Friday, March 7, 2014

Now is the time to get on with Lent


Spiritual transformation is about the right time and the right place - not the "what," but the when and where.  We will change our normal living pattern.  For the Wilburn, we will eat peasant bread and drink a juice drink from the juicer on Mondays.  The kids will complain.  But the plan is disruptive.  As Rev. Dr. Craig Babb says 'we need a holy irritant".  Force something to irritate your day.  One person plans to write down three things they are grateful for each day.  This practice of gratitude is super.  It will work if she chooses the right location and time to write and ponder.

Someone else was going to clean out a junk drawer or closet each week.  If you do this, I'd lay all the stuff out on a table and then observe and journal the standout items.  Answer, "Why was this pen important?  Why was this ruler so precious?  Did my child use it in kindergarten?"  Then we chase down the memory:  look at pictures of when our child was in kindergarten, and think about how time flies, what has changed since then... who are we now, who have they become.  What tragedies have come and gone; what hope and dreams have come and gone - what are we still waiting for? 

This is the desert journey.  This is the power of restive prayer - a pondering; a turning our heart toward g-d.  This is Lent.   Do not let Lent slip out of your fingers.  Right now, today, gather your determination and commit to some practice. 


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lent: A Needed Correction

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil."

Ruth Haley Barton states,
"We reach for God because he first reached for us.  Nothing in the spiritual life originates with us.  It all originates with God.  So it is that the spiritual life begins in this most unlikely place." - Sacred Rhythms, page 25.
The Psalmist declares the soul's desire
O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water. - Ps. 63
This season of Lent is different for me.  I resist and find suspect the language of The Book of Common Prayer, "...Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain you..." BCP, Collect for Ash Wednesday page 217. 

The language of Lent has swung too far toward our wretchedness.  I don't like the connection between feeling wretched and obtaining God.  First, I think the feeling of wretchedness is forced and unnatural - we don't really buy it.  So in order to gain this wretched  opinion of ourselves we engage in self-denial, self-agnegation, self-abasement and even some mild abuse, namely through fasting and abstinence. 

To make our Lenten fast even more forced and wrong-headed, we then fast from chocolate, soda or some other thing we really shouldn't eat anyway; and Lent becomes a reason to diet.  This has nothing to do with spirituality and more to do with body image and our Fat-Tuesday-is-everyday affluent indulgent culture.

Scot McKnight declares
"Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life." - Fasting, page xxi. 
We naturally fast when something is seriously wrong.  When my wife was very sick I didn't eat - I just couldn't.  I didn't even know I was hungry.  I didn't sleep.  I didn't do anything normal. 

So Lent, on one level, is an acknowledgement that something is terribly terribly wrong - we have drifted far from g-d.  We have drifted so far that we don't even feel the distance between g-d and us.  We are lost.  Think of those times when you are driving in a rental car by yourself in a big city and you are so lost, so disoriented - it is a desperate moment. We need help, we realize we have lost control of our destiny.  We will even stop and ask directions - despite that violent, revolting anguish we males experience deep within our X-Chromosome. That is desperation - something is terribly wrong.  We naturally fast when things have gone terribly wrong.

Lent is an exploration into the gap between God and us.  As Thomas Merton wrote,
...I no longer desire to see anything that implies a distance between You and me: and if I stand back and consider myself and You as if something had passed between us, from me to You, I will inevitably see the gap between us and remember that distance which kill me. - Seven Storey Mountain, page 421
Merton's next sentence is his response to this felt gap: 
"That is the only reason why I desire solitude - to be lost to all created things, to die to them and to the knowledge of them, for they remind me of my distance from You." 
Lent is a time to realize the gap. The desert solitude is the natural response to this feeling that something is terribly wrong.  This is a very real wrong - not forced or faked.  We are lost from g-d, and the Spirit is calling us back.  Lent is the time to return.  Barton says that "return" is a great word to describe the spiritual journey. (lecture)

G-d initiates our desire for g-d.  Desire is a gift.  The Spirit led Jesus out into the desert.  It was not Jesus' idea.  This is my major corrective for observing the season of Lent.  Lent is a response to the g-d given desire for g-d.  We want to fast because something is terribly wrong.  We want to engage the desert because it is the natural place we want to go to because we don't want worldly distractions - the world just suddenly seems so silly and mindless.  Flee! 

I would suggest both a fast from normal foods - meat for example.  Or engage in a traditional 24-hour fast of dinner to dinner - no food - on say, Wednesday.  Don't "breakfast" or lunch.  Eat nothing.

Our family plans on doing the same thing we did last year, which is to bake and eat bread for dinner on Mondays.  We make focaccia bread, peasant bread.  We eat it with olive oil.  Laurie wants to add a vegetable this year. Okay.  We drink only water.  Last year it worked.  It said "something is off, something is wrong" to the kids.  It was simple and reflective.  We will add a Psalm or a prayer too. 

Think in terms of both a discipline or practice of abstinence - giving something up; and in terms of a discipline of engagement - start doing something... like fixed hour prayer, or read a spiritual book and journal.  Avoid dieting and fitness kicks.  You should be doing that anyway.  Avoid punishing your self.  Instead respond to the holy longing put there by g-d. 

Jesus asked several people 'what do you want me to do for you?'  And he is asking us too.  He is not saying, "You miserable wretch!  You should feel bad about your self!"  When we make out Lent to be a time of feeling wretched, we lie to ourselves and use the fact of our sin to indulge ourselves with our own self-absorbed wretchedness, which as I said at the beginning, I don't think we actually believe anyway.  "We are far too easily pleased" with our selves - especially when we churn up feelings of wretchedness.  (Ref. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, page 26)
Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.





Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Real Faith versus Magic and Lottery Tickets

Written while on prayer retreat at Conception Abbey:

Coming up with a pledge amount is not about coming up with an outrageous number that has no basis in reality or is obviously undoable without a miracle.  That is not faith.  That kind of wish-dream is the opposite of faith. It is magic.  Magic doesn’t need our involvement or our faith. 

No, a legitimate “faith number” is based on our well thought out, smartly calculated assessment of our income and chosen lifestyle, which then causes us to live a lessened and simpler lifestyle that daily reminds us of our dependency on God.  That is faith.  It is not faith to come up with an unfounded amount that has no chance of coming true.  This sort of thing forces God to buy us a lottery ticket!  Real faith however, is never that dreamy, but rather is an amount already within one’s household income and real potential. The real act of faith is in the follow through, the act of making the commitment come true.

Consider King David’s prayer after a victory…

For it was not in my bow that I trusted
Nor was I saved by my sword:
It was you who saved us from our foes;
…All day long our boast was in God,
And we will praise your name forever. – Psalm 44:7-9

Apparently David really did engage in a battle – David really did have a bow, a sword and a well-equipped army.  That much was very real.  We can be sure David thought about how to take his army into battle with the goal of victory.  Did David then conclude that he alone accomplished the victory through his own strength and intelligence?  No.  David’s faith was in God.  God saved them, God made it happen. 

This is exactly the sort of authentic faith we must use to come up with a challenging and lifestyle-altering pledge amount for Fearless.  As you “battle” to come up with the right number, make sure you understand faith.  Over the next three years all of us want to constantly say ‘All day long our boast is in God.’

Peace unto you.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Winter Bride

Come little flower and walk with me
Through winter’s garden of frosted tree.
Heaven’s breath as settled snow; love’s tune,
“Come King Christ, earth’s redeeming Bridegroom!”
Tread lightly, love, over our bride’s gown.

Green pine, brown branch adorned in white stole
Lays gently ‘gainst cheeks of earth’s deep fold.
Jewels of juncos and jays inlaid
Flash sun, turn gaze toward heaven’s maid.
How shall He reply to such beauty?

With trumpet’s blast and angel’s voices!
Bring forth heaven’s love, “You, His choice is!”
Now little flower, now! Sing sweet bliss;
Closed eyes ready for the Lover’s kiss.
Ah, but little flower’s fast asleep

Assumption Abbey
Ava, Missouri

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Church As Family, Not Volunteers

Last night was Hanging of the Greens.  Dozens of volunteers showed up to decorate the church for the Advent Season.  It was fun and powerful.  Everyone did a wonderful job and the church looks spectacular for the Christmas Season. 

Chris Lea, Worship Director, resists the term "volunteer" because it sounds like people are helping this thing called the church, which is wrongly assumed by both church staff and congregants to be separate and different from the people who attend. 

The church is family rather than a community center.  We help but we don't volunteer, no more than doing dishes or mowing the lawn is volunteering at home.  You don't volunteer at home.  You own it.  As owners the congregants have the ownership, responsibility and authority to decorate the church.  Yes, pastors and staff lead the charge but the brothers and sisters do the work and make it happen.  The church is nothing without everyone participating fully. 

This participation is exactly what Paul draws out with his body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  The body is made up of many parts.  They form one single body.  The hand cannot say to the eye, "Well you are not a hand - I don't need you, you're not important."  The ear cannot say, "Well, I'm not important because I am not an eye." 

In my thought then, the hand doesn't volunteer to be a part of the body.  The hand is necessary.  And we miss it when it doesn't do its role. 

One more theological point:  Christ is the head of the body, that is, the church.  We are not a body without Jesus' Presence.  When two or three gather, Jesus is in our midst.  When we break bread, Jesus is revealed.  The bread we break is both common ordinary bread, a shared meal with fun and fellowship like Hanging of the Greens; and the bread is uncommon bread, the Bread of Heaven, the Body of Christ, broken and distributed among us as spiritual food.  The Communion is both symbol and reality, both real bread food and real Presence. 

This concept is meant to blow our minds because it defies our split world - when we split off the spiritual from the "real" material world around us.  (This splitting is called "Dualism," and it is our most disastrous philosophy in Western thought - no, really it is.)  When we reunite the spiritual reality and the our material reality we become a One, a Unity, a Singularity, Wholistic.  Thus, we become Human Beings, rather than Human Doings.  We re-establish our true identity as God-Belongers, rather than just animals, hunters and gatherers. 

Hanging of the Greens did not have volunteers.  Last night was siblings coming together in the name of Jesus to have fun and 'prepare him room' with the advent of the Savior, the coming of the world's King, who came to be among us, as one of us.  And while pastors and staff may thank congregants for showing up and working hard, this "thank you" is not a consumer contract: "Thank you for shopping at StuffMart.  We appreciate your business." No.  The 'thank you' is the same as my wife saying 'thanks for mowing the lawn.'  The thanks is love and appreciation (covenant), not a verbal consumer contract.

May we lean into Christmas now.  May we get excited.  It is time for the Body to prepare a feast.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Praying the Psalms

Praying the Psalms is a time-tested spiritual discipline for developing a compassionate heart.  St. Anthony said so.  Evagrius Ponticus said so.  Thomas Merton said so.  Henri Nouwen said so.  Thomas Green said so. 

Not one has a good reason for why contemplative prayer develops compassion.  But I think they just assume that praying the Psalms takes us deep into the heart of God.  We gain the heart of God through the Psalms. 

Now here's some instruction about praying the Psalms.  First, you should NOT begin with "an information quest."  Praying the Psalms IS NOT about gaining information or teaching.  Yes, you will be instructed.  More so, you will find yourself meditating (studying) on a phrase or word or concept in the Psalms. 

We begin to pray the Psalms not for depth therefore, but for "volume."  It is the sheer volume or amount of the Psalms we are leveraging.  This is quantity over quality.  I know that sounds wrong in our head-driven Christianity that has been with us since the Reformation (16th century).  But we pray the Psalms to bath our day with the words of God, inspired by God, given by God, prayed back to God by us, and then the prayers of God are sent back to us as a balm of God's divine Presence.  Uh huh, that's right.  Complicated yes.  Why?

Praying the Psalms is mystical prayer.  We are praying more with our gut than our mind.  We are changing our heart - not through information - not through the head, but through our innermost being. 

To understand this fully one must hang around a monastery and listen to Benedictine monks pray the Daily Office seven times a day.  Do monks burn out on praying the Psalms?  Yes!  Perhaps for years!  But this is the nature of a discipline.  Keep at it even when you don't feel like it.  Do runners training for a marathon burn out on preparation?  Sure.  But they keep at it.  The discipline has its desired outcome:  ability to run a marathon.  Praying the Psalms has its desired outcome:  a compassionate heart, a heart that becomes still and ceases to judge another human being; a heart that sees its False Self for what it is:  a deception, a lie that tells one they are stupid or worthless or witless, or shameful or confused, pitiable and sad and childish.  The true self sees us as sinners saved by a loving gracious Father.  The True Self is honest.  It does not need to judge.  It is at rest. 

This is why contemplative prayer is the road to love: it brings judgment of self and others to an end.  We must embrace this ancient Christian discipline for our contemporary lives.  Otherwise we will not change much. 

"The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or he will be nothing." - Karl Rahner (theologian)

(Needful topics not addresses this time:  a) how to schedule praying the Psalms  b) the posture and bodily mode of praying the Psalms c)  accompanying disciplines for leveraging the Psalms  d) understanding the content of the Psalms in all their varied topics and themes.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Poor Man With A Lot of Money

I am thinking of a man who has a lot of money.  Thousands and tens of thousands he makes each year, each month.  Yet he is poor.  I mean broke all the time.

The family and I recently watched the ESPN documentary series 30 For 30: Broke.  It documents mostly poor kids from the ghetto who go on to be super athletes in the NBA and NFL.  The story is the same:  they are poor, they rise to the top and receive millions of dollars and end up in bankruptcy a few years after retirement.  One commentator said receiving this kind of money is more like winning the lottery than receiving a paycheck or salary.

How did they blow all that money?  They lived like a poor man with a lot of money.   Each night they spent thousands of dollars on parties, friends and things.  They lived like what a poor man dreams of if he'd ever become a millionaire for a day.

Here's the quick rich/poor // with/without matrix:

Poor Man with a lot of money = blows it all and has nothing in the end; think Andre Rison

Poor Man without a lot of money = just simply poor; think any forgotten peasant around the world

Rich Man with a lot of money = has it all and is wise; think Bill Gates/Warren Buffet

Rich Man without a lot of money = always has enough; as in "The Millionaire Next Door" book

The head-scratcher quadrant here is "the Rich Man without a lot of money." What's that look like?  But first a bit more on the other three quadrants.  NFL star receiver Andre Rison (former KC Chief) filed bankruptcy about three years ago if I remember the 30 For 30 documentary correctly.  He spent even more than he received.  He invested in a car wash with a handshake with a guy who knew nothing about business.  Rison knew nothing about business.  He was surrounded with poor friends who spent his money for him.

I had a repair man out to the house a few days ago and he told his own Rison tale (everyone has one around town it seems).  He worked at a fancy furniture store in town and Rison came in one day and bought $130k worth of furniture.  They had to take him to court to get paid.  As the old English proverb says "A fool and his money are soon parted," echoing the entire sentiment of the Bible's Proverbs on money and fools. 

The reason why ANY man with a lot of money can't keep his money is because he thinks every payday is like a poor man's payday:  cash it all and spend it on beer and Twinkies.  Party now because good times never last.  There is no investment mindset.  No hope.  This is the disease and demon of poverty.  It keeps people crushed - in their head.

Now the poor man with no money and the rich man with a lot of money - not much need be said.  Except the rich man with a lot of money can always make more money.  As Rockefeller once said 'it is easy to make money, but hard to keep it.'  The poor can't make money.  That's a big difference between the poor and rich.  The rich (white) have education, opportunity, connections, and assets.  The poor do not.

What about "the Rich Man without a lot of money?"  Sounds like anyone can be this person, right?  Sure, anyone can if they decide to live within their means, or as Dave Ramsey puts it "act your wage."  Drive a clunker.  Live in a basic house.  Take small vacations.  Delay gratification.  My father-in-law was frugal.  He was a teacher at a college.  He saved and did thing cheaply or not at all.  But he is rich now.  He saved.  He invested.  He lived believing someday he won't have an income so he better plan for one.  He created sustainable wealth by living on less now.  He lived like he had a future.

When the poor man gets a pile of money he blows it.  When the rich man gets a pile a money he saves it for later and lives on less now.  Rich is an attitude.  Poor is an attitude.  Yes, there are outside forces at work here like oppression and racism, etc.  But that is no excuse for the instant millionaires who just as quickly move back to poverty.   That is poor stewardship of the gifts of g-d.  Rich or poor, life is a gift from on High.

Which quadrant ARE you?  Can you change?  This is where the real spiritual journey happens.