Let us Bake: Holy Smoke!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us Ramble: Diving Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us Ramble: Imperfect Hourglass

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

My two hourglasses!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us Ramble: An Arresting Quote on Charity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us Ramble: Solitude, Faith, and Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Ramble: Hobbit Holes and Worship

So, I decided that I would spend a day doing a light-hearted blog post. The blog has been pretty dense since I returned from paternity leave, which reflects some challenges behind the scenes of ministry. In the midst of everything, I found myself needing to read to my infant the other day. She would not calm down without hearing my voice while rocking back and forth. I decided to read to her, looked through my Kindle purchases, and began to read her “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In the very first chapter, Bilbo encounters Gandalf. Gandalf is seeking aid in an adventure. When Gandalf expresses difficulty with finding someone to join him, Bilbo replies: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”

I started to laugh when I read this passage. I found humor in the fact that Bilbo will definitely go on an adventure, but also because I am aware that the hobbit acts a lot like me! Over the years I have truly enjoyed several versions of “Bag End.” In the apartment that we first shared when I was in seminary, I took over the walk-in closet in our living room and turned it into my office. I spent many hours under a single incandescent light bulb with books of theology, an aging computer, and a cup of coffee. It was definitely my own little hole in the ground. To be honest, it was absolute bliss…

Since we left that apartment, I have not really had a hole to hide in of quite the same caliber, but I have enjoyed several offices over the year. The closest I have come is my current home office which is filled with plants, garden gnomes, and within sight of several rather tookish children that enjoy their own adventures.

Two of my favorite garden gnomes sit right next to the computer desk in our “library.”

I can understand the enjoyment of a space. There is something safe and secure about being in a familiar place with reminders of pleasant days and happy nights. If you invest a space with a lot of happy cups of coffee, hours of research, or even just time spent happily interacting with friends, a space can become pretty comfortable. In fact, it can be hard to walk away from such spaces sometimes…

There is a challenge that comes with living in a land where adventure can come from simply stepping outside of one’s door! Winter is here in the United States. With winter in this particular location comes things like snow, ice, and slush. This area is by no means the snowiest place that I have ever lived. To be entirely honest, it is actually the least snowy location where I have ever resided, but less snow is not the same as no snow.

Some Sundays, freezing temperatures strike and nobody is at the church. Some nights we would have a committee meeting but there’s a forecast that keeps us from having anywhere near quorum.It can be really frustrating to deal with winter adventures, and sometimes we seem to embody the spirit of Bilbo Baggins. “Go to church? In this weather? We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”

So, here is some advice for people in church leadership during winter:

  1. Love other people. I have been quoting Hebrews 13:1 a lot lately. In that verse we are reminded to “let mutual love continue.” Sometimes people will let us down and not make it to a meeting. Love them. Love them. When you are done, love them some more. Yes, they might take advantage of your love and continue to engage in the behavior that bothers you, but extend love first. All mutual love comes from someplace and we must be willing to love first. I am reminded of the passage I read the other day in “Ways of Imperfection” by Simon Tugwell. In that passage, on page 18, Tugwell points out a story where abba Poemen was in a conversation where several monks were discussing how to deal with a monk who kept falling asleep in church. After several rather strict ideas are suggested, abba Poemen is reported by Tugwell as saying: “If I see that my brother has gone to sleep, I cradle his head in my lap.” If ancient monastic Egyptians can understand the idea of compassionate loving in such circumstances, certainly we can as well.
  2. Consider the circumstances. If you have a meeting with a saint who cannot drive after dark or on roads that might be challenging after peak maintenance hours, do not plan that meeting when things might be iffy. Roads (in our area) are often sketchy after dark and first thing in the morning. A little prior planning never hurt an administrator or worship planner. Late night services might fit the mood of an occasion like a “New Year’s Eve Prayer Vigil,” but be aware your worship time and the weather that surrounds it might affect some people in ways beyond their control.
  3. Consider situational problems. If someone no longer comes because they slipped in your parking lot, consider ways you can make your parking lot safer. Alternatively, ask someone (or go yourself if you are able) to walk with them from their car into the church meeting. Again, a little prior planning is an integral part to good leadership.
  4. Let things go. Nobody is helped when you dwell on things you cannot control. The weather turned sideways and your one absolutely perfect sermon of the year was heard by five people? Well, that happens sometimes. It is better to let go of your frustrations than to let them take root in your soul. You are a walking temple of God. Do not track dirt into your heart.

Those are four pieces of advice for leaders of churches during the slippery months. Do you have any other suggestions? What has worked for you?

Let us Ramble: Humility and Community

This year in my annual report to the church there’s a strong statement. I wrote in November and revised earlier this month the idea that “ We need to remember that we are a community unified and united in purpose.” I did not make this statement lightly as unity within the body of Christ is one of the most challenging and most important characteristics of a healthy church.

You will notice I did not write the phrase “uniformity” as the goal is one of connection and not utter conformity. Unity and unification around a concept is important for any community, but especially a religious community. To borrow from Henri Nouwen (on the ninth page in his book “Discernment”) we should be united around the idea of our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

There is nothing as antithetical to unification around this desire than arrogance. Arrogance leads us to believe it is okay to ignore God’s call to simple concepts like talking to people instead of about people. Arrogance leads us to believe that we are better than each other or better than those called to particular ministries. Arrogance leads us to engage in a lot of the behaviors that hurt and harm churches.

I think Bernard of Clairvaux puts it well. The saint from the 1100s has been translated (by the Cisterian Order in their 1973 critical translation) as saying “If ignorance makes beasts of us, arrogance make us like demons. It is pride, the greatest of sins, to use gifts as if they were one’s by natural right and while receiving benefits to usurp the benefactor’s glory.”

Now, what’s interesting about this quote is that Bernard prefaces it by pointing out that everyone should know two facts: what they are and that they are not who they are by their own power. Bernard states clearly that everyone needs to know that they are who they are by the gift of God and to accept their role with humility.

Leaders in the church (both lay and clergy) are called by God to places of leadership. They are given gifts and graces to fulfill their role. It is great arrogance to both take these gifts for granted and to ignore the responsibilities that come with them. Bernard warns strongly against dulling one’s blessing by forgetting one’s call and forgetting the purpose for which one has been blessed. Bernard, holding a very strong opinion, writes (pardon the 1970s language of translation)

“When a man, promoted to a high dignity, does not appreciate the favor he received, because of his ignorance he is rightly compared to the animals with whom he shares his present state of corruption and mortality. It also happens when a man, not appreciating the gift of reason, starts mingling with the herds of dumb beasts to the extent that, ignoring his own interior glory, he models his conduct on the object of his sense. Led on by curiosity, he becomes like any other animal since he does not see he has receive more than they.”

Leaders are called to live up to the blessings they have received. One of the greatest challenges that faces me as a United Methodist Elder is the echoes of the words spoken by Bishop Marcus Matthews over me at my ordination. I was told to “Take thou authority…” The bestowed authority is an authority that comes with challenges that are well addressed by this article from Ministry Matters. Nonetheless, it is a promotion that comes from a place of high dignity within my tradition.

On my desk there’s a list of people with arrows. I was ordained by Bishop Marcus Matthews, who was ordained by Bishop James Kenneth Mathews, who was ordained by Bishop Benton Thoburn Badly, who was ordained by Bishop James Mills Thorburn, who was ordained by Bishop Edward Raymond Ames, who was ordained by Bishop Robert Richford Roberts, who was ordained by Bishop Francis Asbury, who was ordained by Bishop Thomas Coke, who was ordained by Archbishop Potter, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Church of England, which was born out of direct apostolic succession from the beginning of the church.

There’s a high calling to the authority that was passed to me by Bishop Matthews. To ignore the weight and the responsibility of that calling would be a great sin. My authority as an Elder in apostolic succession comes with a great responsibility to not only maintain the standards of my office but to lead with integrity the people of God towards our one great and true desire.

Bernard’s words are not simply for leaders though. Believers in the church who are called to follow (both lay and clergy—especially if clergy serve in an episcopally based system or in a system where there is discernment of the body held over the discernment of the clergy) are called to know who they are, where they are, what is expected of them, and to accept the gifts granted to them by God with humility as well. Leaders are gifts from God often sent to teach us things that come unnaturally without help. Do leaders make mistakes? Yes, but they are often present to teach us things beyond ourselves.

As an Elder in that line of apostolic succession, I am also called to be a follower. I am asked to respect the bishop who has been discerned and sent to be the leader of my Annual Conference, am asked to respect my District Superintendent and the clergy who are called to assist in leadership through both the Order of Elders and the Board of Ordained Ministry. I am called to respect the Annual and General Conference, the Book of Discipline, the Book of Resolutions, and even to consider the non-binding words of the Council of Bishops with respect. I am called to participate in the life of the Conference and to use my voice, but I am also called to be a part of a system that is larger than myself. I am even called to consider the advice of the folks that I am called to lead, even if obedience is not required in that last situation due to the traditions surrounding both freedom of the pulpit and the role of the pastor within my church tradition. The calling to be a follower is as integral to my leadership as my call to be a leader.

In both these roles there’s a role both for knowledge and humility. Bernard writes:

“We should, therefore, fear that ignorance which gives us a too low opinion of our selves. But we should fear no less, but rather more, that which makes us think ourselves better than we are. This is what happens when we deceive ourselves thinking some good is in us of ourselves. But indeed you should detest and avoid even more than these two forms of ignorance that presumption by which you, knowingly and on purpose, seek your glory in goods that are not your own and that you certain are not in you by your own power.”

Bernard (in context) is talking about more than just physical goods. Bernard previously calls accepting praise for the spiritual blessings and spiritual roles that God has granted and gifted ability for to be no less than vainglory, which is excessive pride and vanity. Goods in Bernard’s view are more than just physical things. All that we have is given to us for the glory of God. When we claim anything as rightly ours by our own hand, whether it be a pair of jeans, a work of art, or a paycheck, then we are missing the point of why we have what we have in this life. To tie it back to Henri Nouwen, we have what we have for our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

It is the greatest arrogance to take what we have been given for this one purpose and to use it to do the exact opposite. God is love and calls us to love. If we turn what God has given us to purposes of hate, isn’t that rightly named demonic? God calls us to care for the least of the children of God. If we hoard what we have from God to the detriment of those who need us to be the hands and feet of Christ, isn’t that the very heart of arrogance? Aren’t such acts drawing away or usurping the very glory of our one true benefactor?

When we are blessed by God we are called to live for that one true desire. When the Holy Spirit works and weaves within us, the tapestry is meant for God’s glory. When the Son grants us life and a place within the family of God, we are called to follow his teachings instead of our own.

Let us Ramble: On Unity

Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.

As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)

“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”

In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:

“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”

The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.

Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.

Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.

Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.

Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.

So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?

In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.

I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.

Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.

Let us Seek: Sovereign God, part deux

Sometimes, I argue with myself. My habit to write the next day’s blog post and schedule it for 9:00 AM the following morning. On occasion, I find inspiration to continue with a previous line of thought. Occasionally, I find myself arguing with both myself and my blog entry for the day.

This morning I posted about a reflection on the sovereignty of God. My post came about after reflection on scripture as seen through the light of a book I am reading for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. That book is “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer. In the book, the argument is made that the sovereignty of God is a sacrosanct concept. Adonai reigns so our world is seen in a different light.

I made the “mistake” of spending time in my devotions this morning, which is always a risky affair. I was working through one of my favorite resources, which is Upper Room’s “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” (henceforth, “Guide”) This resource is the very resource which led me to consider applying for the Academy in the first place. Before finding the Guide I had always seen Upper Room as that tiny little book which I took to individuals when I visited or handed out to folks when they wanted something to read to go deeper. The Guide was deep, methodical, and practical for me as someone who likes structure in their prayer life to balance out my lack of attention span–there is a reason my blog uses the phrase “Distracted Pastor.”

Quick aside, one of my colleagues at the Academy recommended that I take my new Worship Book to the artist formerly known as Kinkos to get it bound with a spiraling ring to make it easier to use. I took my Guide there and for less than nine dollars it is now far easier to use and has nice protective covers to keep it safe. Getting my devotional book bound with a ring was a great idea as I now don’t have to weigh the pages down while taking notes in my journal.

Look how easily it sits flat!

The plastic cover is a nice protective touch…

Anyway, back on subject, I made the mistake of working through the Guide and found myself reflecting on a passage that was the exact opposite of what our good Rabbi Miriyam Glazer stated. Mind you, the author whom the guide quoted is a Christian, so that is somewhat to be expected. Still, the cognitive dissonance has been bothering me as I attempt to stay with both readings.

The following excerpt is stated to be from “Prayer” by Simon Tugwell, a Dominican historian and author. The excerpt is found in the readings for reflection for this week.

“[God in Jesus] does not come in strength but in weakness, and he chooses the foolish and weak and unimportant things of the world, things that are nothing at all, to overthrow the strength and impressiveness of the world. As we saw earlier, he is like the judo expert who uses the strength of his opponent to bring him to the ground; it is the art of self-defense proper to the weak.

This is why, if we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispense or all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.”

I imagine most people can see the dissonance between these two sets of conceptions. On the Rabbi’s side we have a God who reigns. Adonai reigns; therefore, we have hope that the future can be a place of blessing. On the Dominican’s side we have a God who has entered the form of Jesus. There is a sense of a self-imposed weakness. God has nothing to give except himself in the form of Jesus. God has nothing to give except himself; therefore, we should not see God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire.

I have to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately side with Rabbi Glazer. My fear is that my reaction is very human. How could God do something so very foolish? Well, God does what God does. In the most ancient of addresses, God claims the name “I am who I am.”

The challenging part in the midst of all of this chaos is the reality that the Reading for Reflection in the Guide does not stand alone. The psalm of the week is Psalm 105. Psalm 105 is not a psalm of passivity. God acts deeply, thoroughly, and completely in the psalm to assert the placement of the people of God. A few examples:

  • The psalm invokes the actions of God in a time of famine through the servant Joseph. (Ps 105:16-23)
  • The psalm invokes the action of God in establishing a covenant with the immigrants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which will never be forgotten. God protects those immigrants with might (Ps 105:7-14, 42-45)
  • The Psalm invokes the powerful and sometimes brutal story of the Exodus (Ps 105:24-45)

The actions claimed in the Psalm are not the actions of a passive God of weakness. The Psalm claims the power of Adonai. Adonai reigns! All of this begs a simple question. Why did Bishop Job and Pastor Shawchuck, the compilers of the Guide, choose to include this passage for reflection? Was it merely to inspire there to be interesting thoughts in the minds of those who sought God this week? Even without Rabbi Glazer’s contribution to this conversation, Psalm 105 and this reflection seem at odds with each other.

I have been pondering these differences for several hours and I am brought to a place where I once again go back to things I learned way back in my philosophy classes at Roberts Wesleyan College. Yes, I was indeed the student who insisted with all of the depths of my heart that I believed that God could do the incredible. I believed that God could make a square circle.

The concepts was simple. Could God do something that was logically impossible? Could God create a rock so heavy that God could not lift it? That concept never stuck within me. I was obsessed with the square circle. Could God make an object that was fully a circle and fully a square? Such a logical fallacy seems impossible.

To say that I received a bit of mockery, ribbing, and even disdain at the time for the strength and consistency of my view is to put it mildly. I have since learned to live into that tension, especially as I lived into theology. Can God truly be fully human and fully divine? Can God really be the One God as expressed in trinitarian theology? Can God really care for humanity to the extent that God would come into the world in the form of weakness to engage in an act of strength that would help Jesus emerge as the victor who would break down the division of sin that had lasted for ages past? There are all sorts of paradoxes in Christianity. There are many koans to be considered.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? I have no idea. How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine? I have no idea. How can God create a square circle? I have no idea. How can God move in weakness and foolishness to save the world? I have no idea, but I believe that Jesus has done this thing quite beautifully.

What are your thoughts in regards to this contradiction? Do you have any ideas or reflections?

Let us Ponder: Sovereign God

Yesterday in the blog I was pondering the concept of knowledge. What does it mean for any religious or spiritual knowledge to go beyond being informational in nature to being transformational in nature? What does it mean for us to understand a text, a revelation, or a message from so thoroughly that it changes the ways that we authentically engage with the world and her creator? These were the sort of questions I was considering in my heart and in my soul yesterday.

As I read for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, I found myself entering into a new book from a new perspective. We were invited to read four books for the upcoming Academy and I decided to begin with “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.

I was considering the introduction to the book and Rabbi Glazer’s discussion of barriers that can interdict themselves between us and these works of an ancient faith when something caught my eye on the sixth page. Rabbi Glazer pointed out that “One barrier may be especially present for us Americans, who are unaccustomed to accepting, or even contemplating, images rooted in monarchy.”

The phrasing and content caught my eye as I had been considering the idea of what it might mean to be transformed by an understanding of the text. I was away last week and was disheartened by the news when I had returned. I was disturbed by the national conversations inspired by events on issues such as “How does someone speak appropriately as a leader to youth and children?” and “What does it mean to treat someone as innocent until they are proven guilty?” I read stories of foul-mouthed politicians and was disheartened. I truly regretted the state of affairs that awaited me in my news feed, but could I really see the power and possibility behind a Sovereign? I am not a fan of some of our elected officials, but surely the heart of democracy and the power of the social contract dwell deeply within my worldview. What could it mean to consider a Sovereign as a welcomed authority figure when I struggle to trust the officials we sometimes elect?

In the midst of these struggles I pondered the very Psalms being considered in the book I was beginning to read. The words that I read truly did come from a very foreign worldview. In truth, the foreign nature of the texts are sometimes what gives those text their strength. Consider the first four verses of the second Psalm: (NRSV, alt.)

“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Sovereign and the anointed, saying ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ The Sovereign who sits in the heavens laughs; the Sovereign has them in derision.”

In a nation where it seems like every political party is conspiring and plotting, it can be invigorating to consider a Sovereign above such matters. In a world where there is earthly power and might in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals, it is comforting to think of a God who considers such earthly might and power as being worthy of laughter. The very foreign nature of the texts presents a Sovereign that can be powerful in ways that are unimaginable in the midst of the plots and conspiracies of modern politics. Consider Psalm 19:7-9: (NRSV, alt.)

“The law of the Sovereign is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of Adonai are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Sovereign are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Sovereign is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Adonai is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Sovereign are true and righteous altogether…”

What if the reason the Sovereignty of God is so foreign is because it has become unimaginable to see a decree or a law that is not immediately shot down as insufficient or askew by another political party? What if the very wisdom of God is what makes God so foreign to us as a people? When was the last time any of us saw a politician and had the first word we would use to describe them be “righteous?”

I found myself moved to think about many Psalms as I thought about Rabbi Glazer’s assertion about the barrier between words of sovereignty and American principles. There are many other good examples of the foreign yet beautiful concept of God as sovereign besides those listed above. I found another passage in Rabbi Glazer’s book to be particularly moving: (pgs. 6-7)

“Despite the reality of terrible evil, despite the chaos and bloodshed that all-too-often beset human life, and despite human suffering; in the view of the psalms, it is because Adonai reigns that we can trust that justice and goodness will triumph in the end. To believe that God is ‘sovereign of the universe’ is to have the faith that, if not in our own lives then in the lives of generations to come, the blessings of peace will indeed someday spread over the face of the earth.”

This is a text written from a truly Jewish perspective, but I find comfort in the words. Evil and chaos are rather prevalent in our world. There are times when the news seems to deliver messages of injustice and resultant shock. This world and this nation are not at peace, but if Adonai reigns then there is room for hope. If Adonai reigns, then there is a possibility for a better world for our children. If Adonai reigns, perhaps we can move forward with the faith that justice will return and peace will overcome.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty that is transformational could really change the way a person reads the news, prays for the world, and seeks justice. It is interesting to ponder, but it is my prayer that such an understanding would first transform my heart and then the world.

Let us Ramble: Ministry within a Culture

I was reading through my coursework for the Academy for Spiritual Formation this morning when a quote from another book caught my eye. I was reading through “Thirsty for God” by Bradley Holt when he quoted Eugene Peterson. I have never really read a lot of Eugene Peterson’s work, especially as my first reaction was a knee-jerk reaction to “The Message.” I happen to like the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and my first impression of Peterson’s translation was a bit biassed. Nonetheless, I was caught by the quotation from “Take and Read: Spiritual Reading” by Peterson. The excerpt went as follows: (Holt, 143)

“My conviction is that the pastor must refuse to be shaped by the culture, whether secular or ecclesiastical, and insist on becoming a person of prayer in the community of worship. This is our assigned task; anything less or other is malpractice.”

Now, as someone who spent a few years working through academic settings in college and seminary, I must first admit that I do not like having the context of Peterson’s quote. I am working on remedying that situation through a copy of Peterson’s work. Regardless, the quote is striking.

What does it mean that a pastor should not be shaped by either secular or ecclesiastical culture? I can understand the request that a pastor set a special concern in their ministry for prayer, but does that call fundamentally change our approach to ministry? Should it reshape our approach to culture?

For context, consider the earlier histories which Professor Holt shared about the early church. Two groups of monastics entered into their approaches to the monastic life in roughly the same age. The Coptic Antony entered into ministry in the desert as an offensive against the devil in the devil’s own territory much like his master Jesus Christ entered into the devil’s territory during his temptation (Holt, 52). His ministry was (by nature) isolated from both ecclesiastical and secular culture. Amma Theodora, Blessed Syncletica, Athanasius, Pachomius, and other Desert Mothers and Fathers entered into ministry in a similar fashion (Holt, 52-53).

In contrast, Columba established a ministry in Iona after being influenced by his own actions in 632 CE (Holt, 68). Brigid of Kildare lived among the people of Ireland until 523 and Patrick in the early to mid 400s CE (Holt, 67). These individuals knew the work of the earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers but continued to engage their ministries in locations where they could interact with the world around them on a regular basis. Their influence on modern Celtic art is one example of a place where they certainly had interaction with the culture around them. A person could argue that they influenced the culture, but time spent reading through the Carmina Gadelica seems to imply a lot more of the interactions were mutual in nature.

The earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers withdrew in an attempt to be faithful from both culture and their former lives. The Irish monastics seemed to attempt to be faithful while withdrawing from their former lives but not necessarily from the culture where they lived and ministered. They exist down two different paths from a fork on the road of their journeys.

The current life of the church seems to be a similar crossroads. Some churches believe that the church should withdraw from the world around us into fidelity without using cultural tools of current times. I serve a church which worships to an organ with hymnals in a building without air conditioning. They seem comfortable worshiping in this way. Other churches withdraw from the world into a place of fidelity while using modern tools such as guitars, projectors, movie clips, and a host of other tools from the world. Worship in both places is affected and shaped by culture. The former churches are usually shaped by the culture of the past century and the latter churches are shaped by the tools of this age.

Worship has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. Church structure has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. What does it mean that Eugene Peterson believes that the pastor must remain in a place where the cultures of the world and the church are refused on principle? Can one become a person of prayer while allowing the world to alter one’s identity as a pastor?

Was it not righteous and just for the pastors of ages past to allow their lives to be shaped by the communities where they served? Does anyone believe that the pastors who were beaten and arrested while seeking justice during the struggle for civil rights were less faithful for allowing the culture of the world to change them and their practices? Does anyone believe that the pastors who have allowed their prayers and thoughts to be bent to the suffering of indigenous peoples are somehow being less than faithful?

More importantly, what is the context of that quote! I guess that I will have to wait until the book arrives, I find time to digest it, and can follow up upon this post. In the meantime, I hope that this post has inspired some thoughts and conversations. Blessings today.

Let us Ramble: Silence isn’t always Silence?

Yesterday I posted on questions of silence. I was still deep in thought on the subject of silence when I began to work through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through a meditation on Psalm 148 in “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. As I read a portion relating to the Psalm stuck out to me: (40)

“If the fruit trees, the cedars, and even the hail are to give praise, then it follows that there is a way of praising God in which the spoken word is unnecessary. There is a Word that differs from the spoken kind. Sometimes it flows forth in the simple silence of being as shown in the mountains and hills. There is a Word that leaps up in the crackling of the fire, it rides in on the moaning of the wind and in the roar of the wild beast. Could this too be praise? Could all of creation be drawn like a magnet to the divine?”

Could there be a deep truth here? When I think of silence I often think about not speaking, not talking, not singing, and simply keeping my mouth shut. What if there’s a voice that speaks louder than my voice? While Sister Wiederkehr is speaking of the praise found in creation, is there a place where we are called to praise God through presence? As we listen to these wise words, is there a call by God to change the subject?

The 68th Psalm establishes that God is known to be a parent to orphans and a protector of widows. God cares deeply for the desolate and the prisoners. God is the one who is present in the lives of those who are often considered voiceless. If we are to love those whom God loves, are we not called to speak with both our voice and our presence?

Consider the words of James 2:15-16: “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?” What good are our words if they are not backed up by our presence? What good is our voice if we are not speaking through our deeds?

The fire crackles because the fire burns by nature. The wind moans as it blows through the trees because that is what the wind does when it passes through branches. The fruit tree grows fruit by nature. All of these things engage in their behavior by nature. If we are being called to be remade through the power of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t our voice be raised with love for all the people Jesus’ loves? Shouldn’t our voices crackle, moan, and grow like the rest of creation that reaches out in praise?

Let us Ramble: In-between Spaces

My readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation have led to me doing a lot of contemplation. Today I was reading through “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. Here’s the passage that led to contemplation today: (24)

“Then suddenly you find yourself back in those in-between times. Distressing and boring as these in-between times of the season may seem; they can also be nourishing spaces for the soul. This waiting between dying and rising is like being in the tomb. It is a waiting room that is essential for spiritual growth. In this quiet tomb-place we feel, once again, that ancient tugging at the heart. We experience being drawn, like a magnet to the divine.”

Sister Wiederkehr had been speaking on the beauty she finds in the in-between times of life. She enjoys walking as the sun rises and sets. She enjoys the time between seasons. She finds these are the best times to romance the Word of God.

I’m not a morning person and I often put my children to bed around the time of sunset most of the year. I know that the dawn is beautiful, but that is not where I experience my in-between moments. The place where I have been experiencing the in-between moments like Sister Wiederkehr describes is in my garden.

A pepper plant from our garden. We need to weed again…

My garden is currently in an in-between place. Sister Wiederkehr explored the in-between nature of winter turning into spring, but I also connect more to that in-between place when spring is turning into summer. The plants have started to take root, the leaves are growing, and there are already a few blossoms on the tomato plants. There is growth and in time the pepper-plant in the image above will begin to create food for my family.

Spring is a time of hope, promise, and busyness in preparing the garden. Summer and autumn are seasons when these promises become a reality when the harvest comes in to be canned, frozen, and eaten. This is that in-between place where there is occasional weeding, occasional watering, and a lot of waiting.

I often feel like I experience these same moments in my spiritual life. I rush to make plans after reading a book, organize a wonderful event, or have a revelation that begins to change my outlook on life. I complete what needs to be done and then simply have to wait to see what will happen. This time of waiting in-between moments can be boring, but I agree with Sister Wiederkehr. These moments are essential for spiritual growth.

By my garage, at the base of a simple flower there will soon grow a tomato. The tomato will be small and green. I can watch it day in and day out. The tomato will be ripe on the day it turns ripe and not a day before then. As much as I would like to rush things, the tomato requires time, sun, and water to thrive. The tomato requires good soil, good nutrients, and time. I have provided sun, water, good soil, and nutrients to the best of my ability. Now, I need to have patience.

Spiritual lives require patience. A healthy spiritual life does not grow all at once. There may be mountain-top experiences and times when we receive revelation that shakes us to the core, but most of the time we need to have patience with God and with ourselves. One of the few times that God grew a plant overnight for a person of God in scripture it was almost immediately cut down by a worm to help teach Jonah a lesson. God can do all things and that includes asking us to be patient and wait.

In my experience Sister Wiederkehr is right about the silent, tomb-like places. The quiet-places are necessary to our growth as individuals. The silences also teach us how to hear God in the stillness and to feel that magnetic draw towards the divine. I invite all of us (including myself) to know the wisdom and longing that comes with patience in the quiet places of our spiritual lives.

Let us Ramble: Selling Silence

In his book “Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation” the author Richard Rohr states:

“How do you market that which is inherently unmarketable? How do you sell silence? How do you make attractive what feels like selling air or selling emptiness or selling something that, certainly to the capitalistic mind, would not immediately be attractive at all?”

These are good questions. This quote came to mind as I considered the reading I did yesterday for Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when the following quote caught my attention: (1—I’m just starting the book)

“You may be dehydrated right now but not know it. One peculiar feature of our physiology is that the signals for lack of fluid are not immediate or strong. Thus we may feel uneasy or tired when dehydrated but not recognize these symptoms as thirst. By the time we recognize thirst as such, we have already moved through the early stages of dehydration. Why does this matter? It matters because keeping our fluid levels up is vital for our bodies to function in so many important ways: for energy, for healing, for our immune systems, for electrolytes, and yes, even for sex.

So one part of the human predicament is that we do not always know what we really need or long for. Another part is that we find it difficult to act consistently on what we do know.”

How does a person sell silence? How does a person sell water? We learn to recognize thirst as thirst by necessity. I think that we have to learn to sell people silence by showing them the value, the need it quenches, and to consistently model it ourselves. Hence, this is all I’m writing today. Silence…

Let us Ramble: Tall Curbs and God

The other day I sat in a Dunkin Donuts outside Syracuse looking out the window. I was in the city for Annual Conference and was beginning the day with a cup of coffee before heading to the OnCenter for the day’s events. I noticed a table outside the window. It was a beautiful table in a very pragmatic sense. It had three benches and a fourth side open for a wheelchair for folks with accessibility needs. I was really excited to see the table!

accessible-table.jpg

The table in question…

Unfortunately, the table was in the middle of a grassy section surrounded by a mulched landscaping filled with shrubs and over an 8” curb. The only section without mulch was in the middle of a very busy driveway with very fast traffic, For anyone with a wheelchair to get to the table it would require either a very capable individual or a significant amount of help. It made me shake my head. I am assuming that the person who purchased this table had wonderful intentions, but that those intentions were blocked by poor planning. I imagined it would drive me nuts if I wanted to sit there on a nice and sunny day but could not make my way to the table.

I was reminded of this moment in the past two weeks while reading through a book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr when the following quote came to my attention: (pg. 12)

“On some days we struggle to feel anything—certainly not some magnetic mystery tugging us toward intimacy. The most important question is, are we accessible? Can God get in? Or, is our need for certainty so overpowering that it become a prison walling out even the divine? Whatever our inclination, God is always calling us beyond what we can see with the naked eye.”

Reading these words on the nature of approaching the scriptures reminded me of that table outside Dunkin Donuts. I want God to be active in my life. I want to hear the Word ringing throughout my heart and my soul, but let’s be honest. The Word of God is not always a safe word. As Hebrews 4:12 says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Sister Wiederkehr even points out: (11)

“The Hebrew people believed that one could not see the face of God and live…When I am confronted by God’s Word, I am sometimes able to recognize that some change is needed in my life. Ordinarily I name this piece of growth, transformation. Of Course, the other side of transformation is that until I am able to integrate the change into my life, with a certain acceptance it feels more like death.”

I want God to be in my life but the Word of God is a dangerous word that can transform my life in ways that I cannot always anticipate. As much as I love Micah 6:8, sometimes it softens the reality of the spiritual life. I can often convince myself that I can enact justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God in ways that are comfortable for my soul. The Word of God sometimes calls me to a humility that can be difficult to bear. Enacting justice sometimes means letting go of my own privilege and that is neither easy nor comfortable.

So, am I accessible to God’s movement in my life? Have I grown beautiful shrubs that are less ornamental hedgerows around my heart and effectively more like a maze or labyrinth? Have I created places where God’s word can easily reach my core or do I have the tallest of curbs creating a subtle barrier? Am I willing to allow God into my heart and soul if God might bring discomfort, challenge, or even death to some bogarted piece of my soul or being that I would keep from God?

These are difficult questions for me to answer, but I believe that they are questions all Christians must be willing to consider. Do we love God enough to ask these kinds of tough questions? Here are a few questions I could have asked myself in years past (which I personally struggled with for many years and still have my moments of struggle—I imagine you have your own difficult questions):

  • God created both my wife and me. We were blessed into a partnership in this life together. We are compatriots and companions on this journey through life. Culturally, the world does not always agree with that viewpoint. Does my place in the family as the father mean that I have some kind of special privilege when it comes to who changes the baby when the diaper is dirty in a restaurant? Am I willing to support restaurants with changing tables in one bathroom and not another?
  • Does my view of human sexuality keep me from sharing God’s love with someone because they disagree with me? Does my comfortable place of inclusion within my culture keep me from asking tough questions about how my view affects others?
  • I tend to see God’s love in my life as a source of blessing which sometimes spills into the physical world. Is it right to get angry at a member of the Seneca Nation because they would like restitution for events of the past? Is it right to get upset because my father [owned] a piece of property within disputed territory? As a person who is a member of the most affluent ethnicity within one of the most affluent nations in the world, can I ethically believe that I know what a member of the Seneca nation believes or feels?
  • God created the earth in wonderful ways! It is full of good creatures and good people. So, where’d that meat come from in that cheeseburger I just ate? Did the hen who laid the eggs I ate for breakfast ever experience an open field? Who grew and picked the coffee beans that I used to brew my coffee? Did they have the capacity to eat as well as I did this morning?
  • God created the world and the people who live upon it. God has created and blessed the people who comprise many nations. Can I truly believe an America first view of the world when we’re just living here? If we’re theologically tenants and temporally just passing through, is that kind of viewpoint just, fair, or righteous?

The Word of God is sharp! It can lead to very difficult places when we allow it into our hearts. So, is my heart accessible or not? Do I want that kind of accessibility when it could change who I am in a heartbeat? If I say that i do, what am I willing to put before God to make that a reality? Will I look on God if it might mean personal sacrifice?

Let us be Ramble: Poetry in a Jumble

Hello from the land between one space and another. Last week I finished up the last of the Annual Meetings for the two halves of my church charge. Next week we are welcoming a new Administrative Assistant into our church office. I have been without an assistant (during the day) for four months and things have been a little chaotic around the office.

This is the land between one moment and another. Exacerbating this time between moments is the fact that our preschool program is off on a field trip this morning. This church is a very quiet place today. I am taking advantage of the quiet to sit in our future assistant’s office to work and pray today. I am trying to imbue the room with prayer in an attempt to be a blessing to our new assistant.

A few minutes ago I was sitting in the quiet and reading through my next book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I began to enter into the next book on my list which is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. In many ways, this book is very different than the last book that I read for the academy. This book is focused on entering into the text and helping readers to grow deeper in their own time in scripture. There is less exposition and more reflection. Regardless, here is what Sister Wiederkehr writes on the very nature of entering into a quest for the word of God: (pg. 8)

“It is not easy to find the Word of God in the midst of a jumble of words. The secret is connection. A community of words connects with each other and somehow in that connection we discern God’s Word for us. Praying with the white space between the words, sentences, and paragraphs is also important. The artist in us needs white space—our place of waiting, listening, and being. White space is the womb and the tomb in which we abide. We will experience birth, life, and death there, as we keep vigil with the Word of God”

As I reflected on these words in this empty space a few things stuck out to me revolving around the white space and the connections between words through spaces. This paragraph was incredibly effective at drawing things out of my depths.

The first place this paragraph took me was into the present. I am sitting in a church office which is unoccupied by an assistant at the moment. My wife has been assisting before and after her work, but in general, this office has been empty. It is a white space. Melissa sat in this place and blessed this community. Bonnie sat in this place and blessed this community. My wife has sat in this place in a different way in an attempt to make space for the person who would follow her.

Soon our new assistant will begin her own ministry of blessing from this place. She will do things differently. She’ll connect to some traditions out of Bonnie’s methods and some tradition’s out of Melissa’s methods. She’ll create her own traditions and methods. Soon this place will begin to be reshaped by her presence in our midst. In the meantime, this sacred space is empty, quiet, and waiting in stillness. This is a holy moment—this is “the womb and the tomb” where a new ministry will be born, live, and someday conclude. Hopefully that conclusion will be many years and many blessings from now. This is a sacred white space.

The second place this paragraph took me to in my reflection was to Annual Conference. The entire idea behind Annual Conference is supposed to be “holy conferencing.” Somewhere in the midst of all of the debate, motions, and rules of order there is supposed to be a place where the Holy Spirit works, moves, and expresses itself through the people gathered together in prayer and discernment.

This paragraph reminded me of Annual Conference because of the sacred white spaces. I recall Cathy Hall Stengel standing up in conference this year asking the bishop where there was space for people not on two sides of a particular issue to express their voices. She called for white space. I recall JJ Warren standing up and expressing his call to ordained ministry when the doors had been closed on him due to his sexuality and requesting room to respond to God’s inevitable and unavoidable call on his soul. He was requesting that creative white space be made for the Holy Spirit to call the people God was calling into ministry.

I recall many moments where there was a need for creativity, grace, and kindness. Places were required for life to be born, live, and conclude through the power of the Holy Spirit. There needed to be white spaces before all became an unending cacophony of noise without rest, meter, or even tonal structure.

These thoughts came out as I pondered this selection, but I also found myself drawn to the concept of the connection of words. If everyone carries a bit of God’s image within them, then there is a bit of God’s creative word in all of the people we see. Sister Wiederkehr wrote (pg. 9) that “Every person you encounter during the hours of your day is a word that God has spoken into the world. You too are one of God’s spoken words. And now God speaks through you.” We are connected to each other through the very fact that we are part of the poetry God is writing in this moment.

My brother in Christ Kevin Nelson from Schenectady First United Methodist Church shared the African concept of “ubuntu” on the floor of Conference last week. He translated it roughly as “I am who I am because of who we are.” In my mind, his view of connectedness draws from this idea from Sister Wiederkehr nicely. We are who we are because of the voice of God spoken into each person at the table.

Why do we seek justice? The people we seek to help each carry a bit of God’s poetic word in our midst. Why do we seek love, mercy, and grace? The people who need these things (including ourselves) are all bearers of God’s creative word. Why do we comb through the scriptures listening, abiding, and trusting in God’s encompassing love? We do these things because who we are as a people has called us into a poetic dialogue with scripture. The words on the page, the words in our lives, and the white spaces between connect to create something beautiful.

Is this easy? No! In retrospect, the very first sentence of the quote I referenced above has proven foundational in all of the places where Sister Wiederkehr’s words led me to reflect today. It is definitely not easy to find the word of God in the midst of the jumble of words we come across in life. Even discounting the carriers of God’s words who like to honk car horns, cut people off, and act less than kindly, the words in the Bible itself can be jumbled, confused, and distracting.

As I do enter into the word myself this day, I will do so realizing the challenge within me. Following Sister Wiederkehr’s advice, I will wait for God, read God’s word, spend time listening to what was written with an obedient heart, pray through where God is leading me, and finally abide in the midst of the jumble. With God’s blessing the word of God expressed in my life will join in the dance of poetry found within the scriptures. Together it is my prayer that I will join in the great proclamation of God’s love and compassion.

Let us be Grateful: “God’s Unconditional Love”

Today I finished the first book of four that I need to read before the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am grateful that I have finished reading the book as it was a very deep book. At times it felt as if the book was so densely packed that I would collapse under the weight of the ideas.

I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au presented a book which looked at shame from a lot of different directions. They wrote at length about the internal and external sources of shame. They provided exercises to enter deeply the ideas they were sharing and provided examples of what some of those exercises might look like when put into practices.

This book was a great book. I am grateful that I had a chance to read through the book and am equally pleased that one of the author’s will be one of my instructors at the upcoming session of the Academy. I look forward to going into the concepts explored in the book with the author.

I would invite you to pick up a good book if you have not taken the time to read something that challenged you to go deeper into your passion in a while. A lot of people I know find a million and one excuses to not read including the bane of free time known as the internet. I invite you to slow down and find a good book. I invite you to try this book out for size. If you aren’t into that subject, I will tell you the next book on my hitlist is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr.