Bob Haden is clearly safe, effective and stimulating for participants. Of course the best way to experience his method would be to attend a conference, but the simple process is well explained in Haden’s 2010 book “Unopened Letters from God: Using Biblical Dreams to Unlock Your Nightly Dreams,” available from:

When a person I have been mentoring has some experience with journaling and has had a session or two around Chapter 9, “Dreams” from “Discovering the Treasure Within,” I try to involve them with 4-6 others in a dream group to meet as long and as often as participants find it helpful.

The Group Process Outlined (A fuller version is in Haden’s book, page 183-184.):

  1. Leader begins with a simple ritual to center the group and invoke God’s Spirit.
  2. Take a few minutes to check in with each other. Share an experience, relevant information, or feelings.
  3. Leader may give a short presentation on the wisdom of the dream, a reading from Jungian psychology, scripture, mythology –“something to call forth the Self.”
  4. Everyone shares a dream scenario, or perhaps just a title.
  5. Leader asks for a volunteer to work with a dream. (This is the main course; there may be time for two dreams.)
    1. The person shares the dream story without interpretation or reflection.
    2. The group asks questions to clarify for all –no interpretations.
    3. The leader asks the person to “give the dream to the group.”  The dreamer turns chair around so as to listen without responding.
    4. The group “projects” on the dream from each person’s perspective. This time is not for analysis or interpretation. Each one shares, always beginning with: “If it were my dream…” or “In my dream…”  (“This is a way to minimize, own and acknowledge projection.” Haden)
    5. Leader invites the dreamer back into the group to share further insights, connections to conscious life, and amplifications that may come to mind.
    6. Leader reminds dreamer and others the dream(s) will continue to develop, no need to work through every detail or concern.
    7. Conclude with a closing prayer circle.

The leader should be a person experienced in facilitating small groups and with some knowledge of dream work; otherwise, leadership may rotate. Haden notes this procedure is not meant to be psychotherapy or a substitute for it, though growth and healing may often be experienced.