Saturday, March 07, 2009

In the Garden

The invitation for today, Saturday, is to free-form prayer, to be with God in whatever way feels free and joyous. It was a beautiful day today, and I spent most of it outside. We spent several hours in the garden, preparing soil, clearing the ends of last year's growth, pulling early weeds and spotting the first sprouts of mums. As Wendell Berry says, good work done kindly and well is prayer. I prayed in the dirt all day. A very fine way to step into spring.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Why Christian?

A word, from the context of the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, from Ken Sehested, the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship:
"Finally, a belated word of thanks to the CPWI group. I remember overhearing, from a distance, some of the controversy which surrounded the group's forming some years ago — basically, pretty caustic criticism for organizing a 'Christian' group. At the time I meant to write a strong endorsement for this strategy--against the cosmopolitanites and idealists who believe they can hang in mid-air, free of history and angles of vision, finding a location that transcends all social locations. This is the dark side of liberalism: the desire to reduce and distill everything to supposed 'universal' principles. This, too, is part of the domination system which must be resisted. This is not at all to deny the urgent need to do interfaith work, and to become sufficiently 'bilingual' to engage with people of no explicit faith commitment. But we must keep in mind the long history of dominant groups who want to say, 'we're all just alike.'"
I am reminded, when I hear vague references to a higher power, that it does matter greatly just what higher power we are talking about. After all, from where I sit here in Arlington, the Pentagon is a higher power, the White House is a higher power, the Congress is a higher power. Each of those higher powers does have the capacity to reduce us all to the same, to obliterate our histories and make of us creatures in their own particular images.
To follow Jesus is, first and foremost, to resist that power to reduce others to our own image, including the image of followers of Jesus. The cross is most abused when it is captive to the empire and becomes a sign of triumph rather than an invitation to compassion -- to suffering with.
Hm, so I wrote the above this morning. This afternoon I come to the Lenten exercise where today we are asked to read Luke 9:18-27, in which Jesus asks Peter, "who do you say that I am?"
The heading for today's exercise is, "What difference does it make that I'm a Christian?"
Clearly this afternoon is speaking to this morning. It does make a difference what higher power one calls upon, one sits with, one listens for. If God is made known in Jesus then what do we know of God? The passage from Luke is instructive. Just before Jesus asks the great Christological question he feeds 5,000 hungry souls and stomachs. Just after he asks it, he reminds his followers that the nature of discipleship is defined by the cross. Then, he continues his ministry of healing.
God feeds us. God desires our wholeness. God heals.
What difference does it make to put Jesus at the center of my devotion? It points me clearly toward that God. It draws me into relationship with that God.
None of which is an argument for exclusivity, but rather a recognition that I am a finite human being, situated in a particular culture and moment in history. I cannot follow every path, but I can follow the one before me with as much faithfulness as I am willing to risk.
Pictured? Oh, that's a window from my church. I call that one "peace Jesus."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Praying With ...

A two-fer today, as I try to catch up. Does unbinding my heart this rapidly pose risks?
Anyway, the invitation for today is praying for children. As father of three, this is nothing new under the sun. I feel like I spend half my life as parent following Rabbi Heschel's advice that we "pray with our feet." I'm always chasing children.
Coincidentally, this evening was parent-teacher conference night for our elementary school one. This morning was the presbytery's social justice committee meeting. The connection?
We focused this morning on the economic crisis and the host of theological questions that the church should be posing in its midst. The first question, it seems to me, for the North American church must be: what is the richest country in the history of the world called to do at this moment. While sitting in the meeting, I ambled over to Global Rich List to see where I fall on the list of the world's richest people. My present salary (which is less than ten percent higher than the minimum for a pastor in National Capital Presbytery) puts me in the richest .88 percent of the global population. Number 53,205,017 to be precise.
We live in what passes for the working class section of Arlington and our youngest child goes to the school in the county that serves the highest percentage of free lunches and has the lowest scores on standardized tests. Yet it has the richest learning environment of any school that our three children have been in (in four states and several incredibly affluent school systems).
If we are to be honest in assessing the financial crisis we must first be honest in assessing our own wealth. If we are to be honest in praying for the children of the world, we must first be honest in confessing how much more we could be doing for them if we worried less about the state of our 401Ks and recognize the ridiculous abundance that we have at our disposal.
So, I see the great Rabbi's walking prayer and raise him one. We need to be praying with our checkbooks, too.
The image? I found that when I image-searched "praying with our checkbooks." So my final prayer of the day: thank you God for the world wide web!


Yesterday's invitation was to gratitude, so I give thanks for a moment this afternoon to reflect. I am thankful for the folks who came out last night to talk about what it means to become part of a congregation and to take a step in that direction with respect to our little community.
Of course, that meeting was what got in the way of this spiritual "discipline" last night. Tonight, a parent-teacher conference will get in the way.
Real life tends to get in the way of spiritual practice, at least to the extent that we admit a distinction into our understanding.
We are talking this Lent at Clarendon about embodied faith, and we began the conversation reflecting that Jesus' Judaism did not include the mind/body, spirit/body dualism of the Greeks, and that, to the extent that Western Christianity adopted that dualism that denigrates the body in favor of the spirit it departs from its authentic roots.
So, the challenge of a spiritual practice of gratitude may lie simply in understanding how one could follow Paul's charge to "give thanks in all circumstances." In the midst of every moment -- the staff meeting you sat through today, the traffic on the way home, the hurried dinner plans, the homework, the bedtime, the sunrise wake up tomorrow -- in every moment give thanks.
I'm pretty sure I'm not up for that! On the other hand, Henri Nouwen once observed that gratitude is the fundamental attitude common to all authentic religious expression. So, if you want to get religion -- and, of course, who doesn't! -- give thanks.
Picture: gratitude in a bottle -- I'll drink to that!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Altars, Stones and Sacrifices

Today's invitation is to read from Genesis the call of Abram to journey toward a land of promise, and, once on the outskirts of that land to build an altar. Reading it I thought of the various altars that we all build to the various gods that we worship. The god of money, lately toppled from its heaven, we worship now in desperation at the debris of the altar of the market. The god of family we worship at the hearths we build. The god of knowledge is worshiped at the high temple of the university. The god of freedom we worship often in the garage altars that honor our cars. The god of power is honored at the massive five-sided altar just up the road from here.
One of the central symbolic acts of the Reformation was to do away with the altar -- the place of sacrifice -- and replace it with the table -- the place of welcome and gathering in the community, the place of revelation in the breaking of bread as opposed to in the breaking of bodies upon the stone of sacrifice. The reformers wanted to draw attention to Jesus and away from the notion of offering sacrifices to please God. Of course, there was a great deal more to their theological and political and architectural thinking than that one sentence pretends to capture.
Still, something in me resists altar-building. On the other hand, I love to collect stones from places that seem sacred to me. I carry the smallest of those around in my guitar case, and will from time to time use them in worship settings. The larger stones tend to find a place in my garden. I suppose I could think of that as an altar, but I prefer the simplicity and the symbolism of the garden. After all, that's where Jesus went to pray and if it's good enough for Jesus, then it's good enough for me.
So, I did the reading and offered the prayer of this day, but I'll leave the altar building to others. Me, I'll wait a bit longer for the coming of spring and then I'll go into my garden to pray amidst the stones.
Oh, the picture is a Mayan altar for sacrifices.

Monday, March 02, 2009

In the Details

Our Lenten journey this year is gathering round Martha Grace Reese's Unbinding Your Heart. The first day of the 40 days of spiritual practice and prayer invites you to read Psalm 139 -- O, Lord you have searched me and known me. The psalmists feels God's presence everywhere, from dawn to dusk, from highest heaven to the pits of Sheol.
One imagines that Mies van der Rohe understood God this way. "God is in the details," the architect famously said.
Such a God does not, it would seem to me, much care how we practice our spirituality. Being all present, it would seem to be a question of our presence to God much more so than God's presence to us.
So, the question for 40 days of intentional drawing of one's self into relation with God is, what opens you to that presence.
It was with such lofty thoughts that I stepped across the room to pick up a Bible to read Psalm 139 ... and stepped squarely into a pile of dog vomit. Seems that the chocolate birthday cake that the dog got into this afternoon did not sit well!
So I'm left to contemplate the details in which one finds God. Even in the pit of Sheol?
I have been there, and, indeed, felt the presence of the spirit of shalom. So a little mess to clean up ... or several ... is nothing. In fact, perhaps this was just another reminder from the canines that dog is in the details, too.
The spiritual life is not for the faint of heart.
Indeed, as our preaching together at Clarendon during Lent is stressing, Christianity is, or ought to be, an embodied faith. It is grounded in the earthiness of early Judaism. The gospel stories -- especially the synoptics -- are full of stories that include eating, healing, touching, listening and seeing. The texts we read together yesterday -- Luke's account of feeding the five thousand and the Numbers story of manna in the wilderness -- are all about food and the ridiculous abundance of God's economy.
While just now I am wishing that my dog's had not experienced ridiculous abundance this afternoon, even in these messy details I can detect ... well, perhaps divine laughter.