Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Desert Fathers

In thinking about how Jesus was hurled into the wilderness by the Spirit, I could not help but to think about our Desert Fathers.

In the late 3rd century the Spirit launched thousands of Christians into the wilderness.  We call them the Desert Fathers. Why were they launched to the wilderness?  It was actually simple. They went to the desert to devote themselves to prayer and fasting and to the cultivation of charity. We do these things during Lent, but these Christians embarked on a journey of self-denial for their entire lives. Why the desert? Why the wilderness?

The interesting part about the desert fathers is that they retreated to the wilderness when Christianity was on the up swing.  Christianity was just on the verge of assuming political and social power. The emperor Constantine had just been converted and Christianity was going to become the official religion of the state.  All the suffering was over and Christianity had become fashionable.

But that was precisely the problem.  In the midst of the trend, God became harder to see. God was spoken about openly, but God was no longer followed.  God was in the public, but God was no longer chosen. God was assumed and inherited; taken for granted. And so these desert fathers and mothers made a choice.  They chose to go to the wilderness to find God once again.  They became hermits, monks, and nuns and went to all extremes to find God.  My favorite Desert Father might be Simeon the Stylites—who climbed upon a pillar 15 meters high—and lived there for 39 years. Now that is going to the wilderness.

These Christians could have lived comfortably within the confines of the empire, but they chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable. Going to the wilderness was not about the suffering for the sake of suffering, but it was about salvation. It was a quest to find their true self—made in the image of God and likeness of Christ

Over the years, the desert fathers compiled books of stories and sayings that are still read today and passed down. The desert offered something that these Christians could not find in the city. 

The desert was a place of silence.
“It was said of Abbot Agathon that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”

The desert was a place of purification:
 “Abbot Ammonas said that he had spent fourteen years praying to God day and night to be delivered from anger.”

The desert was a place of charity:
 Abba Agathon once said, "If I could meet a leper, give him my body, and take his, I should be very happy."  That indeed is perfect charity.

The desert was a place of simplicity:
When Macarius was living in Egypt, he came across a man who was at his cell and was stealing his possessions and loading them on his donkey.  Macarius acted like he did not live there and helped the thief load the donkey. Macarius sent the thief peacefully on his way saying, “We brought nothing into this world, but the Lord gave as he willed, so it is done.”

The desert welcomed, invited, and used temptation as a way to grow.
Cyrus of Alexandria once said, “If you are not tempted, you have no hope; if you are not tempted, it is because you are already sinning.” 

The desert was a place of community:
Two hermits lived together many years without fighting. One brother said to the other—“let’s have a fight with each other.”  The other answered, “I don’t know how a fight starts.” The first brother said, “look I put a brick between us, and I’ll say that’s mine. Then you say, No, its mine. That is how a fight starts.” So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, it’s mine.”  He answered, “Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.”  They could not fight with each other.

Finally, the desert was a place of transformation.
“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph one day and said:  Father, I keep my little rule, and I keep my little fast, my prayer, meditation and my contemplation. As I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts. Now, what else should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?

The Spirit hurled Jesus to the wilderness, the Spirit hurled the Fathers to the wilderness, and maybe the Spirit will hurl us to the wilderness.  The wilderness can certainly be a place of danger, but it’s also a place of solitude, reflection, purification, charity, and examination. I am hoping to do more of this during Lent. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Book Review: Still by Lauren Winner

I read Lauren Winner’s new book, Still, last week. I finished it in two days and picked it up again later in the week to meditate on some of the vignettes.

Still is a book about living in the middle of the spiritual life.  It is only coincidence that Winner picks up the motif of the middle, especially since it has been on my mind over the past six months.  For Winner, the middle is a wilderness—it is not a good place to be, but it is not particularly bad, either. It is definitely a hard place to be. It’s a place where the things no longer make sense the way that they used to. The novelty and enthusiasm of conversion has slowly worn off and the faith that was once exciting and fresh has unexpectedly become stale.   Still tracks the baby steps taken when the Jesus butterflies have left your stomach.

Spirituality is not easy in the middle—and God, if not absent, is hiding. In the preface Winner notes,

“Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless; prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

Still is a journey that moves from a full-fledged faith crisis to a place of consolation—a place where glimpses of the holy are enough. The text does not follow any linear narrative and offers little in the form of a conclusion.  It is simply notes during a time of spiritual gloom. Still is structured in three parts: “Wall”—a place where God is completely absent; “Movement”—a place of exploration; and “Presence”—a place where God is intangible but where the glimpses of holy are consolation enough.

Along the way, the book delves into Winner’s personal life—her marriage is coming to and end and she is still coming to terms with her mother’s premature death. The book does not dwell extensively on the crises; they are background images that co-exist in her spiritual desert.  Still, they are fitting to the telling of her story.  She is brutally honest and her imperfections invite her readers to feel at home.

The story moves from desperate and frantic attempts at finding God through new books and music, to seeking advice from friends, and to finally receiving glimpses of God through the liturgical practices of the Church.  They are the practices that she once chose when she converted from Judaism to Christianity, but now they are choosing her. Winner describes a moment she meets God in the midst of Holy Communion. At the service Winner serves communion to an elderly couple and she watches as the woman eats the bread and wine for her husband, whose physical condition restricts him from eating. She writes,

“There at the Communion rail, I don’t know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.”

God may have been hiding from Winner, but she made God present to the rest of us with her prose and illustrations. I recommend this book to anyone that is in the middle of their faith journey, anyone who is serious about spirituality, and anyone who is bold enough to admit that God sometimes feels absent.  

Winner tells a story of a young girl who was about to be confirmed in the Church, but started having second thoughts.  She didn’t know if she could really believe her whole life, so she went to her father.  Her father, who was also the pastor, told her.  “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story you will wrestle with forever.” 

 Somehow, the wrestling leads Winner (and all of us) to a deeper place and to find God once again. God might look different from the middle, and the middle might last a really long time, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Meditation

I shared this meditation last night. I tried to riff on Augustine's On Christian Doctrine with "use and enjoy." Some things in life are to be used and some things are to be enjoyed. The only thing we must not use is God and the only thing we are to enjoy is God.  The meditation might make more sense with that background in mind:

There is a story of a Presbyterian pastor who puts ashes in a brass bowl on his desk after every Ash Wednesday. One day a church member dropped in to chat, saw the ashes on the desk, and asked in horror—“whose ashes are those?”  He responded, “all of ours.”

A great preacher in our age, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that Ash Wednesday is the day when Christians get to attend their own funerals.[1] Today is a day of reckoning; a day of judgment. We receive ashes on our foreheads and we realize that we cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  We lay our lives open before God and we beg for mercy. Ash Wednesday is a time to put our lives back into a larger perspective and to examine our intentions as Christians. 

If you look at the ministry of Jesus in the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus is all about intentions and putting things back into the right perspective.   Jesus hones in on the outward practices of the Pharisees. And he says that the heart of their problem is hypocrisy, which literally means that they are “stage acting.”  The Pharisees have put on a mask to deceive each other about their true intentions and character as the people of God.

 For the Pharisees everything is about being seen in public.   Everything is about appearance. For the Pharisees it is all about, “me.” They give alms to the poor so that people will talk about how generous they are. They stand on the street corner and shout so that the world looks at them.  They look weak and dismal when they fast to appear holy and righteous.

 They are all self-addicted and God had been reduced to a stepping-stone to power, fame, or recognition. God had become a means to an end.

A popular Christian preacher and theologian once told a story about a day that he brought his wife a bouquet of flowers home.  He went to the store, got the flowers and they were beautiful, the colors were just right.  Well, he got home and gave them to her and she was blown away.  She took out a vase, smiled, and said, “this means so much, I am so surprised.”

Well, what if he had responded by saying, “I am your husband, this is my duty.”  Or, by saying, “ it’s no big deal they were cheap.” Or, “I figured you needed them.” (Rob Bell)

She wouldn’t even want the flowers anymore, because she wanted his heart. To give her flowers without giving his heart was hypocrisy. The flowers were no longer about loving his wife; they were about him.

The pastor who told this story notes that Jesus is the same way.  God does not want a bunch of stage actors.  God does not want to be used. In our story, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “this is not all about you.” True spirituality is motivated by the heart—by your innermost being.” God wants your actions, but God also wants your heart.  

We are prone to want to use God to better ourselves. If we are honest, there might be a little bit of that self-centeredness in all of us. When we first started talking, our first words were “mommy look at me.” We all have a deep need to be recognized by others, to be well thought of, or to stand out.

I once heard that the most difficult lie you will ever contend with is that life is all about me. “There is no drug as powerful as the drug of self. There is no rut in the mind as deep as the one that says I am the world, the world belongs to me, and all people are characters in my play. There is no addiction so powerful as self-addiction.”[2]

Today, Jesus confronts our self-addiction. He asks, “Why do you do the things you do?”  Are you a Christian because it is the right thing to do? Are you a Christian because it is expected?  Are you a Christians because it gives you a free pass to heaven? 

Jesus asks, “are you using me or are you loving me?”

Ash Wednesday is a shocking reminder that life is not all about you. It puts our life back into perspective. Treasure on earth does not last. And most importantly, God is not a means to an end.

God wants to be desired and enjoyed. Not used.

I once heard that Lent is all about saying “no” and saying “yes.”  That’s really what Jesus tells the Pharisees. You have to start saying “no” to yourself and you have to start saying, “yes” to me.[3]

Most of all, we say “no” to our self-addiction. During Lent we Christians are called to say no to any habit that comes between God and ourselves.  Through practices of self-denial we seek to be transformed from manipulative, self-centered, and creatures humans into people more like Christ.

What are we going to say “no” to? Maybe it is an unhealthy spirituality.  Maybe it’s judgment, superiority or exclusion. Maybe we need to say “no” to our use of time.  It could be apathy or indifference or laziness.  Maybe we will say “no” to using God.

It is only when we say “no” that we are open to say “yes” to God.  Just as there are lots of things we may need to say no to during Lent, so there are many opportunities to say yes.  When we say “no” to the things that hold us back from God we can develop new practices to draw us closer to God.

Listen to these ways to say yes: “Say no to prayer as a demonstration of piety, and say yes to prayer as conversation with God. Say no to fasting as a display of spiritual fitness, and say yes to fasting as dependency. Say no to giving possessions as a display of generosity, and say yes to giving away possessions to be possessed by God.”

Say “yes” to enjoying God.

 If you give something up for Lent, I urge you to say “yes” to something else. 

Ash Wednesday is our funeral. It is the death of the self. We are just dust—and to dust we will return. The good news is that we don’t need more of ourselves…what we need is salvation. We need God.

What are you saying “no” to this Lent?  Are you saying “yes” to God?  

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor Feasting on the Word
[2] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
[3] I am indebted to Alyce McKenzie, “Saying Yes and Saying No” for this insight. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dry (Maybe even harmful) Lenten Traditions

I wrote this for our March newsletter:

One of my old professors gave up anxiety for Lent.  The anxiety was wrecking her life and her relationship with God. During Lent, whenever anxiety arose, she paired it with silent prayer.  She didn’t rush to fix the anxiety with ‘doing,’ drinking, or medication—she prayed.  It was a struggle. By the end of Lent, she discovered the core problem that was creating her anxiety. 

Do you ever wonder why you give up the things you do for Lent?  I worry that we often get in Lenten fasting routines.  Every year Christians give up the same things—chocolate, sweets, soda, and social media—and we often can’t remember why.  I have friends who have given up sweets for ten years in a row and they have no idea why they are torturing themselves. We have missed the point of fasting if we no longer think about the ‘why.’  We are not called to be purposeless martyrs.

Some of the fasts we choose might do more harm than good. Another one of my old professors, Amy Laura Hall, suggests that it might be better for some to eat chocolate during lent. Imagine an individual giving up food who is anorexic or suffers from body-image problems. In a world where women are made to feel self-conscious, a strawberry dipped in chocolate might be the right reminder that women are loved by God and to be filled with God’s grace. 

The point of Lent is not to give something up to “better yourself.”  It is not to lose weight, look better, or prove something to yourself.  The point is to give up anything that is blocking God from coming into view. I urge you to reflect on your practices of fasting.  Are you stuck in a dry ‘Lenten tradition?’  What is your fast doing in your relationship with God? Is God becoming clearer? Or Fuzzier?

How can you be filled with God’s grace in a way that God will use you to fill others with God’s grace?

We are not all in the same place.  Hall cleverly notes that ‘we are sinful in original ways.’ Your Lenten practice might look different from another person’s because YOU are different. It might be better for some of us to give up anxiety, take a bubble bath and soak in the love of our God. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lenten Preparation

Rachel Held Evans, a blogger I follow, has a great post--40 ideas for Lent.

Check it out here:

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Epiphany 5b: Isaiah 40: 21-31; "A Community of Memory"

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
   Has it not been told you from the beginning?
   Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
   and spreads them like a tent to live in; 
23 who brings princes to naught,
   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
   scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
   and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 
25 To whom then will you compare me,
   or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
   Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
   calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
   mighty in power,
   not one is missing. 
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
   and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
   and my right is disregarded by my God’? 
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
   his understanding is unsearchable. 
29 He gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless. 
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted; 
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint.

If you know anything about Duke basketball, you will know that Coach K started off losing a lot of games. This might make some of you happy. K lost his first seven matchups with Virginia. The seventh was especially painful. In the opening round of the 1983 ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers absolutely destroyed a Duke team who was starting four freshmen. 

The final score of that opening round game was 109-66.  Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Duke losing by over 40 points to anyone.  But this was a different day. Now, what made the whole situation worse, is that Virginia’s Coach, Terry Holland, complained that Duke played dirty. Coach K was furious.

It was a disastrous night.

After the game, the assistant coaches knew that Coach K would not be able to sleep.  So they decided to go grab some food.  They went to a nearby Denny’s outside of their hotel in Atlanta.  As soon as they sat down, the waitress brought everyone a glass of water.  Assistant Coach, Johnny Moore, picked up his glass and held it up as to give a toast. “Here’s to forgetting tonight” he said.

Coach K picked up his glass and responded, “Here is to never forgetting tonight.” The real quotation contained a choice four-letter word.

When practice opened the next October, the Duke team saw the score of that Virginia loss on their scoreboard. 109-66.

Since that time, Coach K has broken the record for the most wins as a college basketball Coach.  And when he did, he said, “We have come a long way since Denny’s.”

I tell this story because it shows that memory is important. Coach K knew that when memory fails, the whole team would fall apart. Each loss, each hardship, and each struggle is central to the identity of the team and the Duke program.

But human beings have the tendency to make memory selective. Some of us may select to just remember the good times; others of us might only select to remember the bad times. Like K’s assistant coach—we choose to remember what we want.

This is the case for Israel, too. In the 40th chapter of Isaiah, Israel has forgotten about God. Jerusalem has fallen.  The temple has been destroyed.  The people have been carried off to Babylon, in exile. The crisis in Babylon have caused the people to forget who they are, their past, and who their God is.

While Babylon is strong and threatening, forgetfulness is the real threat to Israel.   They question the power and presence of their God. There are doubts about God’s attention their future. There are doubts about God’s power to control and direct their community. They fall apart without their memory.

We forget too, in our lives. We have selective memory and only remember only those things that we want to remember.  Sometimes, it’s the times we have messed up. Sometimes we only remember the times we have succeeded.

Sometimes it is the stress—so many things are going on in our lives that trust in God seems so distant. I put a picture up in my office in which Jesus says, “Trust me I have everything under control.”  Otherwise, I would forget who God is and have a nervous breakdown.

On the other hand, it can be complacency—maybe you are just going through the motions of life. Ease and comfort is enticing, but it is dangerous. If you are completely comfortable, then maybe you have forgotten about God.

It can be suffering—or, the dreaded words, “cancer” or “death.” Many times, when we hear these words we wonder if God hasn’t gone off and left us all together.

Have you forgotten who God is? You might have, and not even realized it.

Isaiah’s task is to minster to a people who have forgotten. How do you minister to a people who are grieving, who are weary, who are at the end of their tether? How do you minister to a people who think God has just left or that God just does not care?

His task is simple—remind Israel who they are. Remind them of their story.

“Remember your God,” he says. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

Haven’t you heard this story your whole life?

God sits high above the round ball of earth. The people look like mere ants. He stretches out the skies like a canvas—yes, like a tent canvas to live under. God's hospitality reaches throughout the heavens and the earth preparing a tent in which all creation might live. He ignores what all the princes say and do. The rules of the earth count for nothing. Princes and rulers amount to nothing. Like seeds barely rooted, they just sprouted, They shrivel when God blows on them. Like flecks of chaff, they are gone with the wind.” [1]

Have you not been paying attention? Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?

This is not new knowledge…It is knowledge that has been known from the beginning, from the foundation of all the earth. God works in your history and in your lives. The God who creates, is the God who recreates.  Our God is transcendent, unknowable, awesome, but is also involved in the petty affairs of nations and princes.

Don’t you remember?
He is not just some far off God, he is right here.  He is involved in your life and your story. Look at the night skies: Who do you think made all of this? Who marches this army of stars out each night, counts them off, calls each by name—so magnificent! So powerful!—he never overlooks a single one!

Why do you say that God has lost track? Why do you say that God doesn’t care? God has invited you into his story, the greatest story of all time.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

 Isaiah brings a powerful word. Israel may have forgotten God, but God has never…not for a second, forgotten them.

In many ways, this story is like a slap in the face.  It is reminiscent of God’s great speech to Job—the emphasis is on God’s greatness, vastness, and infinitude and then, the likelihood of us to forget all about it.

You know, our own stories might be full of stress, or anxiety, or sorrow.  But Isaiah reminds us to remember. “Have you not heard? Have you forgotten?” Memory is at the heart of who we are as a people.

That’s why we gather every week on a Sunday to tell a story. You are a part of a much larger story—it’s a story that begun with Creation, Israel, and culminated with Jesus Christ.  It is the story of salvation and the remaking of the world. We tell the story week after week so we will not forget.

Memory. That is also why we gather for Holy Communion. At Communion we remember the story of God and Jesus Christ. We gather at the Table to remember what God has done for us in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. At the Table, we remember our sins, so that God will remember our sins no more.  At the Table, we remember that God has made us a part of his memory.  At the Table,  are re-membered, literally re-membered…we are literally connected, intertwined, and made members of one another.

Then, finally, we are re-membered into the story of God. Is there anything more beautiful?

Despite all we go through, do not lose heart. Have you not known? Have you not heard?

We are a part of the body of Jesus Christ.

I want to close with a final story:
There is an old rabbinical story says that when there was a crisis in the life of God’s people, the great rabbi, would go to a particular place in the forest, build a great fire, say a particular prayer, cry to God for salvation, and the story says, “It was sufficient; for God saw the fire in the place, heard the prayer and heard the cry, and God saved his people.”

A generation passed and another grave crisis came upon the people. And so another rabbi went to the same place in the forest and cried to God for mercy, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And the story says, “It was sufficient. And the miracle was accomplished. God saved his people.”

Still later, another generation passed and another crisis came upon the people. A different rabbi would go to into the forest and say, “I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient and the miracle accomplished. God saved his people.

Finally, it fell to another rabbi to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. God saved his people.

Life can be difficult and our challenges can be so severe that even the young will faint and grow weary. It is easy to forget who God is. But we have been made a part of a story. When we are weary and exhausted we must tell the story, lest we forget who we are.  Because if we trust our story, then we will receive the ability to meet our challenges and rise above. We will soar on the wings of eagles.

You may go throughout life and forget God, but God will never forget you. That’s the story we tell. It is the story of Jesus Christ. And it is sufficient.

[1] I am drawing from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message.