Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

( part I is here.)

One of the amazing things about the Rule of Benedict that does not leap out at those who only glance at it, see it as obsolete, and flip past the last two-thirds of the book before putting it somewhere people will see it displayed prominently, is that the Rule is remarkably humane.

Benedict is constantly allowing for organic variability in the application of the Rule, either for the seasons of the year or at the discretion of the abbot.

In a world where we see both wild diversity and militaristic uniformity, it is remarkable how moderate the Rule is in asking for submission but encouraging allowances.

As a trail runner, I tend to fall down on the side of wild diversity. I like the constancy of change on natural ground and only tolerate the dull repetition of the road as necessary with excuses about it being meditative.

Humility is a personal discipline. Most of what we put in that category is not really personal because our lives are deeply communal. With a wife and children, my life is even more communal than before, and no decision is truly personal.

Humility, though, is a personal discipline that has an effect on everyone who encounters us, but it must be chosen personally. Humility cannot be forced or even really encouraged from outside of yourself.

Force someone to be humble, and you are destructive. Encourage humility, and you are a bully. Okay, that is a tad overstated. I sound like a social media zealot. But there is a truth involved. You may be able to encourage a child or a friend to look at themselves and even rarely call them out on the distance between their idea of themselves and reality, but there has to be enough love-capacity built up to pay the cost of such a charge.

No we have to choose humility, to face that distance between our hopes, ideals, and ideas and our reality, ourselves. We have to will ourselves to have peace beyond the anxiety such a facing calls up.

I am not an anxious person, and you may not be either, so let me walk you through what I mean. When I come face to face with some aspect of my real self, say, my arrogant assumptions about my running ability, this will bring up anxiety naturally. Because I have not merely thought of myself as a great runner, but chances are I expected to win races, run fast, and may have told others, I may have spent money and time on this assumption, I may have chosen to be with certain fast runners and eschew the company of slower runners. I have invested in a view of my self based on the assumptions of my abilities. Now, I lose a race or get injured or just have a slow period due to overtraining. I have to admit to my self that I am not as fast as I thought.

This alone does not seem so bad, but I will admit that I have struggled here. I build up excuses and pass around blame to avoid dealing with the truth. I reinforce the mask, which now terribly is revealed as a mask at some level. I defend my false self against revelation.

My failure is not merely about reimagining my own time goals. I will have to tell those who I told was fast, or to whom I acted fast, that I am not fast, that I lied or failed. I will have to mourn the loss of that invested time, energy, money. I will have to face the relationships that may no longer have value or that I turned away because of my arrogance.

If I know and value my self as a child of God who is loved for being, none of these things is a great burden, only a hurdle on the way. But if I only know my self as a fast runner whose value is in winning or success, then my interior view of my self is in real danger.

Does this seem touchy-feely? It is not. I have seen the violence done by people protecting an unnecessary view of themselves time and time again in person. I have seen the damage that I have done as I struggle with my ego.

I am not entirely comfortable identifying my proud self with ego. Freud did not help us with choosing this term to identify this part of us. Ego is from the Latin for “I.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is the part of the self in psychoanalytic theory that navigates between the self and the world. It is associated with pride and an antonym from humility.

But ego is not antithetical to humility. We need ego, the “I am” of the self in the world. We need to know that we exist and have value in our just being. I cannot say this enough. In a healthy Christian anthropology (theory of what it is to be a human being), we are created in love and are loved from our creation.

It is a crappy, degraded, pagan Christianity that begins with an evil God who hates us. It neither offers explanation for creation nor meets the teachings of Jesus about his Abba God who loves us. We are loved even as we fail.

Living out this kind of anthropology means that we make allowance for our organic humanity even as we call for our better selves in worship and living together. The Rule’s balance in this regard is remarkable.

My balance on the other hand is questionable. I constantly want to succeed. I have dreams and ideals for my self and my family and my church. I want to run as fast as that high school kid from downstate I was reading about. But I don’t. I eat a lot of pizza on pizza night with my family. Our attendance at church varies with the weather and the season. I stay late on normal days to get a little more done.

I lace up my shoes and head out. Everyday I vary. I need a Latin phrase for “I vary.” *Variaro ergo sum*.

I run with a Suunto GPS that tells me my pace, speed, elevation, heart rate, attractiveness, holiness, and actual location in the Rule of God. I want to be a little better than yesterday, than last week, than last year. But the truth is more complex, as Mr. Suunto likes to point out.

Last year I ran a ten mile loop in seventy minutes, this year I crashed out on the same run. I called Amy, who couldn’t come get me because she had the car to get the child I was supposed to pick up because I was going to be back in sixty-five minutes and it was now well over an hour and a half and I was walking still miles from home, wet, and shaking from the cold. It was the same run, only much colder, rainy, and I had neither eaten nor hydrated well. But even if I had, I was not in the same shape coming out of the winter rather than summer.

In the end, I am human, of the humous, of the earth, organic little ball of God-breathed dirt, but dirty none-the-less. I may fly or fall, but I am God’s to cheer or catch. I strive, and I crawl, but the long run always ends up in the same place. I will end up with God answering for how I loved the river clay, whether my own or my wife’s or my children’s or yours.

God loves me and expects me to love my own self and others with the same kind of love. It is that expectation that leads me to the demands of the trail and the Rule. It is that love carries me when I fall and that puts out my hand to my neighbor when he falls.

The other reason I love trail runners is the joy and camaraderie of the trail. It is different in my experience from the road. We know we can’t compete for the trail, only along it. It belongs to God and leads to home, no matter what trail it is.

So relax a little and turn off your GPS, be where you are right now, be who you are right now. Be humane to you. You are loved, you little failure, or you are nothing. Your existence is proof that you are. So relax and face up, you are only what you are.

You are a human being, and we vary, like the Rule, like the trail.

Easter with Benedict and the Creation’s Hope

Happy Easter! The season of Alleluia returns, and our prayers can finally sing with the coming of spring.  Here in Northern Michigan we are just starting to feel the warmth.  The last thin layers of ice on the bay have thawed, and there is even a little green poking through the grays and browns of winter’s remains.

The weather of the world is even starting to feel a little different.  And the Rule of Benedict makes some allowances for the turn of seasons with adjustments to food, wine, and time.  Even the times of prayers shift with the seasons.

We are not mechanical, and our time is not mechanized, though it often feels that way with the watches and phones of our common life.  We are so often driven by calendars and times that are set with no regard for the organic nature of life.  It is easy to forget that we are cyclical and seasonal beings by design.

God made us to live on the earth, which makes sense as caretakers and keepers of Creation called to bear God’s image and love in the world.  We are set to live in synchronicity with the seasons and changes of the natural world.  Benedict could recognize that fifteen centuries ago, and so can we.

Often we think of faith in these mechanized ways that come with the setting of our religious clocks and calendars and letting them run on and on without regard for the natural flux and flow of life.  Our faith becomes another modern deafness to the world we are called to live in and love.

One way to claim these days of glory is to let our lives get grounded again in the natural rhythms of nature, turning down lights after sunset and avoiding the florescence we rely on in the days of darkness.  Get outside or let the outside world in with open windows and doors.

Another important piece is our language.  Pray the natural world.  Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with natural images and prayers soaked in the natural world.  Let that language inform your personal prayers.  Glorify God for the natural world, giving care and attention to the land and rivers and rocks and trees, for the changes in seasons, and for the light, which I always take for granted (to say the least) after decades in the desert glare.

O Creator of the earth and skies, we your stewards and keepers of the world and word give you thanks for the changes of seasons and the coming of the light.  Remind us always of the true light of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who breathed his Spirit into us at his resurrection to continue the healing and redeeming of your world.  Give us such a love for your creation and your creatures that we may see your love’s dominion in our world and may love your children with pure devotion and leave our children with a world more full of life, light, and grace until that day when your dominion is whole and heaven and earth made whole, through your Son Jesus Christ our Risen Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and always. Amen.

Alleluia.

Retreat: Letting the Logos be my Logic and Re-order my Chaos

A Few Days with the Monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan 

When the year tumbles from Epiphany into Lent, my wife reminds me to set up my annual retreat, this year again to St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan.  I returned this weekend to the bishop’s visit and the swirl of an active parish.  We were reminded a couple of times by the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hoagland that we are now the largest congregation in the diocese, which was nice and also a challenge.  I hear that and a list cascades down in my mind of the things we are doing, should be doing, and according to plan will be doing in the next year.  And beside that is a list, no a web of names that spreads out of who and when each step and conversation should be had.  Work.  And like every system that reaches out into the future it quickly becomes a chaos.  A storm cloud and a wind.

Now, wind and rain are good for the farmer and the crop, but the farmer’s anticipation is a work and shelter.  I have been planning, implementing, coping, and planning, implementing and looking ahead for a while out of these last five years of discipleship  and growth into the future with plans and hopes.  I have been implementing past plans and coping with blowback from decisions, some good and some bad, and change and growth and challenges.  But then there is the putting your head down and planning the next while  . . . you get the idea.  It has been a busy and productive time of ministry.

And when the webs and lists become a chaos of storm clouds on the horizon, it is usually time to pull away into the arms of the Lord of my life.  I do this in little daily doses of prayer and meditation, and in regular runs into the wild.  (Road running is prayer, but the wilderness is another thing altogether.)  But the daily doses are not enough, and my wife spots it and reminds me to go away.

Retreat.  To pull away into God’s presence can happen anywhere, of course.  I have camped in the wilds of desert and forests.  I have been alone.  But these days I really find myself held by the community at St. Gregory’s.  The monks and a few visitors, this year a principal of a Canadian Christian school and an aspirant for holy orders from another diocese, and the rhythm of the Hours of the Benedictine Rule.  Rising for prayer at four in the morning keeps my retreat from devolving into vacation.  It also means that I am set day by day, hour by hour, on course for the wandering.

It is time to let the Logos be my logic and order, to reorder my internal world.  It is not so much active, though I have things to do and study, but rather soul massage.  This year I started learning the Hebrew language, again, and I read a novel and studied.  I wrote a letter and set some courses for the Holy Week and Easter celebrations.  I prayed a lot. I ran ten miles or so.

It was quiet.  These hours of rising into activity and thought were balanced by the settling back into the quiet embrace of God.  I know that this type of thing often gets somehow reserved for clergy, and it seems that most lay people do not pull away until life wrecks them.  I think this is a mistake.  Time away with God, daily, weekly, and annually, is part of a natural rhythm of life.  Wise farmers let the fields lie between activities, hay to dry and recovery between crops.  We are no different.

God is our root and source, our life and logic.  We need time to set our roots down deep and to grow them into the soil.  Growth does not happen well in the seasons of growth and change.  It is warped by our plans and implementations.  We can let the logic of our desires and hopes slowly change our patterns of maturation away from God’s good intentions.  It is not that there is necessarily wrong in it, but I have discovered a “not the best” tendency over time that twists me inside a little with too long a season without times to reorder.  If I am to have something to offer, love or wisdom, listening or word, I have to stay set deep into the source of agape and sophia, quiet and voice.

My life is a harvest of wisdom and love, or at least I hope so!  But I am not the source of those things.  As Wisdom’s daughter at Grace often says, “I can’t whoop that up.” I need God, and I need God in doses beyond the minimum effective dose for me.  I need the abundance of God that comes with time.  The I Am of God takes time, and I am not shepherd beyond the wilderness following my father-in-law’s sheep in the quiet wilderness of Sinai.  I have to create and protect the time.

Jesus is the Word in John’s Gospel.  That philosopher-poet who wrote John takes a hymn to Sophia and replaces Holy Wisdom with the word logos which we translate as the word.  This word is only a hint at the multivalent vocabulary of myth and philosophy that lies behind logos for the Greek philosophical tradition.  It was the name used for the force that gave order (logic) to the chaotic swirl of undifferentiated elements of creation in neoplatonism  It is the root of our words for logic and areas of study.  It is word in the Levi-Strauss sense of vocabulary of meaning.  To say that Jesus is logos is very much like saying that Jesus is the Tao.  Jesus is the order of creation.  Jesus is wisdom, if you understand what they meant by Holy Wisdom; he is the wisdom of the world.

Now wisdom is not just a figure to be known, like a mystery or a person you can only meet in one place.   Wisdom in the Hebrew tradition is both a figure like the Holy Spirit, part of God and with God in creation, ordering and creating with God, but she is also the very order of things that can be observed in the dance and order of creation itself.  To say that Jesus is Wisdom is to make some claims about knowing him and the world itself.  This is, as I used to say to the children at St. Michael’s Day School, a very big idea.

The person of Jesus is my logos, my logic, the word that created me and creates me, orders me and gives me life.  But in the midst of my plans and implementations, I tend to get twisted around and start to think (in my own disordered way) that I can speak the word myself.  I have to be reordered.  So I retreat.

I retreated into the order of St. Benedict, into the rhythm of prayer and work, running and learning, wilderness and wild deer, turkey, and foxes.  I retreated to St. Gregory and the arms of God, the whispered words of Psalms and prayers like a father’s tender words sung into my soul for my re-alignment to his order, and the fields within me grew wild and rich again as I got rerooted into my Lord.

Addicted to the Apple – Theology as Addiction Treatment

Okay, so I am not the first person to notice this, but the Apple on my Mac has a bite taken out of it.  This little observation always haunts me a little bit whenever I see it, which is often.  I write on a Macbook, text and talk on a iPhone.  I did sell my iPod, iPad mini 2, and the older Mac at home is a half-frozen antiquity from 2008.  I am addicted.

Okay, so I don’t really mean addicted, nor am I really talking about my preference for an operating system on my computer.  I am addicted to this world, the world of the apple.  The world of the knowledge of good and evil, post-garden of eden, clothing world.  I am an addict to the world of sin.  And I bet you are too, even if you use a PC or Chromebook or nothing.  We are addicted.

I was reminded of my state by a conversation with a recovery rockstar locally, Thomas Gilbert.  He was talking about what makes effective recovery and laying the groundwork for a sober house and retreat center here in Traverse City.  I am all about people in recovery.  They are models of new creation living in the most brutal and honest way.

We Christians should be major supporters of recovery because of what it is, what it says, and what it means.  As sober Christians we are really passive about love for people in recovery generally.   As an Episcopal church, we host AA and have treatment available for clergy, but I am talking about local Christians understanding and rejoicing and celebrating recovery as a model of embracing new life.

The Navy Seals have a saying, Embrace the Suck.  I love that saying because it means to accept the suffering of this moment in order to do your job and do it well.  It is going to suck, and if you want to get where you want to go, you are going to have to embrace it.  I want the solitude of desert solitude and survive, so I carry water.  In recovery, I understand that we have to embrace the suck of life.  We, all of us human beings, embrace opiation, medication, numbing agents, until we are no more fully alive.  We avoid real life.

This is the essence of addiction as I understand it.  Our minds become shaped, rutted, preset to the addicted substance instead of real life.  We prefer the addiction object instead of life and loved ones and even food and water.  These objects usually have a numbing effect, an opiate of some sort.  We, of course, prefer to be numb rather than deal with the world.  Being sober means embracing the suck of real life.  It is hard and will be if we want to get where we want to go.

Have you ever heard someone who was so addicted to their beliefs that they no longer embraced real life?  The NRA member who cannot deal with the realities of handgun deaths of children, or rich people who cannot look long at poverty?  I think the allegation that faith is an opiate is fair when our faith is a way of avoiding the world, of numbing ourselves to reality.  That does not mean that ecstatic realities are not real, but rather that they can lead toward or away from real life, just like a glass of wine can lubricate conversation and allow people to be real or be a numbing agent that avoids the difficulties of conversation.

Doing theology is difficult, but it is one of the ways that we get a new mind, that we learn to think as a mature engaged human beings.  I need a new mind.  Yes, Jesus can just give me one, but that is not the way God always works.  We are given freedom and then have to learn to live in freedom and responsibility.  We have to metanoia, or repent, to get a new mind in Christ Jesus. The word metanoia is the Greek word for repent, and it means to have a new way of knowing, a larger mind, a more mature understanding or view.  Learning theology, alongside learning to concentrate, contemplate, and meditate, alongside learning to submit and pray are the practices of getting a new mind.  All of these practices are rooted in and soaked by the Bible and especially the life and teachings of Jesus.

When we get a new mind, the questions we ask change as well as the answers we have.  Can we ever go back to not knowing that we are naked?  Is it possible to go back to a state of purity?  I don’t think so.  The addicts we have, our recovery heroes, are always going to have addictions, just like us.  We should celebrate their work and their successes, and we should be patient when they fall off the wagon and return to the object of their addictions; after all, who could understand that better than us?  We should embrace their suck and embrace them as they wrestle with real lives and the complications and convictions of their lives under the apple.  After all, they are us.

The faith and love of the Episcopal Church will be tested by our ability to love the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook and hold her close and visit her while being honest about the atrocity and sin and brokenness of her addiction.  Can we let her be human and still love her, honor her, uphold her dignity, while admitting the depths and realities of her sin?  Can we do that while honoring and upholding and embracing the dignity of her victim, a family man who was bicycling through his own complicated and beautiful life? Can we hold the contradictions and complications of this story and not neglect the human being involved?  Can we embrace the suck here?

This is the test we face right now, or at least one of them.  I know that if I am going to embrace the suck of real life and work for an even more real life of Christ and the Rule of God, where every human being is loved by God and has justice and peace and where sins are forgiven and justice done, I am going to need a new mind.

So I lean into the Daily Office, and I sit in meditation and prayer, and I read theology, even though none of these is easy today.  I need a new mind, and a community that loves me, and I need the close and constant work of the Holy Spirit breathing in me, speaking the Word and his Way into being in me, and I need the God of all creation who is bringing the whole back one day.

Until then, I love you even when it sucks, because Christ embraced the manger and the cross, and on my way out of the Garden still picking my teeth, God made me something to wear, and the Breath that moved over the waters of Creation still move and even darkness is not dark to God.

Intimacy and Incarnation: Christmas and Love

Okay, so I am not a great husband.  My personal history and my lovely wife bear this out.  I am constantly in reform, always reading and realizing what a dope I am maritally.  So it is with relish that I approach premarital counseling as a priest.  Don’t worry, I always send couples with big obvious issues away to someone who knows what they are doing, but the rest I figure I can at least save from my stupidest mistakes.

Actually, my general plan is to present some models and guide couples into a series of conversations with a little well-seasoned wisdom from someone who has been there.  I really do read a lot because I really do feel inadequate to be married.  But then we all are according to David Schnarch, PhD.  He is the therapist I use the most.  His book Passionate Marriage should be on your reading list if you are a person.  There is no qualifier for that because the book presents deep wisdom about life through the lens of marriage and sex.

I will not go into the whole thing here, but I have preached about it before.  (See Sounds Like Grace at gracetc.blogspot.com.) So as I said in the sermon, this year I was asked to do a wedding the weekend before Christmas, and I said yes.  It was a great wedding, wonderful couple, great church, and I was only mildly stressed by it all.

But it weirded my preparation for Christmas.  We have seven services between Christmas Eve and Day, beginning with one for our Jubilee Ministries Community, and going through a whole gamut of styles and shapes.  I preach along an arc, so I don’t bore myself or the people who come to multiple services.  So I have been thinking and writing about Incarnation for a while in preparation, like normal.

Incarnation is the theological notion that God is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  The enfleshed reality of God is a hard one to swallow these days, and I think more people doubt Jesus’ divinity than his teachings, though to be honest the teachings aren’t all that popular at the implementation level.  Jesus is God and fully human.  This idea is at the heart of our faith.  I think it is beautiful, and while it is unique in Christ, it is also made true in all of us in Christ.  But what does this have to do with sex?

Intimacy is this loaded topic for most of us.  We want more, we want to be closer to our spouses and other people, yet being close to people freaks us out.  It brings up some pretty basic insecurities and even existential terror.  We are scared of intimacy because it asks us to be open, honest, present, vulnerable.  It asks us to have integrity and stay close as we become scared.  Scharch points out that self-validated intimacy is the only real kind we can have, really, because we can do it no matter what the other person does.  I can show you who I really am.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in response.  I cannot control you.  I want to, but I can’t.  What I can do is soothe my fears and anxiety and stay present with you.  You have to choose your response.  In marriage it would seem that this is what we want from our spouse.  Show me who you are and I will love you, we seem to say.  But we don’t really either, because their self revelation, while not demanding anything in itself, changes our relationship and challenges us and our ways of insecurity and fear.  It asks us without asking us to show up and reveal ourselves and love them by giving like the little drummer boy, the only gift we really have.

And so we get back to incarnation.  In Jesus, God reveals God’s own self.  And it does not seem to demand anything really.  I think that is why we prefer Christmas to Easter sometimes.  God shows up.  God Emmanuel.  We long for that, and yet when God does show up, even mediated as angels, what do they have to say every time?  Peace.  Be still.  Chill out.  Calm down.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all are told.  Do not be afraid.

This Christmas, what if we entered into this divine offering of God’s self, this earthy and heavenly intimacy without fear?  Can we be present to God’s self and unhook our fears and expectations, our self-doubts and self-concern and trust that God loves us and just wants us to show up?

To be able to be present to another while being intimate requires self-differentiation.  We have to recognize that we are not our partner and see them as they are.  This is harder and more demanding that it sounds as I write it.  My wife and I laugh about her leaving town a couple of years ago, when I bought Velveeta shells and cheese.  She was startled to realize that I would choose something she would never choose.  It was like a revelation to her that I would eat it.  It was also a massive disappointment, and it challenged my secret love of fake horrible cheese-like products.

Now I am no master of intimacy.  I have often hidden, like others, behind all sorts of defenses, from anger and distance to knowledge and judgement.  I am amazed this Christmas at how the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings point right through all of these issues and call us to live courageously open, intimate lives.

I don’t think this is possible without strong morals and integrity and boundaries.  If we are to able to stand so close to others and hold ourselves open and loving, we have to be able to do so without victimizing the other or abusing them or losing ourselves in sloppy sentimentalism.  We need the whole teachings of Christ.  Love and courage and holiness together.

So it is Christmas, and I am trying to figure out how to talk about all of this.  Are you more open this year?  Are you more courageous and loving?  Are you more holy?  I want that intimacy with Amy that we both long for, and I fear that I am going to have to keep growing up to get there.  I want that intimacy with God that I hear promised in the prophets and in Christ.  And I fear that I come to the manger as a place of hope of course, but also a place of challenge to my deepest, most human self to be with the God who loves me enough to show up, vulnerable, honest, and holy.

A Sane Prayer Life – Advice Along the Way

A Sane Prayer Life

Prayer is one of the most intimate things a person can do, but it is surprising how many people report having a sane prayer life. Rarely do I have people report praying crazy things.  People are usually humble and patient, even if frustrated or even devastated by their situation.  They are rational even in irrational times.  I have a theory that a solid prayer life keeps you sane.

That is not necessarily the popular opinion of atheists, but among the things you can learn online, 55% of Americans pray daily according to a 2013 Pew Research poll.  In our tradition, Anglican/Episcopal Christian, we stress daily prayer as a formal part of  our formation and prayer life.

The Daily Office is not the same thing as a quiet time or devotional, though those traditions within Methodist and Evangelical traditions in the United States probably developed out of it.  The Daily Office is a whole church version of the monastic, specifically Benedictine, opus Dei, or work of God.  Benedict saw the monastic offices, regular and regulated sessions of prayer, as the praise of the faithful being intentionally ordered to be both realistic and keepable in a normal balanced life, even if one that is dedicated and set aside to God in the desert communities of the sixth century.

The English Reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, distilled the hours to the Morning and Evening Offices that we call Morning and Evening Prayer.  Later the church brought back into the Book of Common Prayer noontime and the late night Compline offices, pretty much as directed by the Rule of Benedict.

The Offices are kept pretty strictly, without much innovation.  Martin Thornton, English priest writing about fifty years ago, saw the Office as part of a trinitarian prayer life, being dedicated to the God the Father.  In keeping the Offices as proscribed we are submitting to the praise of the universal Church.  This is part of a sane life, as Thornton points out, that is balanced between submitting to the Church universal in the Office and to the local community in the Eucharist.  He also points out that sanity is not found only in submission, but in submission and freedom.

We are free in our tradition to pray as the Spirit leads in an ongoing way.  We are invoked to prayer in the Book of Common Prayer but not told how to pray throughout the day.  Granted, our BCP has prayers in it, but I would suggest that sanity in freedom should involve some devout and holy experiment.  You should pray as the Spirit leads in whatever way is fitting.

I am an INFP, a Five on the Enneagram, and a Mystic according to the Myers-Briggs type indicator, Enneagram, and Urban Holmes’s Spirituality for Ministry.  All of that is to say that my needle is set to quiet, introspective prayer.  I need silence everyday and often daily.  I retreat to quiet places constantly.  But sometimes in prayer, I cry out, clench my fists, and even feel led to dance.  I let music take me along to emotional places I don’t go without guidance.  I try to extend my prayer life with a little time, after the Bible and silence that is.

Gil Stafford taught me this twenty years ago.  Gil was my first spiritual director, and in a meeting one day in his office as then baseball coach at Grand Canyon University, we were catching up when he told me about deciding not to journal as part of his daily prayer.  He had been journalling for a long time and realized that it had become dry and not very prayerful, so he was setting it aside for a while.  I was blown away, even though he wasn’t teaching me per se, he was just sharing himself.  But it modeling a kind of freedom that I just didn’t have at eighteen, even though there was no formal constraint.

Sanity admits to the reality of areas of life where we submit to others and find freedom in doing so.  I often think people who complain about the weather are wasting their time, but people who complain about their own life are not dealing with reality very well.  Okay, that includes me often enough, but I don’t always deal well with reality either.  We submit and find life, but we also must find the areas of our life where we do have dominion or power and enjoy those areas as well, taking control of them and playing in them.

Where Martin Thornton says we must experiment reverently, I would say we must learn to play in prayer.  We have to learn to trust God’s goodness and mercy and forgiveness enough to approach in prayer in the ways we are led to.  We may fail in prayer.  I have.  I have also failed in communicating with my wife and kids and friends.  They don’t cut me off, and how much more compassionate is my Abba?

We need places in prayer that we keep faithfully.  Maybe that is Scripture or the Offices, but find a place to bow.  Then play with all you have.  God wants nothing less.

Blessing God while Cussing

Prayer is a crazy business.  I am a professional, but like most professionals hired to teach others I often forget to teach the way beneath the techniques.

Prayer is a crazy business because it is talking to God.  God!  It is always an act of faith, even the foxhole blurts and the beggars blessings.  We act in faith when we lean into God, but religious people are always in danger of saying stuff that sounds like prayer but isn’t.  You know what I mean.  The pastor’s prayer that is really a reiteration of the sermon.  The holy aunt’s grace that is more of a rubbing in the face of her own holy righteousness.

To cuss is to use impolite words.  I separate cussing from cursing.  To cuss is sometimes an act of impolite honesty, and sometimes just plain rude or inappropriate.  I am not suggesting you take it up.  But to curse is to will harm or evil upon another.  It is the opposite of blessing.  To bless is to invoke the manifestation of God and God’s will to good for another person.  It is a profound act of healing and faith.  I do suggest you take it up.

But my point today is to bless while you are still pushed to the point of cussing.

I want to talk about cussing prayers.  The angry, hurt, desperate prayers that don’t usually make it into church.  The prayers that come when the news rips out an organ and drops the floor beneath you.  The aching prayers that define us and often leave us feeling guilty or blasphemous.

Have you ever prayed like that?  I have.  I still do.  Often as a priest I want the freedom to just lay out exactly what I feel in four-letter words, but I am learning to communicate with more care.  (Honestly, I have worked on that more because I have children than because of my collar.  I would just cuss if it weren’t for the responsibility to raise children who can function better than their father.)

The door closes, and the doctor frowns.  When the words have dropped and you cry out, it is too late to tell you what I want to say right now.  God loves you and wants those prayers.  God is not distant.  God is not perfect in the immutable, unchangeable way that so many armchair theologians pronounce.  They are wrong.  God is in there with you, in the ache and the cold hospital room.  God is in the gutter and the leather-accented office suite.

We have taken “God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” meaning faithful to promises, and we have let bad Roman neo-Platonism come creeping into Christian theology.   God is not unchangeable.  To say that God is immutable is to rip out some pretty significant pages of the Bible.

The people around their golden calf better rejoice that God can change, and at the prayers of Moses who had already by that point argued with God at the bush and hit the rock in anger.  God turns aside so easily from wrath that one begins to wonder why the bluster.  Now like Jonah you can sit under your withering plant or you can join Jesus on the side of grace.

God is a lot of things in the Bible, but thin-skinned isn’t one of them.  God doesn’t have skin at all, except Jesus and the Spirit-people of baptism and eucharist.  We incarnate God.  It is true, read John.  So then why do we think that God can’t handle our prayers and our cussing?

I suggest you try it out.  Let God have it, all of it.  It is one of the greatest acts of faith there is.  God is with you wherever you are.  If you trust that, cry out.  God will hold you.  God has reached out time and time again in Scripture, not usually to fed the things of this life, but to lead us through death into life.  God often is closest in the darkest times of our lives, but we are trained only that God is light and don’t look into the deep inky loneliness for the those smoldering eyes of love.

Too bad.  So often I have found God almost unbearably close in chalk-green rooms still echoing with the doctor’s worse.  And often people don’t realize how close God is because we are taught that God comes to sanctuaries and Aunt Holy’s living room full of saints and saccharine.  The faithful know otherwise, but they often don’t have words for that moment that sound religious.

It’s too bad.  The Bible is full of them.  Psalm 23 and . . . okay the Psalms.  David, Moses, and the Cross.  Paul and the letters all teach us that God is more than able to handle your cuss words.  Bless God with cuss words still in your mouth.  It is powerful practice.

You don’t need to go out and find a reason to cuss.  The world will give you plenty of encouragement.  But while you are still there, bless God and pray.  You will find yourself a little more human and your God a little more intimate.

Freedom in Servanthood – Finding the Right Kind of Bondage

The Bible has a number of paradoxes that cut right through the heart of our age.  I am always preparing to preach somewhere, which I love.  But I mostly preach in short form and don’t always get time to work out the more subtle paradoxes that show up. That and it isn’t okay to talk about BDSM at church.

So there is a culture of bondage in the world that doesn’t have very much to do with church.  Google search when the kids aren’t around.  People tie up their sexual partners and sometimes hurt them for pleasure.  This sadomasochistic relationship has been brought into pop culture more or less obviously by the Fifty Shades of Grey series of books.  They were so popular that these lit-porn books were being read on subways in the newspaper at least.  I did see women reading them in cars waiting to pick up kids at school and on a couple of planes.

Now, bondage isn’t a new phenomenon.  It has floated just below the surface of our porn culture for a long time.  It is one of those dark fantasies that no one admits in polite culture, and certainly not to a priest!  Yet the domination and submission game is well known in relationships where there is little leather.  Many couples play out this dynamic on more subtle levels.

I am struck that so much of the literature around bdsm (bondage submission sadomasochism) talks about the submissive finding freedom.  This parallels one of the central paradoxes of Christianity.

Freedom is the root of the word redemption.  The whole concept of redemption or to be redeemed is to be set free from bondage or slavery.  The Greek word “doulos” means slave or servant or deacon.  The word is extremely common in the New Testament appearing 127 times (Strong’s number 1401).  It is a title applied to oneself (Paul and Peter) and to others.  We are said to find our freedom in becoming servants to Jesus.

We have been set free by the cross and yet are to put ourselves in bondage to Christ.  Now clearly this is two very different ideas about bondage.  Fear not, dear reader.  I don’t think you need ropes to explore your freedom!  I think rather that many of us are looking for our freedom by doing whatever we want.  That is the cultural promise of freedom.

“Let it Go” is a popular song because it captures that adolescent search for freedom by shedding the clothes of your culture and family and wearing a miniskirt and bustier with highlights and cleavage to match.  This message is really deeply embedded in our media and our thinking.  “If only I could . . .” lies behind many fantasies and adulteries.  We go looking for the freedom we have already.

The problem is not our ability to choose.  Any of us could choose at any moment to go out and do just about anything these days, at least in America.  We are basically free.  The problem is not our number of choices.  The problem is our frustration with the choices we have made.  The problem is our frustration the outcomes our choices have given us, because one choice inevitably leads to another until we are forty looking at a life we feel like we didn’t choose.

On the other hand, the masochist goes deeply down into that powerless place and accepts it.  In that acceptance they find freedom.  Humiliation and pain are often a central part of the experience.  It is hard to not read that and hear Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the background, the celebrations of sufferings and beatings.  So what is the difference?

There is first of all that when we place ourselves into the hands of God, we are not blindly putting ourselves in bondage to another human, a fallen creature who has both the capacity for love and violence.  We are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are safe in God’s hands, that we are loved, held, healed, made whole, safe.

Here it may be helpful to call up the images of the mothering nurturing God that are throughout the Bible.  But even in the male images of the New Testament there is a clear consistency about the nature of God. Jesus depicts God as Abba and then spends a great deal of teaching what that means, loving, merciful, compassionate.  Strong, powerful, even angry, but always in a protective way, endlessly forgiving wrong.  That means relinquishing our images of revenge and punishment.  The New Testament actually spells out that we are to give up our revenge and punishment fantasies.

The image of the bondage relationship is an image of the brokenness of humanity in flesh.  It is a depiction of bad theology, a God who is violent and punishing and a humanity whose job is to learn to submit to violence and control.

The image of the New Testament relationship between God and us is a God who is loving and healing and a humanity whose job is to submit to love and own the responsibilities of freedom and stewardship of the earth and each other, or to put it another way to embrace our full redeemed humanity.

I am deeply saddened by both Fifty Shades of Grey and “Frozen.”  Both portray a deeply flawed search for a controlling masculinity and submissive femininity that destroys the image of God we were created to bear.  We are called to be strong responsible men and women who are in relationships of mutual care, healing, and redemption.  Our freedom is meant to be responsible and allow us to love and heal others, to set them free.

You can’t set someone free with bondage.  Neither personally or nationally does that work.  It is bad theology, bad psychology, and horrible foreign policy.  There are times when we give up our freedom because we commit crimes.  But the longing of the human heart is to be free and responsible.  I do think there is hope in “Frozen” in that the sisters learn to love and rule their inherited kingdom.

I have hope that our culture that worships freedom can learn to love responsibly, but right now we are still singing “Let it Go” right now and trying to bind that which we can’t control.  We still see responsibilities as limiting our freedoms, personally and politically.  We don’t seem to understand the call to be children of God, who are loved and called to love, provided for and called to provide for others, whole and free by a grace that is not our own doing.

That is the bondage here.  We bind ourselves to others in responsibility to love, just as Jesus took up the cross to bear the sins of Jerusalem and the world.  We bind ourselves to our obligations, but in them we find a freedom and wholeness in identity.  It seems vital that this be a choice.  God never forces us, never ties us up, never beats us into submission.  We choose to be adult children of God who love as we are loved.

The image of this I have after looking at the Fifty Shades culture is of Tiny Hands International, a ministry that my wife and I support.  They do work around addressing sex trafficking and have orphanages in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh.  The story of men and women going into brothels and stopping traffickers at the borders to set free these girls and boys, women and men in very real and destructive bondage never fails to awaken my heart to hope and humanity, even as their reality breaks it.  Freedom and responsibility.

Tiny Hands does more than just set them free, but works to provide a life, a home, and a living for these human beings to help them get to the place where they can be fully free and responsible.  These commitments take years sometimes to live out.  I am proud that my wife, really, has kept us committed to one little girl who is not so little anymore for more than seven years.  This young woman is part of my children’s prayer life and our financial life, though we have never met and only seen each other in pictures and letters.

Her life is deeply tied up in ours, and the work of Tiny Hands and that small tie of financial commitment has meant more to my own and my family’s freedom and humanity than I can ever relate.

As a pastor and priest, I am deeply concerned about how our bad theology and search for freedom is destroying our humanity in Christ.  I am concerned as a father about what those desiccated images of masculinity and femininity can mean for my children and for those victims of violence and sexual abuse around the world.  I am concerned how my own choices have bound me and sometimes even set me more fully free.

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Don’t worry, I don’t have Tillich’s drawer full of secrets anywhere! The articles about this subculture have been very open in psychological journals and Time magazine since the Fifty Shades books and now movie have gone mainstream.  There are lots of articles without pictures out there!  But as Uncle George says, “There’s more ways to tell who fell in the drink than falling in there yourself, I think.”

Coming to the Table – Remembering Christ with your Family and Friends

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In our last reflection we considered the Office as it relates to the Father, Abba, as we join in the church’s worship.  It is the cornerstone of the Anglican-Benedictine way of forming disciples.  I know that is counter-intuitive for Episcopalians and other liturgical churches.  We handed daily faithfulness off to the evangelical world through our low-church brothers and sisters and then forgot after the liturgical revolution of the past forty years.

We elevated the Eucharist to the center of our common life and after the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we made the Daily Office difficult and frustrating to use.  I wanted to learn the Office as a Baptist convert in the 1990’s.  I wanted to learn.  I was motivated.  AND I was educated.  My undergraduate degree was Creative Arts in Worship.  I read Dom Gregory Dix for fun.  And yet I was utterly frustrated by the 1979 BCP and started printing off daily prayers from the internet!

Church Publishing, if you are reading along, I would love a BCP-based Breviary that is formatted for Daily Prayer.  I don’t want something all that new.  I want a simple formatted Breviary.  I will do it.  Just call.

But that isn’t our focus today.  Let’s go back to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the “great thanksgiving” in Greek.  It is called Communion or the Mass or the Lord’s Supper, and it is at the center of our communal life.  I love the Eucharist.  Don’t let the first couple of paragraphs fool you.

The thing is that we are in a funny place recently where we are trying to use the Eucharist in order to welcome people into church.  And that is like meeting a new friend as a couple by inviting them into your bedroom.  The Eucharist is the most intimate thing that disciples do.

We follow Jesus.  Jesus had his disciples, and on his last free night before facing trials and ultimately death, he had a meal with them that was remembered as a Passover meal.  This meal was the place where he took bread and wine and gave it to his friends and fellow brothers and sisters, blessing them and giving instructions to share the meal together to remember him.

The Greek word for “to remember” is anamnesis.  Plato considered the act of remembering as the only way that one could experience the real world beyond forms.  This is not necessarily what Jesus had in mind, but the concept is helpful.  When we remember we are bringing the fullness of our master to mind.

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If Jesus and his teachings are our master or king, rabbi, lord, then we are subjects who are defined by the master.  The master is not a popular concept in American culture, so we have lost some direct implications of what this means for us.  I discovered these ideas looking at the archetypes around king images and monarchist cultures.  These ideas are evident out as you look at the Mediterranean and Biblical cultural studies and early Roman and Greek literature.

The king defines identity for the subject.  The king defines ethos.  The king defines relationships, ethics, ways of interacting, what is acceptable and what is not.  The king defines the world within the kingdom.  (I know this language is masculine, but it is the most common. It is true of queens too.)

The ruler defines the ruled.  This runs directly counter to our culture.  I know.  So as a disciple we come to remembrance to recall our salvation, but also to re-enter the world of our Maker and Master.  We re-enter the space where the kingdom is present, where we are children of God, in direct relationship as brothers and sisters provided for and forgiven, healed and set free to love others as we are loved by God.

To step into such a world together is renewing and helps to make us whole.  We hear the stories of our faith, pray as the priesthood family of God, and we remember our Lord in the meal and prayer that is the Eucharist.  It is our internal reality, the reality that we trust in and believe in as we walk in the world that does not agree with those statements or that reality.

It is this that creates the tension around the open table movement.  On the one hand, we are remembering Jesus whose messiahship was modeled in eating at the table with people from all different walks of life, a model that the church picked up and was persecuted for in the early centuries as much as the idea of cannibalism.  On the other, the Eucharist is a re-enactment of this final meal and has a component of remembrance that defines our reality.

At the very least the church should be honest about what we are doing for our members and for visitors.  But I have come to rest more and more uneasily with the movement to make our sacraments a portable portal for all comers.  I don’t think that they are actually being brought in with any real honesty or fidelity because on some level we don’t take what we are doing seriously or we don’t take their participation seriously.  They are being asked to enter a different reality and accept ethos, ethics, and relationships that they may not be ready to take on, may not understand, and may not really agree with if they did.

Outside of the reality that we are remembering our sacraments don’t really make much sense.  Paul said that if there was no resurrection then he was a fool.  I would hold the same thing about the play acting we are doing on Sundays.  If we are not re-entering that reality in an intentional and prayerful way that involves our whole self, then we are just fools playing at images.

We remember Jesus and re-member Christ as we take our parts in his body and in the family as the children of God.  This is amazing and wondrous.  It is mystery and meal all at once.

When we come prepared, we enter that reality with less dissonance and greater clarity, we leave with more work being done on us, and we go back into the world to carry that reality with us.  We prepare by joining in the ongoing universal prayers of the church daily in the Offices.  We know the stories of our faith more deeply.

Our minds are trained for prayer, praise, and petition.  Our hearts are trained for compassion and trust and forgiveness.  Our brains can focus more easily.  And we are free to come and go lightly into the world we live in intentionally daily, so we can greet our neighbors and love even in transition, and we are less thrown off by the incidentals of our lives and our church community.

In this way, the Office makes the Eucharist more readily available and our experience more communal.  When we have done our office work we can do our work at the table with more joy.

At this table we are not strangers but family.  We are not alone in the city but walking in the Garden with our God and our family.  We are provided for and forgiven.  We are loved and set free.  That is salvation in the flesh.  That is what we are trying to live into as we come to the table of God.

Come prepared and go home renewed.  Remembering who God is in Jesus, what the world will be and what the kingdom is, and who you are, who your neighbor is, and how blessed the whole thing is, we come back to the sixth day of the new creation to enter our Sabbath anew.

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Finding the Office – Worshipping the Father, Cuddling with Abba

Where I often keep the Office

Where I often keep the Office

The life of the Christian is trinitarian in nature, organically rooted around the Daily Office, Eucharist, and interior prayer.  These three are understood in the Benedictine tradition as the foundation of the acetic life.  Ascetical refers to the life of prayer and growth in the Spirit.

I have ranted in a recent sermon about how not everything is a “journey.” It seems like this phrase is usually a cover for being unwilling to progress.  In our life of faith, we should be growing up, going somewhere we call maturity.  Much of what we see in terms of “perfection” in the New Testament could just as easily be translated as “maturity” or “completion.”

In Martin Thornton’s picture of the influence of Benedict on English Spirituality, he sees the Office as the part of the life of the Christian and Church as particular to God the Father.  It is in the Office where we do our work of worship and showing up and growing up, taking up a practice that is beyond us and our opinions, where we deal with things that are often beyond us and even deeply challenging for us.

Worship is both the act of praising God, picture standing arms outstretched and smiling, and humbly coming into the presence for help, forgiveness, and petition, picture hands folded bowing.  It is the bringing of our fullness and placing it before God and remembering who is who.

The Office is great for worship because it is heavily Scriptural.  Coming out and condensing the Hours of the Rule of Benedict, it distills the worship of the Bible and relies on the Psalms and songs of Scripture and adds in the reading of the Bible in large chunks.  This word-heavy, passage-intense worship is laden with images, stories, and even words that are difficult and deal with emotions and work that we don’t necessarily want to deal with.  In the Office we submit to the work of becoming who God wants us to be.

Sometimes that is emotional work and totally relevant to the moment we are in.  I can’t tell you the number of times the Bible in Morning Prayer seems like it was written for the day I was in.  It is shocking.  Other times I can go for weeks just plugging along reading and praying the prayers because I said I would.

It is faithfulness even when my emotions are not there that really matters.  If I was only a faithful husband laying in bed on a Saturday mornings when the sun gently lighting the waking smile of my beautiful bride, but not when we fought or I was disappointed or bored . . . well I wouldn’t be able to call her my “wife” for very long.  Right?

Jesus uses two words for Father, Pater (Latin) or Abba (Aramaic).  The office is about submitting to both.  We submit to Abba, better translated as “daddy”, when we curl up in the lap of God as we pray, and we find that overwhelming sense of warmth and home.  We submit to Pater, Father, when we stick it out and allow ourselves to be shaped by the faithfulness of the long haul and stay on the road despite the boredom, ennui, and demands of the journey.

The Office is really simple.  I use a website or an app most of the time.  I have books and Bibles, which I prefer with time.  But I keep the Office, morning and night, and often in places where I have to be on my feet.

I will teach you the Office if you need it.  Email me.  Or I can place you with a coach.  We have several in the parish.  It matters.  As we explore the trinity of expression in our ascetical life, we begin with Benedict in the Office, being faithful.

In the Benedictine way the vows are obedience, stability, and transformation.  We meet all three vows in the practice of the Office.  In our faithful keeping of the hours, we are obedient to the larger worship of the church to God, we find stability amidst the changes of our days and emotions, and we are transformed to the likeness of our Father Abba.  We become stable enough to love, obedient enough to love even when difficult, and transformed in grace.

As a pastor I watch this play out in the lives of my parishioners and friends.  Their faithfulness in the practice becomes visible in their emotional, psychological health, their balance and theological understanding becomes a steady openness in debate possible with a sound foundation in the Bible and prayer.  They are more and more flexible and unshakeable as they grow.  I am in awe really of their growth.

Which brings a final point.  The Office is not clerical.  It belongs to the whole Church of which we collared ones are just members with jobs.  The liturgical movement has done some wonderful things for the Church universal, but for us it has meant the elevation of the Eucharist above the Office and interior prayer.  This has left us with a heart that depends of the clergy.  It has meant the rise of “fathers” and the diminishment of the faithful laity.  Keeping the Office in balance empowers the laity to take their rightful place as informed, formed followers of the Christ we worship and obey in the Eucharist.

*Notes:  The Book of Common Prayer Morning and Evening Prayers  are found between pages 75 – 126 in modern idiom.  The Daily Office lectionary readings are found on pages 931 and following.  The instructions are all in the BCP, but a coach or mentor or group is highly recommended.

As noted above I rely on the app and website offered by http://missionstclare.com . There are also very good sites out there and apps that I have used and relied on.  I use an iPhone, and there are several apps in the iOS store.  I would highly recommend the one offered by Forward Movement. I would never have been able to do the Office alone without Mission St. Clare’s website years ago.