Thursday, November 26, 2009

thanksgiving for social media

On Thanksgiving, words of appreciation for this medium that at present has connected us in cyberspace.

1. In the Methodist world, I am thankful for Methoblog and the Wesley Report. I know these guys must spend an enormous amount of time sustaining these sites. Thanks Jay and Shane.

2. I am grateful for on-line resources that have welcomed my submissions, especially Day 1, Theolog and Ooze.

3. I appreciate the use of the internet by activists and reporters who are "repairing the world", especially Nicholas Kristof, Bill McKibben and Paul Farmer. The former makes especially good use of Twitter.

4. I like the work of Gretchen Rubin, whom I follow on Twitter. She is writing a book on happiness, and is amazingly literate about Christianity---we had a brief conversation recently about Flannery O' Connor's The Habit of Being.

5. I have been on Facebook, I think, for approximately one year. It has been a great way to connect with friends and stay in touch with what is going on in other places. In particular, I have been able to re-connect with a close friend from high school, divinity school and my first parish. And I know more about a number of people in our congregation (all good things).

6. I use Gmail chat to talk to our daughter in China, and sometimes we communicate via Skype as well. The time difference is twelve hours, so this is usually on the weekends, but this is great.

7. I have a few favorite sites that I return to---Huffington Post, No Depression, ESPN, Duke Basketball Report, Lifehacker---and I find that these have in fact replaced our daily newspaper. I really learn all I need to know about local and national politics from NPR and Morning Joe.

8. I really like the new Faith and Leadership site at Duke Divinity School. I read widely in a few other places---First Things, Daily Kos, for example----and may not agree with everything I read there, but I appreciate the diversity of thought in their religious and political coverage.

9. Electronic communication has been a gift that I have needed to learn how to use, over time, and this is what I have come to: I do not open my church email account before 8:00 in the morning or after 8:00 in the evening (and twelve hours of focus on work a day is sufficient). I recommend this practice to my friends. I have a cell phone that is very accessible in the event of an emergency, and the email, I have learned, will be there waiting for me. I do check in with Facebook much earlier than this, and also later, but this is more relational and requires less time and thought. This gives me more time to be present to my family and for reading. Not to mention Monk, The Office and 30 Rock.

10. I gave my wife a Kindle last Mother's Day---she spends a great deal of time in Haiti---and I think she likes it. She has been reading Suzi Welch's 10-10-10 and Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail.

11. A closing thought: social media has not replaced personal interaction with people----I still love getting together for meals or conversation with friends, I still make pastoral visits. I walk into the offices of other staff members, we sit down and we talk. I also subscribe to Christian Century and The New Yorker, and I often buy the Sunday New York Times. I buy more books than I should. So it is not an "all or nothing" endeavor. The point is that social media has been a positive element in my daily life, and today seemed a good time to express gratitude for the particulars.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

counting blessings

Count your many blessings, name them one by one…

1. Pam, Liz and Abby. And my family back home in Georgia. And Jacques.
2. Meaningful work to do, among God’s most faithful people.
3. The provision of all of my material needs.
4. Freedom.
5. Living in one of the most beautiful states in the country.
6. The gift of health, the ability to exercise and take long walks.
7. Folks who think worship is as essential as eating and breathing.
8. Laughter.
9. Food I never imagined liking: Chinese and Thai, Mexican and Indian.
And barbecue. And peanut butter and jelly on sourdough bread.
10. The privilege of preaching the gospel, sharing Holy Communion, and celebrating baptisms.
11. Memories of awesome places: the Sea of Galilee, the Great Wall of China,
the Celtic Crosses of Western Ireland, the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, the Grand Canyon.
12. Music: Mozart. Van Morrison. Emmylou Harris. Lyle Lovette. Taize. The Allman
Brothers. Our Chancel Choir. Wilco. Sly and the Family Stone.
13. Cool mornings in the mountains and warm sunshine at the beach.
14. Times for rest.
15. Friends, near and far, past and present, who have shared their lives with me. They know who they are.
16. Acceptance of all that is past. Hope for all that is to come.

Count your many blessings, see what God has done….

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

to believe, to provoke, to encourage (hebrews 10)

There are those who stand outside the religious community and criticize it---it is too self-absorbed, too much like a club, oblivious to the needs of the world, caught up in its trappings. The critique can happen while you are standing on the sidelines of a soccer match in a suburb, or gathered around a barstool in an urban pub; it could be voiced by your neighbor or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins of our own day or, in modern intellectual history, by Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx.

There is a strong critique to be made of religious life, but the irony is that this critique is actually there in the scriptures. No one is harsher on the church or the synagogue than the prophets, or Jesus (remember Jesus‘ comments last Sunday about the scribes in contrast to the widow who placed two coins in the treasury), or today’s reading from the New Testament Book of Hebrews. Hebrews is an anonymous letter written to a community of people who once had a strong faith in Jesus, but over time something had happened.

Do you know the old classic “You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling?” BMI, the Broadcast Music Industry identified it in 1999 as the most played song of the twentieth century. It’s been recorded by the Righteous Brothers and Elvis, by Roberta Flack and Hall and Oates, by Dionne Warwick and Glen Campbell and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.

Why was that song so popular? It resonates with a profound human experience that is present and then….well, “you’ve lost that loving feeling”. Late in the first century a community of Christians were moving away from faith in Jesus and back to old patterns of religious behavior. And so Hebrews is a response to all of that.

Today’s epistle begins with a religious scene, the priest making sacrificial offerings on behalf of the people. There was a long tradition of all of this, it is there in the Book of Leviticus, among other places. There is the priest, making the same sacrifices, over and over again, but, the writer says, they can never take away sins. There is the critique: it is not going to get us anywhere. Authentic religion is not going to a place, watching the holy people doing things that we are not able to do, on our behalf. It is something very different .

And here Hebrews makes it plain: Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins (verse 12), again in verse 14, a single sacrifice. Religion is not something we do for God, it is something God does for us. We recall the last word from the cross: It is finished. And for that reason it is not subjective. Yes, maybe you’ve lost that loving feeling, but that is not the point. Our feelings of guilt and sin cause us to want someone to do something for us, over and over again, to make us feel better, but—in relation to the question of our being made right with our Maker-- it is irrelevant.

Christ did all of this, once and for all. It is finished. In contrast to the endlessly repetitive act, there is the one, singular definitive event, at the cross, Jesus makes a new covenant, not like the old covenant that was not sufficient, a new covenant, the cross, the sign of a relationship made possible by God for humanity, I will put my laws in their hearts, I will write them on their minds, I will remember their sins no more, all is forgiven, where there is forgiveness there is no longer any need for an offering for sin.

What is a sin offering?

Years ago I served a small parish in the rolling hills of central Virginia. Among the forty or so members of our congregation was a man named Buck, who was an alcoholic. It was a small community, and all of this was public. Buck’s wife was a saint, most spouses of alcoholics are saints. I was a young minister in graduate school, attending classes at the University of Virginia during the week, preaching and visiting on the weekends. Buck struggled with the effects of his drinking, but he had married into the family, so people worked with him. One evening Buck drove his automobile off the side of a hill, into a ravine. He walked away from the accident, unharmed.

I drove out and met with Buck and his wife, Joyce. Buck was repentant. Joyce was angry. I listened, they talked, I listened some more, they cried, we prayed, I drove home. This was a Friday night. On Sunday morning I arrived at the church, there were usually 30 or so of us there, and Buck stood up to make an announcement. He was taking everyone out to lunch, at the restaurant in town, after the worship service. Now these were working people, and this never happened, but that day all 30 of us went out to eat together.

It was a strange gathering. Looking back, it was a “sin offering”. And we were in collusion with Buck. Did Buck stop drinking? No. Did Buck intend to stop drinking? No. But there I was, the religious leader, enjoying the lunch along with everyone else in Beulah United Methodist Church, and taking part in an ancient pattern of behavior---

We commit a sin, we make an offering, the world is made right. Somehow, Buck’s paying for lunch restored things to an an order that had been put out of sorts by his driving off the cliff.

There is something very wrong about all of this, Hebrews says. Everything in the world has been put in order by one singular and definitive event: Christ crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. If you get this, Hebrews says, there is no longer any offering for sin. Jesus paid it all.

Now this does have implications, and here the lesson moves from gift to response, from theology to ethics, from all that God has done for us to all that we do in response.

A first basic response is to enter the sanctuary. Most everyone in our culture believes in God, the polls tell us; not everyone enters the sanctuary. Why? Some think worship is boring or irrelevant or simply not true. Some think they are not religious people, not sufficiently spiritual to be worshipping a holy God.

We enter the sanctuary, we are here, because of the person and work of Jesus, his blood, his sacrifice (not ours), he has ripped apart the holy of holies that separates the God-fearers from the high priests, he has shredded the categories of religious and non-religious, spiritual and material, it is a new and living way, and he has done this through his flesh, the incarnation, God becoming a human being.

Jesus is the high priest in the house of God, and we are here, with hearts filled with the assurance of faith. The external sign of our entrance into this holy space is baptism (our bodies washed with pure water), but the internal sign is the changed heart.

To be here is to have confidence in what God has done for us, to trust in this good news. This is conversion. But what happens then? Maybe we have settled the idea that God has accomplished all of this, twenty centuries ago, and changed everything, forever, but what next?

This is precisely why Hebrews was written, and this ancient letter could not be more relevant for us. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Why write that? Because some were falling away. Hold fast, don’t lose hope, don’t waver. And yet hundreds of thousands, millions of people are living in this world, they once had a strong belief, a deep faith, a profound hope and it is gone. It was already happening in the first century. Why? Why do we lose our grip on the grace of God, why do we lose hope, why do we waver?

What are the sources of unbelief? We could make a short list. Bad things happen to good people. Good people do terrible things to each other. We make plans for the future and we are disappointed. The world is a mess.

Hold fast to the confession of your hope, don’t waver. On a good day, it is easy, on a bad day, it is more difficult . Why do we hold fast to the confession of our hope? Hebrews gives a simple answer: God is faithful.

And then, let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. It is not just vertical, us and God, or individual, me and God. It is horizontal, it is social: let us provoke one another to love and good deeds. I like that. For me, it is the church at its best.

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. What does it mean to provoke? To arouse a feeling or action, to incite to anger, to stir something up. Why do people do good in the world? Sometimes they are provoked, something angers them, a homeless person freezes to death, a child in Haiti eats dirt, young adults who have given much for our country in military service, return, but do not receive adequate medical or mental health services. At our best, Providence is a community that provokes one another to love and good deeds.

And here the lesson concludes: not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Not neglecting to meet together. Now there are persons in our church who cannot be here because of physical limitations, and I see or speak with someone in this category most every week. This church, this gathering is their heart and soul, it is their life, and they cannot be present.

I am speaking about a different reality. The person who was involved when their children were in the weekday school, when their youth were in MYF or the Choir. And then, over time, something happened. They lost that lovin feeling. And it became easy to stay away. And it became just as easy to build a rationale for staying away.

Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…do you think the writer of Hebrews knows about someone who was once really involved and then…just drifted away, and said, “I never see that person anymore”. Have you ever heard yourself say that?

There is a well-traveled story about a man whose friend had once been active in the life of the church, teaching youth, serving the poor, ushering in worship. And then he got out of the habit, and then it became easy to justify a different pattern of behavior. This bothered his friend, to the extent that he felt he needed to go by and see him. And so he did.

They arranged to meet, they talked together privately in the den, warmed by a roaring fire. After a few minutes the friend who had drifted away came to the point, and made no apologies. “I just don’t feel the need to be there anymore.” His friend listened, and inwardly prayed for the right words to say, and then it came to him that he really did not need to say anything.

He walked over to flame of the roaring fire, and with the large scissor tongs took one of the logs and separated it from the others, laying it to the side.

He went back and sat down for a few moments and the two looked at the fireplace, and particularly at the lone log. After a time that flame had died, and over time, both knew, it would grow cold.

“This is why we need you”, his friend said, “and this is why you need us.”

In response to all that God has done for us, let us hold fast to the confession of our hope, let us provoke one another to love and good deeds, and let us not neglect to meet together.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

the world is our parish

I find myself, in rambling around cyberspace, listening closely to a few voices who seem to have their ear to the ground made holy by the suffering of women and the diseased of the majority world. While we have been legitimately concerned with health care in the U.S.---and I have preached and blogged about this subject this fall---there are nevertheless crises beyond our borders that demand our attention.

In particular I think of Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, and more recently Strength in What Remains, and Paul Farmer, subject of Mountains Beyond Mountains and co-founder of Partners In Health. Kristof, along with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, authored Half The Sky, and maintains a relentless focus on the plight of women in this troubled world: their lack of access to health, their minimal ownership of property, their victimization through sexual trafficking, their yearning for education. He also casts a wide net inclusive of anyone who might be an ally in this cause. And he uses social media in an expert way, particularly Twitter. Tracy Kidder is, quite simply, an exquisite writer. I had read his Soul of A New Machine and House years ago; I came upon his treatment of Paul Farmer as I began to travel on a regular basis to Haiti, and then I happened to see the two of them on C-Span (full disclosure: I am something of a Book TV nerd on the weekends). Years later, through the good graces of a friend I was honored to serve on a panel discussion with Paul Farmer at Wofford College.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is so well-written that you will think it is actually authored by Farmer, it is that transparent. It touches on issues of global health, the preferential option for the poor, and the merits of helping persons in structurally desperate circumstances. I took Jacques Lamour, from Haiti, with me to meet Farmer, who is a congenial and hospitable man. Tracy Kidder has moved on to chronicle, more recently, the journey of an immigrant from Burundi to the U.S. Strength In What Remains is a briefer volume than Mountains Beyond Mountains, but it covers, in a way, the same encounter, and yet from the reverse direction: not what it means to move from the U.S. to Haiti, but from Burundi to the U.S.

I am thinking about Kristof, Kidder and Farmer because my own Christian denomination, which has considerable resources, has strategically lifted up the importance of global health and young adults in the recovery of an authentic mission over the years ahead. These three figures, for me, model what we might begin to do in the coming years: they are present in other areas of the world, even if they reside in major urban centers here; they have a laser-like focus, in particular, on the plight of women and global health; they attract young adults, even disciples, to their causes; they use traditional and non-traditional media; and they are not unaware of the good that is done in the cause of the gospel. In fact, they will work with anyone who joins hands with them (and here, and this merits another conversation, they are similar to Bono).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world is their parish.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

a detour through hot springs

So a giant boulder, the size of a mobile home, fell down on Interstate-40 near the North Carolina-Tennessee border and the road, which is the main artery going east or west in the central Southeast United States, is closed, not for a few days, not for a few weeks, but for the foreseeable future.

Our older daughter attends a small college in another state, it actually takes about six hours to get there, it is a wonderful school but farther away than I sometimes wish, so I try to see her play volleyball, which is her college sport, whenever I can. Which turns out to be about three times a year.

Their end of year league tournament is hosted by Maryville College, a small Presbyterian school near Knoxville. We have a cabin near Asheville, and in normal circumstances it is less than a two hour drive from our cabin to Maryville. But, as I noted earlier, these are not normal circumstances.

So I began to inquire about an alternate route to get there---I was determined to get there---and there really is no good way to get there. After all, this is the part of the country that includes the Great Smokies and the Appalachian Trail. There are rivers and mountain ranges, at least by east coast standards. And thank God for all of that...until you try to get across, to the other side.

I settled on a plan. I would drive up Highway 209, from Lake Junaluska to Hot Springs. I actually love Hot Springs, although, to get to Hot Springs you must have a high degree of motivation, and really good brakes on your automobile for the switchbacks.

It is I am guessing a 45 minute drive from Lake Junaluska to Hot Springs. The first 15 minutes are idyllic, and Friday happened to be a perfect fall mountain day, absolutely beautiful. The next 15 minutes were a challenge. And the last 15 minutes were most demanding of all. Just a perpetual zig zag, and a constant prayer that one would not meet an out of control trucker having a bad day, coming from the opposite direction.

As I said, I really do love Hot Springs. I have been there on a number of occasions, but three stand out. For years I was a part of a lectionary group that met each year for a few days prior to Labor Day and we worked on sermons for all of the Sundays leading through Christmas Eve and Epiphany. The group ranged in size from 6 to 10, I suppose, we stayed in Duke Ison's place in Wolf Laurel---he is now a District Superintendent, and I think that led to the demise of our group--his becoming a District Superintendent, I mean. The first clue there was his giving all of his commentaries away to Veranita. There were men and women preachers in the group, and we did not all see the world through the same lens. But that was ok. When I left I had a huge head start on every sermon that fall. And I had gotten into the Hot Springs, which itself is like a sedative. Anyway, Duke introduced me to the Hot Springs, and we actually got into them. I recommend it.

A second memory was taking groups (on two different occasions, I think) to the Jesuit House of Prayer in Hot Springs. I love the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, although in recent years my taste in Catholic spirituality has gone toward the Benedictine side, and I would ask Father Vince to lead our group through the section on discernment, which I still think is a very profitable way to make a decision, if God's will is an important consideration for you. I also recall that we shared Holy Communion together, he asked me to be the celebrant, and he took the bread and the wine with us. I hope I do not get him into trouble by writing this....

And the third occasion was simpler, but no less important: we had just purchased our cabin in the mountains, and my wife was deeply into decorating it, putting her stamp on it. It seemed to everyone get the girls away from all of that, for a day, so I volunteered to drive them to Hot Springs. Since the Appalachian Trail literally goes right through Main Street, we would park our car, take our picnic lunch and hike an hour or so into the AT. There we would find a place to sit, take out the food and eat it. And this is what we did.

So on Friday I made a virtue out of necessity, stopping by Hot Springs. I parked, and this was out of my need to get some measure of tranquility after the drive. I went into the Outfitter's Shop. It was as I remembered it: a mecca of ourdoor gear, a gathering spot for hikers dying to talk to someone, anyone, after the solitude of days on the trail. Really friendly people, all the way around, sort of like the people who populated the "Northern Exposure" series.

The saleswoman/proprieter asked me, "are you here because of the detour?" and I responded, "well, yes, i am on my way to Maryville, but I have been here before, on purpose".

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

the agenda of the holy spirit (mark 10)

The Stewards of our church, chaired by Mike Maloney, have led us down the path of thinking about “becoming disciples through stewardship”. They have reflected on what “becoming” means—none of us has arrived. They have defined what it means to be a disciple, a learner, a student. And they have unpacked this word, stewardship.

Stewardship is a word that we resist, for many good reasons. There is something deep within us that wants to conserve and preserve what we have; maybe it is buried deep within our genetic code, and has helped us to survive. And so the idea of giving some of that away implies risk and uncertainty. There is also something going on in our culture, a culture of fear, which began maybe on 9/11 and has continued through the meltdown of Wall Street a year ago. It is not accidental that Jesus so often contrasted fear and faith. And there is something about the very word itself that goes against our grain, the basic idea that all that we have really does not belong to us, it is a gift, we are simply entrusted to it, for a time. That is easier to say than it is to live.

Stewardship in the church has come to mean a time of year when we ask you for money, money that will support the church. Of course, we know that stewardship is much more than this---there is ongoing education in most every Sunday School class about stewardship of the environment. There are also ongoing classes related to the SHAPE of our lives----our time and talents, our spiritual gifts.

But stewardship is also about money, and one of the ways we are becoming disciples is through the stewardship of money. I have friends in the ministry, I am thinking of people I consider to do this work really well, who hate this part of the job. They want to get it over as quickly as possible, to be done with it. They feel like they need to manipulate those who are listening to a sermon or reading a letter. It is all about the search for a sentimental story, or a really good joke, or some compelling personal experience. They also know that in our communities this is one message, one appeal among a steady stream of others---all for worthy causes.

I did not go into the ministry thinking about any of this. I felt a call to do this kind of work and not something else, not an audible voice but a sense of guiding in this direction. I did not give much thought to the question of how a church functioned economically---when the offering plate came by it never crossed my mind.

In high school and college I worked in a grocery store—I unloaded trucks, I put up stock, and I cleaned the meat market. In a simple way money was always a part of my spiritual life. After I had become a Christian I tithed my part-time salary, as a teenager. If I made seventy dollars in a week, I gave seven; if I made fifty dollars a week, I gave five. I lost touch with this habit as a young adult, and in the early years of our marriage we did not tithe. It would, however, become a part of our journey of becoming a disciple through stewardship. Over time we began to give five percent of our income, and then it became seven, and now it is ten percent, and that is after taxes. Maybe a part of our journey down the road is ten percent before taxes, but my rationale is that I don’t receive that money anyway. Someday I will receive a portion of it back, maybe, but then I will pay taxes on it, and tithe it then.

I am blessed that my wife Pam is very much in this with me, and so this has not been a struggle in our marriage. The money we give to the church does many good things, and I see them every day. It is a blessing. I will also confess that, in our marriage, Pam is a much more compassionate person that I am. She has taught me in this area; it could be that we grew up in different environments. It has been a journey of becoming a disciple through stewardship.

I share some of the specifics of my story this morning not because I am so important---I am not…and not because I unique---I am not. I share the specifics because the gospel is never a generalization, an abstraction. It is always about real people and real places, it is about the encounter with Jesus in the places where we really live. In the gospel we find ourselves transported from Charlotte, a real place, to Jericho, also a real place. I have actually been to Jericho. It is one of the lowest places in the world. It is a valley. Valleys are places of flood and overwhelming, but they are also contexts for growth and fertility…I remember the farmland in Yadkin County and the corn that grew down near the river bottom.

Well, they come to the Jericho, Jesus, the disciples and the crowds. Someone has called it a traveling seminar, Jesus taking on most every question and subject: marriage and divorce, wealth and possessions, leadership and influence. Shorthand: sex, money, power. It is no wonder that he drew a crowd! On the way they encounter a blind beggar. Although he is unable to see, his other senses are perhaps heightened, and he hears something: an authentic voice, a word that he needs to hear. “Faith comes by hearing” , Paul wrote to the Romans. He calls out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”.

Be quiet, someone says. But no, his voice will not be suppressed. He calls out more loudly: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. Jesus says, “bring him to me”. The blind beggar had two strikes against him; some thought illness was caused by sin (John 9) and others reckoned poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor. Does Jesus separate himself from the blind beggar? No. A physician goes to those who are sick, Jesus commented on another occasion.

The blind beggar senses that this may be a gift of grace; he leaves behind his cloak---symbolic of our leaving behind all that has attached itself to us, that has weighed upon us---and moves toward Jesus.

Jesus asks a question: what do you want me to do for you? He responds, “teacher, let me see!” Jesus says, your faith has made you well; go.

This is the last healing miracle in the Gospel of Mark. The passage comes as a part of a longer section of scripture that begins with Mark 8. 22, both stories like bookends about the giving of sight, and in between there is a longer narrative about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The recovery of sight is symbolic of a growing ability to see the truth of who Jesus really is.

The point is a simple one: if people see Jesus for who he really is, they will follow him. There is, in the gospel of Mark, an emerging sense of who Jesus really is. He is a Holy One, a teacher, a rabbi. But he is also a compassionate one, a servant, a healer.

The blind beggar regains his sight and he is given a new perspective. This passage of scripture was the inspiration for one of the great spiritual classics, entitled The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an anonymous Russian mystic, most likely in the 18th century. In The Way of a Pilgrim, a seeker hears a sermon on the teaching of Paul in II Thessalonians 5, to “pray without ceasing”. His quest becomes how to pray without ceasing. He asks first one spiritual teacher and then another, but none of the guidance or advice really helps.

Finally he comes upon a teacher who gives him this spiritual practice:

Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”

This phrase, taken from our gospel passage 18 centuries earlier, becomes known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy”. In some traditions it is lengthened or shortened, and in some traditions it is related to a person’s breathing, inhaling and exhaling, the idea being that prayer is as natural as breathing, and this is rooted in the Hebrew connection between breath and spirit and the last psalm, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

The guidance of the teacher in The Way of a Pilgrim is simple and yet profound: it is the journey, the teacher says, from the head to the heart, from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus, from the stereotype of who you think Jesus is, to the reality of the One whose holiness and compassion intersect with our lives. Lord Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. The pilgrim would say thesewords five times a day, ten times a day, one hundred times a day, one thousand times a day until they became a mantra. In these simple words, someone has said, is the fullness of the gospel: the Lordship of Christ, the holiness and otherness of God, and the awareness of our imperfection, our flaws, our sin, and what connects them? Mercy, compassion, healing, grace.

Lord Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. The Jesus prayer moves us beyond reducing Christianity to an intellectual construct, or set of ideas. The Jesus prayer moves us beyond flattening Christianity to a series of moral rules or codes. The Jesus prayer moves us beyond confining Christianity to a collection of feelings or emotions. Christianity does have intellectual, moral and emotional aspects. But Christianity, which is really Jesus, engages all of life. He is the Lord of all of life, what we think, how we treat other people, how we process what is going on inside of ourselves, and how we spend not only 10% of our money but 100% of it. We encounter him by faith, and when we say the words of the Jesus Prayer he honors these words, and asks each of us, “what do you want me to do for you?”

Perhaps someone is here today, and for you it is a valley, in the geography of the spirit it is perhaps the lowest place. The valley can be a place of overwhelming, but it can also be a place of growth, because we are receptive to the mercy and grace of God.

In one season of my adult life I spent a great deal of time leading retreats. These were retreats for churches, retreats for pastors, retreats for Christians of different denominations. On a retreat a person gives up a day or a weekend, they leave everything behind and they seek something, some new perspective, some new way of looking at the world. Because of the intentions of those who go on retreats, and because of the environment of many of these settings, and because of the grace of God, transformation sometimes occurs. Today we might even call this healing.

I remember hearing a conversation in which we were asked to say, in simplest terms, who Jesus is for us? And then to write down, what is my greatest need? Who is Jesus for you? What is your greatest need? The answers to these two questions is, for you, the agenda of the Holy Spirit. Jesus asks us, what do you want me to do for you? We think we are doing something for God, doing something for Jesus, doing something for the church, doing something for other people. And then we discover that, actually, Jesus wants to do something for us.

Source: The Way of a Pilgrim.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

augustine on grief: a confession paraphased (4.4.7)

The darkness of grief closes in upon the heart
the loss of human love more real
than the unseen power of hymns and creeds.
Weeping alone brings consolation,
the intensity becomes a source of comfort
a friend who fills the absence.

With the passage of time,
there is healing.
The cycle of seasons renews the mind
and day by day there are gifts
of memory and hope.

Blessed are those who love you
and love their friends in you.
No one is lost in your love,
for you have created us
and we are always in your presence.

Show us your face.