Category Archives: Academy Reflections

Attentive

“…you would do well to be attentive…”

Like to a lamp burning in a dark place,
You would do well to be attentive
to God’s word
to God’s presence
to GOD.
You would do well to be attentive
not “scattered” or “distracted”
not “busy” or “effective”;
Attentive.
Like to a lamp burning in a dark place.
God’s word burns.
God’s presence burns.
GOD burns.
For you.
A burning carbide light illuminates the living cave,
stalagmites and stalagtites reaching toward one another,
stony columns bearing witness to their occasional union.

But if the light is left untended,
ignored,
the explorer is stranded in total dark.

No hint
no neutrino
of light;
just empty void…
deep, impenetrable dark…
but the slow
drip
drip
drip
as the underground waters
slowly, patiently seep from the ancient rock
inviting, bringing, binding rocks together;
part of God’s ever changing Creation.
A burning divine spark illuminates my living days,
birth and death reaching toward one another,
and I would do well to be attentive to that light.

For if I leave the light untended,
ignored,
I may be bereft in total dark.

No hint
no feeling
of God;
just empty void…
deep, impenetrable absence…
but the slow
drip
drip
drip
as the baptismal waters,
slowly, patiently slip from my infant forehead
inviting, bringing, binding spirits together;
part of God’s ever present Now.

 

— – –

As we wind down this week of the Arizona Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation, “attentive” seems to be a good single-word summary of the experience. As we have discussed and focused on practices of contemplative prayer, we have talked about being aware and attentive – to our bodies, our hearts, our selves, and the God who abides within and among and around us.

During worship on Tuesday evening, Wendy (one of our team leaders) shared a word focused around 2 Peter 1:16-19, Peter’s reflection on the transfiguration, which includes a reflection on the prophetic word(s) given in Scripture:

2 Peter 1:19 (CEB)
19 In addition, we have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Wendy shared her experience as a young spelunker in the mid-70s, utilizing carbide lamps to explore dark caves. On one such expedition, in a cave among stalagmites and stalagmites slowly joining into stone columns through the centuries, she convinced the team to all turn out their lamps. She described the ensuing dark, how it was total dark with no hint or neutrino of light, with just the sound of water dripping.

Her sermon was the original seed for the above reflection.

A Rule of Life

Although I ended up missing 3/5 of the week’s lectures because I left early, one of the topics for this final week of The Academy was discerning a “Rule of Life” to sustain the spiritual life and growth we have explored/experienced over the last two years. Although I haven’t yet given much time to discern this, I want to share two resources that may influence what I do develop…

I attended this year’s Ordination service, back in June, as I worked in the background with the worship team to support the experience. As the service went on, I was struck by the questions and vows of those being ordained. These are the foundational commitments we make as elders, and it occurred to me at the time how far we move apart from them to meet the perceived needs and expectations of our churches and their leadership. I often find myself working on things that may be important, but are not as central as the commitments that serve as our “marching orders.” So I reprint here, with added (numbers), the questions/vows that the ordinands made that night, as I continue to reflect on how they do, or should, be the foundation for my ministry:

Will you be (1) faithful in prayer,
(2) in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures,
and with the help of he Holy Spirit,
(3) continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

Will you do your best to
(4) pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry,
(5) lead the people of God (5a) to faith in Jesus Christ,
(5b) to participate in the life and work of the community,
(5c) and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people?

Those commissioned are commissioned thus:
We send you now (1) to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, (2) to announce the reign of God, and (3) to equip the church for ministry in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Those ordained are commissioned thus:
Take authority as an elder to (1) preach the Word of God, and (2) administer the holy sacraments…

Our central call as members of the order of elder – and I am indebted to my colleague Mike for sharing that more and more he thinks of our being part of an “order” makes us more similar to members of other religious orders, like the Jesuits, than to business persons – is to follow, grow in, and bring others to Christ. The description in the larger liturgy shares that the elder leads and administers the life of the church, but all toward the goal of growing in Christ…

I’m not sure why these vows struck me in June, but they’ve remained on the shelf of my office facing me when I sit at my desk since that time, handwritten out on a sheet of notebook paper, a reminder and, perhaps, a challenge to reclaim the centrality of my calling.

 

The second resource that is (or may be) influencing my reflection on a workable “rule of life” comes from one of my devotional resources. During one of our silent hours, our teacher – a Quaker named Kathryn – asked us all to return to the room together, in silence, with something “worshipful” to do. Members of the community read, prayed, knitted, colored, and even slept. I read through one of the later readings in my Renovaré Devotional Classics reader, a selection of excerpts from evangelist E. Stanley Jones’ book Conversion, on the daily and regular disciplines he encourages one to pursue to feed the spirit. Again, at this time I’m not sure how these are influencing my decision to continue to nurture the spiritual life in the context of my daily life, but even I’m not blind to the providence that this was the reading on a day we were encouraged to think about such:

You cannot attain salvation by disciplines – it is the gift of God. But you cannot retain it without disciplines…
[Jesus] did three things by habit:

  1. “He stood up to read as was his custom” – he read the Word of God by habit.
  2. “He went out into the mountain to pray as was his custom” – he prayed by habit.
  3. “He taught them again as was his custom” – he passed on to others by habit what he had and what he found…

First, the habit of reading the Word of God daily, preferably in the morning…

Second, pray in private by habit. When we read the Scripture, God speaks to us. In prayer we speak to God. Then God speaks to us, no longer through the Word only, but directly in words to us… When prayer fades out, power fades out. We are as spiritual as we are prayerful; no more, no less.

Third, pass on to others what you have found. The third habit is the habit of passing on to others what has been given to us in the reading of the Word and prayer. It is a law of the mind that that which is not expressed dies. If you don’t share it, you won’t have it…

In addition to [these], certain auxiliary suggestions must be made…
First, cultivate the new life by daily disciplines…
Second, keep honest at any cost…
Third, keep confessing your sins after conversion…
Fourth, pray for those who have wronged you. That will be an antidote for resentment and bitterness…
Fifth, constantly enlarge the area of your conversion. Make your conversion take in more and more areas of your life…
Sixth, give up the habits that cannot be Christianized…

After partaking of the divine nature add these things: …supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge; and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness; and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Pet. 1:5b-7).
Sit down every day and go over these seven things and ask yourself if you are adding them to your basic faith – virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Check up to see whether you are going up or down in each of these qualities – especially the last one. All growth in Christian living is a growth in love. You may add the other six to your faith, but if you don’t add love, then you are going down as a Christian.

“Peace, peace” (An Academy sermon)

The following is a homily I shared with the community of The Academy for spiritual Formation, #29, meeting in Burlingham, California. I was given the theme for the day, and asked to provide the Scripture and message…

4You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord: When people fall, do they not get up again? If they go astray, do they not turn back? 5Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return. 6I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying, “What have I done!” All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. 7Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord. 8How can you say, “We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us,” when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? 9The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what wisdom is in them? 10Therefore I will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. 11They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. 12They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 8:4-12)

This passage disturbs me.
The word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
O God, open our lips. And our mouths shall declare your praise.
May the Force be with you. And also with you.

It bodes well for me that I didn’t lose you with that last one! Here’s one more:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way;
when sorrows, like sea billows roll.
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say:
“It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Is it?

I have to admit, sometimes when I stand in front of the congregation there are moments I just wonder if I’m full of Sith. (That’s another Star Wars reference… guess I lost some of you, there…)

That’s why I have an unease with passages like this from Jeremiah, passages that criticize false leaders or warn against false teachers. Here in Jeremiah it is like a prosecutor laying out a case against false prophets and priests. He even suggests that their understanding of the law of the Lord is at odds with the word of the Lord.

In hear passages like this and my inner insecurities flare up. Do my interpretations, my teachings, lean toward the heretical? Like when I share that Paul describes sin like the dark side of the Force? Or, perhaps worse, there are times when I speak about knowing peace in Christ and wonder: am I speaking the truth?

Some days it seems that all I know is chaos, not peace. Not that I experience any real trauma, or persecution, or even deep distress. It’s just… chaos.

*constantly stumbling on toys littering the floor. (My wife really wishes I would pick my toys up)
*the rush visits to the ER for stitches because of misused scissors or misplaced apple corers
*the sudden, piercing shriek of a child… I swear, hearing your own child shriek is worse than fingernails on a chalkboard; it feels like having your genitals in a vice grip (which is why I suppose young children are good natural birth control)

It hasn’t been traumatic, but after shifting from an appointment in rural Illinois to suburban Arizona, the chaos of the last four years has included three moves, the births of 2 children, and the purchase of 1 home. It sounds like a holiday song: “The 4 years of Stressmass…”

And it is not just the chaos of my life, but there is chaos in my heart, as well. The running verse in my life during this Academy has been one of Jesus’ beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But, long as I might for purity of heart, instead I often have frustration, disappointment, anger, even violence in my heart. And I wonder if there is a corresponding curse to the blessing: “Cursed are the impure of heart, for they will be blind to God in their lives…”

And that’s not to mention the ongoing chaos in my heart nad mind related to bigger issues that threaten our mutual peace:

*wars and conflicts and atrocities
*the ongoing vicitimization and alienation of the LBGT community
*my home stat’s victimizing the poor crossing the border illegally just to eek out a living
*the ideological divide in our nation that seems to further distance us from one another

All the while, as chaos seems to make peace a distant dream, I hear other preachers in my mind, telling me that in Christ there is “peace, peace.” As pastor of a struggling church, I feel somewhat inadequate, and perhaps like the false priests speaking “peace, peace” to my congregation’s woundedness, when I hear the promises of peace and prosperity from Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, or Bob Schuller…

When things at home go to pieces, I routinely hear this line from Jeremiah in the back of my mind:

everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace…

Like others, we often put up a front that all is good and peaceful, but there are days when it is anything but…

I want to know peace.
I hear culture promise me peace: “Our newest Volvo’s safety features will give you peace of mind! Herbal Essence shampoo promises peace from the daily grind!”

I want to know peace, the kind of peace that brings the centeredness and confidence that enables Obi Wan to stand up against evil. I want to know such peace, not the whining about chaotic events that characterizes Luke. (And, of course, I don’t want to give in to the Dark Side of the Force like George Lucas.)

I don’t think I’m alone in desiring peace but feeling wounded by chaos. I know the chaos in the families in my church – the traumatic events like death, divorce, marital difficulty, and unemployment; as well as the less traumatic but hurtful stresses of problems with children or the chaos of balancing work and home. We long for peace, and feel as if something might be missing…

One commentary on this passage from Jeremiah shines some light on our desire for peace, as it describes the Hebrew understanding of peace, of shalom, as “a state of prosperity, completeness, and well-being in which blessing flows on everyone. The idea of wholeness underlies genuine peace.”

This describes what I long for: wholeness, completeness. And there is a further prophetic word here, too: it sounds like we cannot know peace unless we all share in it. If we don’t come to know peace together, we won’t know it alone.

So perhaps the first word for me from my unease with this passage is that instead of fearing I’m like the priest – saying “peace, peace” when there is not peace – instead perhaps I need first to recognize and acknowledge our communal dis-ease. To be faithful, perhaps I need to help others acknowledge our un-ease and woundedness in order to more fully hope for peace.

Perhaps we need to know and share that we are not alone, so we don’t worsen our experience of chaos by trying to hide it from others. Perhaps this is one of the paradoxes of Christian life that Kathryn was alluding to this morning: to truly know peace, we must first embrace chaos.

More importantly, I need to receive and share the good news that was shared with us in Morning Worship today from Ephesians 2: “Christ is our peace.”

Peace is not just a prophetic promise, but a Messianic gift! “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, “My peace I give to you.”
This gift from the voice of the One who spoke into chaos and darkness and created order, beauty, and tranquility!

Perhaps the gift of Christ’s peace is something we live in to. Maybe I shouldn’t be s worried that right now I have more in common with Luke’s whininess than with Yoda’s quiet, centered presence.

Perhaps I should proclaim peace in Christ, until those around me know peace. And then, because those around me know peace in Christ, I can proclaim it more boldly.

I need to recognize and proclaim Christ’s gifts of peace amid the chaos of life, after all, there are moments of true peace that I recognize as pure gift:

*moments like the photo I’ve imposed on many of you, when Kate and Will stop their perennial struggle for domination and hug one another, all smiles.
*moments of peace like when Kate, and more rarely now Will, rests her head on my breast. This is an image of peace that Marjorie Thompson comments on, drawing from Psalm 131: “A weaned child is not seeking anything at its mother’s breast; it is content to rest quietly, enjoying the simple comfort of the mother’s loving presence, an image of complete peace.”

This is what Frederick Buechner means when he writes that “for Christ, peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of love.”

My hope and prayer is that I, and perhaps we, can learn to faithfully speak to our woundedness, to speak of and aknowledge our dis-ease;
to acknowledge in truth the chaos in our lives, as well as our seemingly perpetual tendency to turn away from God in the midst of such chaos and instead turn toward whatever popular spiritual heroin promises us a quick-fix of peace.

I pray that we can speak in love the truth of, and to, one another, and in so doing that we might all hear more and more and lean in to the voice that says, “My peace I give to you…”

I pray for myself and all of you that we might faithfully and boldly proclaim peace in Christ, sharing the news with others until they experience its goodness for themselves, that we might all then know “peace, peace” for our woundedness, as given and spoken to us by our wounded healer.
In Jesus, Amen.

Adieu

We were asked, during our week at the Academy, to share the impact the Academy had for each of us. Other members of the community got up to share the ways the Academy had touched them, inspired them, motivated them. Prefacing the following by saying, “I don’t do profound,” I shared:

A spiritual Whosit from Whoville
went to an Academy for two years;
to assuage his spiritual lethargy
and some lingering vocational fears.
He knew he’d be asked to share its impact,
but when he finally stood to do so –
he found he had nothing to say1
So he sought a word from Abba Frito
(the chip monk of the desert, who, this time,
shared all his wisdom in iambic rhyme).

Thus spoke Abba Frito to help this Who,
“My son, you’ve been moving through life too fast.
You blitz through your books, you write next to naught:
weren’t letters and such once loves from your past?
From one deadline to another you rush,
moving at all times as if in a race.
I pray you slow down and trust, love, and serve
in the quiet assurance of God’s grace.
Slow down! Lest your rush leaves you in a lurch:
Salvation is not found saving the church.”

“Worship, study, and prayer, and silence, too,
these build up faith and are all well and good.
But don’t let false starts or even mistakes
bury you deep in the compost of ‘should.’
You can find a quotidian rhythm
in day to day life that lets you be still;
you can know God’s presence in the context
of your daily life with Lynn, Kate, and Will.
Though I suspect that Elijah might not
hear God’s voice amid the noise of that lot!”

“What matters cannot be gauged by numbers,
church growth, or institutional success.
What most honors and glorifies our Lord
is your attentiveness and faithfulness.
Listen, be quiet, and then be faithful
to God, vocation, and also your life.
God is present, and yearning to be known
in the church or with your children and wife.
Practice the presence of God day by day.
And that is something you will take away.”

And, finding Abba Frito’s words just fine,
This Who bids adieu, Academy Twenty-Nine.

The broken body

I am currently attending The Academy for Spiritual Formation, a two year program of spiritual growth created by the Upper Room.

I had an intriguing thought today, though I don’t know if or where it might lead. We’ve been studying and discussing “Christian Spirituality in the Global Context,” meaning that we’re addressing inter-religious dialogue and, to some degree, the approaches of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism and how they are integrated to various world religions. We also get to talking about the same approaches within religions, eg. intra-religious dialogue.

We were talking about the various divisions within the Body of Christ today, and I started to wonder. Ecumenism emerged as a strong force in Christian denominations in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries; but at the same time established churches were working toward some degree of unity, there was also the sudden growth (arising from the charismatic movement) of modern independent – so called “non-denominational” – congregations. So it seems that the Church, the “body of Christ,” is irretrievably fractured…

…but we fracture the body of Christ each week in our worship, give it to one another, and say, “the body of Christ, broken for you.”

I am beginning to wonder – and don’t have any insights or convictions as yet:

Could the current brokenness of the body of Christ actually be part of God’s plan? Part of God’s desire that all might be saved?

With such a diversity of Christian expressions, there is the possibility that though one particular church or understanding of Christianity won’t get past one’s defenses, or be able to be understood from one’s perspective or life experience… another just might…

Also, perhaps the brokenness of the imperfect body of Christi in the world is part of the plan, to remind us that we cannot heal the scars or wounds of Christ. We cannot create or live in a “perfect” Church. Only God (through resurrection?) can redeem, heal, and bring wholeness.

And, as was true in the past, so perhaps it is true today taht God chooses to work through the broken body to bring such healing…

A Prayer for Discernment

Ron is away at a week long session of The Academy for Spiritual Formation, a two year spiritual formation event created and run by The Upper Room.

We used the following prayer by Thomas Merton in our evening worship tonight, and as I and members of our congregation have been praying for discernment and God’s guidance of late, I thought it appropriate to share:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think
that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But, I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone. Amen.

Chocolate Cake

A wondrous gift of each session of The Academy is the hospitality of this particular retreat center. And one aspect of hospitality that has been handed down through the ages is… food. There is always a good selection of food here that we enjoy – centipedes notwithstanding, apparently!*

Last night there was a luscious, decadent, wonderful chocolate cake, with rich chocolate frosting and scattered chocolate chips. I took one slice – one, Lynn, just one! – with some fresh blueberries… the combination was just so wonderful. The blueberries melted with the frosting and chocolate chips into bliss.

I have no real comment beyond that there are times when a lovely bite of food is just an amazing thing…

*Someone had a centipede crawl out of a purple potato last night. I would think that could negatively impact your view of the food, but the table was laughing, so it must not have been too traumatic…