What Fridays Are Good For

One of the books that changed my life is a tiny, short book called The Illumined Heart, by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Out of everything I’ve read and talked about, my wife and I have probably given away more copies of this book than any other.

I can’t even remember how I stumbled across it, but I read it around 2010, I think. It’s a few things: an introduction to the Eastern Orthodox stream of the faith, and also a description of what Christianity was like (as best we can tell) in the first few hundred years after Jesus, the period that some Church Historians call “Classic Christianity.”

One of the things that Mathewes-Green notes is that early Christians structured their weeks in a symbolic, rhythmic way that did not only include Sundays.

They also FASTED weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They fasted on Wednesday because that’s the day that Judas agreed to betray Jesus; Friday was a fast because it was the day of the crucifixion.

I try to keep the fast: mostly from sunup to sundown. No meat, smaller portions, etc.

Time is a gift, and we can use it in a way that reflects our deepest priorities and desires.

Fasting, or structuring your week like this, is an easy way to deepen your spiritual journey, and to bring up both struggles you weren’t aware of (just wait until you get really hungry) and spiritual aspirations you didn’t know you were capable of.

But Are You Ready?

You tell yourself, over and over again, how much you crave spiritual growth, transformation, enlightenment, sainthood, etc., and etc.

But are you really ready?

To be honest, your cravings are still laced with very human, ego-ladened desires: growth, transformation, enlightenment, etc., with the “understanding” that you will then be admired, sought out, revered.

But when your eyes and ears are open enough, and when your heart is tender and ready, you know that the growth and change you claim to desire also comes with service and compassionate love to and for others.

To summarize and paraphrase many mystics, you cannot shut yourself up in solitude in order to escape humanity. That is not true solitude, and is even a potential recipe for a life consumed with self.

Which is the very definition of hell.

So if you claim that you are ready for this journey up the mountain, you should be prepared to embrace other human beings with an open, radical love.

Where to Start

Assuming you want something different, spiritually speaking, and assuming you want some spiritual growth, what do you do? How do you get started?

The tools are not complicated. A hammer has been a hammer for how long? Two thousand years? Ten thousand?

I ‘d wager that if you picked up a hammer from a 5,000 BCE it wouldn’t look all that different from the one you could snag from Home Depot just down the road. It might be made of better quality materials, but it is essentially unchanged.

Sometimes tools don’t need to be the shiniest, and the most technologically advanced.

So here are some tools to help you move forward spiritually:

Know the story.

We are living in the middle (or, probably more accurately, the last act) of a great story, the bulk of which is found in the Bible.

So pick it up: pick it up and read it. Not for 2 hours a day, maybe not even for 30 minutes.

How about 10 minutes? Start there.

Every day.

What’s more, don’t just start reading randomly (or even from the beginning, necessarily). Instead, pick an approach, a PLAN for reading it.

(Two possibilities are: the one year chronological approach, where the story is told—as best we can determine—in chronological order; and also what’s known as the M’Cheyne reading plan, named for Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne. The M’Cheyne takes you through the Old Testament once in a year, and both the Psalms and the New Testament twice.

Ten minutes a day is all that it would take to introduce this new practice into your life.

One additional thought: as you read, don’t get too bogged down in the details. Make notes of questions you might have, but focus on getting the “spine” of the story you are living in.

What Repentance Is #2

IF you take seriously the Biblical concept of “repentance” (and humbly, I think you should), it changes your understanding of a lot of Jesus and John the Baptizer’s statements about repentance.

Both of them make the statement a key part of their preaching and teaching. Each of them use a variation of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is here.”

When I was growing up, I always heard that taught as “Confess your sins, believe in Jesus as your savior, and follow his teaching.”

(Actually, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t ALWAYS taught the part about “follow his teaching.” Often, they stopped after the “believe in Jesus” part. Once everyone could assume I was going to heaven, I guess that was enough.)

But based on the idea of repentance as changing your mind, your understanding, a better translation of these statements is probably closer to, “The Kingdom—God’s ruling reign—is happening RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW through Jesus. Change the way you perceive the world; things don’t work the way you think they do.”

Then, after that, you can fill in the details of the Gospels and Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection:

  • Right where you are at, whether you are a spiritual winner or loser, your are BLESSED
  • The first will be last
  • Jesus believes in you: if he calls you to the water, you can do it (in other words, you’re capable of MUCH more than you think you are)
  • The rich and powerful do not have a corner on “the good life”
  • God is present EVERYWHERE
  • You don’t have to “get your act together” BEFORE Jesus will fellowship with you
  • Suffering does NOT mean that God has abandoned you
  • Suffering is a mechanism for growth and change
  • Suffering can be redemptive
  • Suffering—even unto death—leads to resurrection

The Kingdom is here in and through Jesus’ presence. Change your conception of reality.

“Repent”, indeed.

What “Repentance” Is

There was a time when “repentance” was a scary word, associated with fundamentalist street preachers screaming “fornicator!” at me every day in college.

(True story, although in full disclosure it wasn’t just me they screamed at: evidently every college student was a fornicator… Who knew?)

Later, the word became only slightly more accessible: it came to be synonymous with “guilt” and “regret” over mistakes I’ve made, and a brokenness I’ve tended to embody for most of my life.

But even as I understood repentance this way—as an emotional confession, tearfully saying “I’m sorry”, there was something missing.

Because for me, at least, confession (in and of itself) was really failing to address the deeper problem, which was really, “Is there any way out of this endless cycle of mistake/regret/repent/repeat? “

Eventually, however, I came to understand “repentance” in a new way.

First of all, the word LITERALLY means, “change your mind.” The Greek is “meta-noia”, a combination of the word “meta”, and a form of the word “nous”, which is a complicated, nuanced word that DOES mean “mind”, but is also MUCH, MUCH more than “logic.”

“Nous” is also about your perception of reality, the way in which you see the world.

So “to repent” is much more literally to “change the way in which you see the world.”

More on that tomorrow.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is this story that Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel about these two brothers. The younger one demands his inheritance “early” (read: before his father is dead), and—in one of the more intriguing sentences in the New Testament, wastes it “through extravagant living.”

Doesn’t that make your imagination run wild?

Things don’t go well for this younger son, and eventually he finds himself at a “rock bottom” moment, working as a farm hand feeding pigs (which, as a Jewish man, is pretty much a troublesome job, to say the least).

But in his “rock bottom” moment, when he has fallen as far as he can go: his money gone, with nothing left but the SHAME of what he has done and lost, humiliating himself by feeding “unclean” animals, the text says this:

“When he came to his senses…”

(The Greek is a little more, “When he came to HIMSELF.”)

Again: it’s not about weeping (though tears may come).

It’s not about the apologizing, the confession, the regret (though those things are SURELY present).

It’s about COMING TO YOURSELF (“This is not who I am…”).

About THINKING DIFFERENTLY (“Maybe I should go home; after all, my father loves me…”).

From the Bible’s (and especially Jesus’) perspective, “repentance” is not meant to be shameful.

It’s not even meant to be SOLELY sadness and regret.

It’s meant to be a waking up, and opening up to a different reality.

A willingness to believe that MAYBE reality—the world you THINK you know—may actually work differently:

  • that you are not meant for humiliation
  • that you can always go home again
  • that Love really does win

Maybe we’ll explore this some more this week.

Wrestle With This 4: You Are Not in Control

Note: These concepts come from Fr. Richard Rohr and his book, Adam’s Return: The Shape of Male Spirituality.

The illusion of control is a pathology. It probably affects modern, affluent people more deeply than most, but no one is immune to it.

But it is dangerous, and is not to be trifled with.

You know this already, at least theoretically, but you still see the lie, the illusion, slip into your every day behavior more often than you’d care to admit.

When someone reacts badly to an idea or a thought you have, and it unduly, irrationally upsets you, you may have falsely believed that you could control their perception of you, or their behavior.

When the traffic on the way to work is ten times worse than you’d computed, and you find yourself preoccupied with the “awful drivers” that are sharing the road with you (but maybe take the plank out of your own eye), you may have believed that you could control the traffic lights, or other drivers.

When someone you care about makes questionable life choices, and your reaction goes beyond reasonable care and concern and begins to take on a desperation to manipulate or change their behavior, you may be trying to employ the tool of control so that they “do the right thing” (i.e., “what you want them to do”).

But you are NOT in control.

… Not your boss.

… Not your children.

… Not your parents.

… Not your co-workers.

… Not the weather.

You know that these thoughts can trigger tidal waves of anxiety. Being at the mercy of a universe of forces beyond your control can be paralyzing.

But that’s not the point. There’s something on the other side of control.

The great invitation, the beautiful “trick” and artfulness of life is to surrender control, and in its place cultivate TRUST.

Trust that there is a Force—a loving, compassionate Mystery—in the universe that is greater than you, and FOR THAT VERY REASON, you will be alright.

You don’t have to fight against the forces of the universe; you do your best, and you admit your faults, and you feel your feelings, and you do your work to heal and grow, and entrust the rest to the care of Love.

Wrestle with your need to control, and discover the beauty of trust and the peaceful freedom of walking “in the flow” of life on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis.

Wrestle With This 3: Your Life is Not About You

Your ego is not your friend.

Your drive to succeed, to “make your mark” serves only a limited function in this world.

And most of the voices around you will tell you the opposite. They will declare that life is about achievement, about getting the acclaim/recognition/money/power that you deserve.

All of this is a lie; in your quieter moments you can remember this truth, but the voices around and inside you quickly swallow up the silent message and return you to the frenetic scrambling of being the king of your mountain.

But your life is not about you.

As the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, life is REALLY about what you can “pack into the stream of life.” That sounds like an excuse to let your ego run wild, but it’s really not. It’s really meant to be an invitation to SERVE other people.

As Shakespeare put it, you really are a player in a play. You didn’t write the play, but you DO have a part to play.

The error happens when you begin (as you often do) to think and ACT as if the play is all about YOUR PART, rather than the other way around.

You are here to serve the STORY, AND ALSO the other actors and actresses.

To do anything else is to invite ego and self-centeredness to run rampant in your life, and you KNOW how that will end up?

So take a breath: it’s not about you. Seek to serve; ask how can yourself how you can help in WHATEVER SITUATION COMES YOUR WAY.

And know that the author of the play—God, the Mystery—is never far from you, regardless of the situation.