Dystopian Inspiration

Joyfully, I have recovered my writing laptop from the place where it was charging. Who would have guessed it was plugged in on my desk? The next thing you know, I’ll find my keys hanging on the key-holder by the door.

For today’s blog, I wanted to bring in an outside source from the kind of stuff I usually quote. I am a sincere believer that everyone needs to put their hair down occasionally. In fact, even the Desert Abbas and Ammas occasionally understood this idea. I adore the story of the hunter who comes across Abba Anthony and questions the good Abba about what he sees. The Abba and several other monks were enjoying themselves in the desert. The Abba challenges the hunters perception by asking him to repeatedly draw his bow and fire an arrow. In time the hunter protests. Overusing the bow will break it. Abba Anthony replies that the same is true of people. If you stretch them too much, they will break.

“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” translated by Benedicta Ward on pages 3-4.

I put down my hair by reading science fiction. I enjoy space operas, dystopian tales, and short stories. I was recently reading through “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois. In particular, I was reading “The Hunger After You’re Fed” written by the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franch operating together under the pseudonym of James S. A. Corey.

In the story, there’s a society where everyone can have what they need. People are offered an allotment and should have enough to live off if they are careful with how they spend their resources. Unfortunately, even in science fiction people are often people. A few particular lines of the story stuck out:

“Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on. Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or to me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food, but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the moments of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.”

James S A Corey, “The Hunger After You’re Fed” in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois.

Now, I underline my religious books on my Kindle regularly. I am 30% through this collection of short stories and this is the first highlight in the book. Let’s be clear that I enjoyed many of the stories. This quote from James Corey just leapt off the page at me in a special way.

I believe one reason it connected with me is my hobby of cooking. At this moment, I have am working on making a compound beef stock to enjoy throughout the cold months of winter. It has taken a lot of effort to make the beef stock. It would be far easier to just purchase a container of beef boullion from the grocery store, but there’s something deeper at stake for me.

I want my kids to have something true, something real, and something they can identify. I want my kids to recognize the taste of leeks and carrots in a stock. I want my kids to see how long it takes to cool and remove the fat from the top of the stock. I want them to understand why the food they eat at home tastes different from the stuff out of a can in the school cafeteria.

Truthfully, there are no bones left behind for the kids to see at the school. My kids see the bones the broth comes from in our house. When making chicken stock, they see the chicken paws come out from the freezer and into the pot. There was once something living and breathing that went into that soup. The vegetables they see cooked to oblivion to get nutrients and flavors into the stock? Those vegetables came from farms where farmers worked hard. In the summer, the kids often meet those farmers at the farmer’s market or at the coop where my kids see the chickens that produce their eggs.

I have a colleague named Grace Hackney who is big into the ministry of food through the ministry “Life Around the Table.” At the Academy for Spiritual Formation we have had several deep conversations on food and spirituality. We have various differences of opinions on small matters, but I agree with her assertion that the ways we feed our bodies affect how we feed our soul. Living out of a place of gratitude means not only giving thanks for what we have on the table but also being aware of how it came to the table. Proverbs 13:25-14:1 states:

“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty. The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”

Proverbs 13:25-14:1, NRSV

Proverbs is a book which is very black and white. There are righteous people who suffer want and there are wicked folks who have never gone hungry. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:45, the sun rises and the rain falls on people of all varieties. Still, there is wisdom to the saying “Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”

For me, stewardship means being able to trace back the foods I eat to the earth. If you hand me a chicken and vegetables, I can make broth. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but when pressed I can clean and cook a chicken. Grocery store vegetables are pretty, but if you hand me a bunch of malformed carrots, I can use them fine.

I am capable of these tasks, understand the effort they take, and thus do not throw useful things away without reason. In fact, I’m sure I drive my wife crazy with my obsession over leftover bones. I’m also certain she appreciates I can bring good food to the table for two or three days after roasting a chicken without driving up the grocery bill through the roof. I do so in part because there’s nothing more damaging to our budget than a grocery budget blown out of proportion or a trip out to dinner every night of the week. We have enough and some to spare in part because we do not let the foods we eat tear down the house in which we live.

We are trying to live out the wisdom of Proverbs 13:11 as a family: “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little with increase it.” There are days when the food on the table does not taste as good as the food at the restaurant, but there are moments when practice results in success. There are days when it is easier to just buy a kit from the store, but there are also moments when we turn the tide against the world insistent on telling our kids that any taste can come from a vending machine. Little by little we resist the drive to buy every shiny thing at the store. Bit by bit we regain what was once lost to us.

Hypocrites in Church

“Abba Elias the minister, said ‘What can sin do where there is penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?’ “

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” as translated by Benedicta Ward

I have been thinking about the nature of the church. I hold to the belief that the church is not only the house of God, but a place for the wounded to find healing. For me, it is natural to find strange folks in a church.

  • If I had a broken arm, I would go see a doctor.
  • If I had a shoe with the sole falling off, I would go see a cobbler.
  • If I had a broken laundry machine, I would call a technician to come fix it.
  • If the power line running into my house were to collapse and spark in my yard, I would call the electric company.

Why are people surprised the church has injured people in her midst? Would you be shocked if you found hurting people in a hospital? Would you be thrown if you went to look at cars at a mechanic’s shop and every car there was broken?

Thankfully, Abba Elias has a good word here. “What can sin do when there’s penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?” There’s wisdom on how we can see the life of the church.

What damage can sin do in the life of the faithful if they are penitent? There could still be damage done. Still, consider the following idea: A person might struggle with anger. If they are filled with that anger, what happens if they turn to God for help, and seek a way forward in a church community? Things might go wrong, but they’re also in a place where the community can support and help them. If they are truly penitent, what better place to be than in a community that understands sin and seeks to be free together? If they are not penitent, that’s another matter, but if they are truly trying to find a way forward, what better place to be?

On the other hand, what happens when we look at others who struggle, see imperfection, and then cut them off? What happens when we slam the door in their face? What happens if we see that person, decide they’re a hypocrite, and walk away? To put it another way, what happens when our pride blinds us to the reality that we all need healing? The church can pour out love all day long, but if you see love as a nasty dredged up swill, will you ever stop to drink that living water?

Luke 18:9-14 shares a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In that parable, two men were praying in the temple. One was a despised tax collector who approached God with humility. He beat his breast with sorrow and asked God for mercy.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

The Pharisee was someone who considered himself superior to everyone around him, especially the tax collector. Jesus stood with the tax collector—humility was far more important than the self-decreed righteousness of the Pharisee.

Would it have helped the Pharisee to tell him he was loved? Of course he felt loved—he was the apple of God’s eye. Would it have helped to offer him a place of healing? He is no lowly tax collector! I think Abba Elias hit the nail on the head when he stated that sin can be overcome with penitence, but that pride can at least seem insurmountable by love.

The story of Jesus before Herod always makes me wonder who had the right to judge in this situation? Truly the Judged was the One who had the right to cast judgment even while remaining silent…

Of course, Jesus did state that the Pharisee would one day be humbled. Was that humbling meant to bring the Pharisee to a place where he could find a place where penitence and love could find their way into the Pharisee’s life? I would imagine that Saul might tell us that there was indeed a way forward for the Pharisee. As Luke and Acts are two books connected by common authorship, one could see this parable as almost foreshadowing Saul’s experience. Of course, as my wise wife points out, that assumes the two books were meant to be read together instead of being meant as separate works. A later authorship of Acts might make this a happy coincidence instead of an intentional reference.

One of the first monastics of the desert, Anthony, is recorded as seeing the world through distraught eyes. To the left and right of the faithful there were traps and snares to ensnare. Behind and in front of the struggling there were further ways to entangle. Anthony cried out. What could possibly make a way through the challenges of life? Anthony believed humility alone could find a way.

“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.” ‘ “

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” as translated by Benedicta Ward

I know as a person that I am not perfect. Truthfully, I am grateful that I have enough wisdom to understand that my imperfection does not separate me from the love of God. I believe that love reaches out to everyone who walks through the doors of the church without exception. I pray we all find healing together.

“The Blessing of the New Year” circa 1900

Well back in 1900, Mr. Alexander Carmichael published the Carmina Gadelica. Well into the public domain, I wanted to take some time to look at an old poem this week. The poem appears under the title “The Blessing of the New Year” and according to Mr. Carmichael it was “repeated the first thing on the first day of the year.” Here is how the poem goes:

God, bless to me the new day,
Never vouchsafed to me before;
It is to bless Thine own presence
Thou hast given me this time, O God.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,
May mine eye bless all it sees;
I will bless my neighbour,
May my neighbour bless me.

God, give me a clean heart,
Let me not from sight of Thine eye;
Bless to me my children and my wife,
And bless to me my means and my cattle.

“The Blessing of the New Year” in the Carmina Gadelica, 1900 CE

Looking closely at this poem and prayer, there are several things which show in the form and content of this work. There are directions to this prayer both in scope and focus.

The first thing I see is a shift of focus from the unknowable, to the seen, to the loved. In the first section there is a focus on God’s blessing for the new day, which makes sense as this is a prayer for a new year. Unstated is the reality that the year ahead is a mystery.

The poet marks that the day (or time) ahead has never been vouchsafed. Vouchsafe is a word that can have several connotations. Whether the meaning in this case is that the knowledge of what the day ahead might hold would be gracious, condescending, or a special favor, the poet asks for a blessing even without that knowledge. The poet desires a blessing understanding that their time ahead should bless God.

In truth, this prayer contains a leap of faith. Who knows what the year ahead will hold? The prayer begins with a request that has no real context. A blessing of plenty of drinking water is a different blessing in the midst of a desert than it is on the shores of a clean freshwater lake. The petitioner does not know what is to come but seeks blessing.

The prayer shifts in the second movement of the prayer. The request is made that everything which falls under the gaze of the eye be blessed. Beyond the unknown of where one’s path will lead, for most the world will be somewhat reliable. Neighbors will remain neighbors.

There’s an old phrase that says “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Often, after several years of living in the vicinity of a neighbor, what once was innocent can often become a source of great frustration. Music can be played too loud, barbecue scents fill a house if you are downwind, and occasionally neighbors have children who can cause a ruckus. I imagine this was an even greater challenge when one’s neighbors were more constant in the times leading up to 1900.

The prayer leans into this reality by proposing that the year ahead will include a blessing of one’s neighbor. Even before receiving a blessing, the petitioner sets off to be a blessing. While the petitioner asks that the neighbor bless them as well, there’s a mutuality there. In a time before cars and modern conveniences, the neighbor might be a blessing which could make the difference between life and death.

Finally, the prayer moves into the heart. It lifts family and means of provision up in this last section of prayer. We may find cattle to be odd, but consider that for some a healthy cow might mean the difference between living through a winter and starving through the end of the cold months. Prayers for wife and children are definitely patriarchal in composition, but this is a prayer from 1900. Leading into all of these relationships is a call towards God for a clean heart and to remain in the sight of God who sees all folks.

Consider that bit for a moment. There is no prayer here for God to turn away while there is abuse in the home or a lapse of judgment. There is a call for God to be near and to watch. The heart out of which all things flow is kept in the eye of God. That’s actually a pretty bold request.

So, what can we sum up from this prayer from 1900? Sometimes the best prayer begins with admitting you do not know what will happen, but seek to live with trust first and foremost. Similarly, even when we have had a rough past which included mistakes (which most of us will admit), there’s still a greatness to praying that God would keep an eye on us and grant us a better future. There’s also just something beautiful about a prayer that intentionally does not close one’s eyes to one’s neighbor.

If I were to rewrite this prayer for today, I wouldn’t focus on cattle, but I would remember how God has helped me find ways to bring food to my table. If I were to rewrite this prayer for my circumstances, I might not see my neighbor in exactly the same light as someone from 1900 who might see only this person on days of miserable weather, but I would consider that our neighbors are often the people we look beyond when we consider the problems of the world. If I were to rewrite this prayer, it would be different, but I hope that it would maintain the same movement of trust in God from the unknown future, to the parts of my life I see, and finally to the beloved parts of my life.

Darkness and Light

Breakfast scent reaches far—
Wafting through all warm safe homes…
A shared moonstruck myth.

Rev. Robert Dean

Today marks the beginning of a new year. 2019 is here. I have many hopes for this new year, but I found myself unwilling to answer a question my wife asked our family at breakfast this morning. My wife asked “What are your hopes for 2019?”

My problem with her question was not that I had no answer. I have many answers for her question. I would love a great many things to happen over the next year. I would enjoy a happy year for my children and for the healing of some wounds that came to the surface in 2018. I would feel blessed if my ministry thrived and if I could see tangible results of God’s work in my life. I would enjoy many of these things a great deal.

My challenge with her question comes from the fact that 2018 helped to inject my theology and my thoughts with the wisdom of different centuries of Christianity. Would I be happy if my ministry thrived at the expense of another group of sisters and brothers in the faith? Would I find meaning in my children being blessed while other children nearby continue to suffer through the belief that nobody cares for them?

It clarified my thoughts on these matters as I entered my devotion this morning. I am working through Upper Room’s resource “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and found myself working through the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. The book describes Dr. Jenkins as an “author, spiritual director, and licensed psychologist.”

Today’s reflections were on finding the light in the darkness’s midst and revolved around Matthew 25:31-46, which is the story of the division of the sheep and goats at the end of things. While reflecting on this passage, Dr. Jenkins wrote intriguingly about the light and the darkness.

The first thing that caught my eye was that we must find light by first finding darkness. This idea caught my eye as someone who has struggled in the past and is continuing to struggle with eye issues. In particular, it reminded me of the time they removed my eye patch after my corneal transplant.

When the eye patch was removed, everything was bright. I had spent days with my eye covered and everything was bright. My eye had become so accustomed to the darkness that everything I saw, from the smallest led light to the intensely bright light shining through the clouds sent pain through my head. I do not believe I realized how bright headlights truly were until we went for a ride that evening.

I did not understand how powerful light was until that period of darkness. In the same way, it can be very difficult to find light in this world if we do not first see the darkness. Dr. Jenkins points out in the passage in the Disciplines that we instinctively avert our eyes from the darkness.

In my experience as a minister, that reality is true. When I was minister of a church that hosted an Alcoholics Anonymous group, I often heard more in conversation around the state of the fellowship hall after meetings than I did about how brave the women and men were facing their struggles. Ironically, I think the AA group left the hall cleaner than we did on Sunday mornings!

To be clear, at the church I once served, the complaints were few and far between, the church never talked about removing their access to the space, and they did their best to make sure AA could continue meeting in the church’s space. The point I am attempting to make is that it was far easier to discuss a trashcan accidentally left full than it was to talk about how amazingly brave the folks were who came to face their struggles. Like Dr. Jenkins said, it is human nature to avert our eyes from the darkness and churches are filled with humans.

Dr. Jenkins also does a wonderful job at pointing out that the places of darkness are where this passage states we will find Jesus. He states:

“Jesus himself told us where to look: among the hungry, thirsty, alien, vulnerable, sick, and imprisoned. From their dark predicament, their faces will reveal the light… the light of Christ appears to those who step into the night with the lowly.”

Dr. Jenkins in “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

What Dr. Jenkins states tracks with the passage. Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

All of it begs a question for me. If you’re wondering where Jesus is in this topsy turvy world, have you looked among the least? If you’re wondering how you can make the world a brighter place amid a world filled with darkness, have you brought your light into the life of people like those listed in Matthew 25?

Let’s be clear, I’m not recommending giving money for others to do the work, although I am certain that is a blessing. I am not even recommending that you send money to the church to support our ministries because that is not my goal. I am asking if you personally have walked alongside the kind of folks where you might find the light of Jesus? Have you faced the darkness enough to recognize the light?

All of this calls to mind the words of Dr. Amy Oden that I was reading the other day in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity.” She writes:

“Christians of the first three centuries certainly understood themselves to be aliens, pilgrims in this world with citizenship in another. Given their political location in the Roman Empire, it is not surprising that stranger status would be a primary way Christians understood themselves and their place in the world. These Christians frequently remind one another that their true allegiance is not with the powers of this world and they must hold a sort of double consciousness, seeking to be good citizens in their communities yet never fully at home in the world.”

Dr. Amen Oden in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity”

Perhaps it would be easier to see the darkness if we were to more fully grasp this understanding of our reality. In my experience, church folks tend to look at those who struggle in darkness and say “How can I help them out of their struggle?” We might do well to ask how their journey is similar to our journey. We may be blessed to ask how our journey might intertwine with their journey. Perhaps we should see ourselves less as those who have everything together and instead as people who are on our own journey as pilgrims and aliens through this world.

Anticipation of Advent Worship

Last night I was sitting at the kitchen table working through one of the first sessions of “Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent” by Pamela Hawkins. I stared into the light of the Advent flames (as my own celebration of Advent began after Christ the King Sunday) and asked myself a question: “What do I anticipate experiencing [in God’s house during Advent]?”

The flames flickered as the coffee wafted through my nostrils. I pondered the season ahead. What do I anticipate? Do I expect to find a living and loving God bringing hope?

As a pastor, I can testify that Advent and Lent are two seasons of the year that can easily run out of control. I can testify that I have had more staff and volunteers quit the church (and often faith itself) during these two seasons of the year. In truth, with the possible exception of my first year of ministry, I cannot remember one of these seasons passing without a challenge in one form or another. These two holy times can be difficult seasons between special programs, natural disasters, and traditions which sometimes grow out of control.

The question remains: What do I anticipate this holy season? Do I anticipate things rushing out of control? There is a part of my soul that expects the worst to happen and for me to be required to rush around like a chicken with my head cut off. There is also a part of me that longs for something better, something quieter, and something holier.

I stared into the burning advent candles and pondered what it would look like as a pastor to anticipate holy stillness in the house of the Lord. What would it look like to worship in a way where I could sing songs with my heart? What would it look like to have time for silence and prayer? What would it look like to worship in a way where we could focus more on the proclamation of scripture and less on the sermon?

As time shifted, I began to ponder what it would look like as a parent. What would I anticipate this holy season when I came into God’s house? After listening to children tell me their desires for weeks, what would it mean to anticipate moments of waiting? What would it mean for worship to be a place where I do not have to be the only person saying: “Patience, my child.” What if God were to speak those words into my heart as a parent? What if God were to speak those words into my heart as a person?

What do you anticipate this holy season? Is there space for silence? Is there space for peace? I hope we all find that quietness.

The first rays of Advent

Today I began one of two Advent devotionals I am undertaking this holy Advent season. I pulled out my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer” by Rev. Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I grabbed my colored pencils, arranged my “wreath,” and tried to enter a place of stillness. There will be more on stillness and having children on another day.

Tonight, as my wife was on a conference call, I sat in front of my Advent wreath and colored a mandala while undergoing the spiritual practice of the examen. Gregorian chants played in the background as I prayed and colored.

This week’s mandala is beautiful in construction. Rev. Garner must be very well connected. As the work is under copyright, I will try to explain the design. There are four steps to the examen proposed in the book by Rev. Garner. We begin with contemplation of Emmanuel, journey into gratitude, explore areas for growth, and conclude with seeking seeds of hope for the next day.

The mandala centers on a star which stretches center to edges. I colored as I prayed about how God is with us in this season. I tried to shade the colors of my imaginary sun. I believe I attempted this because I wanted to look back tomorrow and shake my head at myself. Rev. Garner may believe everyone can color, but there is a part of me that wonders if she knew I was coming.

As I colored and prayed about my day, I examined places where I found gratitude today. I thought of relationships with friends, family members, parishioners, myself, and my calling. I went deep with the prayer. I went deeper than expected.

Take my section in what we’ll pretend was stainless steel gray. As I colored, I thought about the dinner I prepared for my family. What did it mean that Emmanuel was there as I cooked a meal? My mother died in December when I was a child. Sometimes holiday meals were “golden brown!” Was God with us as people came alongside me to show me how to use the pans in my kitchen? What did it mean that on the other side of one ray of Emmanuel there was a section where I prayed for my wife who helped me learn? What did it mean that it bordered the color of my clergy shirt over the other ray of Emmanuel? Prayer for my cooking led into prayer for one of my favorite cooking instructors on one side and for the church where I lead a study on the spirituality of baking bread on the other side. Prayer went deep.

As I prayed through the areas of growth around those blessings, I borrowed colors as areas of blessing sometimes came into conflict with other parts of myself. I prayed about how my desire for personal growth occasionally conflicted with my parenting. I grieved how my calling as a minister occasionally led to pain in my marriage as I prayed about missed dates, anniversaries postponed, and vacations shortened. I grieved how being a loving husband occasionally meant I would try to listen to a parishioner while wrestling down reactions coming from my own relationship. Prayer grew really complicated.

Suddenly, there were other colors. There were colors for places of grief where my anger caused me to make mistakes. There were places where the authority of my ordination aided in some places and damaged others. There were places where colors blended and battled. My prayers became complicated. I did not expect this to be so hard!

Suddenly, the flickers of red appeared. I’d put dots of red amid the places where I was grateful to represent the Holy Spirit. Suddenly there were red the stained glass of connectedness were brought into relationship through the Holy Spirit. Suddenly gold appeared as I noticed places where Christ the King stood in my midst and brought healing.

Suddenly I understood that some of my troubles come from not just letting one bit of me stay where it belongs instead of jamming it into another place. To be clear, I never invited my wife on a date to Church Council, but sometimes my work with church members has swallowed the dinner conversation on a date with my wife. Something healthy in one part of my life needed to stay in that one part.

Strangest of all, there were spaces that were left blank. I prayed about what it meant. Suddenly, I realized there are parts of me that I cannot see without help from others and help from God. My soul really is a kaleidoscope of strangeness and beauty.

In the coloring there was realization, contemplation, and even places of healing as I prayed. In the midst of all of this, the rays of Emmanuel poured out from Christ from the center of the season into the rest of my heart.

Around all of this were seeds of hope for tomorrow. I had expected them to all be red for the Holy Spirit, but there was gold! Christ the King claiming my tomorrow as I prayed. If I had socks on my feet at the table, they might have been blown off.

I recommended this book to church members and bought a few friends copies because it looked like it would be interesting. I may not have expected it to be so deep. It is funny how that sometimes happens. We slow down for one moment and we are suddenly caught off guard by grace. I have no idea what my mandalas will look like for the rest of the week, but I can say that my eyes are opened. This practice might be far more intense than I expected.

“Supper Table” Questions

Today I began reading a new book I have been anticipating. I picked up a kindle version of “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne” by Dr. Wilda Gafney. I have to admit that I am excited by the voice Dr. Gafney uses in her writing. It will be no surprise to most that I immediately caught on to her conversation around the kitchen table in her home. I love this quote: (Gafney, p. 2)

“All are welcome at this table, and as a sign of that welcome I offer not only dishes I like; I try to meet the dietary needs of my guests—which is not the same as cooking exactly what they want exactly the way they want. I am no short-order cook…”

Dr. Gafney proposes to use the narrative of the supper table as a structure for her book. Even reading through the introduction, it makes sense. Her conversation intends to: (Gafney, p. 7)

“[affirm] the interpretive practices of black women as normative and as holding didactic value for other readers, womanist interpretation makes room at the table of discourse for the perspectives of the least privileged among the community and the honored guest of any background: the child who is invited into ‘adult’ conversation around the table with ‘Baby, what do you think?’ and the extra place at the table for whoever may come by.”

The concept of the extra place at the table excites me. As an introverted person, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with people I respect and listen to their conversations. I probably spoke too much in seminary. A few years out with a few years of pastoral experience, I wish I had spent more time listening, especially to the strange voices I did not understand.

I am enjoying this book. I feel as if there is plenty at the table. Let me give an example of how Dr. Gafney asks some amazing questions. I plan to chew the ideas over for a while and will hopefully encourage you to pull up a chair at the table.

Here‘s my personal example of how this book inspires questions. It is a few weeks before Advent. We are facing the same story that is retold time and time again. I could easily polish an old sermon, but who likes reheated leftovers in a season of feasting.

Instead, what if I were to look at some principles Dr. Gafney presents (p. 8) and ask myself hard questions? Have I given voice to Elizabeth in the past? Have I ever deeply pondered her place in the story? Is there room for a woman’s story in this season focused around the coming of Christ? Have I made room for that story? Have I checked to see if that story honors the African roots of the text?

These questions are powerful. I admit these questions are convicting. If I look at Dr. Gafney’s four womanist principles, the well draws deeper (p. 8). Do my words as a European male legitimize other voices including the biblical interpretation of black women? Does my ministry allow for the inherent value of each person in the text and in the community interpreting the text? Do I allow conversation with the text so that there is room for conversation outside of my personal cultural sphere? If we don’t make that room, can we rightfully expect diversity in our churches? Dr. Gafney does not ask this outright, but If we do not make that healthy room, should we hold ourselves accountable for that failure?

I believe these questions are especially important for me as a European male minister in a very homogeneous ministry setting. I am appointed to serve in a town surrounded with roads where someone from outside the hamlet will likely pass Confederate flags or road signs tagged with swastikas to reach the church. I serve in a town where you must travel by car to find any significant diversity in population. Who will ask these questions if I abstain?

Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by Dr. Gafney’s book. I do not want to engage in cultural misappropriation. I respect her research and words. I want to honor her work and enjoy her scholarship as someone who at least tries to share the table. To paraphrase Dr. Gafney, I could go back and keep doing things the way I always have. I do not want to keep doing the same thing! I want to learn and experience new things!

There are moments already in my reading where I feel like I might belong at the kids’ table. Although, I will honestly say I do not sense there is a kids’ table in Dr. Gafney’s home. Maybe that is an American custom of European descendants? I do not know. I know I am looking forward to spending time with this book and recommend it to other folks who are interested in broadening their horizons.

Side note: Dr. Gafney (noted in the acknowledgment which doesn’t have a page number on my kindle edition) notes that Dr. Mark Brummitt helped to coin the phrase “womanist midrash.” If it is the same Dr. Brummitt, he was one of my favorite seminary professors and at one point offered to be an emergency midwife if my wife went into labor the semester she was in his course while pregnant. If it is the same Mark Brummitt then it is a small world.

Today’s “Snowy Day” blogging vista! Those neon tetras really like the cover of Dr. Gafney’s book! If they keep this up, they’ll take my job…

Wisdom at Chenango Bridge

Last night I went to an event hosted by my bishop at the Chenango Bridge United Methodist Church. Bishop Webb came to our district to discuss the proposals headed to the Special Session of General Conference scheduled for this February. As I entered the space, I was frazzled. I had believed the event started at 6:00 PM. I arrived on time because my wife is far more focused and capable of remembering times than me. I was tired and suffering exhaustion from a budget meeting after a morning of study and worship.

Let me admit that I was anxious about the meeting. I had hoped to sit with a friend who was unable to attend. I had hoped the meeting was later so I could relax over dinner before entering a space of shared anxiety. I came into the space tired on several levels.

Before I sat down to listen to the presentation, I said hello to Bishop Webb. He asked about my children. Bishop Webb has an excellent memory about such things. I may not agree with everything my bishop says or does, but I appreciate the way he expresses care to his clergy by knowing details about their family. We exchanged pleasantries. I took a seat where I could read the screen easily for the presentation.

There were a few minutes to kill, so I went through the library on my Kindle to see what might be interesting on my tablet. I recently replaced my Kindle. The library was sparse, but one downloaded book was a collection called “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner.

I recently have spent a lot of time going back to one of the more definitive translations upon which a lot of my Kindle collections of the Desert Ammas and Abbas rely. Benedicta Ward’s translation is normally a wonderful resource, but it is unfortunately not available on Kindle. I opened Paintner’s collection and went forward to the furthest place read. I read the next saying. I was surprised by the applicability of the saying. The next saying was:

“[Abba Nilus] said, ‘Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases, then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayers.’”

This ensnared me given the circumstances. I was in a room full of people who had gathered to listen to their bishop speak about a challenge before the church. There were people who did not know how they intend to perceive events in the years to come. There were people who knew their opinions and hold their convictions firmly. The saying of Abba Nilus was strong in a room filled with people who often want everything to turn out as they desire.

I know this was true of at least one person in the room. I am definitely from a place of personal experience. There have been many times I have sought to have things turn out in the way I desire. There are places I seek to have things turn out the way I desire. There are places I will probably seek to have things turn out the way I desire. I see this is a sign of my humanity. I do not pretend it does not exist.

Living in this self-knowledge, I found myself challenged by Abba Nilus from across the centuries. Do I need to seek that everything turn out as it should? When in a room with dozens of individuals, should I expect things to turn out the way I desire? Is it reasonable to expect that outcome?

More to the point, what is my purpose? Why do I seek to have my way? What if Abba Nilus is correct? What if surrendering my desire to God’s pleasure leads to thankfulness and peace in my prayers? Are those benefits worth more than having my way? Frankly, I believe these blessings are worth more than having my way.

The epistle known as Philippians has something to say about this reality. In the New Revised Standard Version, Philippians 4:6-7 says:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I entered the sanctuary of Chenango Bridge UMC with a sense of anxiety. Abba Nilus called me out on my attitude from across the centuries. As I reflected on the experience that call was confirmed by scripture and Spirit. I have already said I am not perfect in this blog post. Imperfections and all, I will seek to find that peace in these conversations.

I may not always find the peace perfectly. I will still seek that peace through prayer. When necessary, I hope that God will setup reminders to draw me back. Thank you God for Abba Nilus. May words from the past continue to draw me to You and to the scriptures.

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Today the blog was written on my Chromebook in front of the family aquarium, These Neon Tetras were very interested in reading about Abba Nilus. Maybe they’re kindred spirits?

Space for the joy of “gōd-spellen”

“God of peace,
you strive to set within us
a Gospel joy.
It is there, very nearby,
ever renewed by the trusting way
you behold our lives.”

–Brother Roger of Taizé

For today’s blog I wanted to contemplate this prayer by Brother Roger. Brother Roger’s book of prayers entitled “Praying in Silence of Heart: One Hundred Prayers.” This small paperback collection sits on my office desk for when I cannot find inspiration. As a result, Brother Roger occasionally appears in my sermons, blogs, and contemplations.

My copy of Brother Roger’s book of prayers.

This prayer catches me off guard. What catches my attention is how Brother Roger describes God as active. God strives, places, renews, and beholds. We may find joy within us, but it is a gifted joy. We are recipients of a gift. The joy we receive finds renewal in God’s action. We are passive in this transaction. We receive the gospel joy as God makes space in our souls.

I find this description both theologically sound and realistically upsetting. Theologically, God is a giver of grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The Holy Spirit is described in Galatians 5 as bringing about fruit in the lives of the believers including joy. In that passage joy is counted as a powerful fruit of the Spirit. Joy exists alongside the heavyweights love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Joy is not something that just comes about in life. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and the Spirit is a gift of grace and love.

Joy is often confused and seen as a synonym of happiness. Traditionally, joy was once something deeper than happiness. Joy was a feast compared to the fast food of happiness. One could be happy for a day, but joy was something with depth and breadth beyond a moment. One of the most irritating memories I have of the holiday season was seeing a poster in a fast-food restaurant asking proclaiming “Joy to the [mass produced and frankly questionable sandwich].” Nearly a decade later, I am still mad at that restaurant for insulting joy. I believe joy should never be used to designate something coming with a side of fries.

Still, I find this realistically upsetting. Why? If this is theologically sound, why be upset? I am upset because I want to force joy into parts of my life. If my wife and I are arguing, I want to force joy into that place of conflict. If my kid is screeching in time with the beating of my pulse through my headache, I want to force joy into my skull alongside peace. If there is a meeting where anger abounds, I want to force joy into that place.

Instead, I must let God renew my joy. I must open my heart and be patient. I must allow the gospel joy to come into my life through God’s work. If I spoke Middle English before around 950 CE, perhaps it would be more clear. When gospel was tied to the phrase go[d]spell (gōd-spellen), it might have been more obvious. Sometimes we must let there be time for the words of the God spell to be spoken into our lives.

So, there’s a prescription offered by Brother Roger. We must let God work in us to find our joy renewed. May we all have the patience to let God renew the joy within us.

Two people named James on “Thoughts and Prayers”

I’m currently fighting a sore throat. I say this because the only medicine we had in the house was a “night-time” variety and my cough medicine is making things a bit hazy this morning. My office door is closed, I have disinfectant wipes at the ready, and I am here at my desk trying to sort through my thoughts.

The strange companions on my desk today. “Ugh drops” indeed… Clearly, the local store does not sponsor this blog. Actually, I’m the only one who sponsors this blog…

As a people, we live in challenging times. When I was a child, when we needed to learn something we had to talk to a teacher, go the library, or devise a way to find out on our own. My brother ran a dial up BBS (Bulletin Board System) in our home, but to be entirely honest, the BBS was more useful for playing video games than learning massive amounts of information. The internet may not have been in infancy, but it was certainly a toddler.

These days, we are flooded with information. This blog will reach places that my brother’s BBS would never have reached without a great deal of effort. We have more access to information and misinformation than ever. Facebook, my social media of choice, is filled with information which goes from completely factitious to unfortunately real in the space of a few swipes of a finger.

The world of information has expanded exponentially in my lifetime and I am only in my thirties. There is so much to see, so much to grasp, and only so much emotional energy with which to process it all. My brain may still be the most powerful computer I own, but it runs off of a reserve of energy that is tied to things like my mood, my mental health, my stomach, my body, and all other parts of me. A sore throat might not lessen the amazing processing power of my mind, but my focus is certainly not on the mysteries of the universe when it hurts when I swallow.

In a world that is overwhelming and complicated, it makes sense that sometimes it feels as if all we can do is offer “thoughts and prayers” when things are going awry in the world. What can I do about a bigoted law named HB 1369 stripping the right to vote from Native Americans half a country away in North Dakota when I cannot even talk on the phone without being in pain?

It makes sense, but there’s some part of me that feels a need to push back, even as my throat burns. Ironically, in Benedicta Ward’s compilation and translation “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” which is attributed to Abba James, who shares a name with a letter which also says something on the subject. In her translation, Benedicta Ward points out:

“[Abba James] also said, ‘We do not need words only, for at the present time, there are many words among men, but we need works for this is what is required, not words which do not bear fruit.”

These words are reminiscent of the words from the Letter of James. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), James 1:22-24 says:

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

For me, these words from the Letter of James relate directly to the words from Abba James which were shared centuries later. The letter calls out at people to become doers of the words. Hearing is wonderful, but there is something powerful about moving beyond hearing to acting. As Abba James points out, there are many who hear, many who speak, but not enough who act. This sentiment is forcefully and famously restated in James 2, where its says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We must connect our words and our deeds. How does that look when you are sitting in an office with a sore throat and trying not to give anything to a church full of preschoolers, teachers, and paid/volunteer church staff? Well, that is my question to answer for today. How will you respond to a world which needs you to do more than simply speak?