Seeing Stereoptically

I recently was certified as a graduate of the Academy for Spiritual Formation #39. As a result, I can now read whatever books I would like to read! So, I went back to a book that one presenter Dr. Amy Oden wrote and found a book in her footnotes. As a result, the first fun book I am reading is “Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. What is fun about studying church theology? I can spend two years in this book without being rushed… What a luxury!

Today, I started reading a book I chose to read! In the preface to Caferro’s book, I found the following statement: (preface, paragraph 3)

Of course, the different avenues that lead to early Christianity give us differing visions of what it was like. But they supply different views of the same thing. We cannot oppose, say, popular to official Christianity; instead, we must seek to use the two angles stereoptically to gain a deeper imagination of the early Church.

Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. (preface, para. 3)

Ordinarily, I skim through the preface of a book; however, this statement caught my attention. Caferro is discussing a comment in Cult of the Saints by Peter Brown. According to Caferro, Brown suggests in his book that “more can be done by attempting to understand the cult of the saints from other points of view.” Caferro points out an inference that “no one approach is correct, but that there are many valid ways of gaining an understanding of the early church.” (ibid)

This quotation caught my attention because it holds a truth that seems worth noting in our day and age. The other day I was discussing the tension between dueling viewpoints in a post called “‘This is my song’ and John Chrysostom.” I noted that there was a tension between my love of the song and the lessons I am learning through studying early Church historical figures.

Can you understand this light entirely by only looking at one side?

Caferro’s quotation is interesting because it provides room for thought. What if the tension reveals a deep truth? What if there is something to be learned about looking at the tension from different angles? What if we can lessen the tension through intentionally looking at the challenge stereoptically?

For many years I had a far more dominant eye because of a condition called keratoconus. One eye could see clearly so I learned to drive and function with what was effectively monocular sight. I had no depth perception because of effectively having one functional point of view.

When I received a corneal transplant, I was almost immediately thrown for a loop. After several years with one point of view I could suddenly see with both eyes. I had depth perception for the first time in years. The result was amazing. I had to take the time to learn to see with both eyes again. When I moved past that tendency to have monocular vision to having true binocular vision I could suddenly see the world in a deeper way.

What if we were to consider that many of the challenges we may face in church culture are fewer issues of diametrically opposed ideas and instead people viewing the same situation from different angles? What if instead of trying to conquer the opinions of others, we accept that they may see something differently? What if seeing together might give each person a new perspective with more depth and clarity?

None of these ideas are new ideas. These ideas are as old as time, but it is still good to remember good life lessons when we have the opportunity.

“It is grace, nothing but grace…”

I write this blog post for posting a few days before the beginning of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I write this blog with a lot of questions in my mind. What will happen over the next few days? What effects will that gathering have on the church as a whole?

My questions about the future have been inspiring questions in my mind. What does it mean that we are a “United” Methodist Church? What does it mean that we have deep divisions in our unity? Have we missed something?

I recently started rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I have been pondering the nature of Christian community, the life of someone who had to make incredibly hard decisions to remain as faithful as he could, and it is nice to read about the life of someone who is not United Methodist during these troubling days. Still, Bonhoeffer has always been troubling. I found the following quote calling out for contemplation:

“Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” page 4.

Bonhoeffer writes this quote in the midst of contemplating how rare it is for Christians to live in community. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus himself lived a life that involved isolation during many of the major events of his life. Jesus was alone even in the midst of the crowd for many events of what we call the “passion.” Bonhoeffer points out the lonely lives lived by many of the apostles, missionaries, and even individual Christians throughout the centuries.

Reading Bonhoeffer is always challenging, but these words were particularly biting in light of the upcoming events in the life of my denomination. Have we honestly thanked God that we have each other? Have we thanked God for the privilege of living in community with one another? Have we seen our living together as anything but a gift of unmerited favor?

Honestly, when I see some of the vitriol in the community of faith I share with other Christians I do not always see people thankful for grace. I have seen people stand there and say “You do not belong in the church” when they are only in the church by the grace of God. They have been given the blessing of belonging to a body of faith. They have been given a grace and it seems as if that grace is taken for granted.

How many Christians over the centuries longed for a place to belong with other Christians? How many of our churches exist because people came together to have a place to belong? Are we turning our back on that legacy of grace? Are we so thirsty for law, structure, and power that we would burn our community of grace to the ground if we do not get our own way?

It is far easier to tear down than to build something. It is far easier to destroy than to give life. As we head into General Conference, I am praying we remember that we are only together by the grace of God. I am praying that grace prevails.

The Thrush and Bonhoeffer

Have you ever stopped to wonder whether life would be different if we paid closer attention to the world? Would life be different if we focused on other matters than those that preoccupy us?

Recently I was reading a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents in April 1943. Eberhard Bethge translated the version I was reading. The letter I was reading was written on the fourteenth of April. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden; I hope that Renate’s wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer as translated Eberhard Bethge in “Letters Papers from Prison”

If you are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s story, Bonhoeffer was arrested for taking very public stances against the Nazi regime in Germany and for engaging in espionage. He was executed for his crimes during the last days of hostilities in 1945. Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent Lutheran martyrs of the 20th century.

Bonhoeffer is writing to his father at the beginning of his imprisonment in the letter I was reading. They had separated Bonhoeffer from family, from his fiancee, and from his community of faith within the confessional church. Bonhoeffer was facing charges which could easily lead to his execution.

What catches my eye is that Bonhoeffer notices the thrush in the prison yard. He could have obsessed over his imprisonment and isolation. He could have focused on being confined in his cell for long hours at night or being neglected simple things like shoelaces and shaving cream. In the midst of everything, Bonhoeffer notices the thrush.

I am not imprisoned in my home. I have access to the world around me and my children are a regular part of my life. There are so many things I could focus on in life. I could notice the sound of my daughter singing to herself, the blessing of having a partner who helps me to be a better person, or a million and one other things.

Instead I find myself focusing on matters that are not helpful. Do I have opinions about politics? Yes, I most certainly have opinions. Do I have an obligation to speak out against abuses? Yes, I most certainly have times when I must take a stand. There are many things I could focus on in this moment.

We all have only so many days in this world. What do we notice as we spend our time under the sun?

I pray that my calling in the world will come with the awareness that Bonhoeffer seemed to possess. Will I miss the thrush? I pray that I do not miss the thrush in my life today. May I gain blessings through all the little things.

Open to Discomfort

Be still.
As scents fill you,
As odd sights confound you,
And as you want to run away:
Be still…

“Be Still” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

I recently spent time with someone who was ill in a care facility. I wrote this post a while back to help preserve the person’s identity, but this post is not about their story. This post is about my story and my experience.

The situation on my end was that I was waiting in a care facility which is filled with people facing challenges. The staff was present and diligent, but it is a facility full of people with differing needs. I found myself waiting impatiently as the sounds, scents, and distractions which come in such a place filled my senses.

I ordinarily do not spend time waiting in such facilities. I enter, I head straight where I need to go, focus on the individual, visit with family, pray, and head out the door. I generally do not have time to sit, to think, or to read in such places. I do not have time for my mind to wander. This day was different, so I opened my Kindle to read as I waited.

I spent some time reading through “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings–Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner. I restlessly flipped through the chapter headings until I found the chapter entitled “Solitude, Silence, and Hesychia.”

This blessed book has the advantage of taking up no extra space in my bag and the capacity to be read in dark rooms!

The chapter is not a long chapter. Abbess Paintner referred to three quotations in that section. As much as I respect the Abbess’ selection of ancient sources, her wisdom shines forth in her annotations. She writes:

“Sitting in our cell requires patience to not run from ourselves or flee back into the world of distraction and numbness. It means being fully present to our inner life without anxiety. Interior peace comes through sitting in silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness.”

Abbess Paintner in the second footnote for chapter ten

I found myself reflecting on the concepts of patience and stillness as my senses picked up on less than pleasant smells. In that moment, the place I was called to spend my time was that room with everything in the air. My cell was a chair in the midst of this person’s life. I found myself trying to be attentive, watchful, and present even as some part of me tried not to breathe too deeply. The scents, the sights, and the sounds made me more than a little anxious.

I found myself struggling in those moments after reading the Abbess’ thoughts. Was I letting those scents keeping me from being present with the individual sleeping in the bed? Was I letting my dislike of the scents keep me from being present with someone whose every breath contains the aromas that were filling my nostrils? There was some part of me that struggled with shame for focusing on the distractions and another part that wondered if the distractions might not be the blessing in disguise.

I was filled with questions, but the one that stuck with me was the loudest question that filled my mind. Was I open to knowing this was someone’s experience? Was I open to walking with someone as their body struggled? Was I open to being God’s hands and feet in such a place? Was I willing to see God in that place?

It would be easy to numb myself to the situation. I could run to my car and refill my diffuser with peppermint. I could rush home, put on the aromatic earl gray tea to settle my senses, and I could rush home to hug my toddler who seems to always smell of lavender when you smell her hair. It would be easy to flee back to distraction and numbness, but would I find true peace in distraction?

I find myself casting my mind to Matthew 25. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man comes in glory to bring judgment to an imperfect world. The Son of Man separates folks and says to one group that they are blessed because they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The people did not understand when they had done these things. The Son of Man replies (in the NRSV) “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.”

We who are engaged in helping care for others often look on this passage and find comfort. We have given a dollar at the Red Kettle at Christmas, have donated a can of food to the food pantry, and gave a little extra when we could. We have helped the least of these. I could rush home and say “I visited one of the least of these! I’m good!”

Would Christ ask “Did you really visit the least of these or did you do the least you could for these?” Are we open to realize we may be called to radical love that sits through the dirt of life? Are we open to realize that loving God’s children may mean sitting in smelly places? Are we open to realize that God may call us to a deeper fellowship with those in need than the bare minimum?

I do not write such challenging words from a place of judgment. If anything, I feel convicted by my own words. What does this look like in our lives? If we are to live into God’s kingdom, do we all need to live radically transformed lives? Perhaps we are not all called to a care facility, but perhaps we are all called somewhere beyond what is comfortable for us. It is worth contemplating.

Reflections on Sabbath

Today’s post is out of sync for most folks. I serve as a minister and thus operate on a different schedule than most of my community. My community consists of a majority of people (but not all) who either work weekdays or live in a cycle where weekends are normal. We have a few individuals who work shifts on weekends, but most either work those weekday jobs or have other purposes in their life (e.g. stay at home parents, retirees, etc.)

As a minister, Monday morning is a time when I prepare for the week ahead. Often that means taking time for reflection. My “Spiritual Renewal Day” is Friday, which is unfortunate as it means my only regular companions for my Sabbath are pets and my toddler. Saturday is a day fraught with community events, denominational events, children’s events, and complications with worship preparations. This past Saturday I had to choose between a historical society coffeehouse, a district training day in the United Methodist Church, the upcoming week’s grocery shopping, worship prep, and my daughter’s birthday party. I chose my daughter’s birthday party, worship prep, and grocery shopping.

Apple blossoms only bloom after the rest of winter…

Monday is not my spiritual renewal day, but Monday morning is a time my spirit requires me to slow down. Part of that slowing down is reading for personal growth, for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, for an upcoming book or Bible studies, or for upcoming sermons (although on principle, I rarely read anything on the subject I am preaching on the upcoming Sunday).

Today I began by reading further into Rev. Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” I find Mr. Muller’s writings to be interesting. From my reading, I have the feeling that we share a common attribute in introversion. I may be wrong, but I found his love of rest to speak to my introverted soul.

There are days when it seems as if Mr. Muller knows my heart. It feels like continual overcommitment leads to a violence against my soul (pg. 3). As a minister, I am often asked to be a voice or presence on nearly every committee, am expected (on my Methodist side) to hold each committee accountable to our common identity and purpose, to be present in the lives of the homebound and sick, to be available 24/7 for hospital calls, and am expected to lead in most forms of outreach.

The sense of needing to be everywhere for everyone is a common struggle among clergy. Many clergy struggle from burnout and many are accused of not being present enough when their families are falling apart, their relationships are crumbling, and facing loneliness. I have struggled with the constant pull of ministry on my life for years. I believe this common struggle is one reason Mr. Muller’s words struck so deeply with me today. In his chapter on “The Joy of Rest” Mr. Muller writes:

“The practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath, is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work. Ancient texts suggest we light candles, sing songs, pray, tell stories, worship, eat, nap, and make love. It is a day of delight, a sanctuary in time. Within this sanctuary, we make ourselves available to the insights and blessings that arise only in the stillness of time.”

“Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller (pg. 26)

When was the last time you woke up with the goal of delighting in being alive? I have had days where I have woken up with the goal of worshipping, the plan to sing songs or tell stories, but it is rare that I have woken up with the goal of delight. As someone who has publicly faced the challenges of mental health over the years, waking up with the goal of delighting in my life seems particularly foreign to my mindset.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to set aside time to delight in being alive? Many Christians struggle to fight for conceptual ideas like sexual propriety, the lives of unborn children, and other idealistic strivings. Laying aside those questions, what would life be like if we were to put a tenth of the energy we see poured into those causes poured into delighting in life? What would life be like if we gathered for worship Sunday mornings and said we are here to delight in each other’s company? What if we delighted in each other’s company?

Candles that burn openly in the wind often don’t burn for long.

In my mind, I see a church filled with people going past “Hey. Good to see you!” or “Hi. How are you?… I’m good.” What would it look like if we delighted in each other? How would that change the way we see church? How would that change the way we see our mission?

A church that focused on treating the Sabbath how Mr. Muller describes Sabbath is the kind of church I would love to be a part of as an individual. A community focused on songs, worship, delight, prayer, stories, and even in bringing love into our homes… there is a wonderful vision!

A Poem and Reflection on Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises

“Hold the course both straight and true!”
Winds buffet. We pitch and roll.
“Everything will be fine!”
The tiller snaps off…

“A Seaborne Dodoitsu”
The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Paperwork for our Annual Meeting is completed. It is now time to focus on the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which takes place towards the middle of next month. One of the greatest challenges I have found in the Academy is taking a lot of superb material and authentically engaging. I have read too many books and have great things go in my eyes, bounce in my brain, and eject themselves at the first distraction. Long time readers of the blog have noticed that this blog is one place I try to engage the material.

Today I was reading several of the “Rules” from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In particular, we were asked to focus on sections 314-336. These rules deal with moments of consolation and desolation. We were assigned to read the version translated by Jules J. Toner, but as I have my own copies of the exercises, I thought I’d interact online with versions and resources I own. I generally interact with “Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” by David Fleming, S.J and “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women” by Katherine Dyckman, et. al. To be honest, “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed” is better commentary than translation. Translation is primary for this conversation, but you should still check out that very interesting book.

“Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” Ignatius of Loyola as translated by David Fleming, S.J., pgs. 251-252.

In Fleming’s work, the section is entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul” in the literal translation and “Guidelines for Discerning Different Movements, Suitable Especially for the First Week” in the contemporary translation. In all three translations, the conversation revolves around consolation and desolation.

Consolation, in my words, is when one’s spirit is aflame with the love of God in joy, drawn to the love of God is sorrow, or in any way grown in the faith, hope, and love that comes from God (and referenced in 1 Corinthians 13). Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Hence, it is when the soul’s love of God is smothered, the soul feels stripped away from the presence of God in sorrow, or circumstances arise in which faith, hope, and love are diminished in experience or (hopefully not) reality.

What drew my eye was the section referred to as Rule 5 and Rule 6, which can be found in sections 318 and 319 respectively. I think when we look at these rules, we find something that is a bit challenging. I will draw on Fleming’s contemporary translation for our discussion.

“5. When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or to come to a new decision. The reason is that in desolation the evil spirit is making an attempt to obstruct the good direction of our life or to change it, and so we would be thwarted from the gentle lead of God and what is more conducive to our own salvation. As a result, at a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us.

6. Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be. And so we might try to intensify our prayer, we might take on some penance, or we might make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith.”

“Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” Ignatius of Loyola as translated by David Fleming, S.J., pgs. 251-252.

In many ways, I understand what Loyola is driving at in these rules. I also acknowledge that these rules have done a great deal for the church over the centuries. I also believe they have value going into the future. In many ways, I am an outsider commenting on something which does not come from my own denominational tradition and mean no offense to those who hold these rules and experiences dear.

I also see a challenge in these rules for the modern church. For many churches, the American attendance pattern of worship has led people to enter deep periods of doubt and desolation. We are faithful to what we once found fruitful. Certain hymns, certain ways of acting, and certain patterns of life consoled and blessed us.

Life has changed. We who are still in the pews can end up facing the desolation of the spirit that comes with lower attendance numbers, people skipping once integral Bible study, or even quitting the church altogether. It can be a heavy blanket on the soul to find empty seats that were once brimming. We can find these words in our desolation to be wise words of advice. We choose to keep at the decisions made during seasons of consolation! What is more, we double down on commitment! We may not have formal penance in the Protestant church, but we could order twice as many tracts, invite that neighbor twice as often, and intensify our prayer.

The dodoitsu I put at the beginning of this blog summarizes the situation quite nicely. The waves are crashing, the wind is howling, the tiller is snapping, and the response can be to stand there saying “Everything will be fine!” In moments of doubt, we might call out to Jesus like the disciples! “We will drown! Don’t you care?”

I raise these concerns because I believe one concept of the sixth rule is integral. Sometimes we need to make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith. We may need to ask questions like:

  • Was my faith grown by the hymns or the fact I was singing about my faith with others?
  • Did that memorial item in the sanctuary grow my faith or was it the person who inspired it? What would the original person have wanted? Would that line up with our purpose?
  • If relationships helped grow my faith, are there places I can help others grow in their relationships? What if those places look different today than five years ago?
  • Would changing something small make a big difference? Would that small change affect everything or just cause discomfort for a while?

Occasionally, when we take time to examine ourselves and faith, we find that the things that consoled us were something different than we remember. It can be helpful to remember that things are not always how they once seemed.

There are times when the call is to stick to what you planned in a time of consolation. If you struggle with alcohol, a bad day is not the time for the drink you swore off in better days. If you struggle with anger, perhaps this is the moment when you should go walk off your frustration instead of face the person who is aggravating you. Struggles do not mean you should change your plan.

Still Loyola pointed out that some difficulties exist not as desolations but as consolations. When things go wrong it can be a reminder of how blessed we are to have God in our corner despite our struggles. When the boat is pitching back and forth, it can be a good reminder of how grateful we are for flotation devices.

In my 22 years as a committed Christian after my “heart-warming” experience, I have learned that few experiences are black and white. Some situations seem dire but end up being blessings. Some blessings seem wonderful but lead to challenging situations. Discernment is never easy, but there is wisdom in these words from Loyola. I have learned the value of holding the tiller with a loose hand. I have also learned the value of steering through the storm.

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?

Let us Ramble: Within the Text

During this past Sunday’s sermon I referenced the book “Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles.” Written by Walter Brueggemann, “Cadences of Home” does an excellent job at delving into the work of the ministry of preaching. In particular, I referenced the chapter “Rhetoric and Community.”

In that chapter, Brueggemann delves into concepts explored by the French Philosopher Paul Ricouer. In particular, Brueggemann explores the application of Ricouer’s conceptions to the scripture. To summarize that work (with a hearty encouragement to read the entire book), Brueggemann argues that any passage might be seen as an interaction between three worlds.

The first world is the world where the events described in the passage took place. This physical world had people walking around and interacting. In considering gospel passages, this is the world in which Jesus walked, talked, and preached.

The second world is the world in which we live. As people, we read books, walk around, have conversations, and live out our lives. This world is the world in which we act, live, and have our being. This world will be the world of the future’s past and is the future of the past. This is the world of the present.

The third world is the world within the passage. The world is one which is described within the stories of scripture. While it is the inspired word of God, it is also the world described by the authors of the texts. The words are often challenging, purposeful, and occasionally reference other texts and stories which we no longer have access to in our own libraries.

Unfortunately, the world described in the text is the only one of the other worlds which can interact with the present. Unless we invent a means of either time travel or the means to travel far faster than the reflected light headed out into space, we will never see the world of the far past. We can observe remnants and artifacts of the past, but not the events. Without divine blessing, technological innovation, or something beyond our current comprehension, we will never experience the days described in scripture.

I rehash this bit of scholarship from Sunday’s sermon for a reason. I reference it because this morning I was reading a different book by a different author which works hand in hand with this passage. I was reading Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” Alter is a large proponent of paying attention to the texts of scripture. Indeed, Alter writes (37) “All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny.” For the record, Alter immediately points out Job is an exception to this rule. It should also be noted that Alter’s work focuses on the Hebrew Bible.

What is interesting about this concept of the Hebrew scriptures being presented as history is that there are a lot of details about the stories of scripture that are presented as history, but which had no witness at the time of the authorship of these stories. Alter points out that there is a “tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events…” (37).

Alter refers to a lot of this presentation not as a form of historiography accounting for the events of the past as a form of intensely accurate chronicle of events. Rather, the scriptures are written in the eyes of Alter with a purpose. Speaking on the author of David’s story: (40)

“…these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.”

Alter goes on to describe how Shakespeare wrote beautifully and powerfully on historical events as a form of dramatic expression. Scripture itself creates a world in which something powerful is expressed. I believe that even if God were to divinely inspire every word and every translation of scripture, we should still pay attention to the world in the text as described by individuals like Brueggemann and Alter.

As readers of scripture, we should spend time within the world created in our texts and in the purposes behind the description of that world because that is the world we can still interact with as a people. We may never see the Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus, but we can still interact with the Sermon as recorded by the gospels. We may never meet Paul before the day of resurrection or our own journey to that other shore, but we may interact with the concepts presented through his letters. We may never interact perfectly with the world that once was the present, but the world described in our holy texts can still be powerfully a part of our lives.

As time permits I hope to delve deeper into how the texts we read call us into a world influenced by this third world explored by this “rhetorical criticism” which is found within the scriptures, but for tonight, I invite you to ask a simple question. How does the world within the scriptures influence your personal life?

Let us Ramble: Keeping Focus

I have not posted much lately on my blog. One of the reasons is that I have been traveling for denominational Conferences over the last few weeks. One of the things that I did not realize when I took this appointment was that these meetings would often fall back to back. Another reason is that I have been focusing on doing some more intensive sermon prep given the things going on in our culture.

Let’s try to explain this in parable form. The work of a minister is like that of a baker. Every week they are expected to bake food that will feed people. Some people need sweets and others need something hearty. Some folks need something to build conversation around (like a dippable biscotti) while others need something that will last them for a journey (like… hardtack?). Each week people will come in need of food. A wise baker pays attention to what people need and desire.

Recently, there’s been so much dissension and frustration filling the world that I have felt a need to focus on bringing forth something that will fuel people for the journey. Mix in a little bit of a call for justice, a bit of history, a touch of feminine spirituality, with a whole lot of the Good News… You can see what I have been trying to bring forth and you can see that it takes some focus, some knowledge, some study, and a whole lot of prayer.

Meanwhile, people are going about life while I prepare these sermons. Some people are burning the candle at both ends with a call for justice that is both timely and righteous. I want to encourage such fervor, but also remind people that the journey will be difficult. People more than likely will oppose them and their efforts, no matter how noble or heartfelt their intentions.

Ultimately, the people in the trenches decide how they will relate to other people and the opposition they might bring into their lives. The God that I serve has always laid on my heart a strong belief in free will, so I wanted to share a couple of words from a wise scholar in our recent church past.

Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a wise professor and leader within the African-American tradition. These days, Rev. Dr. Thurman is considered a respected and wise figure well beyond the bounds of that tradition. His words were often visionary and deep. He wrote the following in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited:” (pg. 28)

“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”

Now, Rev. Dr. Thurman wrote these words in 1976, so they’re not entirely in line with modern sensibilities on gender address, but they are still filled with wisdom. I love the simplicity of these words and I love the fact that I came about these words while looking for something completely different.

If someone knows how to throw off your temper or your equilibrium, then you are in a vulnerable place. I don’t know if I would say that you will always be kept under subjection or subjugation, but I do believe that it is almost impossible to act with freedom when you allow yourself to continually be dominated by the actions of others. If your spirit and soul are able to be pushed into a knee-jerk reaction as a result of a simple provocation, then your ability to exercise decision making is highly curtailed.

We live in days where there are folks who continually push buttons both in the world and in the church. I do not believe it is political in the slightest to point out that the sitting president of the nation in which I live (in June of 2018) makes a habit of making strong statements that provoke other people. If anything, he is a great example of someone who attempts regularly to coerce and cajole people to his point of view through throwing people off of their equilibrium.

Friends, many of us have been engaging in ministries that will require time, patience, and perseverance to bring to fruition. We do not have the time or luxury to become puppets to the attempts at subjection and subjugation by others who do not agree. I invite you to ponder Rev. Dr. Thurman’s words and to move forward with care.

Let Us Ramble: On Hymnody

This past Sunday in church every parishioner was handed two poker chips. Do not fret, my friends—we are not running a gambling ring in the Fellowship Hall. Each parishioner was given a white chip and a red or blue chip for a straw poll. Six jars were set out in the Fellowship Hall and people were invited to place their chips in six jars. The jars were labeled: Tradition, Social Justice, Daily Practices, Historical Context, Personal Practices, and Theology.

The white chips were statements that they were really interested in a subject and would like to hear more about the subject in the months to come. The red and blue chips meant that a person would like to hear more, but not as much as the jar in which they put their white chips.

The poll ended up as follows:

pubchart

What was fascinating about the poll was that there were a ton of “white chip” requests for information on tradition. In the case of this poll tradition was described as: “Where do the things we do as a Christian people come from? What stories rest behind things like hymns, traditional prayers, or even what in other traditions we might call the ‘smells and bells’ of worship?”

So, I am starting to look deeper into things like the nature of the music we sing. A few years back I picked up a book by Richard Mouw and Mark Noll entitled “Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History & Theology” (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004). Sadly, I have not taken the time to read it through. I picked up the book, found it fascinating, started to read it, and became distracted by work matters. I lost track of my progress in the book during the reappointment which was the distracting event, but as there is sincere interest in how our hymns came to influence our worship, I have finally begun to take the necessary time required to properly digest the book.

In the first chapter, which is entitled “The Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism,” Mark Noll begins by sharing the contents of a letter from 1731 which was written by Philip Doddridge to Isaac Watts. Writing on the events of a midweek service, Doddridge shared how tears were shed over a hymn written by Watts entitled “Give Me the Wings of Faith to Rise.” According to “Wonderful Words of Life,” Doddridge wrote “I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it.”

According to Noll, the key to the power of hymns was that “Ordinary believers had begun to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song” (p. 4). I find this interesting because of a number of characteristics and generalizations that I have heard and sometimes agreed with about hymns.

First, hymns are theology heavy. Theology, if you go deep enough into the etymology, is “an account or discussion of the divine.” Coming forward through time, theology ties itself into concepts like a philosophical study of the divine or the scientific study of how the divine interacts with humanity, but all ties back to a basic concept. Theology is essentially an account (or a collection of differing accounts) of how the divine relates to humanity.

When I say that hymns are theologically heavy, they speak a lot about concepts of the relationship between humanity and the divine. Let’s look at the hymn by Isaac Watts which we have already mentioned. One verse of “Give me the Wings of Faith to Rise” states: “We ask them whence their victory came: they, with united breath, ascribe their conquest to the Lamb, their triumph to his death.”

In this verse we see references to the conquest of the Lamb of God, imagery used heavily in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 5 reveals the Lamb of God and is filled with praise for God. Revelation 5:9-10 states: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered nad by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Watts’ verse ties heavily into the concepts of Revelation and especially into concepts like those in these verses of scripture.

These concepts are deep concepts tied into a deep reading of scripture. The lamb of God is referenced many times in scripture and by tying in the conception of Jesus as the lamb of God, the hymn ties into that legacy and modality of scripture. The richness of theology in just a few lines shows in many way exactly how deep hymns can be in their expression of conceptions of how God relates to humanity.

Second, hymns move quickly over concepts which are very rich. Let me connect this idea with a concept in enjoying food, which I know will be a huge surprise to people who know me or this blog. I recently had the pleasure of sharing my first piece of Limburger cheese with my wife. Limburger has a bad reputation. I found the cheese to be aromatic, if not outright pungent. The taste was complex and required a slow enjoyment to get all of the flavors and notes out of the cheese. Enjoying the Limburger took time, slowness, and the desire to enjoy something I have heard disparaged most of my life.

In my opinion, it would be nearly criminal to take a big piece of Limburger, shove it in your mouth, and swallow it down with a big gulp of something to mask the flavor. If you were to do that, I would hope that the food police would come and give you a citation for doing something in poor taste… Why, yes, that was a dry and terrible pun.

IMG_2119.JPG

I will happily accept free samples of other Limburger brands… I’m shameless when it comes to tasty cheese!

Hymns are full of flavor like a fine cheese. They have richness and depth which cannot be rushed. It is hard to miss the depth of a praise chorus where a single line might be repeated forty times in a single worship service, but if you blink you might miss some of the depth found in one of the hymns.

This depth makes sense when you consider the context of a lot of these hymns. Families might own a Bible if they were fortunate, but the hymns they might sing came out of a hymnal which was often printed and shared with folks on a regular basis. In an age before radio and television, they might sing hymns after dinner, sing hymns at the midweek prayer service, and sing hymns on Sunday. While our hymnals live in the church and are often opened only on Sunday morning, the hymnals of the time which Mark Noll writes about were hymnals that were used often. Even if folks did not own a hymnal or could not read it, through regular repetition the deep theology would be shared and taught in deep rooted ways. Even the least literate church members would learn their faith through slow enjoyment of something which was sung regularly and deeply.

Third, hymns were methods of education. We’ve already touched on the how these hymns taught deep concepts. What I am trying to express here is that these hymns were intentionally designed as tools to educate folks about more than just theological ideas. Hymns were sung and tied into the Christian year in ways that mutually assisted teaching about the Christian year. Every spring the church would sing songs of Lenten concepts and then resurrection. Every winter the church would sing songs of Advent and Christmas. The concepts taught in the church tied into the concepts sung by church members. Together they would educate folks about the Christian year in a mutually beneficial way until it became second nature.

This is still true in a lot of traditional churches. Is it Christmas Eve if we don’t sing Silent Night? What does Silent Night tells us about God? What does “Silent Night” teach us about our relationship with God? Does singing Silent Night change the way we live around family members who may make us want to be less than silent and less than filled with heavenly peace? Is it Easter if we don’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? Can it be Palm Sunday without “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”?

What’s interesting in all of this is Mark Noll’s conception. Hymns took off in popularity because they gave voice to ordinary believers and helped them to express their beliefs through song. Strangely enough, one of the criticisms I hear most about hymns is that they are not accessible to ordinary people. Their language is often filled with strange terms, their pace is too fast, and they are sung to sheet music, which is often something only accessible to people who have had access to an education with music as an emphasis. In many ways, the original strength of hymns is now the challenge.

When the most popular praise songs can be heard on Christian radio twice an hour and we might sing the same hymns two or three times a year, hymns lose their ability to be the songs of the people. So, why do we stick with hymns? Perhaps it is stubbornness, but I tend to believe it is because there are those who still enjoy the depth, the legacy, and the history of hymns. Perhaps, with time, we will find ways to instill hymns back into the regular life of the church. Until then, perhaps they should be appreciated as what they remain—a connection to a vibrant and deep past.

Let us Ramble: Approaching Ten Years

Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.

Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.

Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.

taize-silence

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:

“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”

I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.

Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.

I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.

If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.

That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)

“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.

The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.

“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”

We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.

The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.

To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.

Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:

“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”

Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.

In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:

“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”

Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?

There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.

Let us Ramble: Strange Praise Music…

Recently, I picked up an anthology of poetic translations of the Psalms named “The Poets’ Book of Psalms” as compiled, edited, and introduced by Laurance Wieder. I have an affinity for collecting alternative translations of the Psalms. I have enjoyed Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” for several years now. I was recently introduced by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat to “Psalms in a translation for praying” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

In the newest part of my collection of alternative translations to my tried and true New Revised Standard Version (the Wieder collection) there is a poetic translation of Psalm 150. Psalm 150 is part of the Revised Common Lectionary reading for today. John Davies, who lived from 1569 – 1626 CE translated this particular version of the Psalm. Here, from across the centuries, is John Davies poetic translation of Psalm 150:

“To him with trumpets and with flutes,
With cornets, clarions, and with lutes,
With harps, with organs, and with shawms,
With holy anthems and with psalms,
With voice of angels and of men,
Sing Alleluia: amen, amen.”

Some basic background on Sir. John Davies can be found here. To summarize, Sir. Davies was more than an Irish poet. Sir Davies was an attorney with a somewhat motley career which included being one of the most respected attorneys of the Emerald Isle and also being disbarred at different points. He has a very interesting political career both in Ireland and in England.

Regardless, in my corner of creation, Sir Davies’ poems are what most catch my attention a few centuries after their original publication. His work, while understandable, draws attention to various areas which a modern translation might miss.

My copy of “The Poets’ Book of Psalms.” Also pictured, the citrus tree my family gave me for Christmas two years ago and the Peace Lily which was a gift given to my family by a nearby church when my family moved to Maine, NY from Boonville, NY. Also, an essential oil diffuser which is a very calming addition to my home desk.

I enjoy this poetic understanding of Psalm 150 as a result of the way it draws attention to a timeless truth which I have come to understand in my own path through life. Let me point out the instruments used in the praise of God in this poem. God is praised with cornets, clarions, lutes, harps, organs, and shawms. I must say that I hear organs in worship on a regular basis due to where I serve and I do enjoy the harp when it is played well, but I do not hear much music on the radio played on cornets, clarions, or lutes. Upon first reading the translation, I did not even know what shawms might be, but after a quick google search, I did learn that it was a flute-like instrument. Shawms are not very popular on the radio these days.

The timeless truth these strange things point out is that the praise of God is greater than any instrument. There are no guitars, drum kits, d’jembes, or any of the instruments you might find in most modern praise bands. Still, in Sir Davies’ day, people praised the Lord with their own happy music. Holy anthems and psalms of Sir Davies’ day might be different from from any radio singles or YouTube praise chorus that might be produced today, but it seems that both types, although separated by centuries and cultures, praised the Lord.

Praise of God is greater than the instruments we use. When praise comes from the heart, it can be shared through a piano, a snare drum, an organ, some shawms, a bass guitar, a lute, a lyre, a harpsichord, a shofar, a bodhran, or a cowbell. I am thankful that this timeless truth is pointed out through paying attention to a very old poem from an Irish attorney.

Let us Seek: “All that is required…”

In pondering today’s scripture reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, I found myself thinking back to “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies” as first printed in the 1808 Discipline under the heading “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” In reading the description of the societies which gave birth to churches, there is much to ponder.

The classes which comprised each society consisted of individuals who would meet with a leader weekly to talk about how their own faith journey was progressing, find what was needed for life (whether that be encouragement, reproof, advice, comfort, etc.), and to collect what each was willing to give for the relief of their preachers, the church, and the poor. Each week (or (as I understand it) as often as possible in a circuit where the preacher would travel long distances), the leaders would meet with the minister to talk about challenges, which challenging class-members needed individualized attention from the minister, and to give funds to the stewards of the society. Those were different times with different understandings of what was expected of church members.

Having now given a, extremely basic overview of what classes were within the societies of yesteryear, I will share why I was thinking about the General Rules while pondering the reading for today, which is 1 John 3:10-16. There’s a line in the General Rules about how a person could become involved with those societies which sticks in the mind. The line says:

“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”

The General Rules go on to talk about how those who wish to continue in the societies that they evidence their desire to be saved through following guidelines on how to live life in terms of doing no evil (don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t profane the Sabbath, don’t engage in drunkenness, don’t engage in slaveholding, don’t quarrel, don’t buy or sell illegal goods, don’t charge unlawful interest on others, don’t speak evil of others (especially governmental leaders and ministers), etc.). doing good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, exhorting all souls towards God, helping others within the household of faith, being frugal, having patience, etc.), and attending on the ordinances of God (go to church, spend time with the word, take communion, pray, fasting, etc.).

Some of these concepts are a bit foreign to us. A lot of our churches would be in trouble if we felt that speaking poorly of governmental leaders or our pastors was grounds for expulsion or reproof. We might raise an eyebrow at someone for drinking too much, suggest counseling, invite them to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or simply pray deeply, but to expel someone from the church for even buying an alcoholic beverage is not a common standard for expulsion from church membership these days.

Times have changed over the centuries, but I continue to believe that there are still standards which we hold as church that continue to evolve. In some ways, we continue to struggle with some of the original concerns of the United Societies, but our role in the world has called us to be more vocal on other concerns.

Forgetting our identity as those who seek to live in this life as God’s people has proved disastrous in the past, such as when we forgot our call to avoid slavery as sin in the midst of the centuries that have passed since those rules were recorded in 1808. Forgetting our identity led to massive quantities of evil and suffering for those who were enslaved and in the souls of those who enslaved others. Forgetting our identity led to a grim chapter in our history which still has an effect today.

It is just as easy to forget our continually changing identity in the present as it was for those folks who struggled with slavery in bygone years. Reflecting on this reality, I pondered the scripture deeply in light of upcoming events.

This Saturday, April 21st, the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will kickoff the “Imagine No Racism” Campaign. We are gathering as a Conference to seek to imagine a better world without racism and (hopefully) with equity, and this gathering came to mind as I read today’s scripture. 1 John 3:10-16 reads this way in the New Revised Standard Version:

“The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What does it mean to desire to flee wrath by fleeting towards God? What does it mean to evidence that continuing effort by doing no intentional harm through our actions? What does it mean to do what is right in a world that is marked by racial injustice?

The very first message we heard, according to the writer of this epistle, was that we should love one another. First and foremost, the message was to love. How can we claim to live in love if we see people around us suffering due to their genetic composition? If Christ laid down His life for our lives, are we not called to do the same for each other? Does the need have to be as drastic as a life and death situation for us to be called to act?

I know many people who grew up with racial biases who would have nonetheless laid down their lives in order to save the lives of people (that they thought less of due to their ethnicity) due to their own moral, religious, and even political beliefs. To lay down one’s life is often a momentary decision and many individuals would have the courage to make that sacrifice in a moment.

I would love to say that those brave folks would lay down their privilege, their comfort, or their well-being over the long-term for those who are suffering from racial injustice, but I am not always certain that they would do the same over the (much more challenging) long term. In honesty, I would love to say that I know that I am perfectly laying down self-interest myself, but there is something to be said for the fact that moving away from “thoughts and prayers” for racial justice towards courageous acts to reassert equilibrium requires more than a moment’s courage or conviction for those of us who have privilege. I seek the courage and endurance to do so perfectly, but I often fall flat on my face. These words don’t come from a “holier than thou” stance. I often do not know how to move forward myself.

To move towards equilibrium will require more than most of us, including me, currently possess. It will require… imagination! Movement towards that equilibrium will also require the courage and character to do more than imagine, but it is hard to do anything but spin our wheels until we have an image of that more perfect (united) society in our collective mind and heart.

Although I hate to bring in my readings for The Academy for Spiritual Formation into yet another blog post, I am reminded of the writings of George Govorov. Theophan the Recluse (yes, that’s George Govorov) taught that growth in prayer must go through stages. I won’t quote a specific paragraph, because (as a friend put it) that particular chapter (the second) is kind of like a broken record.

  1. Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
  2. Prayer of the Mind: Prayer that has a resonance in the mind. There are no absent actions here. The prayer of the body is caught up into conscious thought and action through the mind. Each word is pondered in the mind, each movement is done with intention, etc.
  3. Prayer of the Heart: Prayer moves beyond word, thought, and deed to a place where it comes from the center of our being. Prayer of the heart does not preclude physical actions or pondering words, but goes deeper. In Bishop Theophan’s view, prayer of the heart is at the center of true prayer.

In Govorov’s view, moving through each stage of prayer takes time, effort, and dedication. For some, the place where they belong is in practicing with their body until rhythm is established. For others, there is a moment for letting the words rattle through their minds until it takes root. For other, true prayer requires the heart to work in concert with the body and mind. A person united in body, mind, and heart could truly enter into God’s presence through prayer until their soul was set alight through the Holy Spirit!

It is my hope that we would continue to go on towards Christ through events like the gatherings this Saturday. I pray we move past dwelling in the midst of death into living in a place of love. For some, that may mean learning new words and new actions. Prayers of repentance in the body might mean learning new ways of living, new ways of acting, and even new ways of speaking. For others, this may be an opportunity to connect our mind to things we are already doing. What does it mean to speak out for justice with words that are not platitudes but are deeply pondered? What does it mean to ponder the words of others instead of just listening with one ear and letting those words pass out the other? For others, this may be a moment to let the heart take hold of deep truths.

I am not certain where I fall in that realm of prayer for repentance. In some areas I am likely in one place and in another place in other places. Regardless, as I ponder the scripture today, I am reminded of my desire to flee the wrath that comes from living in the midst of death. May God give me the courage to have open ears this Saturday and to enter more deeply into a prayer which may take a lifetime or longer to comprehend.

This church in Sawmill, AZ helped me to grow as a person as I faced my own racial biases while on two United Methodist Volunteers In Mission trips. I cannot tell you how much I was blessed by the people of this small but mighty Diné church.

Let us Ramble: Common threads of grace

I have been working through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In particular, I have been working through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Nalamo and Translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer. I was reading through the second chapter when I was struck by the words of Theophan the Recluse on grace. Theophan writes in the section entitled “The prayer of the mind in the heart”:

“But no one is refused. Because all have grace, only one thing is necessary; to give this grace free scope to act. Grace receives free scope in so far as the ego is crushed and the passions uprooted. The more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God. And when the heart is fully purified, then this feeling of warmth towards God takes fire…Grace builds up everything because grace is always present in believers.”

Of course, as a good United Methodist, I was immediately drawn to these words on grace. John Wesley penned and preached a sermon entitled “Free Grace” in 1739, which was 76 years before Bishop Theophan was born. In that sermon, John Wesley wrote the following:

“The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all.

First, it is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver, nor on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions, for all these flow from the free grace of God. They are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it all. Thus is his grace free in all, that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but to God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and with him freely giveth us all things.”

I would like to think that Wesley’s work might have had an influence on that of Bishop Theophan, but given the time of the Bishop’s life, even as a scholar, it would be unlikely that Bishop Theophan would have been heavily influenced by a reformer like John Wesley within the Anglican church.

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Two books in a stand isn’t nearly as catchy a phrase as two peas in a pod…

 

Regardless, clearly both Bishop Theophan and John Wesley agreed on the power of grace, the presence of grace being available for all people, and the ability for that grace to build up everything and to draw us closer to God.

All of this being said, there’s a major difference in thought here. While Bishop Theophan believed that grace was free for all, he warns the people reading his work to take care not to stifle the spirit. He writes earlier in the same paragraph quoted before:

“He who turns to God and is sanctified by the sacraments, immediately receives feeling towards God within himself, which from this moment begins to lay the foundation in his heart for the ascent on high. Provided he does not stifle it by something unworthy, this feeling will be kindled into flame, by time, perseverance, and labour. But if he stifles it by something unworthy, although the path of approach of approach and reconciliation to God is not thereby closed to him, this feeling will no longer be given at once and gratis. Before him is the sweat and work of seeking and of gaining it by prayer. But no one is refused…”

There is a difference in understanding here. Although both John Wesley and Bishop Theophan believe in the power of grace, there seems to be a disconnect on how that grace can and will be applied. For Bishop Theophan, if there is a stifling of the grace of God, at some point there is a place where labor becomes necessary to achieve a reconnection to God’s mighty acts of grace.

For Wesley, while there is a strong connection to the concept of choice, the reality is that the good which is done by humans is done through God. Although our choices may lead to blessed events like the floodgates of grace being opened, the freedom of grace beginning to work fully within us, and a reshaping of ourselves into the further image of Christ, these are but streams of God’s grace, not the fountain of the grace itself. To put it another way, we might grow branches out from the trunk of who we are in Christ, but without the roots made in, through, and by God, we will achieve nothing.

I might be making too strong a point for the differentiation here, but let’s think about the difference. What if Wesley is correct that if God, putting a stumbling block between sinners and salvation, would be acting like a crocodile shedding tears “over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction?” To complete the quote “Free Grace” by John Wesley:

“To say that [God] did not intend to save all sinners is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.’ If then you say he calls those who cannot come, those whom he knows to be unable to come, those whom he can make able to come but will not, how is it possible to describe greater insincerity?’ You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying one thing and meaning another; as pretending the love which he had not. Him ‘in whose mouth was no guile’ you make full of deceit, void of common sincerity. Then especially, when drawing nigh the city, ‘he wept over it’, and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together… and ye would not…’ Now if you say, ‘They would’, but ‘he would not,’ you represent him (which who could hear’) as weeping crocodile’s tears, weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction.”

These words, like many of the words of John Wesley, are very strong. To be honest though, there’s some merit to what Wesley wrote. How could God say “I desire good for all” while setting such a high standard for a future with God after a stifling of that grace? Does not grace abound when one chooses to turn from sin?

Do we choose to continue in sin knowing this to be the case? I would say that would grieve the heart of anyone who loves God and is grateful for salvation, but I cannot believe that God would put a firm barrier that some could not overcome between their desire to find salvation and the achievement of that goal. Even if that warming of the spirit is simply an assurance of salvation, I cannot believe that God would slam that door so heavily.

How could one even desire to move past a place of futility if the feeling “towards God” described by Bishop Theophan is stifled and no longer free of charge? Would you turn to God for a path towards salvation if you had not desire in your heart to draw nearer? Would not such a journey become nearly impossible given the fact that the reward itself is something that can only be seen and felt by faith and not the eyes? A person might work at a job they hate because of a paycheck that comes regularly, but would they do the same job with the assurance that they would be paid when the job was complete? Would they do so if they did not even feel an iota of love or desire to be near and with the one who would bring that good into their life?

There is much to think about with these streams of grace. What do you believe about grace? Is it free to all? Is John Wesley’s desciption a grace which is too “cheap” in the words of Bonhoeffer? Is grace something else entirely? What are your thoughts?

Let us Ramble: Prayer and Worship

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of sitting in worship. My wife has been spending a lot of time with the good folks of the Newark Valley United Church of Christ. Once a month they have been having an evening worship service with communion. My family and I attend this service for two reasons. One, it is wonderful to support my wife by going to a church of her choice, which is a rarity as most Sunday mornings I am where I am appointed. Two, it is an opportunity to sit in worship as a person and not as the leader. Sunday morning is a time of worship for me, but I rarely get the privilege of listening to another preacher work through the word of God with the people of God.

So, Sunday night, Pastor Chris Xenakis, a colleague and the pastor of the Groton Community Church, was visiting to preach, serve communion, and lead worship. After his sermon, Chris said something to the effect of “Prayer is the most important part of worship. In many ways, all of worship is a prayer.” Pastor Xenakis is a wise man.

Chris’ words kept ringing through my ears after I returned home. After I realized that it was not going to go away until I figured out why it was bugging me, I went hunting through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I found the source of my distraction in “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology.” In that anthology, Bishop Theophan (1815-1894) of the Orthodox persuasion, is quoted as saying the following in the second chapter under the subheading “The test of everything”:

“Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”

The affirmation of prayer by Bishop Theophan is deep, thought-provoking, and reminiscent of what Pastor Xenakis said during the service. Prayer is seen in this concept as that which exists at the heart of everything. Prayer provides everything, drives everything, and directs everything. The bold statement is made that everything is right when prayer is right.

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My thought-provoking copy of “The Art of Prayer”

These concepts tug at my thoughts in deep ways. What is life but an act of worship? We worship when we use our resources to God’s glory. We worship when we choose to use our time wisely. We worship when we treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves with love. We worship when we tend to the world in which we have been placed. All of life can be seen as an invitation to worship. If all worship is a prayer, then truly prayer is at the very heart of our existence.

So, the question then becomes obvious. How do we know if our prayer is right? What litmus test can we apply to our actions, our stewardship, and our relationships that can show whether we are on the right track?

I believe the answer is love. Do our actions exhibit love? Do our prayers lead to more love? If God is love, then we should strive to be more loving. If God is love, then our actions should point towards the Source of love. If God is love, then we are invited to join in the great dance of love through Christ. I believe the true litmus test of our lives is whether or not we are sources of love like the one we worship and claim as our savior.

Inevitably, someone will question whether or not Jesus’ suffering was in line with the idea of prayer not allowing anything to go wrong. In the end, Jesus conquered his suffering and death. As a resurrection people, we are a people who understand that sometimes all is made well on the other side of suffering, struggle, and occasionally death. Can we be patient enough to allow all to be made well? Can we be patient enough to allow things to be made right even when it seems they all have gone wrong?

In the meantime, I am grateful that I went to the evening service on Sunday. It is nice to be in worship and to have the opportunity to both sing from the pews and to hear a good sermon. I will probably keep thinking about Chris’ words on worship and how Bishop Theophan invites us from across the centuries to ponder whether those prayers are the test of everything.

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?