Let us Bake: Holy Smoke!

Today, I’m baking my first loaf of bread while reading through Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines.” I’ve already let Yancey’s words begin to affect my style of making sandwich bread for my family, but today will be the first time I intentionally set about the 6 hour process of making bread.

I have spent the last few weeks enjoying morsels from Yancey’s book, but this week we are plunging into our study, so the time has come to not only become serious about working with Yancey’s book, but to become serious about baking bread.

This week we’re working through the chapter on “Mise en Place: The Examen.” At the heart of it, mise en place is the most important part of trying a recipe. Yancey summarizes the process (in the first paragraph of the chapter) as “checking in, giving the kitchen and your abilities a once-over to confirm you are able to complete the recipe.”

As a home cook, the process is like the preflight checklist before taking off in an airplane. You might as well try to fly a jet without fuel as try to bake a loaf of bread without the ingredients. Do I have the right equipment? I experimented with trying out the mise en place on the recipe provided by Yancey Preston and realized I didn’t have two of the right bowls for letting the bread proof in the refrigerator! Either Amazon’s mistake or my own actions led to me only having one when I needed two! I had a poor substitute for one of the bowls, but I didn’t have them prepared! I looked further and realized I’d need to pull out my Dutch Oven and check the seasoning.

To be honest, I was a bit shocked that I was so unprepared to make the bread! I cook often in our home and often make bread for my family’s lunches. To be aware that I was completely unprepared for the recipe in the book is something that rarely happens, but as I reflected on the process, I realized how much I have learned to cope, to substitute, and to adjust recipes simply because I forgot to look ahead to see if I had what I needed. As Preston Yancey says: (pg. 39)

“The practice of mise en place is essential but often skipped. We assume a lot in this life, and we are no different in our kitchens. We plunge ahead because we’ve made x or y before so surely this is like all those times before. Often it is, until the dreadful moment it is not and we are affronted once more by the sickly quality of presumption.”

The concept of reading through directions, collecting ingredients, and even double checking that I have enough of those ingredients should be second nature as I cook a lot in our home, but for some reason it is not a regular part of my practice in the kitchen. I know for a fact that I am a better cook when I double check that I have what I need before I begin my time cooking in the kitchen. I still find myself often ignoring my better judgment and relying on my ability to substitute or make do with what I have on hand.

So, am I alone in the pattern of ignoring my better judgment? I somehow doubt that I am alone in this bad pattern of behavior. What’s worse, I know that this behavior is clearly not restricted to the kitchen. I often go rushing off into things without thinking about the long run. Sometimes it is something like a new Bible study program for personal growth or an extreme exercise routine to help my body get healthier. I start off with the best of intentions, but find myself suddenly in a situation far above my skill level or capability. Occasionally I do not check in with someone else who needs to be a part of something, I assume that everything is in place, or I just decide I will go with the flow without proper preparation. I sometimes believe that I am a master at not properly planning!

I think there are two things I have learned from this week’s attempt at mise en place. First, I need to do my homework, check off my list, and simply be more aware of what I am doing. Second, I need to intentionally be more prepared for my own journey in the kitchen and through life.

Part of the mise en place, as previously mentioned, was to prepare my dutch oven for the stove. The stove was going to be heated to 500 degrees. The cast iron dutch oven is seasoned with shortening. Looking ahead should have warned me to be prepared for smoke. What happened? Was I prepared? Take a guess…

Thankfully, my nearly three month old found the puff of smoke amusing, the fact that I rushed into the next room with a magazine to wave at the chirping smoke alarm to be funny, and was perfectly alright with my need to be distracted for a moment. She was just as giggly after the smoke cleared.

The very first loaf of the bread from the book. A bit overly brown, the slashes weren’t deep enough on top, and it is definitely a good reminder that everything can be seen as a work in progress! If at first you don’t succeed (in doing it perfectly), obsess  endlessly over the next loaf!”

Part of the mise en place that I need to enact in my own life is the ability to roll with the punches with grace. I need to prepare myself for when things don’t go perfect every single time I bake, especially as I do have blind spots in how I often prepare. I need to learn to let some expectations go and to have the capacity to replace my frustration with amusement. That’s a preparation that needs to happen deep in my heart. It is also a preparation that goes beyond my cooking.

When I wake up in the morning, do I prepare my heart for things going wrong in my day? Do I tell God that I want today to be a wonderful day even if things go sideways? Do I seek to find places not only to feel gratitude but to foster gratitude in my life? Do I practice the mise en place to be ready for my life?

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You see, now that’s a little bit better!

I think Preston Yancey is correct that disciplines like the examen can help us to be prepared for the turmoils of life, but I also believe there is something powerful about the discipline of asking God to give us what we need for a given day or a given hour. Do we prepare ourselves for the kitchen of life? If nothing else comes out of this week’s study, I am grateful I now have that question to ponder.

How about you? Do you have a favorite practice for preparing for a day of life in the real world? Do you have some sort of pattern or practice that helps you to be ready for whatever comes in your path?

Let us Ramble: On Giving “Kine”

Today has been an ordinary day of ministry in New York State. The snow has been falling at a constant rate for a couple of hours, the kids are home from school due to the weather, and the mood around the house has been a bit cranky as both parents have had their plans of getting extraordinary amounts of good things done abandoned and thrown to the wind. Meetings were cancelled, plans postponed, and ideas adjusted. In case you had not realized it yet, life still happens to people who live a life in ministry—there is no magical “Get out of jail free” card handed out to ministers when they agree to serve a church.

Before the snow began to accumulate heavily, I went out to visit a member of my church on comfort care. Their identity is known to God and the most I will say is that the individual has had a long period of being seasoned by life. I spoke with the family, agreed to sit with the individual for a while so they could get some rest, and settled down into a chair with Bible and Kindle.

I read a little scripture, prayed some prayers for the individual, lifted up the family in my prayers, spoke for a few minutes about the memories I shared with the individual, and then sat still. After a few minutes of silence, I found myself drawn to my Kindle and the copy I keep on my Kindle of the Carmina Gadelica.

The Carmina Gadelica is a collection of prayers and poems transcribed by Alexander Carmichael after being collected and recorded in the time that crosses the boundary of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Carmina Gadelica is an intriguing book in the fact that it chronicles a blending of cultures between the Celtic traditions that survived and the Christian traditions that took root in the British isles. I find the Carmina Gadelica to be an interesting collection that is very thought provoking.

I was reading through the second volume when the prayer “The Incense” caught my attention. I have come to believe that context affects the way we see the world around us. Sitting by the bedside of this individual as they breathed beneath closed eyes that saw the world when I had visited the day before and that had been bright before pneumonia came to visit in my absence, I read “The Incense” differently than I had read it before.

The translation of the following poem comes from the “Carmina Gadelica: Volume II” as translated by Alexander Carmichael. The poem is entitled “The Incense”

“In the day of thy health,
thou wilt not give devotion,
thou wilt not give kine,
Nor wilt thou offer incense.

Head of haughtiness,
Heart of greediness,
Mouth unhemmed,
Nor ashamed art thou.

But thy winter wilt come,
And the hardness of thy distress,
And thy head shall be as
The clod in the earth.

Thy strength having failed,
Thine aspect having gone,
And thou a thrall,
On thy two knees.”

I looked up the word “kine” in the dictionary. “Cattle.” Kine is another word for cattle. What does it mean to give cattle in the context of days of health? What do cows have to do with incense or devotion? As a student of religion, my first thought is sacrifice. Sacrifice was once one of the ways how a person expressed regret, fealty, or even respect to God.

This cow is kine of a big deal…

The subject in “The Incense” refuses to give kine. They have no sense of devotion, no desire to sacrifice, and seemingly no reason to burn those herbs and fragrant plans which have been burnt in countless traditions to symbolize a drawing near to the divine. The person is haughty, greedy, unrestrained in their speech, and without shame in their time of strength, health, and well-being.

Yet, the poem goes on. Winter will come. They will come under the power of time, age, and weakness in time. Indeed, the person will one day find their life on earth equivalent to a clod of earth in the ground. The poem is bleak in many ways. The poem paints a picture of a person who does not understand their need in the days of their strength.

Sitting by a bedside, watching someone breathe breaths that might be some of their last in this life, and contemplating this poem was a different contemplation than many contemplations that I have had over the years. Am I wise enough to give kine in the days of my strength? Do I have the wisdom to realize that there will come a day when my choices have been removed from my path? If I do understand, do I let that wisdom affect the way that I live my life?

Can I live with gratitude for the gifts I have been given? Can I let that gratitude guide my choices? Can I choose to deny the parts of myself that want to be haughty, that live in greedy places, or that wish to live unhemmed by matters like compassion, empathy, or grace? Can I live a life marked by devotion and prayer? Can I live a life where kine are not for amassing into a giant herd for my profit, but instead exist in my life as a source of life and blessing for those around me? Can I live out my life in faith in such a way that I will one day find myself on my knees in a place marked by trust in God rather than the frailty that comes from regret?

Sitting with someone who reached an age where they were well seasoned affected the way I read the poem. I am not concerned by the individual I was sitting with while reading. The person I was visiting had a life that seemed marked by faith, hope, and love. The person’s presence was enough to remind me that, unless Jesus comes back in their lifetime, even the most righteous person will age and find themselves at a place on the threshold between one life and the next.

I pray that I have the wisdom in my own journey to find the humility the subject of “The Incense” seemed to miss. I pray that when I reach a place where I find myself on my knees, I will find myself enthralled by faith, hope, and love, but not fear.

Let us Ramble: Diving Inside

It has been no secret that I have been attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation through Upper Room Ministries over the past 9 months. Once a season, I have travelled to Malvern, Pennsylvania to meet with holy conversation partners and teachers about a variety of spiritual traditions and how they can affect the way we approach spirituality. As much as there is an academic side to the studies, I have found the program to be highly practical and personal.

For our upcoming session, we are looking at both the (w)holiness of the relationship between our physical bodies and our spiritual selves as well as Orthodox spirituality. By Orthodox I mean literally Orthodox Church spirituality—there has not been a ton of lectures teaching heretical matters or anything of that nature.

On a side note, the Academy has actually been a great place to have open discussions on spirituality from a great range of Christian (and Jewish!) traditions without a need for those kinds of arguments, which has been really refreshing after a long traditional education where argument and counter-argument sometimes seemed to be at the heart of the formative process. To put it simply, the Academy is more about discipleship than conversion, which is why I adore my time at the Academy and recommend it highly for people who are tired of argument and long for personal formation. Yes, by the way, it is open to clergy and laity—both are welcome and appreciated in my experience.

While I will admit that a lot of the Academy preparation for the next session makes me nervous as my back has been acting up and I understand that things like yoga might challenge it during the next session, I find myself coming back again and again to the readings for the Orthodox spirituality section of the Academy. In particular, I am working my way through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, edited by Timothy Ware, and translated by E. Kadloubovsky and F. M. Palmer.

My copy of “The Art of Prayer” along with a subtle suggestion of another cool book filled with very cool resources for next month for all of my Irish loving friends.

A quote has stuck out to me in the introduction by Timothy Ware. Ware quotes Theophan the Recluse as saying “The principal things is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before [God] unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” Related to the depth of this idea, on the sixty third page of the anthology (which is where the quote Ware was citing in the introduction resides in the anthology) Theophan writes: “Every prayer must come from the heart, and any other prayer is no prayer at all. Prayer-book prayers, your own prayers, and very short prayers, all must issue forth from the heart to God, seen before you.”

In our church we have been in a lot of deep conversations lately. I personally have been in several conversations where we have had deep debate over leadership from the heart and leadership from the head. Does compassion rule the day when making decisions? Does regulation designed to protect us have the final word in conversation? Does the advice of wise denominational officials have weight equal to the advice of our hearts?

The conversations have been deep, thoughtful, and often stressful in nature. To some extent, some of these conversations have had a depth and thoughtfulness I have not seen since some of those deep lunch table debates in seminary which took place between impassioned people with differing knowledge, tradition, and convictions.

I continue to find myself drawn back to these Orthodox Spirituality concepts in these conversations. Ware connects all parts of the self (identified in his worldview as body, soul, and spirit) through the combining connector known as the heart. The heart is intertwined with the body, the soul, and the spirit in a way that is uniting. On the eighteenth page, Ware says:

“The term ‘heart’ is of particular significance in the Orthodox doctrine of man. When people in the west today speak of the heart, they usually mean the emotions and affections. But in the Bible, as in most ascetic texts of the Orthodox Church, the heart has a far wider connotation. It is the primary organ of [a human’s] being, whether physical or spiritual; it is the centre of life, the determining principle of all of our activities and aspirations…it embraces in effect everything that goes to comprise what we call a ‘person.’”

Today’s post is called “diving inside.” I titled the post this way due to the fact that I have been spending much of the past week diving inside of myself in the midst of these deep conversations and asking questions of myself. If I led (or lived) only from the head, could I stand before God with a soul and spirit that has gone ignored? If I led (or lived) only from the heart, could I stand before God with soul and a body that had been ignored? How could a soul even survive before God without that spirit of courage tended by Jesus or that head full of knowledge that has formed me into who I am today? In short, diving into my life’s conversations lately, I wondered if in any circumstance or path I chose, could I possibly stand before God in my heart without my conviction shattering me into a thousand little pieces?

I do not find it coincidental that the Jesus prayer rests deeply within Orthodox spirituality. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Pondering these matters, I have regularly found myself praying this prayer over the past few weeks, but not solely this prayer.

For me, this prayer is held in contrast with the Lord’s prayer. I am making an audacious or possibly even a (forgive me, but this is literally the right word for the situation) bodacious request when I ask God to lead me besides still waters (Psalm 23 runs through my mind when I see God’s reign and God’s will being done in heaven—I am aware it is technically not in the prayer), when I ask God’s will to be done on earth despite the fact that I need forgiveness for my trespasses, or even when I ask God for daily bread. There’s a sense of an almost arrogant familiarity and assurance in the Lord’s prayer that stands at odds with the pure humility found in the Jesus prayer. The two prayers speak from two very different places.

As I have been diving into these deep conversations and into my own spirit, soul, mind, and especially my heart, I found myself grateful for both prayers. There have been times during these conversations when I have felt the only thing I could reasonably ask of God for myself was the mercy that comes from a place of pure and utter prostration before God’s throne. There have also been times when I have had the assurance to know that the daily bread I needed was the ability to extend compassion from a place of confidence, eyes wise enough to look past fear towards the brightest possible outcome while others struggled with fear and anxiety, and even at time to find hope in Christ’s provision even as the conversation needed insight far beyond the wisdom held by mere mortals like me.

I am reminded of the words our ordination class responded with at Annual Conference when asked “Wesley’s Historic Questions” (which are asked of every United Methodist minister). Every time we were asked a “Will you…” question, we responded “With God’s help, I will.”

In many cases, daily life is like answering those questions. Do I know the answer to every difficult question I face in ministry? Heavens, no. Do I make mistakes? Most assuredly I have made mistakes and will likely continue to make mistakes in the future. Do I have faith in Jesus Christ? Yes. Will I continue to seek after Christ? With God’s help, I will. Will I do my best to live my life from a place of peace where all parts of me can coexist? With God’s help, I will. With all this in mind, will I live my life in such a way that I can stand before God in my heart in prayer? With God’s help, I will.

In the end, I believe that Theophan the Recluse was correct. Every prayer must come from the heart. Since that is true, I must not only guard my heart. I must tend my heart like a garden, After all, in Matthew 15:10-20, the gospels record that Jesus taught that it is not what we eat that defiles us, but what comes comes out of the heart. If I am to stand before God, I must tend my heart zealously. To quote the New International Version of Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If the Orthodox spirituality of Ware is correct, that guarding and tending of my heart means caring for what exists within me, in my body, in my spirit, and in my soul. With God’s help, I will.

Let us Ramble: Imperfect Hourglass

On my desk there are two hourglasses. One holds about enough sand to measure five minutes. The other holds a good ten minutes of sand. I collected them so that I could have a way to manage my time during my times of prayer. If we have two ears and one mouth, the purpose is clear. I might speak for five minutes and then listen for God in silence for ten minutes. In general, it works well both as a focus for my attention when I wander in silence and as an attention for my focus when I need to get to the point in what I am trying to communicate to God.

My two hourglasses!

I know that for some of you, that level of intentional focus might seem a little bit excessive, but for a person whose brain wanders easily… The tools help. The name of my blog (Distractedpastor.blog) was not a mistake.

Still, there are days when my focus is not there. There are times when I want to say more or listen more, but there’s a knock at the door or a buzz on my phone. There are times when I just want to give more into those moments. There are times I want to slow the hourglass down and give more, but do not have the opportunity.

I was reminded of this reality as I was perusing Bernard of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God” this morning. On the nineteenth page of the 1973 translation released by Cistercian Publishing, Bernard writes:

“My God, my help. I shall love you as much as I am able for your gift. My love is less than is your due, yet not less than I am able, for even if I cannot love you as much as I should, still I cannot love you more than I can. I shall only be able to love you more when you give me more, although you can never find my love worthy of you. For, ‘Your eyes have seen my imperfections, and all shall be written down in your book,’ all who do what they can, even if they cannot do all they should.”

I love the phrasing although I’m still parsing my way through the details of the words. “…for even if I cannot love you as much as I should, still I cannot love you more than I can…” How are we able to love God? We love God because God gives us the ability. We shall love more when God gives us more.

On some days, I sit to listen in prayer just as the world turns upside down. In those moments, I am usually able to find the earth before I go flying off into space. The ability to find purchase when everything goes wild can be difficult. In those moments, my fidelity to God’s love and purpose is usually as a result of the blessing God gives me.

On other days, everything is absolutely peaceful and I have the time to dive more deeply into God’s love and grace. In those moments I find myself able to bring more of myself into my relationship with God. In some moments, it even seems like the hourglass slows.

In between these moments, I rest in the knowledge that I do my best to do what I am able to do, even if I am not capable of doing everything that I should. My flaws are known to God, my brokenness apparent, and I bring what I can bring to the table.

I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of art. The one of a kind portrait is hung in a cheap poster frame on my office wall. It is really poorly mounted, but hangs in a place of prominence. It is the very first work of art my oldest child brought home from school.

Now, when this painting was painted, was it perfect? No. Did the then 3 year old Grace understand how many nights I spent caring for her as an infant? Did she know how I felt when she spit up on my shoulder and the picture capturing that splotch of milk is what made it in the newspaper? Of course not, but she loved me as she was able. Warts and all, I have seen my daughter. I love her, so I love this painting.

The apple tree from my elder daughter’s first weeks of school

For me, this is what Bernard is talking about in his passage. I may never be able to love God as perfectly as God deserves. I may never be able to do something worthy of God’s affection. I can do what I am able to do, despite the moments that I spit up on God’s shoulder. Invariably, we all do as we can do in this world. I simply pray God will see the same affection in my love as I see in my daughter’s love.

Let us Ramble: Oh the places you’ll bless

In the fall of 2012, I was presented with a prayer blanket by the Pennellville Merry Stitchers. A series of unfortunate circumstances meant that I was only pastor in Pennellville for a few short months, but they had been very exciting and rich months of ministry. I have fond memories of walking down the street by the church, enjoying the occasionally rustic smell from the nearby farm, and the warm people I came to know briefly.

Their prayer blanket has come with me many places. I took it on the airplane when I flew to Ireland despite my terrible dislike of airplanes. It has been with me in moments of doubt. The prayer blanket has draped my shoulders through many a difficult moment of discernment.

Today the blanket is rolled up and supporting my back. I have had intermittent back troubles over the past few years and my back flared up after a long and stressful weekend. This morning as the medicine soothes muscle spasms, the prayer blanket is against the area of trouble. The sacred stitches are bringing comfort to hurting places.

One blessed blanket!

We do not often know how the things we do will affect other people. Sometimes the things that we do have negative consequences which we do not expect. Sometimes, the things we do bring blessing into unexpected areas. As my back rests against this bearer of prayers and blessing, I am reminded of good people and that they, for a brief time, loved me deeply as their pastor. There is a healing power to those memories and thoughts.

Stitch a stitch today. If you cannot stitch, then be merry. May your actions bless the world across years, even when you cannot see the effect of your love on others. Be a blessing.

Let Us Ramble: Celebration

There are several spiritual disciplines that I find difficult. In my life it seems that few disciplines are as hard to accept and to act upon as our call to celebration. It may seem a hard thing to believe, but celebration is difficult for me as an individual.

It may seem strange that a person who enjoys science fiction and cooking would have difficulty with celebration, but at some point I was infected by the idea that celebration was a sign of pride, of arrogance, of “loving the world,” and a thousand other things that I should shun. I was in my thirties before I even began to consider the possibility that celebration was a discipline. I am still working on entering more wholeheartedly into the act of celebration.

It is odd that it took me so long to understand the concept that God calls us to celebration. How many psalms mention taking joy in God’s works or entering into worship with music and dance? Matthew 11:18 records how Jesus was accused of celebrating too much! God calls us to have gratitude for the blessings that God has given to us and to rejoice in God’s love! We are called to celebrate!

I am reminded of this fact in particular today as I celebrate the birth of my middle child Joy. Joy is a reason for celebration. For all the ups and downs of life, we are called to celebrate and she is indeed a reason for great celebration.

Perhaps there is wisdom in the celebration of Job. Job is not known as a celebratory kind of man, but consider the description of Job. Job 1:5 speaks of Job’s tendency to come to the Lord with gratitude for his children each time they celebrated feast days. His love and celebration brought him to a place of gratitude, a place where sacrifice was willingly given for his children’s sake, and to a place where his thoughts of children led to God. In a way, he celebrated them.

I give thanks for my Joy. May God bless her and help me to celebrate her uniqueness and wonder more often. Amen!

Let us Ramble: An Arresting Quote on Charity

Recently, a college classmate of mine from years ago asked a question on Facebook. If I could write a paper on any female spiritual figure in history, which person would I choose? I love open-ended questions and spent a couple of days perusing the answers until late Thursday morning. I had been working on collecting reports for our Annual Meeting and had just completed a report for a member who is in need of a bit of a hiatus. In other words, I was out of coffee, had been up worrying about my infant with a fever most of the night, and was a bit bleary eyed. I took a few moments to look at my bookshelf for something that I could peruse for a few minutes while my wits came back around to meet me and the next item on my agenda.

My eyes fell on one of my favorite books from a few years back. I came across “The Mirror of Simple Souls” by Marguerite Porete. My edition is from “The Classics of Western Spirituality” of Paulist Press in 1993 and was translated by Ellen L. Babinsky with a preface by Robert E. Lerner. I immediately thought of the post, remembered that nobody seemed to have mentioned this wonderful author, and jumped to share with my old college friend.

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My copy of Marguerite Porete’s “The Mirror of Simple Souls.” I recommend it highly!

I picked up my copy, began to peruse, and then began to laugh. Did you ever wonder what would get a woman killed by the inquisition in France in 1310? Well, writing in vernacular French didn’t help. What made me laugh was the translation of a part of the trial where the inquisitor is shocked that not only did Marguerite not burn her copy of her book after a former bishop ruled it heretical, she kept thinking it was a good book, and dared to send it to another bishop as well as other simple folks “as if it were good!”

I do love a woman who believes in herself and her God! She spoke the language of the people, cared about the people, and kept on believing in God’s call on her life despite the challenges! Authority should be respected, but let’s be clear—Marguerite Porete saw authority abused and relied on her faith in the highest authority of all! Here was a woman who makes me smile!

I began to spend a few minutes browsing over the pages while working up the courage to go across the way to heat up a cup of coffee. I was reading along when something caught my eye worthy of a blog post and inspirational enough to get me to hold off on grabbing that cup of joe. Here’s what is translated from the fourth chapter of Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls:

“Charity is such a wise merchant that she earns profits everywhere where others lose, and she escapes the bonds that bind others and thus has great multiplicity of what pleases Love.”

I love this concept. As I pen this blog post for Monday morning, I am drawn to think about charity. Charity has many roots and I do not pretend to be an etymologist, but I noted with enthusiasm that the Online Etymology Dictionary stated that around the time of Marguerite Porete’s life, charity became connected with the concept of the affections we ought to feel for other people. In my own imaginary world, there is a distinct correlation between these facts!

I think about the ways we ought to feel for other people and how that inspires us a lot on Mondays. Recently, my primary visitation day for going to visit people in their homes or in care-facilities is on Mondays. As this is posted online (unless something goes askew) I am likely riding in my car down to visit one of our saints in the Triple Cities. Some of these visits are easy to accomplish as the saints in question are lively, ask deep questions, and appreciate a good visit. Some of these visits are heartbreaking at times when the saints are struggling.

When we consider how we ought to feel for others and then when we let those feelings affect who we are as people, we are entering into the purest form of charity. Charity is not meant as something begrudgingly given, something scowlingly given, or something unfortunate that has to happen in order for the charitable person to to be one of the good people. Charity is our opportunity to live into the same gracious love as our Lord and Savior first showed us. Charity is our opportunity to become the hands and feet of God and to enter into the dance of God’s love. Charity is an amazing thing!

Marguerite’s concept arrested my eyes because of the simple beauty of the idea. Charity finds profits where others lose. Charity finds freedom where others find fettering chains. Charity abounds in what pleases Love. These ideas are so simple and beautiful.

How can charity find profit where others lose? Perhaps it is because charity, when birthed by love, sees things through different eyes. The world says that you will never get rich by taking weekends off from work and volunteering to play basketball at the YMCA with kids. You will never get rich volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club or with your church. You also cannot buy the love those kids may come to have for you as a person. You cannot buy their affection, their love, their admiration, their imitation, or any of the other blessings that come being involved in a ministry of charity. You will never get rich with money—you may become rich with love.

How can charity find profit where others lose? Sometimes it is because love follows love. In the spring of 2013 I witnessed the worst community fire of my career in Boonville, NY. The church I was serving became a hub to help provide food, shelter, space for the American Red Cross, and information for the people who were displaced. Do you know what happened when we tried to buy lunch for the people who were displaced? We were matched by others and nobody went hungry. Do you know what happened when we started to collect clothes? The fellowship hall was filled with blessings. Every time we tried to give what we could, others joined in with us in charity. Perhaps you may find no personal profit in engaging in charity, but sometimes the love of God seen in you inspires others to bless those around us.

How does any of this promote freedom? I believe charity breaks the bonds that hold us in place. Often we get trapped within our own prisons by tradition, by circumstances, by our own limitations, and by our own imagination. There can be freedom when charity invites us to feel for others like we ought to feel, when charity motivates us to move past feeling to action, and when charity finally overwhelms our prisons.

The week of the fire in Boonville wasn’t just a holy week. The fire took place during THE Holy Week. We had to cancel our extra services on Thursday and Friday to care for people in need. We worshipped across church lines with Presbyterians and Baptists that week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively.

They welcomed us as guests and opened their hearts and church homes to us. What kept us from worshipping together before? Pride? Maybe. Tradition? Probably. Silliness? Definitely. I never enjoyed worship services so much as when we came into those churches, sat exhaustedly down, and we were welcomed and loved despite our tiredness and our Methodist personhoods. We United Methodists made space for others and through charity we found the freedom to look beyond our doors. We had the freedom to find our family and spend time with them. The family of Christ worshipped in a holy way that week.

When we engage in charity, we find ourselves in places where we can build up an abundance of love. I will likely be thinking of Marguerite’s call to charity was I walk through the doors of Bridgewater Rehabilitation or one of the United Methodist Homes this morning. I pray that you would find places to fall in love with God, to love your neighbor, and to connect with who you ought to be—someone filled with holy charity, freed by grace, and abounding in love.

Let Us Ramble: Random Chinese Food

Last night I had a meeting at the District Office in Endicott. It had been a long day between having a snow day for the kids and needing to get ready for Sunday. My wife had a meeting out of town and swept in the house twenty minutes before I needed to leave with a cute and cuddly baby that I had not seen all day.

We tried to talk as the family ate the huevos rancheros that I had cooked for their “breakfast for dinner.” The elder kids also wanted to talk with their mom. My wife and I did not have a chance to connect before I needed to leave. I sat in my car in Endicott and tried to think of something I could do to connect with my wife. I realized how hungry I was, looked at what I had eaten for dinner, and realized I probably needed more than 150 calories. It turns out one tiny tortilla with one egg is not exactly filling.

I brought home a container of mystery Chinese food. I literally walked in the restaurant, looked at the chef’s specialities, found something I had never tried and did not understand, and brought it home. It turned out to be a shrimp and vegetable dish with a nice light sauce. It was rather tasty.

Some days it takes work to connect with your spouse. As we ate Chinese, our baby was fussing and crying at us both. I took chopsticks full of rice in between moments of putting her pacifier back in place. The baby did not really settle for hours. It was not an easy evening after my meeting, but my wife and I found moments together over a new experience and a new food.

Marriage takes work. Even when everything seems to be going perfectly, marriage takes work. I am glad that I took time after a very long day to connect with my spouse.

Let us Ramble: Snowbanks as a Metaphor

On this past Christmas Eve I found myself preaching at church. Most years that would not have been news, but this year I was on paternity leave. My good friend who was providing pulpit supply was under the weather, so I pulled together a sermon based loosely on what I had been reading. I had been spending a lot of time reading the 1973 translation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God” produced by Cistercian Publications. My sermon was effectively revolved around the concept that we should love God and celebrate Christmas because it is a celebration of Christ becoming the incarnation of God’s love for us.

As I type this blog entry, the sounds of my two elder children are pouring in through the door between my church office and the church nursery. Outside it is still snowing despite the fact that the snow day my kids prayed for last night has become the reality of today. By the road there are piles of snow building besides cleared paths. The piles are growing with every pass of the snowblower. The snow keeps falling despite the fact that I asked it to stop nicely. The snow will keep falling because the snow is stubborn.

As I was pondering the snow this morning, I came to a realization. Technically, I had two realizations. First, I realized that the snow would be breaking my back if it were not for the blessed snowblower. I injured my back last year and have had to become very careful with how I use it in order to keep from injuring it again. If I were to lift up that much snow my back would be destroyed.

Snow is beautiful until it falls down the back of your shirt.

Second, I realized the snow could be seen as a great analogy. The snow is heavy, deep, and weighty. In the same way, the love I owe God is heavy, deep, and weighty. So, let’s draw in Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard writes (on the eighteenth page):

“‘What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given me?’ In his first work he gave me myself; in his second work he gave me himself; when he gave me himself, he gave me back myself. Given, and regiven, I owe myself twice over. What can I give God in return for himself? Even if I could give him myself a thousand times, what am I to God?”

So, God gives us two gifts. First, God created us. To bring in some language from Psalms, we are knit together in the womb by a loving God. We are created in the image of God by God. How in the world could we ever repay God for such love? Can we give anything to God that wasn’t made possible by our creation in the first place?

Second, God recreates us. Bernard writes (a couple of lines before the previous quote): “He spoke and they were made. But he who made me by a single word, in remaking me had to speak many words, work miracles, suffer hardships, and not only hardships but even unjust treatment.“ God went to extraordinary lengths to take me as a broken person and provide a path towards redemption through Jesus Christ. What could any of us do to repay that much kindness and love? What gift could we offer?

What God has done is like the snow falling from the sky. Try as I might, there’s no way that I could ever lift all of that snow. My debt to God for his loving creation and remaking of my life is deeper than any snow drift I could shovel, heavier than any snow falling from the sky, and utterly beyond my ability to shovel, melt, or remove. God’s love is like a blizzard and there’s no way that I can ignore the weight and the effect it has on my life.

Ultimately, all that we can really do is accept the gift of God’s love and respond as best as we can with the love we have in our hearts. The love of God will keep falling down on the beloved children God has adopted, May we respond with grateful hearts!

Let us Ramble: Solitude, Faith, and Community

A noise tickles my ears as a buzz begins at 5:59 AM. My phone buzzes and begins to flash. I wake up early to check if the paths need to be cleared of snow before the teachers and staff of the church community arrive. After a cold time clearing up the snow with my snowblower and a headlamp, a hot shower to warm up chilled bones, and a hot mug of coffee, I settle at the table with my notebook. Soon, as the eggs bake for breakfast sandwiches for my wife and children, I will find myself digging through the Revised Common Lectionary.

This day I am flicking through the story of Saul being chastised by Samuel for caring more about what his people want than what the Lord required. I write a poem about Saul’s predicament while thinking and praying about what God’s message for Saul says to me as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor. The words are deep this morning as my heart struggles to make sense of the story of God’s chosen one being rejected for his actions. I weigh the passage carefully with others that have been dwelling in my heart.

I find these moments of devotion while the room fills with the smells of cooking breakfast to be sacred. They are not always perfectly isolated. Sometimes I finish my poem while my kids are making cocoa across the room. Occasionally a crying baby will interrupt this time with her needs. It is a time that actually gets interrupted regularly towards the end, but it is also one of the most sacred moments of the day. Even with interruptions, the ground I walk upon in those moments is holy.

In these moments of personal devotion, I sort through my dreams and prayers from the recently passed night. In these moments of personal devotion, I find inspiration that often affects the way I live out my faith life. In these moments of personal devotion, I often find the fuel that feeds quiet prayers for the community which follow. Have I read about love? Standing in the window, cleaning up dishes, I pray with love for the people in my church and community who are in need. Have I read about sacrificing for others wellbeing? I find inspiration to pray for the bus drivers who pass by the window. The personal devotions of my morning feed my time in prayer and help me to do a better job at being a part of a vibrant church community.

Henri Nouwen, in his book “Discernment” wrote (on the tenth page of his book):

“Communion with God alone in prayer leads inevitably to community with God’s people, and then to ministry in the world. But it is good to begin this spiritual movement in solitude…When we are alone with God, the Spirit prays in us. The challenge is to develop a simple discipline of spiritual practice to embrace some empty time and empty space every day.”

For myself, the moments in my day that are emptiest and have space for the Holy Spirit are between checking the paths to see if they are clear and when my children get out of bed. The time that I spend alone with God in those quiet places strengthens my relationship with God. That strength then leads towards others.

Invariably, my time with God tends to lead towards other people. Sometimes my prayers are led towards my family, but more often than not, I find myself drawn to pray for situations around me in the community and in the church. I want to be clear about this fact. My personal devotions do more than inform my prayer. My personal devotions empower my ability to pray. If the spiritual life of a Christian is a river, my time in personal devotion is one of the springs where that spiritual life finds the living water.

When the Spirit prays in us, our lives change. If you look back at a number of the great figures of Christian history, a lot of them speak about powerful moments of connection with God. Some of the descriptions of these moments can induce a blush! These moments of intimacy with God generally did not come out of a place of constant action. If you look, most of these moments come in lives marked by time spent with God. Like any relationship, a relationship with God that is healthy requires time spent together.

So, how do you begin to discern the right time for spending time with God? The first thing I suggest to people who ask me in person is that they chart out their day in blocks. What regular patterns emerge in your daily life? I found myself needing to wake up early to take care of sidewalks for the winter. As such, for this literal season, a period between that daily chore and when the rest of the day began emerged. For some people, there is a lull in the late morning, especially if you are retired or work a second or third shift position. Each person is different and taking a look at your regular patterns can help you notice places that are empty.

Second, if a person cannot find those moments of free time I suggest that there be moments in your day that might be better used doing something else. Back when I tried to engage in evening devotions despite my tiredness, I used to spend my mornings before the girls woke up listening to the news. The news often made me anxious, led to me feeling inordinately stressed at the beginning of my day, and often served more as empty noise than something of substance. I was better served by spending that time with God than spending it listening to the news. I still check the news later in the day, but I first ground my heart and my soul in God before facing what the world will throw at me.

Third, I often suggest that you begin with a simple devotion. There are wonderful resources available through many fine publishers. A trip to a local bookstore will often provide a lot of helpful options. Our church provides copies of the Upper Room Daily Devotional and we would work with anyone who wanted to explore one of the other options available. There are also a number of reading plans available through places like Bible Gateway that can help you to explore your Bible over a set number of days. Even the United Methodist Hymnal has a pattern for daily worship and prayer in the rear of the hymnal. There are many options available.

Fourth, try new things on occasion. If you, like me, enjoy the Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, consider using the Book of Common Prayer for a season. If you enjoy using Our Daily Bread, ponder trying out the Upper Room for a time. If you are going through a dry season, it might not help if that season is supposed to be teaching you something, but if your situation is simply fatigue—a change of pace might help.

What suggestions do you have for starting a time of personal devotions? Have any practices been particularly helpful?