“Self-made people, and all heroic spiritualities, will try to manufacture an even stronger self by willpower and determination–to put them back in charge and seeming control. Usually, most people admire this, not realizing the unbending, sometimes proud, and eventually rigid personality that will be the long term result. They will then need to continue in this pattern of self-created successes and defenses. This pushy response does not normally create loving people, just people in control and in ever-deeper need for control. Eventually, the game is unsustainable, unless they make others, even their whole family, pay the price for their own aggression and self-assertion-which is the common pattern.”
BREATHING UNDER WATER: SPIRITUALITY AND THE TWELVE STEPS, RICHARD ROHR
I’m reading through Richard Rohr’s “Breathing Under Water.” I was just sitting down to a grain bowl for lunch after church and read this passage.
I would love to point out where I’ve seen this be true, but I’m not trying to be the kind of person who enjoys such efforts. Instead, I was more struck by the fact that the heroic spirituality pointed to in this paragraph is the very personality the church has tried to groom in me as a minister for years.
Be beyond reproach, be an attractive leader, dress handsomely, lose weight to attract more people, bring your kids to church, start a youth group, have lunch with the other ministers, do this, do that, and above all do everything while being humble yet confident.
I’ve bent over backwards thinking that I should be one way so many times. Maybe my back hurts from all of the spiritual contortions that I have put myself through time and time again.
Be still. As scents fill you, As odd sights confound you, And as you want to run away: Be still…
“Be Still” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
I recently spent time with someone who was ill in a care facility. I wrote this post a while back to help preserve the person’s identity, but this post is not about their story. This post is about my story and my experience.
The situation on my end was that I was waiting in a care facility which is filled with people facing challenges. The staff was present and diligent, but it is a facility full of people with differing needs. I found myself waiting impatiently as the sounds, scents, and distractions which come in such a place filled my senses.
I ordinarily do not spend time waiting in such facilities. I enter, I head straight where I need to go, focus on the individual, visit with family, pray, and head out the door. I generally do not have time to sit, to think, or to read in such places. I do not have time for my mind to wander. This day was different, so I opened my Kindle to read as I waited.
The chapter is not a long chapter. Abbess Paintner referred to three quotations in that section. As much as I respect the Abbess’ selection of ancient sources, her wisdom shines forth in her annotations. She writes:
“Sitting in our cell requires patience to not run from ourselves or flee back into the world of distraction and numbness. It means being fully present to our inner life without anxiety. Interior peace comes through sitting in silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness.”
Abbess Paintner in the second footnote for chapter ten
I found myself reflecting on the concepts of patience and stillness as my senses picked up on less than pleasant smells. In that moment, the place I was called to spend my time was that room with everything in the air. My cell was a chair in the midst of this person’s life. I found myself trying to be attentive, watchful, and present even as some part of me tried not to breathe too deeply. The scents, the sights, and the sounds made me more than a little anxious.
I found myself struggling in those moments after reading the Abbess’ thoughts. Was I letting those scents keeping me from being present with the individual sleeping in the bed? Was I letting my dislike of the scents keep me from being present with someone whose every breath contains the aromas that were filling my nostrils? There was some part of me that struggled with shame for focusing on the distractions and another part that wondered if the distractions might not be the blessing in disguise.
I was filled with questions, but the one that stuck with me was the loudest question that filled my mind. Was I open to knowing this was someone’s experience? Was I open to walking with someone as their body struggled? Was I open to being God’s hands and feet in such a place? Was I willing to see God in that place?
It would be easy to numb myself to the situation. I could run to my car and refill my diffuser with peppermint. I could rush home, put on the aromatic earl gray tea to settle my senses, and I could rush home to hug my toddler who seems to always smell of lavender when you smell her hair. It would be easy to flee back to distraction and numbness, but would I find true peace in distraction?
I find myself casting my mind to Matthew 25. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man comes in glory to bring judgment to an imperfect world. The Son of Man separates folks and says to one group that they are blessed because they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The people did not understand when they had done these things. The Son of Man replies (in the NRSV) “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We who are engaged in helping care for others often look on this passage and find comfort. We have given a dollar at the Red Kettle at Christmas, have donated a can of food to the food pantry, and gave a little extra when we could. We have helped the least of these. I could rush home and say “I visited one of the least of these! I’m good!”
Would Christ ask “Did you really visit the least of these or did you do the least you could for these?” Are we open to realize we may be called to radical love that sits through the dirt of life? Are we open to realize that loving God’s children may mean sitting in smelly places? Are we open to realize that God may call us to a deeper fellowship with those in need than the bare minimum?
I do not write such challenging words from a place of judgment. If anything, I feel convicted by my own words. What does this look like in our lives? If we are to live into God’s kingdom, do we all need to live radically transformed lives? Perhaps we are not all called to a care facility, but perhaps we are all called somewhere beyond what is comfortable for us. It is worth contemplating.
Yesterday was a stressful day. I am in Syracuse attending Launchpad, which trains folks in strategies to help start new ministries. The day was very full and my brain was fried by the time we broke for dinner. My wife, our friend, and I tried to talk about what we thought over Indian, but it quickly devolved into story time.
“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”
Last night I was filled with ideas. To be honest, they were burgeoning on burning out my brain. I slowed down, took a moment to breathe, and realized there was wisdom in these words. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I had been breathing in new thoughts, new ideas, and new “creations” in my brain all day. It was only in slowing down to exhale, to rest, and find peace that I found balance.
Sabbath in the Christian tradition has generally been relegated to one day of the week. In modern culture, even the Sabbath is a day when we fill time with stuff and things.
Sometimes it is important to remember that God created something beautiful in Sabbath. We all need moments of rest, repose, and restoration. To believe such things can only be needed on a single day of the week is to miss something true.
It is not an accident what follows when Paul writes to the church and encourages it to not be anxious about anything, but to present their concerns to God with praise and thanksgiving. The people are told that the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Something like that blessed creation of Sabbath that finishes the seven days of creation fills and guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Are you stressed out today? Have you taken moments to rest? Have you breathed out and given over your worries and requests to God? Sometimes anxiety is a medical condition which requires help, sometimes it takes works to let go of the stressful things in our lives, but is there a chance that taking a moment of Sabbath rest might be what your heart and soul needs?
If you do not know what that might look like, here are a few practical suggestions:
Take time to journal in a quiet place. Ask yourself simple questions. Where have I seen God this week? Where have I found places of peace in the past?
Sit quietly for a while. Do not rush this one by assuming a day is the best place to begin. Five minutes might be all you can handle at first. Work your way into silence regularly and see how it affects you.
Today’s post is out of sync for most folks. I serve as a minister and thus operate on a different schedule than most of my community. My community consists of a majority of people (but not all) who either work weekdays or live in a cycle where weekends are normal. We have a few individuals who work shifts on weekends, but most either work those weekday jobs or have other purposes in their life (e.g. stay at home parents, retirees, etc.)
As a minister, Monday morning is a time when I prepare for the week ahead. Often that means taking time for reflection. My “Spiritual Renewal Day” is Friday, which is unfortunate as it means my only regular companions for my Sabbath are pets and my toddler. Saturday is a day fraught with community events, denominational events, children’s events, and complications with worship preparations. This past Saturday I had to choose between a historical society coffeehouse, a district training day in the United Methodist Church, the upcoming week’s grocery shopping, worship prep, and my daughter’s birthday party. I chose my daughter’s birthday party, worship prep, and grocery shopping.
Monday is not my spiritual renewal day, but Monday morning is a time my spirit requires me to slow down. Part of that slowing down is reading for personal growth, for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, for an upcoming book or Bible studies, or for upcoming sermons (although on principle, I rarely read anything on the subject I am preaching on the upcoming Sunday).
Today I began by reading further into Rev. Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” I find Mr. Muller’s writings to be interesting. From my reading, I have the feeling that we share a common attribute in introversion. I may be wrong, but I found his love of rest to speak to my introverted soul.
There are days when it seems as if Mr. Muller knows my heart. It feels like continual overcommitment leads to a violence against my soul (pg. 3). As a minister, I am often asked to be a voice or presence on nearly every committee, am expected (on my Methodist side) to hold each committee accountable to our common identity and purpose, to be present in the lives of the homebound and sick, to be available 24/7 for hospital calls, and am expected to lead in most forms of outreach.
The sense of needing to be everywhere for everyone is a common struggle among clergy. Many clergy struggle from burnout and many are accused of not being present enough when their families are falling apart, their relationships are crumbling, and facing loneliness. I have struggled with the constant pull of ministry on my life for years. I believe this common struggle is one reason Mr. Muller’s words struck so deeply with me today. In his chapter on “The Joy of Rest” Mr. Muller writes:
“The practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath, is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work. Ancient texts suggest we light candles, sing songs, pray, tell stories, worship, eat, nap, and make love. It is a day of delight, a sanctuary in time. Within this sanctuary, we make ourselves available to the insights and blessings that arise only in the stillness of time.”
“Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller (pg. 26)
When was the last time you woke up with the goal of delighting in being alive? I have had days where I have woken up with the goal of worshipping, the plan to sing songs or tell stories, but it is rare that I have woken up with the goal of delight. As someone who has publicly faced the challenges of mental health over the years, waking up with the goal of delighting in my life seems particularly foreign to my mindset.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to set aside time to delight in being alive? Many Christians struggle to fight for conceptual ideas like sexual propriety, the lives of unborn children, and other idealistic strivings. Laying aside those questions, what would life be like if we were to put a tenth of the energy we see poured into those causes poured into delighting in life? What would life be like if we gathered for worship Sunday mornings and said we are here to delight in each other’s company? What if we delighted in each other’s company?
In my mind, I see a church filled with people going past “Hey. Good to see you!” or “Hi. How are you?… I’m good.” What would it look like if we delighted in each other? How would that change the way we see church? How would that change the way we see our mission?
A church that focused on treating the Sabbath how Mr. Muller describes Sabbath is the kind of church I would love to be a part of as an individual. A community focused on songs, worship, delight, prayer, stories, and even in bringing love into our homes… there is a wonderful vision!
“Hold the course both straight and true!” Winds buffet. We pitch and roll. “Everything will be fine!” The tiller snaps off…
“A Seaborne Dodoitsu” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Paperwork for our Annual Meeting is completed. It is now time to focus on the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which takes place towards the middle of next month. One of the greatest challenges I have found in the Academy is taking a lot of superb material and authentically engaging. I have read too many books and have great things go in my eyes, bounce in my brain, and eject themselves at the first distraction. Long time readers of the blog have noticed that this blog is one place I try to engage the material.
In Fleming’s work, the section is entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul” in the literal translation and “Guidelines for Discerning Different Movements, Suitable Especially for the First Week” in the contemporary translation. In all three translations, the conversation revolves around consolation and desolation.
Consolation, in my words, is when one’s spirit is aflame with the love of God in joy, drawn to the love of God is sorrow, or in any way grown in the faith, hope, and love that comes from God (and referenced in 1 Corinthians 13). Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Hence, it is when the soul’s love of God is smothered, the soul feels stripped away from the presence of God in sorrow, or circumstances arise in which faith, hope, and love are diminished in experience or (hopefully not) reality.
What drew my eye was the section referred to as Rule 5 and Rule 6, which can be found in sections 318 and 319 respectively. I think when we look at these rules, we find something that is a bit challenging. I will draw on Fleming’s contemporary translation for our discussion.
“5. When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or to come to a new decision. The reason is that in desolation the evil spirit is making an attempt to obstruct the good direction of our life or to change it, and so we would be thwarted from the gentle lead of God and what is more conducive to our own salvation. As a result, at a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us.
6. Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be. And so we might try to intensify our prayer, we might take on some penance, or we might make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith.”
In many ways, I understand what Loyola is driving at in these rules. I also acknowledge that these rules have done a great deal for the church over the centuries. I also believe they have value going into the future. In many ways, I am an outsider commenting on something which does not come from my own denominational tradition and mean no offense to those who hold these rules and experiences dear.
I also see a challenge in these rules for the modern church. For many churches, the American attendance pattern of worship has led people to enter deep periods of doubt and desolation. We are faithful to what we once found fruitful. Certain hymns, certain ways of acting, and certain patterns of life consoled and blessed us.
Life has changed. We who are still in the pews can end up facing the desolation of the spirit that comes with lower attendance numbers, people skipping once integral Bible study, or even quitting the church altogether. It can be a heavy blanket on the soul to find empty seats that were once brimming. We can find these words in our desolation to be wise words of advice. We choose to keep at the decisions made during seasons of consolation! What is more, we double down on commitment! We may not have formal penance in the Protestant church, but we could order twice as many tracts, invite that neighbor twice as often, and intensify our prayer.
The dodoitsu I put at the beginning of this blog summarizes the situation quite nicely. The waves are crashing, the wind is howling, the tiller is snapping, and the response can be to stand there saying “Everything will be fine!” In moments of doubt, we might call out to Jesus like the disciples! “We will drown! Don’t you care?”
I raise these concerns because I believe one concept of the sixth rule is integral. Sometimes we need to make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith. We may need to ask questions like:
Was my faith grown by the hymns or the fact I was singing about my faith with others?
Did that memorial item in the sanctuary grow my faith or was it the person who inspired it? What would the original person have wanted? Would that line up with our purpose?
If relationships helped grow my faith, are there places I can help others grow in their relationships? What if those places look different today than five years ago?
Would changing something small make a big difference? Would that small change affect everything or just cause discomfort for a while?
Occasionally, when we take time to examine ourselves and faith, we find that the things that consoled us were something different than we remember. It can be helpful to remember that things are not always how they once seemed.
There are times when the call is to stick to what you planned in a time of consolation. If you struggle with alcohol, a bad day is not the time for the drink you swore off in better days. If you struggle with anger, perhaps this is the moment when you should go walk off your frustration instead of face the person who is aggravating you. Struggles do not mean you should change your plan.
Still Loyola pointed out that some difficulties exist not as desolations but as consolations. When things go wrong it can be a reminder of how blessed we are to have God in our corner despite our struggles. When the boat is pitching back and forth, it can be a good reminder of how grateful we are for flotation devices.
In my 22 years as a committed Christian after my “heart-warming” experience, I have learned that few experiences are black and white. Some situations seem dire but end up being blessings. Some blessings seem wonderful but lead to challenging situations. Discernment is never easy, but there is wisdom in these words from Loyola. I have learned the value of holding the tiller with a loose hand. I have also learned the value of steering through the storm.
“All are welcome at this table, and as a sign of that welcome I offer not only dishes I like; I try to meet the dietary needs of my guests—which is not the same as cooking exactly what they want exactly the way they want. I am no short-order cook…”
Dr. Gafney proposes to use the narrative of the supper table as a structure for her book. Even reading through the introduction, it makes sense. Her conversation intends to: (Gafney, p. 7)
“[affirm] the interpretive practices of black women as normative and as holding didactic value for other readers, womanist interpretation makes room at the table of discourse for the perspectives of the least privileged among the community and the honored guest of any background: the child who is invited into ‘adult’ conversation around the table with ‘Baby, what do you think?’ and the extra place at the table for whoever may come by.”
The concept of the extra place at the table excites me. As an introverted person, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with people I respect and listen to their conversations. I probably spoke too much in seminary. A few years out with a few years of pastoral experience, I wish I had spent more time listening, especially to the strange voices I did not understand.
I am enjoying this book. I feel as if there is plenty at the table. Let me give an example of how Dr. Gafney asks some amazing questions. I plan to chew the ideas over for a while and will hopefully encourage you to pull up a chair at the table.
Here‘s my personal example of how this book inspires questions. It is a few weeks before Advent. We are facing the same story that is retold time and time again. I could easily polish an old sermon, but who likes reheated leftovers in a season of feasting.
Instead, what if I were to look at some principles Dr. Gafney presents (p. 8) and ask myself hard questions? Have I given voice to Elizabeth in the past? Have I ever deeply pondered her place in the story? Is there room for a woman’s story in this season focused around the coming of Christ? Have I made room for that story? Have I checked to see if that story honors the African roots of the text?
These questions are powerful. I admit these questions are convicting. If I look at Dr. Gafney’s four womanist principles, the well draws deeper (p. 8). Do my words as a European male legitimize other voices including the biblical interpretation of black women? Does my ministry allow for the inherent value of each person in the text and in the community interpreting the text? Do I allow conversation with the text so that there is room for conversation outside of my personal cultural sphere? If we don’t make that room, can we rightfully expect diversity in our churches? Dr. Gafney does not ask this outright, but If we do not make that healthy room, should we hold ourselves accountable for that failure?
I believe these questions are especially important for me as a European male minister in a very homogeneous ministry setting. I am appointed to serve in a town surrounded with roads where someone from outside the hamlet will likely pass Confederate flags or road signs tagged with swastikas to reach the church. I serve in a town where you must travel by car to find any significant diversity in population. Who will ask these questions if I abstain?
Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by Dr. Gafney’s book. I do not want to engage in cultural misappropriation. I respect her research and words. I want to honor her work and enjoy her scholarship as someone who at least tries to share the table. To paraphrase Dr. Gafney, I could go back and keep doing things the way I always have. I do not want to keep doing the same thing! I want to learn and experience new things!
There are moments already in my reading where I feel like I might belong at the kids’ table. Although, I will honestly say I do not sense there is a kids’ table in Dr. Gafney’s home. Maybe that is an American custom of European descendants? I do not know. I know I am looking forward to spending time with this book and recommend it to other folks who are interested in broadening their horizons.
Side note: Dr. Gafney (noted in the acknowledgment which doesn’t have a page number on my kindle edition) notes that Dr. Mark Brummitt helped to coin the phrase “womanist midrash.” If it is the same Dr. Brummitt, he was one of my favorite seminary professors and at one point offered to be an emergency midwife if my wife went into labor the semester she was in his course while pregnant. If it is the same Mark Brummitt then it is a small world.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
So, I am coming up to the end of my paternity leave. I have been spending a lot of time caring for an infant, two older children, and their mother over the past two months. There has been time for bonding, time for cooking, time for laughing, time for crying, and a lot of time for reflection while changing diapers.
In the midst of this time of leave, I have been reading a number of books. One of those books is Simon Tugwell’s “Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality.” Tugwell’s book begins rather strongly with some strong words of admonition. Tugwell speaks of the many moods that the church has held over the span of her life. In my own words, it seems that Tugwell believes that the church has been timid, self-assured, arrogant, humble, bold, and headstrong at different points in her life.
With all of these moods in her past, in times of crisis there are often a myriad of directions in which she can wander. I do not find this particularly shocking as I too have a myriad of directions that I can travel to when under stress. Sometimes I snap at the stressor, occasionally I shrink back, sometimes I have patience, and sometimes I will do something completely different. Tugwell, on the very first page of his work, makes the admonition that in “a time of confusion like our own, when people become disillusioned with the church and with christianity, should be a salutary, educative time, when we face the facts.”
Tugwell proceeds to point out that the church must struggle through questions and seasons of disappointment. I believe there are two reasons why Tugwell is correct in inviting us to confront our disappointment..
First, as Tugwell himself argues, the church is not about fulfilling our hopes, dreams, and ambitions. As a minister, at moments I daydream of coming into a packed church which is filled with parishioners on a Sunday morning. I know lay leaders who have dreamed of people begging to bake for coffee hour or for acolytes who will always light the candles perfectly without any need of guidance. Many people have hopes, dreams, and ambitions about life in the church, but Tugwell is correct. The church of Jesus Christ does not exist to fulfill our own will, but “is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.”
What does that mean? I do not believe that means forcing our views on others, but it may mean realizing the things we desire and the things that God desires are often very different. I might want to have a perfect acolyting moment every Sunday, but that child who cannot walk without assistance may be called by God to have a role in lighting the candles. Involving her might mean doing something different, like setting up a temporary ramp or assisting her up the stairs. Allowing her that role in the life of the church may cause us to end church five minutes late. Are those five minutes my time or God’s time? My view of what should be may have to go unfulfilled and that can be disappointing. My view of what should be might have to be discarded entirely, but the church of Jesus Christ does not exist to do my will but God’s will.
Second, hinted at by Tugwell, but not entirely fleshed out, is another reason why a church following Jesus might be frustrating and frustrated. Tugwell, while referring to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Antioch, writes on the third page of “Ways of Imperfection:”
“[Jesus] is our true life, and apart from him we are only ghosts, masquerading as human beings but lacking substance. Faith is the beginning of life, but this has to be fulfilled in charity, and this is a practical matter, involving generosity to others, patient endurance of insults, gentleness, and above all else, belonging to the church, in communion with the bishop and his clergy.”
If Jesus is our true life then we are called into newness. I had professor in undergrad named Dr. Casey Davis who always spoke about the “already and not yet.” Christ is our true life and in Christ we have circumcised hearts! We are already living into that new life but to be entirely transformed has yet to take place. We will live into the fruits of the Spirit fully and completely. We have already begun but the complete fruition of that task has yet to be accomplished. We are already becoming more like Christ but that transformation is a process that can take a lifetime and usually longer.
Disappointment is necessary because we are living in an imperfect world as imperfect people. We should face that disappointment and imperfection with open eyes and courageous hearts. Despite our best efforts, we are but ghosts. Our righteousness is like a rag compared to that of Christ. The church is disappointing at times because it is full of people on their way towards Jesus. When the church is purified and enters into glory, she may lose everything about her that disappoints, but we are still on the journey. Tugwell is right to invite us to be aware of our situation.
So, what if we look at disappointment with the church as an opportunity? What if we find places in the midst of our disappointment to find the will of God? Where are we being led? What opportunities and adventures lie in our future when things are not perfect? Where is the voice of God leading us? What can these up and down moments on the journey teach us about the will of God and where we should be led?
One last quote from Tugwell this morning. On the seventh page, Tugwell quotes the writer of the didache as saying: “If you can carry the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. If you cannot, do what you can.” What if instead of focusing on our challenges, we do what we can?
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.
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.