Thursday, December 17, 2009

BEN : I need the Advent. . . .

I need the Advent.

And the timing couldn't have been better! The anticipation of what was happening and what to expect that came as a direct result of our "pause" in conversation placed us in a very familiar position this Advent season, the time in which we must patiently wait and carefully search for the coming Messiah yet again.

One of my favorite parts of this time of year is the hymn "O come, O come, Emmanuel." The words drip with tragedy and expectation, defeat and hope. I wait all year to have permission to experience these haunting words again.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

How appropriate to think of myself as captive? If I was not a salve to something, then the coming Messiah is somehow less than what I suspect it was received that first Christmas. "Captivity"..."exile"..."shall come." These are the ingredients with which God uses to create a bridge to something that if we are not careful, we will miss completely.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

"Victory." Beyond the Christmas story lies the life of Christ, his passion, death, and resurrection. As I wait with all the hope and expectation a homeless person might for shelter or a hungry child for food, I am reminded that bitterness is only part of the story. The other part is much better but can only be experienced in balance with the other.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The two most vulnerable times in our lives are when we are born and when we die. There is little we can do to intervene on both outside the grace of the One Who gives and takes away life. Death comes to us, too, when we forget to breath in rhythm with the One Who first breathed into us. Anticipation causes us to pay attention, awake from our slumber, and participate in making what will be forever, a present reality today.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Rejoice. We've sung it every stanza now, but it seems to jump off the page as we talk about our "heavenly home" and "the way that leads on high." We have much to experience in the world to come. Yet we have glimpses of what is to come now. It's in the innocence of a child's love, the faithfulness of a spouses support, and the compassion of receiving God's gift in the form of a human child. Yes, rejoicing is an appropriate response.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The are two dimensions to the Advent: reliving the coming Messiah as a baby and the knowledge that one day he will come again but in a much different way. The challenge is not to find the "signs of the times" in current events but to carefully observe the face of God among his creation and to open our eyes to his presence already abundantly clear.

For me, "O come, O come, Emmanuel" is a renewed invitation from my soul to the presence of the One Who waits patiently for me to ask Him to come and dwell within me. It is in the waiting that I find the Messiah and will rejoice.

This is why I need the Advent.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

ROBERT : I have been away some . . . .

I have been away some, but I have been listening even so, to you and to others. I was away on the road for a bit, and then away because I have not been as well as I would like. Then away for a rest in the sun.
So I was away when your note came, the one you sent to me at the beginning of this Advent that is upon us. It was the note that reminded me that it was time once again to begin our annual wait for the coming of the Messiah. I was away when the note came, but I heard you.
I began to hear something else as well, in the listening, in the time away. So I wrote it down.

We wait in the dark and the silence of this season

We wait because
it is what those who came before us taught us to do
It is what those who stand beside us do
and we do not want to be left alone or left out

We wait because were taught this Story
by those who loved us well
Our love for them requires that we wait alongside them
even those we love yet no longer see
And we wait because of those who are now given to us to love
The love we were given and are now to give
calls us to keep this vigil

We wait because we believe the Promise will be kept again
That is the part of us that is the most childlike and the most real
We wait in the hope that the Love that we seek may yet be found

We wait because sometimes waiting is all one can do
in the midst of the noise and the clamor of our lives
In the silence and the darkness that is bound to come to us all
even if it is unbidden or unnamed or unacknowledged

God is with us as we watch
for the One Who is to come among us
God is with us in the silence
as we listen for the Hosannas to ring out
God is with us in the dark
while we hope for the Light of the world
God is with us always in our waiting

So we wait in the dark and the silence of this season
The wait will be over soon

Saturday, October 3, 2009

ROBERT : This running conversation . . . .

This running conversation has been going through my head lately. ( Relax, I told my doctor about it. )
I have some friends in my neighborhood who do not have any health insurance. I have a lot of friends who do not have health insurance. They are educated people with jobs, people who work very hard and live very frugally, people who pay their tithes and pay their taxes, pay their rent and pay their mortgage, people who are active in their churches and spend more than their fair share of time and resources with and for the poor.
They just cannot afford to get sick or to go to the doctor to keep from getting sick. Neither can their children. They are an accident or illness away from losing everything.

So in my head I have been listening to and talking with various and sundry of my friends up and down the pew about the predicament my friends are in, about how we the people, especially the portion of we the people that claim to be the Body of Christ, might bring some of our collective resources to bear on such circumstances.
Some of my friends on the pew say that they do not want the government to help provide health care for these people because it seems socialist, and socialist is code for communist and communist is code for godless, and helping folks with their health care is a slippery slope we do not want to go down. They seem to suggest the word socialist only applies to the notion of a public option for health care these days. They are reasonably certain that the word does not apply to their Medicare benefits or their veterans' benefits or the health care provided for government employees. It does not seem to apply to schools, road construction, or Pell Grants, for that matter.
Some other of my friends along the pew say that they do no want any of their tax dollars to help pay for health care for people who currently have no health care, no matter how the circumstance came about. They do not know who pays when such folks have to go to the emergency room or stay in a public hospital for an extended period. They seem to think it is some other poor soul whose insurance premiums are increasing and whose taxes are eaten up when such things happen.
Some other friends say we the people cannot afford to do such a thing, the deficits will be too high and our children will have to pay. They do believe in deficits for wars, deficits for road construction, deficits for bank bailouts, aid to Israel but not Africa, and deficits for college tuition assistance, as well as for some other stuff.

In my running conversation I have been going back to my insurance-less friends and telling them it will all be okay.
I tell them that all these people up and down the pew are listening to the same Gospel we are — the one where the second commandment is to love your neighbor, like you love your own soul. The Gospel they may even hear some day, and then do something about.
I also remind them to be careful crossing the street, to wash their hands often, and whatever they do, do not go for a checkup.

Monday, September 21, 2009

BEN : Gratitude is something . . . .

Gratitude is something I am only beginning to learn. When I was young, I was told so often that my life was my own that I believed what they told me and told myself the same thing. “Everything is within your power. Success is in your hands. Failure is your responsibility.” Such a mantra left little room for grace.

I, too, have reflected on the words we have shared when we are together, the words we have pounded out on this blog, the words we have sent to each other on those portable computers we carry in our pockets. I am still thrilled that anyone might be encouraged or, even better, find themselves in the words we have shared. It reminds me that this is not so much a skill we are mastering as it is a gift we are receiving, this ability to occasionally transcend time and space and connect with each other in the midst of our humanity.

I began to learn to be grateful when things began to happen in my life that were so fragile that if it had been up to me, I'm sure I would have messed it up. Things like the birth of our baby boy (now 3 years-old), the gift of marriage to the possible reincarnation of Mother Teresa (if you lived with me you'd understand why she must be one of God's special saints), the discovery of an ability to write words and sentences and paragraphs that people want to read, and the moments here and there when people tell me that something I have done or said or written has inspired them in some way.

Looking back from the lofty perspective of the ripe old age of 29, I can already see the “slender threads” Robert A. Johnson talked about. Even when I was convinced that my destiny or fate or future — whatever your word — was completely in my own hands, the One Who called me into existence was actually shaping me for something else, something so strikingly ordinary I might have overlooked it were it not for a few people, a few special ones who taught me that it is in the ordinary in this world that one most often finds the Holy.

And there is no other appropriate response in the presence of such Holy things than gratitude. Everything I am and everything I am becoming is a gift from above. My calling is to keep saying “yes.”

Since we seem to be ending with prayers lately, here is one from Thomas Merton. It is becoming my own prayer these days.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always. Amen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

ROBERT : I have been listening to us . . . .

I have been listening to us talk for some time now. Reading us, I suppose, is a better way to say it, though I read what we write you and I — Robert & Ben — and have no ink on my hands and wonder if I wrote or read anything at all. ( A conversation for another day, to be sure. )

I want to raise my hand in mid-conversation for just a moment.

I have been listening not just to you and I, good friend, but the folks who are kind and gracious enough to follow us and to read us, and then are thoughtful and generous enough to send us notes and comments about the things that we are writing here, about the conversation that we are having, about the conversation we hope to be participating in, about the conversation that is taking place all over Christendom these days. — the Conversation that the Spirit of the Holy One began long ago, and has now drawn us to continue.

We are headed to Kingdomtide, you and I, and so are all our friends, whether they keep the same calendar or not. And it seems right to me on this fine and sunny not-too-far-from-fall afternoon to raise my hand and say the words of the ancient prayer, words that encompass and encircle and encourage not only you and I, but David and Christi, and Joanne and Jim and Elaine, and Dave and Gail and Fran and John, and all the rest of us up and down this great long pew . . . .

You have made us one with Your saints, in heaven and in earth : Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage, we may always be surrounded by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to Your power and mercy. Accept the prayer of Your people, we pray, and in Your great mercy, look with compassion on all who turn to You for help. Grant that we may find You and be found by You; that our divisions may cease; that we may be united in Your truth; and that we may walk together in love to bear witness to Your glory in the world.

We ask these things in the Name of the One Who made us, in the name of the One Who redeems us, and in the name of the One Who will sustain us until we are home, at home with You and with all Your saints. Amen.

It is a prayer of thanksgiving and of hope. Pray it and send it and believe it for and to and on behalf of someone you love, and those who have loved you. And be grateful for them all, as I am for you, good friend, and for all who take the time to listen to us, those who are named above, and those who are known only in the secrets of our hearts.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

BEN : I too spent time as a cadet . . .

I too spent time as a cadet in God’s Army, as one might say.

I remember one particular event where we strategically captured one intersection in suburban Houston. We were armed with cold Coca-Colas and tracts on a brutally hot afternoon. The pitch was this: “Coke says that they are the real thing, but I want you to know that Jesus is the real thing.” We were so proud that we had distributed hundreds of ice-cold beverages to unsuspecting people who were in need of the Gospel. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps there were one or two people who peeled off and then read the tract that was pasted to the side of the can by way of the intense condensation. My guess is that most used it like a napkin to keep their hands dry while they consumed a cold beverage in the heat of a Houston summer.

Looking back, I was that obnoxious evangelical who always wanted to lock horns in a verbal debate and prove someone else wrong. The goal was to get the other person to see the flaw in their logic, give up, concede, and then admit that I was right. The sad reality is that there is probably some person I went to middle or high school with that will forever hold me as a reason why they do not want to be called a Christian.

So much has changed in my life that I’m not sure I even recognize the guy I was back then. And more and more, I feel less inclined to tell others that I am a Christian for fear that they might think of me as the obnoxious guy I once was.

The practice of my teenage years left me quick to speak but empty inside. So much so that when the structure of the weekly “sales” meetings ended after I left for college, I felt let down and lost. It was not be until I sat in silence and saw the light in the flicker of a candle lit by one of the holiest men I know did I realize that the path to God is one that should begin and end with silence, for the “real thing” often reveals that which should never be spoken of or written.

My greatest failure was this: the practice of my faith centered around the flaws of others rather than myself. The story of the woman brought before Jesus after having been caught in the act of adultery resulted in the condemnation of the elders who set her up, not the naked woman standing before him. Is there a more compelling reason to believe in the promise of the Gospel?

I am a Christian not because I was able to find proof that I was better than someone else but because God saw me naked and yet did not condemn me either.

Salvation comes not in the saying of magical Sinner’s Prayer but in the seeing of ourselves naked and realizing we no longer feel condemnation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ROBERT : I am always nervous . . . .

I am always nervous when the conversation turns to evangelism in some way. Perhaps I am unnerved by my sense of not being worthy enough to have even heard the Good News much less be responsible for telling someone else about it. Perhaps it is just shyness, I do not know for certain.

Three moments from my back pages always come to mind.

One is the memory I have of being fifteen and standing on a street corner in some wild and unevangelized city like Memphis or Louisville with my hands full of Four Spiritual Laws booklets. They were given to me and my fellow members of our youth group in Nashville to hand out to folks in such pagan cities in order to save the city and its residents from eternal damnation. Why we were not so concerned about our own city, I do not know. Perhaps the kids from Louisville had gone to Nashville to cover our backs. I am not sure I did much good.

The second moment has to do with the title of a book I edited back in the nineties, a title that has always stuck with me — A Life That Becomes the Gospel. Which sounds to me like a pretty fair witness to having heard the Gospel, the sort of witness I would like to make some day. I was struck by the double entendre for the word becomes in the title and still am. Does it mean to reflect well on the Gospel or to turn into the Gospel? I thought then and still think now that it means both. And I think I am being called to live that out in some way that affects others, maybe even draws them nearer to the kingdom.

The third is the simplest and most powerful expression of the Good News I ever heard. My friend Russell once said to me that he thought three things were true. The first is that God is love. The second is that that Love got loose here on earth somehow in the person of Jesus Christ. The third is that if you believe the first two, then everything about your life is different — the way you talk, the way you act, the way you work and think and love.

I believe that somewhere in between and around and through and up under and next to ‘becoming the Gospel’ and ‘everything about your life is different’ is the kind of bearing witness and preaching of the Gospel to which we are called.

Monday, August 10, 2009

BEN : To tell or not to tell. . . .

To tell or not to tell. Perhaps that is another question that Hamlet might have found himself reasoning had things not ended up as they did.

I come from the part of the pew where ‘telling’ is a large part of what we are supposed to do. It is our job to learn the pitch and become corporate spokespersons for the Kingdom. We are the chosen sales reps, and we are the polished business development folks responsible for fulfilling [sic] the Great Commission. We go forth armed with our elevator speeches to tell folks the Truth. Those who are the best at this, receive the highest honors.

There is stark contrast between the posture of the One Who Came and those who come from my part of the pew when it comes to seeking and saving the lost. I am amazed at how many times the Messiah acts in miraculous ways and then asks the subject of that particular miracle to keep silent and tell no one. This is so confusing that theologians have decided they don’t know either, so they relegate their explanation to an elusive phrase – “Messianic Secret” – whatever that means.

It is an odd thing to carry within you a guilt, deeply seeded from a childhood of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School where one is told time and time again that those who do not tell out the Good News are those who have not really been changed by The Red Letters. That is a lot to process, especially when you believe there is eternal significance attached to the act.

The redemption, if you want to call it that, is that the majority of the people who occupy this part of the pew hear the message from the person in the pulpit and disregard it as a pollyianic cry for new recruits from God’s publication relations department. This part of the pew publishes research [sic] that uncovers the fact that most people who claim to be “evangelical Christians” will never tell [sic] a non-believer [again, sic] about their faith.

I am wrestling very hard these days with the notion that the part of the pew that seems to tout this position also seems to be the part of the pew that is shrinking. In fact, people are scooting across The Great Divide by the millions. And in the middle of a disastrous evacuation, the company messengers just keep getting louder and more obnoxious.

Silence and prayer preserved the Way of Christ after it was in danger of the normalization of Christianity in Rome and beyond. It was those who fled to outlying areas and agreed to preserve the words and practice of the One Who Came through community, study, and practice who are responsible for my hearing of the Red Letters. Were it not for these brave men and women, the Gospel would have been entirely lost. And yet nowhere in The Rule they left for us are the words “Go and tell.”

Perhaps the way to tell the world and fulfill The Great Commission, if such an editorial comment from one telling of the Gospel story is appropriate in the first place, is to read and struggle through the call to love, forgive, and sacrifice in the midst of our tendencies to hate, begrudge, and protect what is ours for the taking.

A wise friend once said, “The Good News is this: After centuries of attempts to erase, diminish, and subvert that message of the One Who Came, it survives today.” The great irony is that the message of faith, hope, and love has largely been spread since the beginning, no matter what words have been said.

Perhaps the One Who Came requested silence because he knew that, in our speaking, our faith would be held captive by the vocabulary most readily available to us rather than set free through our transcendent behaviors — a smile, a glance, or a tear that speaks clearly to all humanity, even those at the very ends of the earth.

These days, my mouth is shut. My heart is open. My prayer is constant.

Perhaps my silence will tell no one, perhaps my silence will tell anyone who will listen — with their soul, the only part we were given by the One Who created us that is blind and deaf to anything less than eternal — perhaps my silence will give voice to the Good News.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

ROBERT : I cannot let go . . . .

I cannot let go of the red letters these days.
Every day — no, four and five and six times a day — something happens, someone says something to me, I see myself doing some dumb thing that does not exactly match up to living a life that becomes the Gospel, I read a bit from the news, I stumble on one of of us doing some thing unbelievably terrible to another of us — and I find myself wanting to say or shout or proclaim or whisper or scribble in the dust some line from the Gospel according to the One Who came.

A few minutes ago, I came across yet another sermon from yet another preacher who gave us yet another set of reasons why the admonition to sell what we have and give everything to the poor was a big deal and yet did not actually apply to his flock.
After some 50 years or so in the Church, I am still waiting to hear the sermon where a minister — a priest, brother, evangelist, prophet, messenger, so on and so forth — stands and says, 'This day, I have sold everything and given it to the poor.'
I am still waiting to see forgiveness being given seventy times seven, still waiting for the other cheek to be turned, still waiting for the self-proclaimed first among us to be willing to go without a parking pass, much less to go last.

I mention this not because I am holier than anyone. I am very certain that I am holier than no one. If you know me at all, you know that this one thing about me is at least the one true thing about me that I have seen and said.
What I am, these days, is a man who is trying to listen deeply, struggle mightily, and pray constantly with fear and trembling as I read the red letters.
No wonder people ignore the red letters of the Gospel and press on to the letters of those who after the One Who came, the One Who wrote no letters, as I recall.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

BEN : I recently read . . . .

I recently read an article where the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church in America was asked about her beliefs as to the personal salvation of individuals. The answer Bishop Scholori gave struck me as very consistent with what I’m reading in the Gospels these days. (Though, I’m sure it enraged many on my end of the pew.) She said that it was not for her to decide who is saved and who is not; that’s God’s business. Her job is to live a life consistent with what Jesus talked about and taught and to invite others to do the same.

Salvation has always been the central focus of the corporate gatherings on my end of the pew. In fact, every worship service ends with a call to come forward to receive salvation as if we were all still meeting in some pitched tent in the heat and humidity of summer and the guy preaching was wiping the sweat from his brow and the local gospel group was singing one more stanza of “Just As I Am.”

Now that we have effectively learned how to “close the deal” with folks on Sunday morning, we spend little time helping them find their way to the red letters of the Savior they now profess and even less time unpacking what he said and taught and did. And then we wonder why so few people find any depth to their living; we are perplexed that complete integration of faith and doubt, the Holy and the ordinary rarely takes place.

I must admit that Jesus continues to raise the stakes. Every time I turn to the Gospel reading in my Daily Office Book, I take a deep breath. I know I will be asked to change my priorities, give up something, revaluate what I hold to be worth much and rethink what I regard as of little value. I know I will be asked to pay attention to the people on the margins rather than in the middle or on the stage, and to find power in my praying rather than my ability to bring about change through militant reformation.

What makes Jesus a revolutionary figure, as one or two have said since his resurrection and ascension, is that he changed all the rules. He told the rich young ruler to sell everything. He approached lepers and told them they were clean. He rescued women from angry mobs and restored life to the children of devastated parents. He even called a friend back from the dead. In turn, it is my job to look within and leave behind the security of my wealth, seek out the unlovable and rejected, bring life and hope to those who struggle to find it, and to ignite a fullness to life for those to whom I have been given to ensure the death of their passion does not last forever.

All of what Jesus talks about and teaches deals with the here and now, not the world to come.

I have yet to read about Jesus asking anyone, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” or “Has there ever been a point in your life when you’ve asked Jesus to be your personal [sic] Lord and Savior?” or even praying what some call “The Sinner’s Prayer.”

I think Bishop Scholori was right. I have enough on my plate trying to work through and live out what we have been given in the red letters to spend much time worrying about how the process begins, if there is such a thing as a beginning in the first place.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

ROBERT : I have long thought . . . .

I have long thought that we Christians were pretty good folks. At least for the most part.

We do our fair share of helping people in need and teaching our children the faith and offering up our prayers. Though whether we do that more often than or better than or with more fervor than people who are Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist is open to discussion, I suppose.

I have long believed that we were pretty good folks and might even be better folks if we actually believed the Good News that Jesus came to tell us. Which begins with actually listening to it.

We spend most of our time wrestling with the Gospel stories rather than listening to what was said by the One Who came, the One Who came to announce the Good News in the first place. It is hard to blame us — it is way more fun to argue over the historical accuracy of the accounts we have received from the Evangelists, or wander our way through a discussion of the social mores of the time in which He lived, or have these theological quilting bees where we connect the old scriptures to the new. Who wants to listen to Someone Who says we should give everything to the poor, love our enemies, live in the kingdom that has already come, love all of our neighbors, and otherwise completely change the way we live and move and have our being in the world? Let there be flannelgraphs, I say, I liked studying the Gospels that way.

We who claim to be the Body of Christ would do well to spend more of our time listening to the Christ than we do talking about the Christ.

I wonder sometimes what might happen to us and among us and within us if we spent a year only reading the red letters.
Perhaps we would grow up to be pretty good folks. Or maybe something even better.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

BEN : The words of Christ . . . .

The words of Christ are strangely absent from the practice of our faith. Growing up on my end of the pew, so many were willing to talk about Paul that Jesus seemed largely ignored. It’s as if we determined that knowing Jesus by proxy was just as good as knowing Jesus himself.
The beginning of this new liturgical season brought a new challenge to mind. Instead of reading the Old Testament and Epistle readings associated with each Daily Office schedule, I have chosen to only read and meditate on the Gospel reading. I have spent the Year so far following the events of our savior’s life, following him from promise to Pentecost, yet it occurred to me that I had heard him speak very little during that time.
If I am to possess any level of sincerity in my claim to be a follower of Christ, I ought wrestle with the Jesus of the Gospels, the One who is strangely silent in my Sunday School education.
Nearly every Sunday, I hear about his death and resurrection. Every Sunday I hear the message captured in John 3:16 in one fashion or another. Not that there is anything wrong with those moments and thoughts. Christ’s death and resurrection was the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. But if this is the only part of his life we are going to recount, does that mean the balance of his life after birth and until death was inconsequential? Was it time wasted just being human?
And if these final moments are so important, why do the Gospels and Jesus himself spend so little time on his death and resurrection?
Now, there are some questions worth wrestling with, I think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

BEN : Pentecost is the final . . . .

Pentecost is the final big celebration in the Church calendar before we plunge into working out the details of the life of Christ as it is lived.
      There is a sense of anticipation during the season of Pentecost, a sense of a journey beginning that can mirror the excitement of leaving home for college, starting a new job, getting married, holding your first-born for the first time, or learning how to drive. In one moment there is a rush of excitement and then in the next you realize this is just the beginning.
      At the end of the fifty days of Pentecost, we begin the longest season of our year — Ordinary Time, the space we have been given to work out the Gospel in our own communities. The gift in this season is that we have been given a majority the calendar to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as St. Paul once encouraged us to do.
      Ordinary Time is our chance to go into all the world armed with the knowledge of the Gospels and the words of Christ. Pentecost empowered the Church to carry forward the earthly ministry of Christ until his ultimate return, just like he promised. That being the case, it is now time for us to find a way to put Christ’s words in motion and to incorporate a practice within our lives that shapes us as we navigate through the intersections of life.
      Pentecost is a bridge between the life of Christ and the responsibility of our faith. The more we search after the Holy in the midst of the Ordinary, the more it becomes a part of who we are and who we are becoming. And when we cannot find the Holy, we are aware of its absence. Pentecost is just the beginning. 
      Let us go forth in the name of Christ.
      Thanks be to God.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

ROBERT : Come Sunday . . . .

Come Sunday, another sort of building block is upon us, this last day of May in the year of our Lord 2009. It is Whitsunday — The Sunday of Pentecost.
      “I will send you power from above,” said the One Who came to those to whom He first came and to us, and in a couple of days we will mark the day when the Spirit came to them and to us, all of us huddled up with each other with fear and trembling in a room upstairs somewhere, anywhere, even here maybe.

We have observed our Lenten fast as winter moved toward spring. It was the season of confession and repentance, the season when we had our forehead marked with ashes. And as a sign of our humility in the face of the sacrifice He was about to make for us, we gave up saying our Alleluias in our worship. We did so even as we denied Him and clamored for Barabbas. 
      We have kept our Easter vigil and been attendant on the coming of a fair portion of all of the best things in the world that come together at Easter — the exuberance of spring and the greening of the earth, the gentle showers of April and the soft, warm days of May that herald the coming of summer. We proclaimed the triumph of the resurrection and the joy and the mystery and the wonder of the news of it. Hail thee, festival day, we sang as the choir processed through the cathedral aisles, and we got our Alleluias back.
      Easter does not last long but it is better than the mere twelve days we were given to celebrate Christmas if you ask me. Even so the fifty days of Easter seem hardly enough time to take in the Paschal mystery.
      But ready or not, Pentecost comes this Sunday. The name simply means fiftieth, as in the fiftieth day. The day was originally a harvest festival that took place on the fiftieth day after Passover. The notion of “harvest” seems right somehow for the season after Easter. It is a day of great celebration, the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, and then to us. And a portion of the harvest will be celebrated in some communities with baptism and confirmation.
      Come Sunday, in the Story that was first told in the pages of the Book and now is told to us by the Church calendar as well, the Spirit is about to be given to us, again. Which begs new versions of the same old question — What is the Holy Spirit up to these days, in our days, yours and mine, these days given to us in our generation? And how are we being called to we help with that work? To what are we being drawn by the Spirit — Lord, have mercy, to what is Robert being drawn by the Spirit — in this next season of the journey home? What new thing is the One Who made us trying to do in us and with us and through us on the other side of Pentecost?
      “Be attendant upon that come Sunday,” I say to myself, “be attendant upon that.”

At the very least, I am drawn to an old prayer for this new season — Grant that we may perceive the ways in which You are calling to us, and then grant us strength and courage to pursue those things and to accomplish them; in the name of the One Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
      For those of you keeping score at home that is the same Spirit whose arrival we celebrate come Sunday.
      “Thanks be to God,’ he said, with a proper fear and trembling. And with a proper hope and joy as well.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

BEN : For as children tremble . . . .

“For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness,” writes Lucretius in On the Nature of Things, “so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true.”
      Fear is indeed woven into the fabric of human design. It is perhaps the weakness St. Paul wishes would be taken from him even as it serves as a constant reminder of God’s grace. Or perhaps it is the heart of the humiliation for St. Peter as he denies the One Who is being prepared to die. Fear does not reserve itself for the unholy and does not escape the holy either.
      What I am learning is that fear is an introduction to faith. We cannot trust what is not seen without a healthy amount of fear pushing us toward a direction that is undefined and unexplored. We are all moving in such a direction. Each day we live in anticipation of what is to come and in reflection upon what has been. It is in this uncetainty where the Rule provides a timeless discipline that faciliates our development into the life that was first breathed into us at the very beginning.
      A strange thing is taking place as I etch out my Rule with a fountain pen and moleskin parchment: the fears that are keeping me from moving forward are also the very fears that are becoming my salvation. These fear may well be the beginning of spiritual growth.
      What children do not know and what adults should have learned along the way is that those things that represent fear for us are also the beginnings of great things. Not great in the scale of achievement or prosperity. Rather, great in that they become the building blocks that give us the strength to see fear in its fullness — which is really salvation not yet complete.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

ROBERT : Whatever else you fear . . . .

Whatever else you fear on this rainy day here in what is quickly becoming the Seattle of the South, do not fear being the only one who is afraid of being insignificant or destitute. In fact, in my case, you can add in the fears of being irrelevant, unreadable, and unread, just to name a few. Not to mention my fear that the spring rains are never going to end. There are some other things I am afraid of as well but I shall not burden you with the entire list.
      The truth of the matter is that our fear — both rational and irrational, justified and unjustified — is a part of the humanity that was whispered into us when we were whispered into being in the first place. It is as much a part of who we are as is the courage to take our lives apart and examine them. It is as much a part of us as our desire to properly balance our lives around our prayer and work and community and rest, to use Benedict’s Rule as a model. It is a part of our struggle to speak with and hear from the One Who made us, to find and do good work, to love and serve those to whom we have been given, and to live a life of returning and rest, a life in which we may actually be saved from our fears after all.
      To paraphrase the One Who came among us, paraphrasing done with fear and trembling, I might add — ‘Be not afraid. In fact, do not even be afraid to be afraid.’ A life of faith is meant to be lived in the midst of questions and doubts and complexities and fears. We are called to be faithful not correct; to be who we are instead of who we are supposed to be; to be courageous rather than certain.

On his deathbed, Michaelangelo is reported to have said to his assistant who was attending to him, ‘Draw, Antonio, draw. Draw and do not waste time.’
      Make your Rule, do the work, and be not afraid. Remind yourself that one can hardly go wrong choosing between two goods anyway.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

BEN : Fear is a powerful thing . . . .

Fear is a powerful thing. 
      I don’t remember when I first time I experienced fear. I’m just now seeing evidence of fear in my two year old, so I must have been very young when I was afraid for the first time. It was long enough ago that what I’m afraid of has become deeply embedded in who I am, yet fear is not part of the equation of who I want to become.
       Part of this business of making a Rule for our life is outlining our lives as they are today into four quadrants: work; prayer; rest; and community. The order of the catagories is of little concern while the four categories themselves are of paramount significance. Once you’ve divided the things you do in your life into the designated quadrant, you rate how faithful you are to each item as well as identify how important each item is. This helps reveal the contrast between what we are faithful at doing and what we believe to be important. The greater the contrast between the two, the more likely what we are doing is in conflict with what we are called to become.
       As I look at my Rule, the next couple of steps seem to paralyze me. I’m being asked to identify what I’m being drawn to and what do I need to eliminate in order to shape a practice for my life that cultivates who I am being called to be. To be completely honest, I’ve been parked here for weeks.
      The hard part is that nothing I’m doing is bad. Nonetheless, I have to let some things go. I wonder to myself why such a simple task seems so difficult. A friend once told me that discernment is never a choice between good or bad; that’s easy. Rather, discernment is always a choice between two goods.
      While I have sat at these steps for weeks, I have been paying particular attention to the fears that seem to be paralying my ability to continue to move forward. If I were to name them, they would be the fear of being insignificant and the fear of being destitute. Both of these fears are very powerful. I have never been able to name them before, but I’m beginning to understand that these fears are the reason I find it nearly impossible to justify taking anything off the list.
      What if I make the wrong decision? What if I choose the eliminate the one thing that will propel me into all that which I have been called to be? What if I make a decision and end up in a place that is unfamiliar or worse — unsatisfying?
      It seems irrational, which is probably true of most fear. Fear is grounded in perception and emotion; therefore, it must be irrational. The catch is that if I separate my emotions from my rational thinking, I separate myself and will surely leave out something important. A Rule is meant to bring our lives in balance not give us another reason to ignore ourselves so that we might then embody the expectations of others.
      I don’t remember the first time I experienced fear, but I know that fear is the silent barrier between the person I am today and who I am being called to become.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

ROBERT : Ah, the American Dream . . . .

Ah, the American Dream.
      If you and I could find an abbot, out here in the world where we offer our prayers and oblations at an altar in the midst of the ordinary — nice phrase, by the way, you may live to see it in a book some day; whose book is the question — if we could find an abbot, he would not likely be too terribly concerned with helping us in our pursuit of the American Dream. More likely he would be trying to help us let go of the American Dream so that we might more faithfully seek and attend to the life envisioned for us by the One Who dreamed us into being in the first place.
     That holy dream, the most astonishing of all dreams, is a very different sort of dream than the American one, I suspect. It likely includes more sacrifice than success, more piety than productivity, more compassion than commerce, more being than doing.
      I also think that if we found an abbot, we would be applauded for seeking altars amidst the ordinary in the first place. Such a desire is a sign that we are trying to live one life instead of two, to live a life that is not divided between our spiritual life and our real life. ( There is a joke in there somewhere about two halves not making a holy, but I think I should pass. )
Finally I think an abbot would say to you or any of us to find a trustworthy friend or two, someone who will gently hold you accountable for the Rule that you make for yourself, and get on with it.
      A Rule is not about earning God’s approval, that sounds more like something the American dreamer might come up with.
      A Rule is about becoming the person God dreamed you into being to become. And you are the only one who will know if that is happening anyway.
      ‘Oh, begin,’ says John Wesley.
      ‘Oh, begin,’ says the abbot we cannot find. ‘And, sweet dreams, by the way.’

Thursday, April 23, 2009

BEN : Can anyone tell me . . . .

Can anyone tell me where to find an Abbot?
      I understand that I can easily find one in the midst of the monastic communities scattered across the globe. It seems to me that this whole Rule business would be much easier if we could just take ourselves, our minds, our fears and lay them before someone who could put the pieces together for us.
      It makes sense for God to endow one individual within every community with the wisdom to lead, direct, and serve the larger community by helping each member understand their role and how their work contributes to a complete ecosystem of ministry, work, and prayer.
      Of all the elements that St. Benedict captured for us in his Rule making, this is not the one to leave out. I can do without all the rules about chewing my food so many times per bite and even a few others, but not this one. The role of the Abbot, who functions as the eye of clarity and the voice of conviction, doesn't seem to translate outside the walls that contain the small communities of people dedicated to each other and the work of prayer.
      For those of us who find our altar in the midst of the ordinary, a world of screaming toddlers, unexpected traffic jams, and unplanned expenses, who or what can we look to that can help us sort through this mess we call the American Dream?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

ROBERT : You struck a chord . . . .

You struck a chord for me and for others last week. As I reflected on the things that you wrote, pairs of words kept coming back to me all week — being vs. doing; eternal vs. temporal; contemplative life vs. the active life.
      One of the bits of wisdom that you will discover within the Rule of Saint Benedict is that one’s work has to nurture who you are trying to become. The things that you do need to help you become more of who you really are; the temporal of your life needs to reflect the things that are eternal; your actions need to be shaped by your silence and your solitude.
      Such a way of seeing one’s life and work seems new in a way, probably because we do not hear it talked about much. The truth is that such a way of seeing our work is as old as life itself. I believe it is the way the One Who made us intended for us to live.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

BEN : It was not so much . . .

It was not so much the falling asleep at the wheel and wrecking my car as it was that my young son was in the back seat at the time. We were both unharmed. And considering the encounter my vehicle had with the concrete running parallel to us, the car was relatively unharmed too. I’m grateful we are all OK.
      By the grace of God, my young son never woke up. To my knowledge he has no recollection of the event. I will never forget the sound of the tires popping and metal scraping that woke me from my inopportune slumber.
      I pulled the car, pulsating between two flat tires and two good tires, into the parking lot of an elementary school. I immediately called my wife who, upon arrival, ensured our child was safe and sound. She then looked at me in that quiet voice and said, “I hope it was worth it.”
      I recently took on an extra project at work. It is one of those projects that when they come, you say yes. They don’t come often, so I gladly embraced the opportunity when it presented itself. What she was referring to was the fact that I had been pushing myself beyond my limits the last two months.
      She had been warning me for weeks; I had simply dismissed her concerns.
      In my usual style, I invested more time and energy than I had to give. I was running on a deficit of sleep, only averaging about three hours a day. As my wife gently picked up our child and carried him over to her car to take him home to finish his afternoon nap in the safety of our home and his bed, it occurred to me that she had been right all along. No project or opportunity was worth this.
      When you talk about becoming all that the One Who whispered me into being wants me to become, I stumble and stutter. I seem to substitute what I do for who I am. It’s strange that as often as I was asked ‘who do I want to be?’ growing up, I never really answered the question. The question I answered was ‘what do I want to do?’
      These are two entirely different questions. One is temporal, pivoting on circumstance; the other is eternal, existing within and beyond time and space.
      In that moment, in that parking lot, I began to know that nothing I did, no title I earned, no project I completed really mattered. I am a husband, father, son, and brother. And to answer my wife’s question, no, it wasn’t worth it.
      So it is in the posture of Lent, with my hands open to let go and to receive, where I hope to find the power of the resurrection in another new beginning. Borrowing from the Benedictine tradition, I will write a Rule for my life, a guide that will help me stay focused on my being and prevent my doing from getting in the way.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

ROBERT : There will always be . . .

There will always be some distance between the person we are trying to become and the person we actually are.
      Certainly Lent reveals that gap clearly, perhaps as you said, it even shows that distance more clearly than other seasons do. Though I confess to being able to see the distance between who I am trying to become and who I actually am pretty much the whole year around. It does not take Lent for me to see how poorly I measure up, I can see it on almost any feast or fast day. An Ember Day can remind that I am something less than holy. Thursdays often do the same to me as well.
      ‘Wherever we go there seems to be only one business at hand, writes Annie Dillard, ‘that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.’ She is so right that it makes me want to just lie down. Or fall on my knees. Or giggle at myself and all of us, the way that I suspect the One Who made us does sometimes.
      I have long believed that a fair portion of whatever I write — whether it is about prayer and the contemplative life, about spiritual practice and discipline, about this long pew that we call the Church, about trying to become the person I was dreamed into being to be by the One in Whose image we were all dreamed into being — whatever and whenever I write about those things, I am more often than not putting on paper the things to which I aspire rather than things I have already become. I write out of a sense of hope in the journey rather than out of a sense of arrival at a destination.

Here is what I am hoping just now :
      That as this Lenten journey ends in the next few days and hours, and we join the crowd that follows the One Who Came on his triumphant journey into the city, and we end this coming week in darkness and discouragement at the foot of the cross, having once again chosen the criminal over the Messiah, I hope that we find new life again in the garden two Sundays from now, in the morning light of Easter, and that we are able to go forth and live our lives in astonishment and joy as well as in aspiration and hope.
      Perhaps that is the way to cut down the distance between who we are trying to become and who we are.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

BEN : Someone once told me . . .

Someone once told me about a monk who always said “yes.”
      It didn’t matter what he was asked to do, he always said yes. One day a monk-to-be asked him why he always said yes when he knew more often than not that he would either end up not liking what he was doing or discovering that he was not very good at it. The monk thought long and hard about how to respond. After some awkward silence, he simply explained that he didn’t know that he wasn’t any good at a particular task or that he didn’t really like it until he said yes.
      I would imagine your Dad would have identified with this story. A man who seeks to walk through life with open hands is a man who is ready to welcome all that may come along and wait to pass judgement on what has come until he has played with each opportunity as a child plays with Play Dough. The difficulty is opening our hands and living like a child again in a very adult world, ready to say yes.
      The image of walking through life with open hands reminds me how much I look forward leaving the place on the pew I occupy each week to come to the altar and kneel to receive the body and blood of Christ. There is something that happens within me each time I come, kneel, and open my hands waiting for the priest to come along and offer me what I have come to receive. This could arguably be one of the most significant postures of the entire eucharistic experience. It is a posture in which I rarely find myself outside of the eucharist — kneeling, with my hands open, waiting to receive.
      I am reminded too that there is no “special” place at the altar. I kneel next to others who are also in the same posture, anxiously anticipating the eating and drinking of the bread and wine no matter their race, sex, or socioeconomic status. We are all invited under the same premise and with the same stipulation: when we come, we must kneel and open our hands and wait to receive the Holy.
      There is no other season in which the distance between what I practice as I participate in Holy Communion and the posture of my life outside of holy places is highlighted more vividly than during Lent. Too often my intent is to say yes, but I end up opting out to protect what I have and what I am from being devalued or destroyed. Unfortunately, this leaves me clenching my fists around those things I treasure and squeezing the blessing out of them instead of embracing the paradox that what we really get to keep is what we give away.
      I need to say yes more. And I need to practice the posture of the Eucharist outside the walls of the cathedral I call home.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

ROBERT : My father used to talk . . .

My father used to talk about trying to learn to go through life with his hands open — not holding too tightly to the people and the things that he loved, being willing to let them go of them if need be for their own sake or for the sake of the Kingdom, being ready at any moment to catch a blessing or a friend if either one came his way.
      I thought of him and his idea of living openhandedly when you were talking about being open to following Lent wherever it is going to lead you. I could see you, and see myself, trying to unclench the fists that are a sign of our desire to be in control and of our insistence on marching directly to Zion — do not pass Go, do not collect much of anything along the way — rather than wandering along with the Spirit, along with the Israelites and the disciples for that matter, with our hands open just in case God sends some new thing our way.
      “The one thing a clenched fist cannot do,” writes Frederick Buechner in The Sacred Journey, “is accept, even from le bon Dieu himself, a helping hand.”
      And a clenched fist cannot catch any blessings either.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

BEN : A miser is never . . . .

“A miser is never a brave man,” wrote George Herbert. At least that’s the way one editor recently rendered this phrase in an updated and revised version of Herbert’s landmark poem, “The Temple.”
      Part of my Lenten discipline is to read poetry every day. There is a friend who has a theory that separates all reading into two categories: informational and formational. I tend to live on the informational side of things because it’s efficient, easily accessible, and can quickly be scanned for nuggets of practical application. Formational reading requires a much slower read and involves digesting the themes and phrases presented by the writer. It forces me to slow down, to pay attention and chew on the words and phrases and sentences long enough to decide whether to spit them out or swallow.
      Poetry captures emotion, not information. My first reaction to Herbert was that his thought was very clever. But for some reason, this sentence wouldn’t let me go. Perhaps there was more to be learned, more to be digested, more to be uncovered.
      I tend to think about a miser simply in terms of money. But what if I expanded my understanding to include that which I hold back about myself for fear of not having enough. Instead of lingering in the poetry of life I often settle for the prose of information to ensure that I make the most [sic] of every moment.
      Lent requires a release of control and an openness to where it will lead. I am miserly because I fail to let go and welcome life as it comes and goes. Instead, I try to contain and control life by taking it by the throat in hopes that I can get the most “bang for the buck.”
      The fact that others are having similar conversations like the one we are having; your personal reflection upon each stopping point along your journey from one part of the pew to the another; and our willingness to allow both ends of the pew to coexist to create a balance and equilibrium powerful enough to support things of life and faith — all these things are saying to me that trying to control the situation, holding back and attempting to preserve all that is for fear of not having enough denies the mystery of the sanctifying and multiplying effect of the bread and wine we consume each time we come to the table.
      The paradox is this: to experience “enough” I must be willing to give it all away. This is what God prepared to do during the Advent. I must prepare to do the same during this season of Lent, to be willing to live broken and risk being empty.
      I don’t own the pew, the conversation, the God I serve, nor the life I live. It was never mine to posses or measure or manipulate to my own advantage. I must give it all away; I must give myself away again and again and again.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

ROBERT : Perhaps it is because . . . .

Perhaps it is because of this conversation we are having, but I too was very aware of our not being alone on the Ash Wednesday just past. Reminders of this bit of the rites of faith that we hold in common and that holds us in common just sort of kept drifting in all day.
      The photograph of Joe Biden at a press conference, freshly besmudged forehead and all. A note on a friend’s blog, a note reminding his friends where he was headed to observe the ritual and inviting them to come along, inviting all of us to come along in a way. 
      Standing in line with the others at noon, far more others than I thought might be there frankly, awaiting my turn to be marked and reminded that to dust I shall return. A newspaper photograph of a Catholic priest marking the forehead of a student from a nearby Southern Baptist university. 
      An Ash Wednesday reflection written by a young college professor, a man who has moved in the opposite direction from me along the pew but with whom I am marching on toward Zion nonetheless.
      All of which made think of all of the spots I have called home along this great pew that is the Church, all of the places I have sat for a time on the way to the spot I occupy now. I remembered too the spot on the pew where I first began to mark the Lenten journey at all.
      It also reminded me that this conversation you and I are having here is not the only conversation that is taking place these days between folks who have come from and are headed toward different spots along the pew. And that we are marching along with them as well.

Some of us have begun the fast again, some of us have begun the fast for the first time, all of us have begun the fast together. Grant that in our Lenten fast we may be devoted to You with all our hearts, go the words of an old collect, and united with one another in prayer and holy love.
      And all the people said, So be it.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

BEN : I died again. . . .

I died again yesterday.
      It’s interesting that you mentioned such an event as an anniversary. I had never thought about it like that. When I think of the marking of an anniversary, I think of weddings and birthdays. I suppose as I get older this will change as more of the people who I have lived and loved and laughed will pass from this world to the next.
      Yesterday was rightfully deemed my anniversary. It marked three years since I dreamed about the doors the Cathedral just down the street and felt a strange need to visit this place I had only passed on foot or by car in the midst of what surely was important business.
      When the bells rang that day, I didn’t have a choice. I stopped what I was doing, and I started walking. The thought never occurred to me that I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. I had never been a part of an Ash Wednesday service before, but the anxiety that typically surrounds such an event has been purged from my memory if it was ever part of the experience in the first place.
      Yesterday I sat in a different spot, listened to a different sermon, consumed different wine and was marked with different ashes. Yet somehow I felt as if all that was old had become new and all that was new had grown old. It’s strange to find yourself at the intersection of time and eternity, an intersection that surely has been the location of every Christian who has ever willingly paused to mark the historic journey to death preserved for us in the season of Lent as the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is spoken into our lives once again.
      It is good to be reminded of death. There was a period of time in my development as a man when I believed I was invincible. One might argue that little has changed given my incessant need to occupy myself with important matters of this world that will surely crumble under the weight of eternity.
      I used to give people directions around town using the Cathedral as a landmark. I remember being impressed with its old world design and imposing presence on the corner of 9th and Broad. Now I know it is a holy place where ordinary people come to die.
      For a brief period of time – forty days to be exact – I will make my journey through the wilderness of my own sin to face my own demons so that I might participate in the triumphal entry and then the passion only to end up at the resurrection where I will find myself at another holy intersection and marking another anniversary.
      The good news is that I didn’t die alone.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

ROBERT : When you wandered . . . .

When you wandered your way into the cathedral and into the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, you wandered your way into what a friend of mine once called “the great river of prayer” that has been prayed by the faithful over the centuries. There is something about such a thing, about getting your feet wet, so to speak, that never really leaves you.
      Your story reminded me of when it happened to me, it being my stumbling into the liturgy and into the river and into the arms of all those saints known and unknown who have offered up the prayer and worship that has sustained the Church. And still does. Otherwise there is no Church for us to wander into, and there is no long pew for us to travel, and there is no place to hear the Story of us all.
      My long ago first steps in the world of the liturgy came during Advent when we were all slouching toward Bethlehem to be born — as opposed to Lent when we are all slouching our way toward Jerusalem to be killed. But your story reminded me of mine and for that I am grateful.
      The stories also reminded me of one of my favorites in The Book of Common Prayer —  “You have made us one with Your saints in heaven and in earth : Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to Your power and mercy.”

Ash Wednesday is only a few days away. 
      Happy Anniversary to you kind sir. Bring on the ashes, let us celebrate.
      And let us be reminded of the power and the mercy that will surely come upon us, no matter where and what we are slouching toward these days.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

BEN : I remember a preaching professor. . . .

I remember a preaching professor telling us one day as we plowed through the development of liturgy through church history that all churches have and possess a liturgy. Even if they don't think they do. The unfortunate reality, he explained, is that some practice a very bad liturgy.
     Liturgy is linguistically related to the words ritual and pattern. And every church has a pattern it follows — a way of doing things that is comfortable and fits the community in which it is practiced.
      I share the same group of people your Dad did. Those who start Worship with announcements and end with every available stanza of "Just As I Am." These same people observed what they called the Lord's Supper infrequently at best. And when it was time, a lengthy explanation stripping this sacrament of any mystery contributed to an arm's length approach to anything that might seem too "Catholic."
      I always thought it was strange that so much pomp and circumstance surrounded something that they were convinced only had a memorial-type significance. These people administered the Lord's Supper with a sense of holy reverence yet were sure it was completely void of any spiritual power. It was a time when the pastor and deacons dressed in their best suits, and we had to be very, very quiet. 
      And clear instructions were given as to who could participate and who couldn't. I remember the first time I was able to join my parents and everyone else sitting on the pew in taking a plastic cup of grape juice and what seemed to me at the time an usually small unsalted cracker. I felt as though I had made it "in." I was special and part of something bigger than myself. Yet it would be many years before I would plunge into the depths of this event and begin to see it as an opportunity to love, serve and receive.
      I remember the day I was called to the Cathedral that sat down the street from where I worked downtown. I use the word called carefully and in every part of its meaning in the spiritual sense. There was something in me that led me to this place on Ash Wednesday. I couldn't ignore this feeling and even remember waking that morning with a sense that I must go. A holy push if you will.
      I had never celebrated Ash Wednesday before. That would have definitely fallen into that "Catholic" category. And Catholics were bad; worse they were sinners in need of a Savior. At least that's what my peers believed. Of course I always struggled with this because I knew that the Catholic tradition historically preceded my own. So in a way, just as all Christian share in the tradition of the Hebrew people so all Christians share in the tradition of the Catholics. 
      When I entered the building, a holy rush came over me. I knew that the presence of God was there. And I was aware of my sin and reminded of the sacrifice of God. As I knelt and stood and recited--all out of step with everyone else — I felt as if I was on a journey. One that would lead me down a path that every Christian had followed before me. And I became keenly aware of the concept often said in Christian circles: the communion of the saints.
      As the priest placed the ashes on my forehead in the sign of the cross, as I knelt to receive the wine and the bread, the presence of Christ became real for me. And the cold, barren place my heart and spirituality had become was softened and given a new sense of longing to know my God and practice the things that had been characteristic of Christians from the beginning.
      It made no difference that I didn't know the people around me except for the two people I had asked to go with me. I didn't need to know their names, their jobs, their addresses or even their favorite investments. For the first time I felt a common bond between everyone there. One that only comes from walking the same paths that countless others had before us. And suddenly I saw a transition take place in my faith--from the Jesus and Me tradition of my past to the Jesus found in the people of faith and their practice. From me and I to us and we.
      I was relieved to say the least because I had found something that hadn't been influenced by musical preference or personality. And I was thirsty for so much more. I wanted nothing more to do with the tradition that I had been born into. I was no longer one of them. I had felt this for some time but now I was convinced.
      A very wise person once told me that no one can ever escape the faith tradition that they were given. I really wanted him to be wrong. Because I no longer found value in the tradition and practice of my past. I wanted the liturgy and process of another way.
      Whether or not he was right remains to be seen. What I do know is that who we are is a compilation of all that we have experienced. And to try to void any prior history removes my ability to hear God calling me to another way of living and practicing my faith. 
      I still don't want him to be right even if he is. Nonetheless, I feel I've been given a gift. To find this other way early in life. And have the opportunity to be molded and shaped through its practice. 
      Your father found joy in the depths and mystery of Christ. So do I. Even though we will never meet in this world, I know that he and the other saints are surrounding me as I live in pursuit of my God. This is the vision the ancients had as they crafted these vehicles to ensure that each generation would continue to see beyond the obvious and into eternity.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

ROBERT : In a liturgical service . . . .

In a liturgical service, just after the sermon and the saying of the creed, after the confession of sin has been said by everyone present and the absolution has been pronounced, the priest will say, ‘The Peace of the Lord be always with you.’
      ‘And also with you,’ the congregation will respond.
      And then we turn to each other in the pews around us and say the same things back and forth to each other, offering Christ’s peace to each other, often with a kiss or a handshake or a hug. It is called the passing of the peace.

When my father passed away, I ended up with some of his books. Some of them, books that were his favorites, have his marks in them, sentences and phrases and passages that caught his eye or his ear. Some of the books are my favorites now as well, and now they have my marks in them too. Something about that is moving to me.
      In the past few days, I having been going through one of those books with the two sets of marks, and I noticed a mark I had not noticed before. The mark is a reference to the passing of the peace in a liturgical service. My father had marked the phrase and the explanation of it. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it was as though he had stumbled upon it for the first time.
      It is possible. He was raised in a part of the Church where the liturgy was not used, and the passing of the peace may well have been new to him.
      I do know that in those days he was beginning to learn and explore and dig around in the ancient traditions and practices of the Church, practices that came from the the liturgical end of this great long pew that is the Church. He was learning some things about the ancient ways that were new to him and they drew him in their direction.
      He never left his end of the pew, the part of the Church from whence he came, I do not expect that he ever would have. He was ordained there as a minister and his friends and his roots were there. But he was very much engaged in and intrigued by trying to bring some of the ancient practice and wisdom to bear within that community. I knew him well enough to know that when he stumbled upon the passing of the peace, he began that very day to look for ways and places and times to incorporate it into the retreats that he led and other settings as well. And I can imagine the grin that would have been on his face as he did so.
      I saw that grin when he started ending his retreats with Holy Communion. I saw that grin when he and my brother developed a breviary of sorts that introduced an ancient way of prayer into their community. I saw that grin when he would quote from saints and monks and nuns and mystics in his talks, people who were rarely mentioned in the community from whence he came. I thought about all of that the other day when I saw his marks again.
      That got me to thinking about the fact that the passing of the peace, the kiss of peace as it used to be called, is a part of the practice of the faithful that goes back all the way to The Apology of Justin the Martyr, the first century letter that first explained what the early Christians did when they gathered up for worship.
      And about the fact that by the time it got to the church where my father grew up and where my father raised me, we no longer even paused for a moment whenever we gathered up to worship to acknowledge our sin and accept the need for God’s forgiveness and Christ’s peace in our lives. Our version of it was something you did after a the first couple of songs and it began with, ‘Now everybody turn to your neighbor and tell them that you are glad they are in church today.’ Which is not a bad thing to say to people, but it is not the same somehow.
      And I was thinking about how sad it is that so many of the great traditions and practices and habits and rituals of the Church were set aside in the Protestant West and that so many of us had to leave home, so to speak, to even get a glimpse of them.
      Finally I was thinking about my father some more. And how sad it was that he could have given his whole life to the Church and have never been taught about these things at all. And how he was just beginning to discover these things when he died.
      And how they might have made him grin.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

BEN : I remember a phrase. . . .

I remember a phrase that I read in college written by a really smart guy named Lawrence Stookey that captured my imagination: "the intersection of time and eternity." For some, following things like the lectionary or the daily office is rigid and void of "the Spirit." But for me it is a relief. I don't have to rely on my own familiarity with Scripture to see the larger story unfolding. As I follow the lectionary or the daily office, it's as if someone takes my hand and leads me through each moment in time. 
      As a Christian, I believe we balance two worlds: the world that is and the world to come. We live with a knowledge that this world is our present kingdom and the next world is the eternal kingdom. I also am aware that in our doings, both worlds collide at times. And we are left with very little language and practice to assimilate that experience into our paradigm — the lens through which we observe and interpret the world around us.
      The ancient practices of the church provide for us a treasure chest of tools that exist outside of our own feelings, intuitions, assumptions and hunches. They became for me a reliable vehicle to the holy. And I discovered them through my wanderings in the desert — not my home church or the faith tradition I was handed. I found it in my own search for something sustainable.
      I stumbled onto these ancient practices from a few people brave enough to open that world for me and give me permission to play around until things became familiar. I incorporated them into my worship by choosing to attend a small gathering each week of people who knew each other's faces but rarely names. A group that met inside a building that was surely built by holy people because I was overwhelmed with the holy every time I set foot inside this structure.
      And the practice was the same each time. It became a form that I could depend on when nothing in me knew what to do. There was a part of me that's angry that I wasn't told about it earlier. It was as if I was living with it but never knew it existed. But now that I do, I'm not sure what I did without it. And I fear ever losing it.
      The ancient people celebrated the Eucharist because the presence of Jesus — the guy they had traveled with, cried with, celebrated with, listened to and believed in — seemed to be with them again in its practice. I think it was a way for them to deal with their sense of loss and to resurrect the determination needed in their faith practice which they knew — even if they didn't want to admit it — would eventually lead to their death politically, socially, economically, and ultimately physically.
      Why do we think we're any different?
      The history of the church did not begin with Jonathan Edwards or John Wesley. It didn't even begin with St. Paul or the Jesus of history. The history of the church began with "In the beginning was God." The ancient tools held in secret from so many refuse to allow us to forget that the story begins before humanity was ever introduced. This invalidates our often anthropomorphic faith and returns to us the mystery of living at "the intersection of time and eternity."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

ROBERT : This is the history . . .

This is the history of the Church that many of us were taught : Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven. Paul made his mission trips and took the Gospel to the Gentiles and wrote his letters. King James found a copy of the original scriptures that God had graciously  dictated in the English of the King himself and the Pilgrims brought religious freedom to the new promised land called America. There was a Great Awakening in the States in the 1800’s and the ‘true’ Church was born.
      That version of Church history is a little like saying that American history is made up of the story of the first Thanksgiving, the Declaration of Independence, and the landing at Normandy on D-Day.
      Such a truncated view of the history of the Church that many of us were taught has left us with little knowledge of and a great deal of suspicion about the ancient ways of the Church, the ancient ways that sustained the Church in the first place, the ways that made it possible for there have been any Church for the Pilgrims to bring over or anyone to revive or anywhere for you and I to go to wrestle with the Christian faith at all.

In the post-Reformation world, as the various reform and renewal movements began to spread across Europe and into the New World, there were great changes in the ways of the Church.
      Some of what went into those changes were honest and necessary reactions to the excesses of the Catholic Church at the time. Some of the changes had as much to do with shifts in the culture and society and politics as they had to do with the Church. But either way, as Phyllis Tickle once observed, ‘In some ways we threw out the baby of the ancient along with the bath water of the Roman.’
      We who come from more evangelical traditions very often bring with us an ignorance of and a suspicion of the ancient, a fear of anything that smacks of being too Catholic. We were taught to be afraid that such things will lead us astray somehow.
      Among other things, we were taught that liturgy was dead and lifeless and cold and rote, even though such liturgical practice was at the core of the worship and devotion of the early Church. We were taught that we need not take the Eucharist each week, even though it was the central act of Sabbath worship for the early Church. We were taught that fixed hour prayer was somehow not prayer in the Spirit, even though it was at the very center of daily devotion and practice in the early Church. Such a list can go on.
      These days, more and more of us are afraid that those who taught us to be so afraid of the ancient were not actually right about it at all. I am among them.
      And what I really am afraid of is that the ones who sustained the Church for all those years before the Reformation in Europe and the Awakening in America may have known some things about communion with God that I do not know. They are the ones who sustained the Church from days of Paul to the days of Jonathan Edwards. The crowd that I grew up with did not even exist yet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

BEN : Fair enough . . . .

Fair enough. My tradition was void of liturgy. At least in the sense that I understand it now.
      Liturgy in its most rudimentary sense means ritual. And trust me, my tradition was full of ritual. Only we never used that word unless referring to the Catholics. And that was never in a good way. In fact, most people in my tradition would not consider Catholics to be Christian. (An interesting thought considering the vast period of time between the formation of the Catholic Church and my tradition.)
      The use of the senses during the worship service in my tradition was reduced to passive listening. The church I grew up in had no concept of "the communion of the saints" and was very suspect of others who believed in worship styles that involved all five senses.
      I was never encouraged to spend time in silence, allowing my sense of self to quiet from the rush of the day. I was, on the other hand, encouraged to find the will of God for my life. I must admit I often found myself discouraged in my attempts to hear God's instruction. Many times I simply filled in the blanks for God since God seemed to be having such a hard time answering me.
      And candles were only a part of my tradition when it came time for the Christmas Eve service. At the conclusion of the service, we would light candles and sing a medley of seasonal music. But to think of candles as representative of that which exists beyond our current dimension and of the God whose name was not spoken by the people God had "chosen" was never encouraged.
      No, my tradition left liturgy at the door. It exchanged thousands of years of history of how we gather together as a corporate body and collectively respond to God's grace for an individual relationship with Jesus. And this "Jesus and Me" mentality exists today. It has eaten away at the concepts of social ministry and responsibility and our understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ.
      To this day, my tradition extends the goal of the revivalist tradition in America during the 19th century: to save souls. But salvation in the revivalist tradition was closer to an idea of "closing the deal" than to a sense of becoming what God had intended at the beginning of time. As long as people were emotionally moved to walk an aisle, prayer the "sinner's prayer," and confess to the pastor their intentions of making Jesus their personal [sic] Lord and Savior, then the Church had done its job. And that's where it ended.
      So much of my tradition defines success by how many people make a profession of faith. Not to discount the importance of introducing people to the person of Christ, but this strategy has left a deep void in the work of the Church and the life of the believer. The result is that many people who came through the doors of my church and made professions of faith, left unchanged and unsatisfied. Many left feeling as if they have been "oversold" on this Jesus person and his claim to abundant life.
      I wanted something more than my current tradition could offer me, in both vocabulary and practice. But I had no way of vocalizing this quiet desire that seemed to grow within me to learn more, know more, be more, and do more. A desire I tried to ignore but couldn't. I wasn't satisfied with any understanding that reduced salvation to a "one-point-in-time" experience. Salvation had to be more than that. Jesus didn't suffer, die, and raise to life, to "close a deal." That's too trivial indeed. And the net result of my impact for the kingdom of God on earth had to be more than how many people I could get to recite a specific prayer.
      So candles, bells, and silence offered me an invitation to the "more" I was looking for. For me, these became the essential tools I needed as I departed on a journey to face my own sin, and through my sin find my Creator and the person he had created.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

ROBERT : You reminded me . . . .

You reminded me of something the poet Gibran wrote — The real in us is silent; the acquired is talkative.
      And that, in turn, reminded me of hearing Norman Lear, the legendary television producer and director, as he took questions from the audience following a speech he had given at The National Press Club. It was years ago, and I do not now remember what the subject of the speech was, or even what the question was that prompted this one sentence that I remember : ‘There is a difference between religion and religious experience.’
      Perhaps what I am thinking is that religion is the acquired, the external, the dress up part of our life of faith. And the other part of our life of faith is made up of things internal, the silent, the deep parts of our spirits that are the most real.
      Looking at it that way, I think that it may well be possible to lose your religion and yet not lose your faith. And that there may well be times when losing one’s religion is necessary before one can find one’s faith.
      I also think that points to the need for evaluating and measuring the way that you practice your religion : Does your religious practice feed and nurture and point to and enhance and increase and deepen and enrich your religious experience? Or does the external, the dress up part, the acquired tend to obscure and dampen and discourage the experience of faith in you? Does it drown out what is silent and real in you?

Speaking of silent, I have to say that I am ready for some of the ‘that’s another story’ blanks to be filled in. 
      Silence, bells, candles — evidently these things were pretty far from your practice.
      What exactly happened to you?