Monday, January 30, 2012

eating with monastics

This past weekend I was on a winter retreat with my faith community.  There were 21 of us stuffed into a 4-bedroom chalet in the mountains.  It was amazing to see how gracious and patient people were with each other.  One person volunteered to sleep in the laundry room.  Others offered to help out in the kitchen even if they were not scheduled to assist with cooking or cleaning.  Our hosts welcomed us with huge smiles, hugs, and kisses.  They silently served us in many ways: not only did they let us take over their chalet, but after a snowy night, we awoke to find that our cars had all been brushed off, ready for the trip home. I don't remember hearing any complaints over the weekend.  We cooked together, we ate together, we went on a winter hike, we frolicked on the frozen lake, we drank tea by the fire, we played games, we had times of silence, we worshipped God together, and we prayed for each other. 

Our last meal together was a variation of a monk meal.  In a monastic community, meals are eaten in silence.  Many times, someone reads an inspirational text while the group eats.  One also has to be attentive to the needs of others, making sure that everyone has access to food and drink.  The goal of the monastic meal is to help us to focus not just on our bodily needs, but to be attentive to nourishing our spirits and to be mindful of the needs of others around us.  There are a few things that I notice every time I participate in a monk meal.

First, the noise of serving and eating a meal always surprises me.  A monk meal is never truly silent.  Today, I was thinking about music played in restaurants.  I suppose that aside from creating a certain ambiance, it is meant to diminish the voices of people around you so that you feel you have some privacy.  Maybe it is also meant to camouflage the noise of eating.  Perhaps it mostly reveals how unsettling we find silence and what it might require of us. 

Second, participating in a monk meal always makes me realize how far we fall short of selfless service and devotion.  Meals have become very much about our own needs, our own consumption.  How does one eat a meal to the glory of God?  I don't exactly know, but I think the monk meal can give us some clues as to how we can re-prioritize our meal times to reflect our devotion to God, and with much more than a token prayer of thanks tossed in at the beginning.

Third, I always come away with a sense that I need to learn to listen better.  I find it difficult to listen to someone read while I am eating.  I suppose that is why I volunteer to do much of the reading when we have a monk meal.  This last weekend, I read an article entitled, "The 7 Habits of People Who Place Radical Trust in God."  To me, this article echoes much of what the monk meal is about:  to help us get more in sync with the kingdom of God and less entangled in the values of our current culture.  The 7 habits, according to Jennifer Fulwiler, are:  1) They accept suffering, 2) They accept the inevitability of death, 3) They have daily appointments with God, 4) In prayer, they listen more than they talk, 5) They limit distractions, 6) They submit their discernment to others, and 7) They offer the Lord their complete, unhesitating obedience.  You can read the whole article by Jennifer Fulwiler here

The word monk comes from the root monos which simply means "single."  While in most cases it denotes an unmarried life, it also implies a single-minded devotion to Christ and Christ's community.  Yes, let my devotion be single.  And let me embrace the discipline of listening today.  Speak Lord, I am listening.

the photo:  some of our group at the lookout point of Mont Sourire.

Friday, January 27, 2012

loving the job (again)

I was driving on the way to a church meeting last Sunday when I felt something strange - excitement!!  It had been quite a while since I had felt anticipation in coming to a church meeting.  Lately, it was usually a sense of obligation - a burden I had to carry, a task to accomplish. For me, Sundays include getting there early, setting up, making sure the powerpoint is assembled and the projector/computer working, often helping with worship music, sometimes giving the talk, praying, greeting visitors, and then packing up and locking up.  Sigh of relief!  Yes, I hate to admit it, but for the last little while, I have not looked forward to church gatherings.  So, when I felt a mini sparkler in my stomach last Sunday, it was a pleasant surprise. 

The change actually began a week before that while I was giving a talk in the Sunday gathering.  First, you should know that none of us are paid for pastoral work in our church group.  All leadership positions are voluntary, so anyone who speaks or leads the music or organises an event, does so in addition to their day job.  This means that we try to share the load and, as much as we can, do church together.  People do help in many ways, but the speaking and set-up falls mostly to Dean and myself.  I am always asking people if they want to take a turn, but not many jump at the chance.  And without fully realizing it, I was starting to resent this.

Last week, while I was speaking to the assembled saints on the topic of accurate worship (see blogpost here), I believe that God spoke to me.  Basically, he said, "Stop trying to give it away.  This is what I have given you to do.  Teach!"  I knew it was true.  This is my task - to try to bring clarity to the journey of faith and love and offer opportunites for others to learn and grow.  It is meant to be a joyful responsibility, not a tiresome burden.  And I had been trying to shove it off on others just because I was weary.  In response to that still, small voice, I decided to change my attitude.  Yes, joyful responsibility, you are mine!

Sometimes I don't like working out.  Sometimes I don't like studying.  Sometimes I don't like writing.  Sometimes I don't like reading (yes, it's true, especially if it is a rather dense philosophy text).  But I do it (and keep doing it) because it is good for my body and mind and soul.  As well, the result or goal is always so much greater than I see at present.  Yes, it is my joyful responsibility to develop the gifts I have been given and embrace the opportunities that come my way.  Of course there are days when I am tired, sick, brain-dead, overloaded, and a bit stressed out.  Everyone has days like those.  But those days should be the exception, not the general mood of my life.  I can whine about the tasks in my life (ugh, not another workout! not another lesson to prepare!) or I can tackle them with joy, knowing that not only am I benefiting from the process, but I am serving others well by embracing the task.

I  get to teach!  I get to prepare lessons!  I get to read a lot!  I get to workout my body!  I get to engage with students!  I get to talk about Jesus to others!  I get to pray for others!  I get to set-up a room so that  people have places to sit!  I get to prepare presentations that help everyone access the material!  I get to write about the things that matter to me!  I am blessed with joyful responsibilities!  

the photo:  the picture on my calendar for the month of January, hanging right above my desk.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

book review: Insurrection

Insurrection by Peter Rollins.  New York: Howard Books, 2011.  190 pages.

Before one even cracks open the cover of Peter Rollin's Insurrection, the reader is warned about the explosive nature of what is inside. Words like "incendiary," "controversial," and "radical" litter the back cover endorsements.  The front cover promises that what is inside will not only take us to the edge of the cliff but push us off (according to Rob Bell)!  Well, for all the hype, I found the book quite a bit tamer than promised, but perhaps that was the goal: to get readers to brace themselves for some strong words about Christianity and in so doing, become more receptive to what Rollins has to say. 

The stated purpose of the book is to outline what a "radical expression of a faith beyond religion might look like and how it has the power to give birth to a radically new form of church, one with the power to renew, reform or even transcend the present constellation of conservative, liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist, and orthodox communities" (xiv).  Rollins proposes what he calls "pyro-theology" which, I would venture to say, pretty much boils down to deconstruction.  The thing about deconstruction is that one can get so caught up in tearing things down that one is left with nothing but a big, empty, void.  Rollins teeters on the edge of the chasm a few times, but in the end, manages to avoid falling in.

I will be right up front by mentioning that while I liked a lot of what Rollins has to say, a few things bothered me about this book.  Rollins adopts an aggressive, provocative style of writing.  I suppose he is attempting to shake the religious reader out of their religious stupor in order that they can embrace what he calls "religionless Christianity." This is a term he borrows from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (lovely chap and I admire him deeply), but I am always wary of people borrowing expensive terms (it would eventually cost Bonhoeffer his life) for their own purposes without paying the rent.  Everyone loves to quote the saints, but who is willing to live the lives that produced these words of wisdom? 

Honestly, I do believe Rollins would be up for it, but his language mimics a "shock and awe" style which, in my humble opinion, sabotages the message to some degree.  Bonhoeffer himself admitted that his blustery early writings calling for church reform later mellowed to a certain extent when he was imprisoned.  This was evident in his gracious treatment of guards, fellow prisoners, and family members during his confinement.  To me, Rollins seems to be in his blustery stage.  One example is his redefinition of the word "religion" to mean an anti-Christian system.  I'm sorry, Peter, but that's bad etymology.  To me, he is simply erecting a target in order to knock it down (straw man fallacy).  Scriptural writers call for true or pure religion, not the eradication of religion (see 1 Timothy 5:4, James 1:27).

Anyway, enough of my complaints and on to what Rollins has done well in this book.  First, I love the easy, readable style.  He interjects pithy stories or parables into each chapter to illustrate his points.  Very nicely done.  The crucifixion and Jesus' cry of abandonment are a focal point from which he expounds his theme of giving up the "idol" of a convenient, comforting God (deus ex machina).  Rollins calls this inadequate, self-serving image of God the "God of religion," and effectively and jarringly brings the scandal of the cross in direct conflict with this cozy image.  In many places, we see hints of John of the Cross' dark night of the soul, though somewhat surprisingly, Rollins does not make reference to the reformer.   

I have to mention Chapter Three's brilliant title:  "I'm Not Religious" and Other Religious Sayings.  Made me laugh out loud.  As the book progresses, Rollins writes convincingly about embracing crucifixion, losing our religion, and rejecting the system which props up our comfortable beliefs.  He challenges the reader to approach the cross not as an objective critic, but as a participatory lover (75).  One of the most dynamic chapters is the one that addresses the gap between beliefs and actions.  Rollins states that "our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs" (102).  That made me stop and think.  And think some more.  When Rollins does finally come to the subject of the resurrection, he presents it not as the answer to the crucifixion, but as a lens through which the coldness and the darkness of the cross are truly felt (112).  The resurrection lives in the midst of death (108).

This fixation on the crucifixion is reflective of Rollins' negative style (via negativa) which concentrates on describing what is not instead of what is or can be; while effective, it falters somewhat when it comes to actually telling us what "religionless Christianity" looks like.  The closest he comes is to say that we find God through turning away from self-interest and losing ourselves in love (125).  It seems that Rollins is still working out the practical implications of what it means to encounter God in this radical crucifixion way and thus has a tough time explaining it, but that's just my opinion. 

While I think Rollins' largely deconstructionist approach could use a bit more development or maturity (couldn't we all?), I appreciate that he is not playing the role of a disinterested critic.  In the "conversation" printed at the end of the book, he admits that while developing these concepts, he experienced resistance from himself.  He says: "The idea that I need to radically interrogate the things that I hold dear and encounter my own brokenness, darkness, and vulnerability is terrifying...I speak first and foremost to myself" (188).

Brave words from a brave man.  Insurrection is a book worth reading.  The ideas in it are worth grappling with.  The author, by his own admission, will be grappling right alongside you. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

accurate worship

I was reading an introduction to 1-2 Chronicles a few days ago and came across an interesting phrase:  accurate worship.  It seemed strangely out of place, yet I know Eugene (Peterson) meant to use exactly those words.  So I did some thinking and reading and researching.  Here are some thoughts that came out of that.

First, let's look at the word 'accurate.'  I consulted with a few people who are well-versed in archery and came away with some good pointers on accuracy.  First, orient yourself towards your target.  Never let it out of your sight.  Second, anchoring is very important.  Be firmly grounded (solid stance) and find a point of reference which will help you to be consistent.  Some people draw the bow back till it touches their cheek.  Every time they aim, they then pull to the exact same spot -it helps them be consistent.  This is called anchoring.  Third, use a soft grip.  Too much tension on the bow or too much tension in your body will pull you off target.  A death grip on the bow (happens when you are trying really hard to get it right) makes your muscles contract and affects your accuracy.  Hold the bow lightly, with a partially open hand, allowing it to rest naturally between two fingers.  Be at ease. 

Now a few words about 'worship.'  Ronald Rolheiser talks about fire, desire, restlessness, longing, dissatisfaction, or an ache that each of us carry inside.  This is the impetus for human beings to reach beyond what they know.  What we do with this desire, Rolheiser says, is our spirituality.  I would say that it could also refer to our worship.  Rolheiser insists that all of us have a spirituality; we all do something with our longing for something greater than ourselves.  I believe the same applies to worship: we are all worshippers. We all direct our life-energy somewhere.  

When talking about accurate worship, there are two questions:  1) who or what are we worshipping (what is the target)? and 2) how well do we worship (how accurate are we)?  If you know anything about the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, you know that they loved to worship.  Most of the time, though, it was a bit of a shotgun/haphazard approach: they worshipped Jehovah but added in popular gods from the surrounding nations.  Their worship was also known to include a wide variety of practices; they started with the directives from Moses and picked up a few other additional rituals along the way like temple prostitution (everybody was doing it).  They added and dropped targets and changed practices at whim.  It was worship, but it wasn't very accurate.  God had given specific instructions to the people, letting them know what it looked like to be connected to him, to be in a covenant with Jehovah.  Covenants need to be accurate and explicit in order to protect the sanctity of the relationship and by inference, both parties.  Accuracy matters in these things.

Accurate worship, then, means that we choose only one target (Kierkegaard talks about willing 'one thing').  It means that we keep our eyes on that target and orient ourselves towards that target.  It implies that we find some anchoring points and practice in order to become consistent.  It requires that we find stability, yet not rigidity. 

Rolheiser suggest 4 essentials for a healthy spiritual life (and I would add, for accurate worship):  1) private prayer and private morality (Jesus knew the value of a strong, private relationship with God which resulted in choosing what God chose), 2) social justice (compassion for others), 3) mellowness of heart and spirit (not being a worrier, not quick to anger, but exhibiting thankfulness and graciousness), and 4) community as a constitutive element of true worship (being committed to a group of people not only keeps us anchored, it keeps us real).  I think those are pretty good places to start helping us focus our worship and develop some consistency. 

We are all going to worship today.  Who or what will it be?  How accurate will it be?

the photo:  outdoor ribbon installation I saw downtown this summer, with a few photo adjustments

Ronald Rolheiser.  The Holy Longing: The Search for a  Christian Spirituality.  Doubleday, 1999.
Eugene Peterson.  Introduction to 1-2 Chronicles in The Message.  NavPress, 2004.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

how much does it cost?

I am teaching a course on Christian Spirituality this term.  The textbook I have chosen to use (Devotional Classics edited by Richard Foster) starts off with an introductory section that talks about the cost involved in living a life in accordance with the Spirit of Jesus.  No easing into the subject for Foster, no gentle convincing or subtle sales job.  He just puts it right out there at the front:  being a following of Jesus takes a lot of courage.  How much should spirituality cost me?  Well, how much am I willing to pay? 

C.S. Lewis reminds us that being a Christian is not like paying your taxes, where you give God what he is due and hope there is a little left over for yourself.  He says:  "The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self - all your wishes and precautions - to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call 'ourselves,' to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be 'good.'" (9)

Philosopher Dallas Willard (another contributor to the book)  likes to turn things around in order to make a point.  He asks not how much learning to be like Jesus (discipleship) costs, but what it costs us if we don't do it: "Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil." (16)  He also prods us on by saying that if we are going to doubt our beliefs, then we must also be willing to doubt our doubts.  That takes a lot of courage.  Costly courage.

Yes, we are too easily swayed by our consumer attitudes and readily convinced by expert marketers that something of great value can be had for a very low cost.  Not true.  The cost of a rich and meaningful life that reaches beyond my little world involves sacrifice, love, and surrender.  No other way to do it.  Jesus help me.  I have some big bills coming up.

Quotes from Devotional Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith.  HarperCollins, 2005.

the photo:  the textbook and my wallet.

Friday, January 06, 2012

fresh start, anywhere, anytime

It's a new year.  It's a new day.  It's a new life.  It's a Michael BublĂ© song.
The dawn of a new year is often a time when people attempt a fresh start.  I don't like to save up my fresh starts for January; I like to sprinkle them liberally throughout the year.  In fact, each new day when I wake up is a fresh start.  Though some of the tasks ahead of me may be similar to those I did the day before, and my location or situation in life may not have changed much, each never-lived-before moment is rife with possibilities for creativity, insight, kindness, learning, joy, and embracing new disciplines.  In fact, most days it seems to be a choice:  do I surrender to sameness or revel in the birth of each moment with its accompanying challenges?  I hope I chose birth.

In doing some research for a course, I came across two videos that have got me thinking.  In fact, I believe they have done more than that: they have birthed something new in my thinking and hopefully, will translate into new actions as well.  The first was the song, Be Thou My Vision, played by artist Roby Duke.  I do not use the word 'performed' because it is clearly not a performance that he is giving.  He does not want nor need applause.  He spends time easing into the song by doing some improv warm-ups and talking to himself, which is definitely not the way to wow your audience; in fact, it seems disorienting.  But instead of a performance, he gives himself.  He is a masterful musician, but he is not interested in showing that off or receiving recognition for his talent.  He just wants to play, whether it is at home in his living room or in the presence of hundreds of people.  And he loves to play and sing, that is obvious.

Removing the aspect of performance (and it is perhaps telling that we find that so disorienting, even in a church setting) has given me access to the song like never before.  The word 'vision' is a bright rainbow in my mind these days, reminding me of God's promise, even though I couldn't tell you exactly what that promise is.  I know I will find out each day what that promise means.  'Vision' has been overused and abused by religious folk.  For this reason, some people denounce vision altogether, but I believe they are talking more about someone's agenda than true vision. Vision is seeing, and we all need to see.  I need to see.  It gives me hope.  Thank you, Roby. In this video, I see the words come to life:  Riches I need not nor man's empty praise.  Thou my inheritance now and always...

The second video was a short clip of an interview with Dallas Willard.  In it he talks about doubt.  I am reading Peter Rollin's book, Insurrection.  He believes doubt is necessary in a deconstructionist way to overcome the unhealthy 'God of religion' that we adopt for our own convenience.  So, the subject has been on my mind.  Willard's first sentence in the video interview is quite striking:  "If you're going to be a doubter, be sure to doubt your doubts as well as your beliefs."  He goes on to say, "We are taught in our culture to think that a person who doubts is essentially smarter than a person who believes, but you can be as dumb as a cabbage and still say, 'Why?'"  Now, I do recognise the value of asking questions and taking a hard, honest look at what we say we believe.  Often much of what we assume is true can be unexamined (Socrates says that 'the unexamined life is not worth living').  However, Willard makes a valid point that once we start deconstructing something, we must also be willing to deconstruct our deconstruction. If our beliefs can originate in inauthentic places, so can our doubts.  Thank you, Dallas.  You have given me a grid for the value of doubt.  Let it not become a viscious circle, but lead to authentic, constructive, uncomplicated, purer faith that is neither self-serving nor convenient.

In case you are interested, here are the links to the two videos.  These were instrumental in my fresh start this week.

Roby Duke, Be Thou My Vision

Dallas Willard interview    

the photos:  a sunflower I saw while walking in Montreal this fall.  Sunflowers always splash brightness, joy, and wonder all over my world.