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: 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.