Running

Trail Running with Benedict — On Belonging

My life is a long conversation about God over beer and coffee.  I have said this for a couple of decades.  But the real soundtrack of my faith is not the chatter of conversation or the clatter of computer keys;  it is the tap-tap-tap of feet against dirt.  My faith is really shaped by the miles alone along the trails.  This is not how I instinctively think of my faith, or other people’s faith.  I think in terms of communities, belonging, traditions.

One of the first arguments Amy and I had after getting married happened when I exploded when she told me she did not attend coffee hour after church.  I mean, I calmly explained that was where community was formed and friendships born.  We belong because of coffee hour, I quietly expressed.  As the vicar of a small church, I was reading my own pastoral concerns into the conversation.  Churches need community.  Coffee hour = Community.

Community is one of those words we use without knowing exactly what we mean, but sure that we hunger for something under that label.  As a pastor, what do I mean by community?  I mean something like the friendship of the group.  It is more than a pile of individual friendships.  You can find Webster’s definition here. It is amorphous and broad.  I think I mean the unified part, but I think about the emotional connotations of unity rather than the spiritual or civil implications.

Does it matter how we feel about our church as a community?  Feelings have been idolized in many ways in our culture.  Feelings trump the Bible, rational thought, spiritual insight, truth, love, good will, facts.  Feelings are not facts. I could go on and on, and I have.  Ask my kids.  But on the other hand, our feelings do matter.  But I wonder what it would look like to think about community beyond my feelings.

Feelings are the weather of the human ecosystem.  They are temporary, shifting, different in different people, seasons, times today.  They are responsive to all sorts of things, including internal and external factors, hormones and horrible bosses.  Their temporal nature does not make them less powerful though.  Emotions can erode the strongest intentions and commitments.  Emotions can come to define the human being as surely as desert mountains differ from northern forests.

Who we are as human beings is tied deeply to our emotions.  But at the same time, our emotions are fickle.  So when it comes to community, emotions are vital and quickly elevated to Creator status.  Genesis would be a different book if after creating the world God said, “I feel like this is good.”  The opposite of feelings in community work is not facts.  Facts are a parallel element of community, along with intentions, leadership, vision, communication structures.  The opposite of feelings is emptiness, the death of the community.

Maybe.  That brings up one of the fundamental questions, right?  Is community ephemeral?  Webster’s reminds us that community is association defined by a lot of things, where you live, citizenship, location, common policy.  If I lock ten people in the room, are they then a community?  Not the way we connote the meaning of the word.  On the other hand, I live in a neighborhood that it is an unconscious community.

This brings me back to the church.  We are in the middle of these little plate conversations about the church, and one of the issues that gets served right up is the issue of membership.  We have probably 30% to 40% of our active church community that does not belong to the Episcopal Church, and therefore not to our congregation.  (Remember, wonks, that a parish is a geographical area of ministry.)  They are in Benedict’s Rule visiting pilgrims.  I want them to join, but they hold on to old affiliations, or sometimes to no affiliation at all, other than Christian.

We are clear about who we are and what defines our branch of the church.  I cannot even say “our church” anymore because our disciples are willing to kick back that “church” means the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of the creeds.  But many people do not want to join.

Membership.  They would join Grace Church, or think they have joined Grace despite all he announcements and explanations, articles and declarations.  But, they are not interested in joining the Episcopal Church, or any particular denomination.  Now I am probable to blame on a lot of levels.  But much of this is deeply felt cultural trends.  It is also feelings.  They feel like they are a part of something real at Grace Church.  But they don’t feel any association with the denomination or the diocese.  Or they just refuse to define themselves out of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

It is sometimes the politics of our national church, social issues, family affiliation, sectarianism as a rule, the particulars or a particular of the tradition.  It is is also a lack of awareness of what it means to belong.  And because our welcome is so good, and yes it is so good, except for sometimes, that many people see no reason to join officially.  When the table is open to everyone, what benefit is left?  What is the benefit of moving my membership or dumping my old denomination if I can come and receive here and be welcomed.

So I am thinking of just cutting out all that crap and putting up a turnstile with membership cards.

Okay, not really.  But I am constantly aware that for many people who come into the shallow ends of the mainline river, the primary thing they are hungry for is communion, second is community.  And if they can get the feeling of community and a good piece of bread, they have everything they need for community.  But I am convinced that they are wrong.

I just don’t know how to convince people that the real benefit of belonging is the way we run in the wilderness.  It is the pattern, the method, the training in the way of life that is the real benefit of our branch of the church.  Our local training club is pretty freaking awesome and the get-togethers are fantastic.  Sure, the coach is a doofus.  But this is where we learn to run.

Because who we really are and what we are really about is the miles on the trail.  It is the running often done alone.  This congregation is really a running club in disguise.  We get together, we run in groups, we train, we have coaches, we offer each other support, maps, rides, and companionship.  But the runs, the runs are what we are about, out there alone on the trails, taking the gospel out, finding the lost and bringing them home, talking Christ to the wanderer, water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, peace to the warring, and forgiveness to all.

We live most of our lives outside the club.  We do most of our running in between the group runs, on trails the group mostly never sees.  But because we belong to the club, we never really run alone.  We have someone to call, a lot of someones, when the miles add up to more than we can handle, or the darkness needs more light than we can bear alone.

We take in pilgrim runners, it is true.  We don’t all wear the same shirts and shorts, though I often dream of a uniform for the church.  We give too freely away what is a result and not a product.

Maybe there is the confusion.  Communion is a result of community with God and with each other.  It is the outcome of the miles, but because we hold it in this physical symbol, it is confused to be a product, something received.  And so there seems to be no cost more than showing up.  We may know otherwise, but how it feels throws us off the trail.

So what do we do with these pilgrim believers? I am not sure that we have a choice but to run with them.  We have to encourage them to join, to explain the club and its usefulness, its purpose, its belonging, but our deep calling is to run and run together bearing the light of Christ, sharing the light of Christ freely.

It just means our running club is always struggling when we are doing our job well.

So run, put in the miles.  The pitter-pat tapping of feet on pavement and trail is the hymn of the runner, the praise of the human being alive, taking the Gospel out of the club that has it (sort of) and into the world that needs it.  That Gospel is that God loves us, provides and protects us, wants to go with us and us with God into the vistas of Grace where people are lost and lonely, hurting and hungry, where we discover that the Spirit has already been here and that when we love the best, we are the dirtiest, covered in the dust of our rabbi Jesus.

Join in.  Come in from the streets and trails of your journey and break bread with us, sing with us, and be refreshed.  Pardon us when we celebrate our club too much, try to get you into a uniform, or pitch membership.  We just love what we are doing and want you with us.  We believe that this work of being a branch is important, providing rest support to the runners, coaching and opportunities to run together, training and easy places to try your feet out, and collected wisdom of a community that is not only broad but deep, millennia-old and dusty in the right way.

Chapter 61: How Pilgrim Monks Are To Be Received

Apr. 15 – Aug. 15 – Dec. 15

If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires,
provided she is content
with the customs of the place as she finds them
and does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands,
but is simply content with what she finds.
If, however, she censures or points out anything reasonably
and with the humility of charity,
let the Abbess consider prudently
whether perhaps it was for that very purpose
that the Lord sent her.

If afterwards she should want to bind herself to stability,
her wish should not be denied her,
especially since there has been opportunity
during her stay as a guest
to discover her character.

But if as a guest she was found exacting or prone to vice,

not only should she be denied membership in the community,

but she should even be politely requested to leave,
lest others be corrupted by her evil life.

If, however, she has not proved to be the kind
who deserves to be put out,
she should not only on her own application be received
as a member of the community,
but she should even be persuaded to stay,
that the others may be instructed by her example,
and because in every place it is the same Lord who is served,
the same King for whom the battle is fought.

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Running

Trail Running with Saint Benedict

Over the last seven years or so, I have been running with Saint Benedict.  It started out as a casual acquaintance.   I was given a statue years ago by an dying parishioner in Tucson, who insisted Benedict was for me.  His raven was who I connected with at first.  Bringing bread to the struggling saint was something I related too and depended on.  I still see those harbingers of grace and insatiable hunger everywhere.

Some years later, John O’Donahue, my frequent companion on earphones moved away, and I began to listen to the Rule while running.  Joan Chittister and Esther De Waal joined Paolo Coelho on my iPod.  The Rule started to works its way into my thinking.  Order and grace, compromise and demand, stability and transformation.

If you run, you know there are two kinds of runners: runners who run for accomplishment and runners who run for love.  I am the latter as my empty box of accomplishments shows.  I run because I love the edges of the world and the edges of my self.  I love running because it has been my soul work since I was twelve.  I have nearly run myself to death, and I have run myself back to life.

But with Benedict I began to understand the trail as my cell.  It is where I do my work, praying and pushing and resting, working out the vision of the church and theology, and it is where I go to stop working and push the clutch on my mind.  It is the container of the alchemy of my own transformation over the flame of God.

I pray a lot on the run.  I listen to God, I listen for God, and I rant at God, and I beg, plead, lament, repent, confess, weep, rejoice, and give thanks.  I sometimes read the readings of the week and then go run.  I sometimes study and study and then go run to let it simmer into something edible for a Sunday brunch.

With Benedict, I run to find humility.  The deep humility of Benedict is not self-destruction.  It is honesty about my own soul and condition.  It is honesty before God and my deepest self.  It is abiding within the provision of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and letting that provision take away fear and anxiety.  Humility is love of others based in nothing but trust that God provides and protects, so my ego gets to loosen its chokehold.

I run to escape my ego and befriend my inner self.  Running is like journaling for me without the self-focus of my stream-of-consciousness.  When I am running I have to be in this present moment, feeling what I feel, attentive to breath and body, and that somehow makes it possible to be present to God in a way that just destroys my false self, my denial of tension and pain, and my self-justification.  It is like journaling while on a slack line.

In the Rule, Benedict is severe about humility, calling for this self-denial that worries the nurse and concerns the social worker.  But on my runs I have found Benedict realistic, naming the false ego version that I pretend is me to deny my true self and others and defend my illusions and desires.

Even the best spiritual directors cannot do the work for you of taking down that false self.  You have to show up and put in the miles.  You have to have stability in practice in order to have lasting transformation.   You have to keep escaping the ego and keep making friends with the you that God actually loves.

I have run my whole life.  But twelve years ago I started over.  I tore my hamstring in high school in a small meet my senior year.  I would happily tell you why it happened.  It was entirely avoidable, but it was still career ending.  I wasn’t going to run in college.

For years I would run a few times and start to get serious, then I would fail.  I would peter out, quit, just stop running.  It was discouraging, but I mostly just denied it, told old stories of better days, and got fat.  When I put myself together in seminary, I did it with ashtanga yoga (because of a Power Yoga book aimed at runners.)  I started running again, but never consistently, never faithfully, and never for long.

Then five years later, I moved to Phoenix alone.  I could be on a trail in less than half a mile.  I wanted to do it right, and I could. I felt like an eggplant on toothpicks at first.  Okay, for a couple of years.  The most terrible sound I heard in the desert wasn’t coyotes or rattles.  It was, “Oh, hello Father!” when I was out running in tiny little running shorts with no shirt.  It was my first daylight run in months.

But I started over with a Runner’s World Beginners Running book and a Timex watch with interval timer and Chi Running, walking and running intermittently, adding minute by minute for a year, until I was running for hours at a time.  I had begun again and begun with a rule.  I needed a guide and companion.

My spiritual life has often followed the same pattern.  I get fat, tell old stories, and get by on my occasional efforts.  Benedict has called me to stability and transformation based in a humility of trust.  He shows up daily with instructions and encouragement, and he often brings Joan and Esther along; and we go for a run.

Sometimes I even run in sandals, my earbud wire flapping like a rope around my waist, putting one foot in front of another, running with Benedict and Paul and the women, learning to be faithful in these days of ours.  I am running the good race, I am keeping the faith, one minute, one day, one step at a time.

from OSB.ORG

Chapter 7: On Humility

Jan. 25 – May 26 – Sept. 25

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard
when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me” (Ps. 130[131]:1)
But how has he acted?
“Rather have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul” (Ps. 130[131]:2).

Hence, brethren,
if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility
and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation
to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life,
we must
by our ascending actions
erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream,
on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending.
By that descent and ascent
we must surely understand nothing else than this,
that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.
And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world,
which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.
For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder,
and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted
the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.

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