Shadows and Light

Last night I posted a poem called “Pastoral Ghazal.” The poem was inspired both by events in my pastoral ministry and in my reading for yesterday in the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and specifically in the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. In the reflection for January 2nd, Dr. Jenkins contrasts the common imagery of justice being blindfolded with the conception of God reaching with both open eyes and mercy. The contrast was a powerful contrast. In my copy of this year’s Disciplines I highlighted the phrase “God, who wears no blindfold, insists on mercy in justice.”

Dr. Jenkins focuses greatly on how this conception of a God with open eyes affects our view of the social and moral order of our world. I appreciated his focus, but I was drawn into a different realm of contemplation by the reality of my daily ministry. While Dr. Jenkins view was broad, my focus was tightened by a number of things:

  • Administration: Our church’s Annual Meeting is fast approaching and there is paperwork that needs to be prepared.
  • Building and Grounds: The church is continuing to aim towards having greater accessibility while maintaining safety. One office day into 2019 and both of these areas came up in conversation.
  • Community: Situations arose where both relationships blessed my ministry and caused me to want to hide in a desert. Occasionally, those conversations were simultaneous.
  • Dreaming: Situations arose where I took the opportunity to “vision cast” different futures and alternative perspectives to people in my circle of influence.
  • End of Life Conversations: Self-explanatory
  • Fatherhood: My one year old kept me up until five in the morning when my alarm was set for two hours later…

To be honest, I could probably continue with this acrostic list, but I faced no alien xenomorphs and had no reason to visit the zoo. Ministry is a varied and challenging calling which often leads you up and down an acrostic list of challenges on a regular basis. This grounding in the daily activities of ministry drew me into a different sphere of contemplation. My contemplation led me to ask a very simple question: Does God see?

Theologically, let’s be clear: I do believe that God sees. The challenge is that the knowledge that God sees is a form of head knowledge. Life requires heart knowledge. There is often a great difference between seeing with the head and knowing with the heart. Some of the things I experienced reinforced both my head knowledge and my heart wisdom. Other experiences were unsettling.

I was reminded of the ancient philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the allegory, there were a bunch of people who spent their lives sitting in chairs unable to turn around. Behind them was a fire and all they ever saw was the shadows cast on the wall. Those shadows became all of reality to the folks in the chairs. Plato’s allegory delved into what would happen if those people ever were released from those bindings or came across someone who knew that there was more than shadow, but for my purposes, the image of folks strapped into chairs facing shadows is enough for my purposes. Honestly, the image of firelight and shadow is what stuck in my mind.

Light Dark Atmosphere Candle Night Lantern Shadow

The challenge I recognized yesterday during my devotion is that any life has places where the reality of life impedes that journey from head knowledge to heart wisdom. I believe that God’s light fills the universe and will shine in the midst of the darkness; however, there are places where challenges create shadows. I cannot always see that light shining, sometimes only find the shadows, and occasionally cannot even see the shadows.

This reality of life is where my poem found life yesterday. Dr. Jenkins was focused on the vast, but I kept seeing places where I saw others struggling to see beyond the shadows. In that beautiful picture above, it would be as if I were sitting in the light with those who sat in shadow. Inches might separate us, but one place was a place of brightness while another was a place of darkness. Wisdom told me there are likely places where I sit in darkness surrounded by others who see beyond what my eyes perceive.

All of this is to say that I think we all have places where we sit in the shadows just as we all have places where we see the light. How do we compensate for this challenge? I believe the answer can only lie in community. Whether that community comes through family, neighborhood, or church, we all are made better by our relationships with others.

Are all relationships healthy? No, but I truly believe that there is a wisdom to living in community with those who will lovingly walk with you in your shadows while holding out their hands when they need help with their own dark places. Where do we see this in scripture? Here are a handful of examples…

  • Proverbs 27:17 tells us that one person can bless another just as iron sharpens iron.
  • Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of our calling to remain in community in a spirit that encourages our faith community. When we consider the challenges faced by the early church, this encouragement likely held some of the early churches together through persecution and troubles.
  • John 21 shares the story of how the community stood with Peter as he faced the challenge of his own past and the events of Good Friday.

I share these things to encourage you to remember the value of community today. There are days when it seems as if the universe is a cruel and awful place. Those days are exactly the days when it is helpful to remain with those who can walk with you through your shadows into the light.

Let us Bake: On Cookies

I have a confession to make in the subject of baking. I am uncomfortable with the concept of making cakes. Not just the big ones that are covered in fondant or frosting—I am concerned with mini-cupcakes, cupcakes, sheet-cakes, bundt-cakes, and all manner of cake-pops.

I do not like frosting. I have told several members of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee that I have one nemesis when I spend time in the church kitchen and that nemesis is not a person. My kitchen nemesis is frosting. As a perfectionist, I cannot manage to get the frosting completely even on a simple cake (on even my best of days) and that bothers me deeply and fundamentally. I struggle with Shepherd’s pies for the same reason, but those I manage through just applying massive quantities of potatoes in thick layers.

By now I probably have established my dislike of frosting, but let me make absolutely certain you understand my feelings on the subject. I do not like frosting in my house, I do not like it with a mouse, I do not like it with a box, I do not like it with a fox… My dislike of frosting requires “Suessical” levels of description. I think you get the point.

Still, I live in a world that likes sweet things and I like sweet things. How do I cope with living in a world where people come to visit, we need to take a plate of something to share, or there’s going to be a rough meeting and everyone will be cranky? I cope through making cookies. Sweet, sweet cookies.

Not the frosted one mind you—cookies should be enjoyed without icing, as God intended. I would know as I have both a degree saying that I have mastered the divine and the slightest tendency to exaggerate!

So, I find myself cooking cookies a lot more than I ever did before I took it on myself to take on the lion’s share of the cooking in our house. As I have more luck being creative with savory things, I am always on the lookout for another cookbook, another magazine article, or another recipe from a church kitchen. I could use the internet, but people on the internet use things like “frosting” and I do not want to get my hopes up with a recipe just to find my arch-nemesis is hiding in the details.

My newest cookie cookbook. Yes, it is older than me. You can tell the age of the cookbook by the fact that “lard” is a common ingredient in a lot of the recipes… The recipes still look delicious!

I have learned a few things about cookies while practicing the art of making tasty things. Some of the things I have learned even have a spiritual aspect!

One of the first things I learned was that cookie dough occasionally needs to be refrigerated before use. I like working with bread and especially bread that rises in a warm place. I like watching it grow to gigantic sizes before being beaten down. There is something beautiful about thinking of those tiny little grains of yeast growing, living, eating, and creating little communities that make my bread taste better. I like to think of them as living little tiny lives in a symbiotic relationship. A couple may give their lives to make my loaf of bread, but millions of their relatives are grown, kept safe, and given a chance to live in a safe environment so that there will be more yeast tomorrow. They are domesticated micro-organisms and I like to think of them as being as happy as cows in a field.

Cookies are different though. There’s nothing happily growing in the cookies. Cookie dough tends to be sticky, messy, and goopy. Cookie dough can be hard to portion, hard to roll, and hard to make uniformly sized, unless you refrigerate it! With some cookie dough, refrigerating the dough takes a sticky goop and makes it manageable. What would have been a disaster when first mixed separates calmly from a scoop after the dough is chilled.

What spiritual lesson do I get from this? I have learned that sometimes you need to take a step back from a situation and allow time to cool your passions. I work in a church and often there are situations that make me “hot under the collar.” In my case, they make me feel hot under the clerical collar, and that’s a problem at times. When I wear that collar, I represent something greater than myself. While others have the luxury of being themselves, when I stand there in a collar I represent a part of the continuum of the clergy who will come before and after me. In fact, I wear the collar in part to remind me that I am fulfilling my call to ministry as part of a tradition and with a family of colleagues.

At times, when I get mad, I need to let myself calm down. Occasionally that means excusing myself from a meeting to take a walk around the sanctuary before returning. Sometimes that means circling the metaphorical problem a number of times before blowing a horn and hoping that things will come crashing down without having to go and get crazy in my own little Jericho. Occasionally, I need to just take a couple of deep breaths.

When I cool down, things tend to go easier. I have an easier time forgiving, an easier time being flexible, an easier time realizing when I have made a mistake, an easier time asking for forgiveness, and especially an easier time being the human who has to live under that collar.

I imagine that most people would find that life goes a lot easier when they give themselves time to calm down like cookie dough. Consider Proverbs 14:15-17: (NRSV)

The simple believe everything,
but the clever consider their steps.
The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly,
and the schemer is hated.

Second, I have learned the value of practice. When I first try a recipe, I generally do everything in the recipe the way that it is written. I found one recipe for a double-chocolate macaroon which was quite delicious as written. The coconut in the recipe was very tasty and the recipe as written was delicious.

I could keep enjoying that recipe the way it was written, but I have learned something valuable in all of my time in the kitchen. Practice widens the ability to experiment. I took the recipe, pondered the ingredients, considered the coconut, and then looked at the oven. I toasted the coconut in the oven to bring out the flavor found in the unassuming white shreds. From the outside, you would not know that the coconut had been altered. The coconut was covered and interlaced with two types of chocolate before being cooked and was no longer white regardless of what happened before making the cookies, but the taste of the cookies.

The toasted coconut dances with the chocolate. A steaming hot cup of coffee, those toasted coconut cookies, and a good conversation move a pretty good afternoon to an amazing afternoon.

The only reason that I knew how to move the cookies from good to amazing was because I spent time in the kitchen practicing. In ministry, as in life, there is value to practicing until you can not only know how to do a thing, but how to improvise based on the resources you have around you. Practice helps in public speaking, public praying, and musical performance. Practice helps you to be better when a friend needs comfort, when a neighbor needs a hand, when the world turns upside down, and when the unexpected happens. Life is better when you put in the time to practice, learn to improvise, and get to a place where challenges can be met with confidence and faith.

Third, I learned to forgive myself when I burn the cookies. Let’s be honest. Everyone burns cookies now and again. Learning to let go and move on with life is a life skill that we all need from time to time. Just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I first burnt bread, just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I messed up soup so badly it made me want to cry, and just as in all other things, I had to learn to forgive myself the first time the cookies were so hard I could break a tooth on them without a good soak in warm milk. The cookies burn, you salvage what you can, and you move on with life.

I hope these reflections on lessons from cookies helps you to think about what lessons you might learn from your kitchen, especially if you spend a lot of time in there like me. May God bless you as you learn from life’s mistakes and may you never be forced to frost something that is fine without it!

Let Us Bake: Roti and Journaling

I woke up early yesterday morning. I had been paying attention to the weather forecast before going to bed and I knew that I would have to snowblow. I woke up extra early to clear the paths. Of course, there was no snow.

I decided to make some roti for breakfast out of one of my favorite cookbooks. I adjust the recipes to my kids tastes and share my adjusted recipes in person, but still feel somewhat hesitant to share recipes online that have too strong a basis on someone else’s work, so kudos to you Mr. Solomon. If it makes you feel better, Mr. Solomon, I often recommend people buy your book before I give them the recipe.

Anyway, my less spicy roti were prepared about half an hour before the kids were supposed to get out of bed. I heated up my pan, prepped the dough, and tossed the first roti on the pan to cook with what I imagine was an ironic look of satisfaction on my face. I ruined the first roti, which promptly wiped that smug look off of my face.

You see, I never flatten my roti flat enough on my first attempt. Every single time I make this recipe I refuse to remember that I ruined the first roti of the last batch. So, I make a super thick roti which is doughy in the middle and burnt on the outside. I then proceed to be my depression-era grandmother’s grandson. In other words, yesterday I ended up dunking my burnt/raw roti into my coffee to make it palatable while my kids and wife ate proper roti with homemade jam.

I never learn. Well, I should say that I am trying to learn through a very basic idea, but I will probably burn the roti at least once more. I have begun a cooking journal that I keep in my kitchen. When I try out a new recipe, adjust a recipe, or even just adjust a cooking method, I write down what I am doing in my notebook with an explanation as to why I have done what I have done.

I’m doing this for at least three reasons. First, I want to learn to be a better cook. I know that I have a tendency to be a bit of kinesthetic learner, so cooking the recipes is a good first step towards learning to cook them with excellence. Practicing helps me to learn, but so does the very act of writing out the recipe, the adjustments, and the reasoning behind what I have done on a given day. I become more intimately connected with my cooking by my writing in my cooking journal.

An excerpt from my cooking journal…

Second,I occasionally get something completely right. The other week I was working off of a recipe for cucumber salsa from one of my preserving books when I realized that half of the ingredients I needed were locally seasonal, were hard to come by in the middle of winter, and were completely out of stock. Rather than give up, I decided to start substituting for the missing herbs and peppers. I went way off of the chartered course with a basic knowledge of the necessary ph-balance for the canning method I intended to use. The salsa turned out fantastic. I write down my cooking methods, especially when wandering afield, so that I can recreate the accidental inspirations later.

Third, I know that my cooking will be a part of my children’s memory of my life. I want my kids to know how I made that one meal, to see how I tended to experiment with herbs, and to be aware that not everything I made turned out perfectly. I hope that they will not only have a record of how I cooked one day, but also the opportunity to create alongside me even after I pass away.

All of this being said, there is a distinct possibility that what is true of my cooking journal should be seen as true of my personal journal. Yes, I will leave my kids some of the poetry I wrote in notes. Yes, they will likely be able read some version of this blog. Yes, I am almost certain that there will be copies of my sermons kicking around in some dusty corner or another. All of this is true, but my journal is partially a record of my soul’s journey. They may not be able to know all of the circumstances, but the journal could be another piece of the puzzle for them to riddle out after I am gone.

Yes, I can try to remember when I make a spiritual breakthrough without writing down a record. There have been many points in my past where I have learned something powerful in my spiritual life that has moved me deeply. Just like baking, there’s a certain part of me that remembers when I learn something. I remember the first time I learned that I could make a bagel without a hole that was just as tasty! Still, there’s the lesson of the roti. Just because I learn something does not mean I will remember learning it later. A physical journal can become a repository of the things that I have learned even if I forget them for a season.

Yes, I can learn kinesthetically through some of the spiritual disciplines. Yes, I can have fond memories of my time engaging in physical worship in places like my seminary campus, the churches I have served, and the Academy for Spiritual Formation in Malvern. Yes, I can remember praying in Convention centers and in District Offices, but there is a power behind the kinesthetic action of writing in a journal. To reenter the same story every time that I write in the same book is to create a powerful kinesthetic bond between this spiritual practice and my spiritual life.

There are many reasons to journal both in one’s personal life and in the kitchen. I hope that is evident by this point in the post, Regardless, dear reader, if you have come this far, please feel free to join in my laughter. I know that my daughter actually believes the recipe I prepped for breakfast this morning calls for the ingredients in that recipe over there. She even copied the recipe into her handmade cookbook. Someday she will realize I threw in more cinnamon and nutmeg as well as substituted pure maple syrup for brown sugar.

Maybe I’ll tell her later today. Maybe…

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?

IMG_1756.JPG

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: 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: The Narrow Path to Mars

Today has been a wonderful day. Saturday is one of my easier days in ministry. While I do not truly take the two days off a week that is expected of me by my Annual Conference, Saturday is an easier day for me as it almost always begins with family time. Today we went out to lunch and then went to the planetarium at Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton.

At the planetarium we watched a video on the history of humanity’s relationship with Mars, especially in terms of how it fits into the efforts of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the European Space Agency. I was struck by all of the attempts to reach Mars that utterly and completely failed over the years. There were a lot of probes, rovers, and other missions which failed spectacularly. Indeed, modern missions are informed powerfully by a history of failures. In a perfect world, these failures and challenges help to inform modern attempts to reach Mars.

The concept of necessity behind learning from the past came to mind as I was reading through my book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when I was reminded thoroughly of the efforts of the people exploring Mars. Professor Holt says: (12)

“The first reason to study the tradition and present day Christian family is to make us aware of our own narrowness, our own parochialism. Knowing a larger part of the whole tradition gives us better questions to ask of the fads of the present. We are endangered not only with ethnocentrism, judging all things by the customs of our own ethnic group, but also with ‘presentism,’ judging all previous ages as inferior to our own.”

Can you imagine what would happen if an engineer at NASA said “The United States has best space program! Why would we study what happened with the Beagle 2’s solar panels?” Well, if that person sent a rover or a manned mission to Mars and that mission failed in the same way, you could imagine how foolish that engineer would seem. If only that engineer had learned from the mistakes of others then NASA could have avoided the same mistakes.

I will admit, I do not believe that a NASA engineer would turn down hard data that could help to create a better plan for a space mission. Engineers are trained to consider as many facets of a problem as possible. I do know that Christianity has had a long history of folks engaging in this kind of behavior. We tend to avoid learning from other communities, whether they are Baptists down the street or Orthodox folks from centuries past. We have made a lifestyle out of believing we are the latest and greatest believers that have ever followed Jesus. This seems especially true of the Eurocentric church in the United States.

It is true—Wesleyans and Methodists have traditionally held John Wesley on a pedestal and he was not an American or even a fan of the American Revolution. It is true—Lutherans love Martin Luther even though he was a German monk turned reformer. Roman Catholics may identify strongly with Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, or Pope John Paul II—each of which came from a homeland outside the United States. Many Christians have their exemplars from other cultures, but it seems to me as if most of them are exceptions to the general rule.

I do not base this on a random assertion. I have had many conversations with individuals that state clearly and unabashedly that American Christianity holds two things above any other: love of God and love of country. There is a strong ethnocentrism in American Christianity that would be unacceptable in other realms of study or belief. There is a strong presentism in American Christianity that ignores the lessons of the faithful who walked in ages past and studied things that are now considered superseded by modern scholarship. My experience of American Christianity supports Professor Holt’s assumptions.

My own experience and own history of scholarship support Professor Holt’s assumptions, which is one reason I am undertaking the Academy experience in the first place. I will admit that I know the story of John Wesley in many ways that I do not know scholars, theologians, and mystics from other cultures. I will admit my scholarship and study focused around individuals connected with the institutions where I studied theology and Christianity either directly or through the recommendation of faculty.

There is a value to learning from a wide variety of sources which cannot be overstated. Christians are part of a rich tradition that has had adherents, leaders, scholars, and theologians from across the world. We have had many people who have had many different opinions. To be clear, I agree with Professor Holt that another reason to study the history and practices of spirituality is to learn the boundaries of our tradition (13), but it needs to be said that the boundaries are often further than any of us normally experience in the practice of our Christianities.

I am thankful today for inspiration through scientific study applied to the history of space exploration around Mars. The study has inspired me to look deeply at my own faith journey and the ways in which I approach realms outside of my narrowness. I hope that we all find ways to interact with and become a blessing with traditions outside of our own tradition.