The Contemplative Companion for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Originally posted on Contemplative Christianity:

“When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart, because I bore your name, O Lord, God of hosts.”  – Jeremiah 15:10, 16-21

Beholding Kings Bay this late July morning. It’s calm and still.  A mystical fog.

Suddenly, I can’t even see the Bay immediately in front of me.

It reveals to me the mystery of life, and in the silence, it’s as if the Spirit says:

Be in this moment. I’m with you. Live into the unknown. Feel underneath the unseen.

We bear the Name of Love in our hearts through every shrouded day until the light of unexpected miracles reveals the Way.

Just now sunlight is shifting through this shrouded Kings Bay, and  I can see again.

I’m with you.

 © 2014 The Contemplative Companion  

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux on Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself


‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.

And this is right: for the one who shares our nature should share our love, itself the fruit of nature. Wherefore if people find it a burden, I will not say only to relieve their brother or sister’s needs, but to minister to their pleasures, let them mortify those same affections in themselves, lest they become transgressors. They may cherish themselves as tenderly as they choose, if only they remember to show the same indulgence to their neighbors. This is the curb of temperance imposed on you, O mortal, by the law of life and conscience, lest you should follow your own lusts to destruction, or become enslaved by those passions which are the enemies of your true welfare. Far better divide your enjoyments with your neighbor than with these enemies. And if, after the counsel of the son of Sirach, you go not after your desires but refrain yourself from your appetites (Ecclus. 18.30); if according to the apostolic precept having food and raiment you are therewith content (I Tim. 6.8), then you will find it easy to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, and to divide with your neighbors what you have refused to your own desires. A temperate and righteous love practices self-denial in order to minister to a brother or sister’s necessity. So our selfish love grows truly social, when it includes our neighbors in its circle.

But if you are reduced to want by such benevolence, what then? What indeed, except to pray with all confidence unto the One who gives to all people liberally and upbraids not (James 1.5), who opens the divine hand and fills all things living with plenty (Ps. 145.16). For doubtless the One that gives to most people more than they need will not fail you as to the necessaries of life, even as God has promised: Seek the Kingdom of God, and all those things shall be added unto you’ (Luke 12.31). God freely promises all things needful to those who deny themselves for love of their neighbors; and to bear the yoke of modesty and sobriety, rather than to let sin reign in our mortal body (Rom. 6.12), that is indeed to seek the Kingdom of God and to implore God’s aid against the tyranny of sin. It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.

from On Loving God, Chapter 8

A Midwestern Thunderstorm

I did not know
when I arrived
that the nothing
surrounding everything
would be my favorite part
of the landscape

the pressure lifts
the sky
coming alive
giving life

a traumatic birth
groaning in expectation

water wind fire
all at once
sacred symbols

open font

I dip my finger
sign of the cross
enter into silence

open heart
spirit fills

I am dipped
some said it thundered

Your Story Isn’t Over Yet

Back when I was a substance abuse counselor, my clients would sometimes come to me when they were working on the “Higher Power” part of the Twelve Step program. They heard that I was a member of the clergy, so they would say, “I want to read the Bible, but I don’t know where to start.”

For these people so early in their recovery from debilitating addictions, many of whom had lost jobs, families, health, and freedom in pursuit of compulsions that now made them feel ashamed of themselves, I could recommend no better place to start reading the Bible than at the very beginning: the book of Genesis.

I told my clients to pay special attention to the story of Jacob. I tell them, “Genesis (Jacob’s story in particular) is one of the only books I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gives up on them. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, chances are that you will be able to read about the people in the book of Genesis and feel a whole lot better about yourself.”

As for Jacob, here’s his story:

He lied to his own father and cheated his brother Esau out of everything that was rightfully his. When we encounter him in today’s Old Testament reading, he is a fugitive, on the run from the law and a brother who has sworn to kill him. Even after having this visionary experience of God, Jacob would go on to another fourteen years of lying, cheating, and stealing from his own extended family in the foreign country to which he flees (and from which he will once again flee after another bout of deception).

All in all, Jacob comes across as a pretty bad guy. If I were God, I wouldn’t bother with such an untrustworthy character, who more often than not chooses the wrong thing, even when presented with every opportunity to do the right thing. Fortunately for Jacob, God has much worse taste in people than I do.

Just like the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, God is content to let the good and the bad grow together in Jacob, accepting him as he is for the sake of what he might be.

God shows up in the middle of Jacob’s dream while he is on the run. Like a drunk who got kicked out of the bar at closing time and missed the last bus, but is too ashamed to call home for a ride, he lies down to sleep outside and cuddles up to a rock for a pillow.

If anything, one would think that this would be a prime moment for God to stage an intervention. One can imagine the Almighty appearing to Jacob in his dream and saying, “Jake… what are you doing, man? I mean, come on… look at yourself! You’re sleeping outside; you’ve got no place to go. You have no job, no home, no blanket, and a rock for a pillow! You seriously need some help and if you don’t stop destroying yourself and ruining life for everyone else, then I can’t be around you anymore.”

Sadly, there are plenty of parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and children who have had to have that very difficult conversation with someone they love. Some of us have even been on the receiving end of that kind of tough love.

From a human perspective, it’s sometimes necessary because each of us has only a limited amount of resources in time, money, and emotional energy. Everyone has a breaking point when they just can’t handle any more trauma.

But God isn’t subject to the same kinds of human limitations we are. God quite simply has no ego to bruise. The reservoir of divine love is literally bottomless. I’m inclined to believe that divine omnipotence is rooted, not in the ability to dole out eternal hell and punishment, but in the ability to take it.

That’s why God is able to show up in Jacob’s dream entirely un-phased by Jacob’s penchant for self-destruction. There is no “my way or the highway”, “shape up or ship out”, ultimatums, or threats of hellfire and damnation. God wants Jacob to know only one thing:

“All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

To sum up, God is saying to Jacob: “I’m not done with you yet. Go ahead and do what you need to do and go where you need to go, but we’re going to put a bookmark here and come back to this because your story is not over yet.”

For a surprising number of the folks I’ve worked with, whether they are homeless or unemployed, divorced or destitute, chemically dependent or mentally ill, convicted by their conscience or a court of law, these are the precise words they most long to hear: Your story is not over yet.

Sometimes, all it takes to unleash great potential is for another person to look at us with more faith, hope, and love for us than we have in ourselves. That’s what Jacob needed. Before Jacob could believe in God, he needed to know that God believed in him.

Jacob’s response is one of amazement: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Although there’s no evidence to indicate that this is the case, Jacob (or someone very much like him) easily could have written Psalm 139, which we also read this morning. He ran as far and as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but still couldn’t outrun or out-sin the infinite love of God. Here is the song of Jacob’s heart:

Where can I go then from your Spirit; *
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,”

Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.

Jacob would certainly nod his head in agreement with these words from St. Paul:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On the night when he had his dream, Jacob had given up on himself, so he naturally assumed that God had as well. Perhaps he assumed that he was so far outside God’s good graces that no prayer would help him now. Maybe he had even stopped believing in God’s existence altogether. The text doesn’t say. What is clear, however, is that God is last person Jacob expected to encounter as he lay down to sleep.

It would still be several years before Jacob’s heart would turn and his life would start to turn around. In the intervening years, he would go through multiple marriages, lost jobs, false accusations, intolerable in-laws, house full of kids, and enough relationship drama to rival anything one might see on Reality TV.

In fourteen years’ time, Jacob would find himself once again alone in the desert with nothing left but the shirt on his back. On that night, he and God would have it out for real this time and Jacob would be changed forever.

But for now, Jacob isn’t there yet. This isn’t the big moment when all becomes clear and everything changes for good. This isn’t the moment when Jacob finds what he’s been searching for finally gets his life together. He’s still a lost soul for now.

All Jacob has for now is this hunch that came to him one night in a weird, foggy dream: the hunch that his story is not over yet, that he is loved, that God is still with him, and isn’t finished with him yet.

Leading From the Center

Today’s Old Testament reading in the lectionary is taken from Joshua 6:1-14.

It is the story of the famous battle of Jericho, not the well-known part when “the walls came a-tumblin’ down,” but the calm before the storm as the Israelites marched around the city in silence:

“You shall not shout or let your voice be heard, nor shall you utter a word”

Meanwhile, the priests with the ark of the covenant walked between the front and rear guards of the people, leading from the center with the sound of music in the midst of silence:

“The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the LORD passed on, blowing the trumpets continually. The armed men went before them, and the rear guard came after the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets blew continually.”

In the same way, it was the monastic mothers and fathers who led the way forward for western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Like the Israelites, they made their seven-fold rounds in prayer. Unlike the Israelites, their task was to preserve rather than destroy: they saved the very best of their culture from destruction. For a thousand years the monasteries were centers of education, hospitality, and healthcare while the rest of western Europe was struggling to survive the dark ages. It is no surprise that the leaders of medieval Europe, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, religious and secular alike, mostly had their formation in the monasteries.

Yet the preservation of societal treasures was not the primary mission of the monastic orders. They were not culture warriors by any stretch of the imagination. Their first call was to spirituality and prayer. Like the levitical priests, the monks and nuns made their daily rounds in the Liturgy of the Hours, “leading from the center” with music and silence as the city walls of Rome itself came tumbling down.

This idea of leading from the center with the combined music and silence of prayer goes against everything that industrial capitalism values. Our consumer-oriented economy prizes only that which obtains measurable results by way of traceable means. Even our churches fall into this trap. Just look at our paid staff positions: pastors, sextons, office managers. Within pastoral ministry itself, there are senior administrative pastors, pastors of Christian education, mission pastors, youth pastors, pastors for children and family ministries… when was the last time anyone saw a church with a full-time paid pastor whose primary task on staff was to pray?

Personally, I’ve never seen it and I doubt I ever will. Our culture tends not to value such things. Prayer is something that all parishioners theoretically want their pastors to do, but only when there isn’t something more important to do. Prayer is the first part of a committee meeting to be cut from the docket (save for a quick collect at the beginning and end). One of my seminary professors had a cartoon on his door: a parish priest kneels for prayer in his office while a parishioner pokes a head through the door and exclaims, “Oh good! You’re not busy!”

The one exception to this rule is in the monasteries. These are women and men whose entire lives are given primarily to the task of prayer (St. Benedict calls it “the Work of God”). Not surprisingly, monasticism is probably the least understood and least valued aspect of church life today. In a culture obsessed with money, sex, and power, people (even Christians) cannot fathom why some sisters and brothers would take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and devote themselves to prayer. To them, that kind of behavior seems deviant (and it is); they are afraid that it will undermine their way of life (and it does).

I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard people talk about a beautiful nun or a good-looking Catholic priest and say, “What a waste!” as though attractive people had a moral responsibility to make themselves sexually available for the enjoyment of others. Only those who go out of their way to take up this way of life, or at least learn about it, can understand its value.

I am just beginning to learn. As the solo pastor of a small, inner-city parish, I could easily spend my entire day returning phone calls, going to meetings, replacing kitchen tiles, ordering candles, planning potlucks, fundraising, and fixing leaky faucets. I also visit the sick and the dying, write sermons, prepare the liturgy, educate the flock, and advocate on behalf of mental health issues in our community. After five years of ordained ministry, I have yet to reach the end of my to-do list (I’m told it will never happen). In light of this truth, it feels like an act of defiance to set aside the beginning and end of each work day for the liturgy of the Divine Office. All of the previously mentioned tasks, from replacing tiles to writing sermons, take on their truest and best meaning when they are led from the center and surrounded by the act of prayer.

Obviously, I’m not a monk (owing to the vows I’ve already made to the “holy order” of marriage). But I have recently joined the Confraternity of a local Benedictine abbey, which I have committed to pray for, support financially, and visit once a month. I also seek to broadly embody its principles of stability, amendment of life, and obedience through my daily living in the world.

I am only a beginner in this process. Joining the Confraternity represents the first step in following the Benedictine way. It is the step I am taking now and I look forward to seeing where it may lead me in the future. Most of all, I look forward to seeing how this way of spiritual practice will affect my approach to life at home and at work.

For me, the monastery helps me lead from center by being like a still spot on the wall, to which a spinning dancer can return his vision in order to keep from losing his sense of balance. This particular monastery focuses its work on prayer and hospitality (in that order). This community, centered in the brothers at prayer, and its 1,500 year-old font of Benedictine wisdom, is my “spot on the wall.” I don’t go there to “get away” from the pressures of work and ministry; my monthly visits and daily participation in prayer are spiritually centering activities that call me back to the Ground of my own Being, from which the rest of life and ministry can then flow.

In this day and age:

  • when some are beginning to wonder whether ours is a civilization in decline,
  • when those of us who advocate for moral and spiritual values feel quite small and helpless next to the towering stone walls of social injustice,

we would do well to remember the joint witness of the levitical priests and the monastic founders. We would have no hope of overcoming our societal problems if we depended on brute strength, political maneuvering, or bank accounts.

Like the ancient Israelites, we must realize that we are utterly unable to pull down the walls of injustice; we must pray them down instead.

Like the monastics, let us not seek to save our dying culture, but anchor ourselves in the Divine Rock which stands firm forever:

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Let us lead from the center with music and silence, faithfully making our daily rounds in the spirit of prayer.

St. Benedict at the Border

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

(Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)

These words of Jesus, taken from today’s gospel reading in the Daily Lectionary, have challenged and disturbed me more than anything else Jesus ever said. I first came across them in high school, when I was steeped in evangelical fervor and biblical literalism. Every morning, I would drive past homeless men on my way to school. They would panhandle on the median of highway 15-501 at the stoplight, directly across the street from my favorite restaurant (*shout-out to Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits).

The teachers at my conservative Christian high school were constantly calling students back to their personal responsibility to read the Bible and do what it says. Most of the time, what they meant by that was: “Go to church, don’t drink or smoke, and don’t have sex.” My guess is that the administration didn’t count on their students actually reading the above passage and taking it seriously (except in the most general sense of occasionally volunteering at a soup kitchen).

However, in my sincere effort to “read the Bible and do what it says,” I couldn’t get away from these words of Jesus. And I couldn’t stop thinking about those guys panhandling on the highway. People warned me to stay away from them because they were lazy bums who probably just wanted cash for booze, but if I was hearing Jesus correctly (and I think I was), the salvation of my soul depended quite highly on my personal relationship with these lazy bums. As Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church once said, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

St. Benedict of Nursia said it like this:

Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35)…

In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed  or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons. 

(The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53)

This spiritual principle is similar to the one found in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, which means: “The Divine in me worships the Divine in you.” Speaking in Christian terms, we honor one another as fellow beings made in God’s image, as members of the mystical Body of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit. However we choose to express it, the truth remains that we are connected to one another in God, therefore we have a moral responsibility to care for one another.

In Christianity, there is no such thing as a “self-made person” who “pulls herself up by her own bootstraps” because we are all saved by grace and owe our hope, our redemption, our very existence to another (i.e. Christ). Therefore, when this Divine Other comes to us in those who are poor, in those who do not look or talk like us, and in those who make inconvenient demands upon our time and resources, it is imperative that we remember our indebtedness. None of us would be here were it not for the Savior who went out of his way to help us “while we were yet sinners”: undeserving foreigners, trespassers in the kingdom of heaven, and illegal aliens.

To borrow a favorite image from Dr. Bob Ekblad, Christ is the Coyote who smuggles us across the border of heaven’s kingdom “illegally” (i.e. by grace, outside the requirements of Divine law). We are all “wetbacks” who have passed through the waters of baptism, like the Israelites crossed the waters of the Jordan River into the promised land, like so many undocumented migrant people are now crossing the Rio Grande in hope of a better life.

When we made this baptismal journey with Jesus, there were no vigilante angels patrolling heaven’s border with shotguns and spotlights, no holding pens in the church where sinners awaited deportation back to hell, but only the invisible presence of our Coyote, delivering us into the arms of the pastor and the combined voices of our brothers and sisters:

With joy and thanksgiving
we welcome you into Christ’s church
to share with us in his ministry,
for we are all one in Christ.

(The Book of Common Worship, p. 414)

As payment for our crossing, Coyote Christ asks that we pass on the amnesty we have received. The debt we owe to him must be repaid by way of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores… the homeless, [and the] tempest-tossed”.

Let us remember this truth as we read the headlines and see the images of Hispanic children piled on top of one another in warehouses along the border, when we encounter busloads of immigrants arriving at Wal-Mart, when we get stuck in line behind someone who does not yet speak English well.

The question we must ask in those moments is not “What is convenient for me?” or “What is best for America?” but, in the words of Psalm 116:10 – “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”

The hospitality we offer to these brothers and sisters at the border is nothing more or less than the debt we owe to Christ. According to St. Benedict’s guidance and Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:40, What we do for them is what we do for Him, and the souls we save in doing so will not be theirs, but our own.

Jul 16 – “The Righteous Gentiles”

Originally posted on Holy Women, Holy Men:

Illumination - The Righteous Gentiles

“The Righteous Gentiles
Raoul Wallenberg, 1947 | Hiram Bingham IV, 1988 | Karl Lutz, 1975
Chiune Sugihara, 1986 | André Trocmé, 1971 | Magda Trocmé, 1996
16 July

click here for books on the Righteous Gentiles

From the Satucket Lectionary

Although the phrase “Righteous Gentiles” has become a general term for any non-Jew who risked their life to save Jews during the Holocaust, it here appears to apply specifically to: Raoul Wallenberg [d. 1947, Swedish]; Hiram Bingham IV [d. 1988, American]; Karl Lutz [d. 1975, Swiss]; Chiume Sujihara [d. 1986, Japanese]; André Trocmé [d. 1971, French]; and Magda Trocmé [d. 1996, Italy].

Raoul Wallenberg passport photoRaoul Wallenberg (August 4, 1912 – July 17, 1947?) was a Swedish humanitarian who worked in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Between July and December 1944, he issued protective passports and housed Jews, saving tens of…

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