40 Words #3: “Wilderness” (3.12.2016)

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from the Psalter World Map c.1265 http://www.wikipedia.org

Yesterday’s word was “40”, referring to the length of Lent as well as the length of time both Jesus (days) and the nation of Israel (years) spent in the wilderness.

In Biblical terms, the wilderness is never a comfortable place to be. In the ancient world, there were a lot harsher boundary markers between civilization and the wilderness; there weren’t convenience stores, or cell phone coverage, or highways.

There was, however, a lot of darkness; of wild animals; of the unknown.

One of my favorite images is on medieval maps: outside the borders of known areas, cartographers would put a drawing of a dragon and indicate, “Here Be Dragons.” (Which, by the way is also the name of an excellent historical fiction series by Sharon Kay Penman… I gave you that for free.)

To enter the wilderness is to enter a place where you are no longer comfortable, where you come face to face with mortality and with dangerous creatures that you don’t normally have to face in your “normal” world.

Kind of like Lent.

In the 40 days of Lent, many of us pursue disciplines that are designed to reduce our comfort (like fasting), and contemplate the brokenness in our lives. What’s more, sometimes in Lent you  unexpectedly come face to face with a “beast” that you don’t normally see… And usually the beast is you.

Lent is designed to open your eyes, to bring you into proximity with the areas of your life that you’d rather avoid.

But here’s the thing: In the Bible, the wilderness is also the place of growth. Israel spends 40 years in the wilderness, not just as punishment, but as preparation to be the people of God in the land of Canaan (clearly, they didn’t learn very well). Jesus goes into the wilderness to be “tested” (furthermore, he only goes into the wilderness after his baptism, and hearing his father pronounce him “Beloved”), and afterwards moves directly into ministry.

The wilderness may be dangerous, but most of the time it’s necessary, and even beneficial.

As you go through your journey, resist the temptation to leave the wilderness before the wilderness teaches you everything you have to learn.

40 Words #2: “40” (3.11.2016)

UnknownSo, I’m blogging every day (except Sunday) of Lent.

Don’t expect too much.

I just want to put some thoughts out there; thoughts that resonate with me, and that might resonate with you.

Hopefully, they’ll give you something to think about.

Maybe they will draw you a little closer to God, and to your true self.

Today’s word is “forty” (okay, or “40”).

In other words, the length of our Lenten journey.

(Also, a pretty cool U2 song.)

Forty is a pretty significant number in the Bible: it’s the number of years Israel wanders in the desert, and the number of days Jesus, who is re-enacting Israel’s journey, spends in the wilderness.

Days or years, it’s a long time. Jesus got hungry in the wilderness. Israel got angsty.

But it occurred to me that 40 is significant for another reason.

Experts—people who know a lot of stuff—will tell you that it takes somewhere between 30 to 60 days to form a habit.

I’m no mathematician, but 40 falls somewhere in between both of those.

This is important because Lent is (potentially, anyway) about much more than giving up chocolate, or ice cream, or Netflix.

Lent can be about getting over brokenness in our lives; about shining a light on areas of our lives that we need to face.

So many of these areas of brokenness started out as habits.

And habits can be broken, and/or replaced by new ones.

Which takes about 30-40 days.

Which means that Lent is a great opportunity for you to sow some new habits. Which means you can sow some new character traits.

Are you willing to surrender your old habits? Are you willing to embrace something new?

These 40 days are your gift. This season is an opportunity.

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40 Words #1: “Ash”

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It’s Lent 2015.

Forty days of reflection and contemplation, surrender and sacrifice.

Or something like that.

I wanted to do something for Lent that would stretch me (don’t worry: I have my own practices of surrender and sacrifice, but I’m going to keep those between my family and me).

So each day during Lent, I’m going to publish a short blog/devotion wrapped around one word.

So, “40 Words.”

Each of these words represents some aspect of Lent to me. Some of them will be obvious, like today’s. Others may be more… “tangential”.

(Great word, “tangential”.)

I’ve chosen them, they are written down, and each day I’ll publish something in the morning: feel free to use it as a devotion or just a quick read at lunch.

I’m not promising anything profound; I’m just promising a presence.

So here we go.

ASH

Lent kicks off with “Ash Wednesday”. For many denominations and churches all over the world, people file into buildings of various style and size and hear readings about confession and remembrance. Songs are sung, and at some point people file up to the front of a room where they stand in front of a pastor or priest—someone “set aside” in the community to guide people, to administer sacraments, to represent them to God—who then dips his or her finger into a bowl of ashes (the burnt palm fronds from the previous years’ Palm Sunday) which are sometimes mixed with oil. The pastor/leader then will make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, usually saying something like, “Remember it’s from dust you have come, and to dust you will return; repent, and believe the Gospel” (or some combination thereof).

Up until a few years ago my particular faith tribe didn’t really remember Ash Wednesday or Lent, but after a few of us began engaging in the season (in particular Holy Week), the church decided to officially “making the journey.”

Ash, along with the saying, reminds me, well, of death. 

Death is something we don’t like to think about in our culture, but it’s the one thing that awaits us all. Our time on this earth is finite.

To me, ash reminds me that the life I have costs something. My affluence costs others. The food I eat costs either a life, or at the very least the time and efforts of someone, somewhere.

Ash reminds me that I’m nothing special; and yet I’m someone infinitely important.

I am loved by God. Loved on a visceral, guttural level.

A love that cost Jesus. 

And yet, I’m human. “Covered in earth and dirt.”

I stumble and fall. Limited and incapable of even living half of a day (if that) without falling victim to my pride, arrogance, narcissism, and self-centeredness.

Ash says that, somehow, I’m simultaneously both loved and flawed. 

And that’s okay.

Maybe today is about not covering up our flaws, but at the same time that God meets us right in the middle of them, not matter how serious they seem to be. 

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Lent is Coming (Don’t Look Busy)

Ash Wednesday is this week, which means that the season of Lent is upon us.

Lent is the season of the church that leads up to Easter. It is a time of preparation, meant to prepare us both to remember Jesus’ crucifixion as well as his resurrection. Historically, lent was a season where people who had left the church for one reason or another were re-integrated. The bottom line is that traditionally God’s people have used this season to reflect on areas of their lives that might need some “cleaning up”, and also to slow down in order to shed light on any new areas that might need addressing.

Part of lent is slowing down and strategically making space in your life to hear God’s voice. Usually this means “fasting” in some form or fashion.

But actually fasting—and lent—should be a little more than that. For many Christians, fasting is only half of the equation: the other half is engaging in or giving back resources, in the form of “time, talents, and treasures” that have been freed up by the fast.

So you might consider:

  • giving up lunch once a week, but then giving the money you saved to your local church or a local ministry
  • giving up Facebook or Netflix, but then giving the time you freed up to Bible study or a local mission or charity that needs help
  • giving up an hour of sleep in the morning, but then giving the time to prayer and meditation
  • giving up a snack and instead buying food that you can keep in your car to give to the hungry and homeless that you might encounter as you drive around

These are just a few examples, but I think you see the point. Lent isn’t just about giving up Chipotle or chocolate or ice cream; it’s really about carving up space to see God move in different ways. It’s about bringing some of our physical appetites under control so that we can give to needy folks. It’s about becoming aware of where we are still held captive by those same desires, and where we continually need God’s Spirit to help us, to refine us, to grow us into the people that He wants and needs us to be in His world.

I would encourage and even challenge you to be thoughtful and intentional over the next 40 days. Pick something that will open up space in your life for God to speak and move.

Personally, I am giving up a few things, one of which is Facebook (not a huge sacrifice for me, which is why there are multiple activities for me this year). But, I am also engaging in some activities that, God willing, will allow me to draw closer to God as well as to others.

(By the way, I will continue to write and publish over Lent, so feel free to subscribe here and get my blogs delivered straight to your inbox.)

If you’d like to share your ideas for Lent here, go right ahead. We’re listening. Otherwise (as Gandalf would say), “Keep it safe, keep it secret.”

May your Lenten journey be rich, and full of peace where you need it and challenge you where you need it as well.
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Fundamental Heretics

It’s time for a church history lesson.

In the first few hundred years of the church, the leaders were constantly figuring out what it believed. All of these doctrines and teachings that we take for granted had to be hammered out in the context of real disagreements between real people. (BTW, some of these arguments are hilarious: people who have been canonized as saints writing back and forth with arguments that are the ancient equivalent of “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and “I know you are but what am I.”)

There were a few different strands that diverged off of the “normal” beliefs of the church: gnosticism, docetism, monarchianism, etc.

Fascinating, I know …

One interesting heresy (?) is “arianism”, founded by Arius in the 4th century. Arius essentially denied the true divinity of Jesus, instead holding that Jesus was a “created being” (Orthodox belief would hold that Jesus existed eternally with God before entering our world, as per John 1:1-10). Arianism was declared a heresy, and Arius was excommunicated in the late 300s.

All that is fine and dandy, but what is truly interesting about this story is the actual substance of the debates. You see, when the Arians were defending their position, they submitted to the church authorities a very long list of scriptures (that is, from the Bible) that more than adequately (at least in their eyes) defended their position.

However, they’d missed the forest for the trees. They did a great job at using the Bible—at face value—to defend their position. Interestingly, the Orthodox priests and scholars couldn’t supply nearly as long a list of scriptures supporting their position (this exercise is still repeated in seminaries today, by the way).

But what the Orthodox did have on their side was common sense. To the list of scriptures, they basically replied, “Sure, you have all these scripture references, but you’ve neglected to use your brain to think through the nature of Jesus from an intellectual and theological point of view.

The heretics had all their Bible verses in line, but they were still missing the point. Badly.

They had landed on the “truth” (as they perceived it), but they had missed the essence.

My personal takeaway from this is twofold:

(a) It’s not enough to simply line up proof-texts and say, “See, X is right/Godly/holy/etc.” Often (maybe not always), we need to take a step back and go, “Okay, I know that these scriptures indicate X, but maybe God is asking us also to examine whether or not these square with what we know about His character (especially as revealed by the Gospels).” If you neglect to think theologically (and intellectually), you can easily be a fundamentalist, and still be heretic.

(b) I think it’s a wonderful thing that God asks us to use our brain. Read the Bible. No, seriously, read it. It’s a complicated book (but a very simple story, ironically). There are awkward (and even very uncomfortable) texts (slavery, prostitution, incest, genocide anybody?), and even some apparent contradictions and “tensions” that we need to manage. Origen, one of the church Fathers who was alive during many of these heresies, maintained that God allowed the tensions that we find in the Bible to remain there so that… get ready for it… we could exercise our intellect. 

The solution to a complex world is to not adopt a simplified, fundamentalist reading of our Bible. solution (for there has to be many) is to balance our sacred text(s) with an understanding of the traditions of the family of faith, our God-given intellect, and our experience of God in this world.

If only there was a name for this… #wesleyan_quadrilaterial #can’tbelieveIjustdidthat

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Monastery Reflections: Tunnel Vision

IMG_4151As I continue to reflect on my personal retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was thinking the other day about a short passage I read in a booklet at the retreat house. The Cistercian Life is a short book written by Thomas Merton (PS, If you are ever curious about how deep the spiritual life can actually go, I’d encourage you to read some Merton. A great place to start is New Seeds of Contemplation.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;)).

Anyway, there was a free copy in my room at the retreat house, and so I picked it up to
read during my stay. It was a really great, concise examination of the monastic life, but one statement in particular has remained with me.

The truly silent monk is not totally unconcerned with others, for that, too, would be a kind of illness. But he is not worried about being left out of things. He knows what is necessary will be communicated to him. If there is news in the world that he ought to know, God and his superiors will make sure that he knows it. He does not have to go seeking information and communicating his own ideas to others except in so far as this may be demanded by necessity (Emphasis mine).

My tensions with the pervasiveness of social media are fairly well-documented, and I am continually trying to grow in the way I use media (in particular, I try to make sure that there’s a balance between how use social media and how media uses me). Personally, my governing word is “thoughtfulness”: I try to take a moment or two before I mindlessly engage in any technology and ask myself, “Is this the tool I need for what I’m trying to accomplish?”

I love good design, and in particular I like objects that are well-designed for specific uses. However, it seems as if sometimes our culture seems pre-occupied with turning one tool (most often our cell phones) into a “one-size-fits-all” device for consuming media, connecting with friends and family, staying engaged with the world around us…

… and occasionally making a phone call.

Instead of this approach, I am trying to learn to consider what will help me most in accomplishing my goal at the time:

  • is it reading? (“turn off cell phone and computer notifications)
  • is it a serious work project? (same as above)
  • is it songwriting? (notebook, pen and guitar, no notifications)
  • is it writing exercises? (computer, no notifications)
  • is it prayer and meditation? (no lights, no electronics)

… You get the picture. I love my (always Apple) computers. But they are not a Leatherman multi-tool. I look at them as specialized devices for doing specific activities that they happen to be really good at (recording ideas, typing, finding out obscure information quickly, etc.)

But obviously this quote gets an even deeper strand of thinking, namely, what do I truly need to know about the world? 

As a good friend has told me recently, “FOMO” (“Fear-Of-Missing-Out”) is a thing, and in our hyper-connected (and decidedly UN monastic) existence, FOMO becomes an almost 24-hour-a-day possibility, whether it’s being aware of a party 800 miles away, or a news event 8,000 miles away.

But Merton’s statement is a challenge to FOMO. For me, I sat with that quote for a while, asking, “Why is it so important for me to know, well, everything? What is it inside me that demands that I’m up-to-date on issues that debatedly have absolutely no relevance to my day-to-day existence?”

When I think about it, most of the information I take in has much more potential to cause anxiety than to produce anything positive or spiritual in my life.

In fact, the issue can go much, much deeper. Theology Professor Marva J. Dawn’s book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time had a profound impact on my approach to worship and the church (though I ardently disagreed with a few of her statements). In it, she examines the influence of Neil Postman’s concept of “Impact-Action-Ratio” in the worship of the church. “Impact-Action-Ratio” is a ratio of how much the impact of an image or images affects our ability to act. 

Essentially, Dawn suggests that as the church relies more and more on (often de-contextualized) images in worship, whether through pictures of poverty or evocative images over lyrics in songs, we are actually training ourselves to a mode of inaction.

No matter how powerfully or emotionally an image may strike us, most of the time we are unable to actively address or remedy that situation. Over time, we get “used to” the idea of not responding. 

And so we get inoculated against tragedy and suffering, even as we are exposed to it now more than ever. 

All of this goes to say that I try to think twice about how “plugged in” I am to the pervasive, 24-hour news cycle. I don’t want to be inoculated against suffering, and more than that where I encounter suffering, I want to be able to do something about it.

I am not a monk. I do not have a “superior” who will tell me the things I need to know about the world. But I do have trusted friends, and people who are more engaged than I am. More and more, I seek to trust them with what I need to know, and concentrate more diligently on my life of prayer, meditation, teaching and trying to reduce the suffering of the world around me.

 

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Monastery Reflections: Molehills Out of Mountains

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Two-and-a-half days in a monastery. No media. No work. Silence. About as simple and stripped-down of a life as you could get. That’s what I went to embrace. I went to hear the voice of God, my Father, and to just rest. On the one hand, I had no expectations: just to go and “be.” On the other hand, let’s be honest: silence? solitude? hours of prayer? MONKS, for crying out loud?

Surely, this is the place where God is going to speak, to say something profound.

Either way, I was ready.IMG_4094

When I came back home, a few people were prompting me about the experience. By and large, however, my experience was pretty subtle. God surely spoke, and I wrote some things down; things that will have (hopefully) long-term positive effects in my soul and my life…

But this was no “mountaintop.”

This was stretching, but it wasn’t a shock to my system. These days were an extension of practices I’ve already tried to put in place in my “every day” life.

So there was no great upheaval.

… And I loved it.

I think that somehow we’re predisposed to seek the mountaintop. We expect to soar high and then drift back to earth.

But that makes for a pretty up-and-down, almost schizophrenic spirituality. We binge and purge, so to speak, rather than dine regularly on healthy spiritual disciplines.

IMG_4113For the past few years, I have tried to cultivate an attitude of peace in my daily life. I build practices in order to help me maintain that peace, clarity and centeredness. On a retreat, those practices are enhanced and extended (hopefully), but not necessarily, introduced.

Alan Watts says that the only zen you find on a mountaintop is the zen you carry up with you.

For those who may be uncomfortable with that language, you could just as easily say it this way: “They only spiritual peace you find on a mountaintop (or in a monastery) is the spiritual peace you carry up (in) with you.”

love retreats: I’m planning on going back in a few months for an even longer stay.

But I’m planning on carrying in a lot of peace with me then as well, if for no other reason than I can’t stay in a monastery forever.

My life is not lived on the mountain. It’s lived in the swamp (almost literally?). It involves cranky kids and bad jokes; taking out the trash and washing the dishes; waking up early and sometimes staying up too late.

All of that can be just as beautiful as a mountaintop (or just as hellish, depending on how I’m doing on a given day).

My hope is that more of us stop running after mountains, and start cultivating that interior, detached peace that is offered to all of us, regardless of our geography.

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