The appointed Bible readings for this week are especially challenging. They come from the Old Testament book of Amos, the New Testament book of Revelation, and the Gospel of Matthew. In all of them, God and his representatives are upbraiding God's people for matters of what we would call "theological ethics" - the way folks are living with God together.
The book of Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature. That means it understands itself to expound on the hidden meaning of what's going on in the world, and to let us in on the behind-the-scenes view (hence the English title "Revelation"). As the documents open, we are introduced to the author, John, who relates a vision of Jesus Christ in which he is told to draft some letters for God for the benefit of the various Christian churches of Asia Minor.
I find the warning to the Ephesian church to be particularly striking. Our Lord praises this Church for standing against heresy - testing and rejecting false apostles - but at the same time warns them that they have abandoned their first love. The implication here is that the first love is for Christ himself. How could it be that this community which manifested such zeal in protecting the faithful from false teaching had actually grown cold in their love for Jesus?
In my own ministry context, I often reach out to people who come from alternative versions of Christianity in which the Gospel is obscured or outright rejected. I know honest and well-meaning believers who stumble and fall away from the Faith because they cannot navigate a path between false dichotomies or between childrens' Sunday School answers and the challenges of real life. As I see this happen, I find my anger waxing hot against people who obscure the Gospel, and tell lies about God. I begin to spend a great deal of time thinking about false teachers and how to debunk their different gospels, and it becomes easy to loose focus on Christ and what's actually true about him. In my determination to prove that heresy is ugly, I forget that this is only because Christ is beautiful. We don't fight heresy as an end in itself, we fight heresy to make space for the Truth.
May God grant me the grace to love him first, and keep this work of teaching the Faith in right perspective.
Highlight(s) of the week: James and I spent a few hours with Lee and Jessica, for which occasion I made a stellar meatloaf. Adam came to stay with us at the end of last week, so we all got to spend some nice down time, eat nice meals, pray the Office - all the good stuff.
Ministry update: I finalized my end-of-year report, and after due consultation with my students and fellow pastors, created an outline for next year for the Community of the Resurrection at Georgetown College. Worship, meals, prayer. Love people well. Not really complicated, but the challenge always seems to be sticking with those things. I've had a great time keeping in touch with some of the students via the telephone device, but for the most part I've been trying to take it easy and spend my time on prayer, penance, and writing.
Stuff at work: I've been tinkering with my research guides, and preparing to give a small faculty demonstration on electronic research tools.
Highlight(s) of the week: Jeff Asher joined us for our Schola (Saint Patrick's ministry reading group) to discuss a book on Ritual studies and early Christianity. We were joined by Lee and two Adams, and intermittent visits from James. Also, I spent part of the day Saturday shoveling compost with Amy for the garden, and had the Looses and McLeods for grilling and bad horror films (what else?) for the evening.
Ministry update: I've been trying to spend most of my extra-curricular energies on formation this summer, so ministry work has been limited to a few lunches and coffees with students, and some reading. I've been chatting with the other Catechists, my students, and the Religious Life folks at the College about my plans for the Fall. Like Jesus and the Cylons, I do have a plan...
Stuff at work: Media inventory. 'Nuff said.
Book(s) I'm Reading: I just finished Tribes by Seth Godin, The New Testament in its Ritual World by Richard DeMaris, and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.
Media I'm Enjoying: Our household started watching HBO's True Blood. I'm not really into vampirism (outside of the Mass, of course) but I knew anything by Alan Ball would be worthwhile. And it is.
Something that blew my mind: I was really surprised at the relative lack of obfuscation in the Episcopalians' legislation at GenCon09 last week.
Something I've been chewing on: I'm thinking about going to library school in a year.
Looking Forward To: A week with very few plans. We have a new housemate, so we're all being purposeful about building up the home monastery.
I’ve spent the last five years living in and among what are often called “intentional Christian communities.” The use of this phrase typically implies that a group of people share their lives together in a number of structured ways with the common goal of greater personal and corporate faithfulness to Jesus Christ. These communities have been:
The Vine and Branches Christian Community, Lexington, Kentucky
This involvement hasn’t often been exclusive; some of the communities overlap (St Patrick and St Columba) and my time in some of them has overlapped as well (VBCC, hOME, St Patrick). While there was some diversity in the particular practices of these communities, this is what they all had in common:
Learning to Pray. We came together to pray to the Lord for ourselves, one another, and the world he’s teaching us to love. We prayed our hopes. We prayed our doubts. We prayed our joys, our pains, our fear, and our despair. We learned to do this by praying the Psalms, and reading the Scripture together.
We learned to do this by sitting down together, and not running away. We didn’t learn to do this from the latest awesome book on the religion bestseller list. We learned to say to God, “I’m sorry.” “Thank you.” “Yes.”
Learning to Love. We ate meals together. We learned to fight, and not run away. We learned to say to one another, “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “I forgive you.” “Let’s do this together.” In learning to say these things, I became the kind of person who can say these things, and mean it.
Living in this way didn’t necessarily make the Christian life easier – in fact, it showed me quite a bit about how difficult it is. What this way of life did was show me what it looked like to really love God, and to know what it is to be loved by God. It broadened my imagination to see and know and feel what it’s like to be a forgiving person. This life teaches me that I can suffer with and for people around me without running away. Belonging with a people like this, and living life in this way has taught me that people really can become like Jesus, and that it’s possible to live our lives without trying to protect ourselves from the people we’d like to love us.
By all means, embrace “community.” But I’m always going to ask you these questions:
Do you eat?
Do you pray?
Do you hold your own feet to the ground?
If you can – if you will – it will make all the difference.
Pray, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Pray a psalm.
Read a long passage of Scripture.
Say "Thank you."
Say "I'm sorry."
Pray, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
7. Be less of a jerk to people. Refer to what you learned in steps 1, 3, and 6 for guidance in this. 8. Perform steps 4 and 5 again, in the company of others.
Practices to avoid
- Applying the lessons of Step 3 to other peoples lives, without their permission or cooperation - Reading teeny, tiny excerpts of Scripture that sound nice - Performing Step 3 without the other steps - Using the Christian Bible without the support of a loving, caring community
At the beginning of my senior year at Georgetown College, I suffered an auto collision while driving on a rural road. My torso was crushed, and I broke many of my more interesting bones, most notably my neck and my back. I remember quite a bit about that dark period (especially the asphyxiation bits), but one of the things that stands out to me the most was - you guessed it - a theological conversation.
After several days in hospital, I was still non-ambulatory and doing nothing on my own. The day after my chest tubes were removed and I was charged with the terrible task of independent respiration, I received a visit from a chaplain in training from the local Evangelical seminary. The young man had little time for small talk, and got right to the point: "I know you want to put it off, but before long you're going to have to ask yourself, 'Where was God in this?'"
Though I couldn't laugh, this struck me as very funny. The only thing this man knew about me was that I was twenty-one, had bruised-purple skin, a broken back, and bolts sticking out of my skull. The only thing I knew about him was that he couldn't grow a beard and had taken out gigantic grad school loans to buy the privilege of theologizing to my broken ass. "I know... where he was," I rasped.
One of my friends from the College dorm (an atheist who dabbles, if I remember rightly) had taken the crucifix from my room and and nailed it to the wall across from me in the UK Medical Center. "He... is always... there. That's ... really... all there is... to say."
The God of the Christians (in either our Bible or our tradition) never talks about suffering in quite the ways that we want. I'd like to know why a careless driver and a rainstorm left me with a few years worth of arthritis, more pain than I'd ever imagined, and a lasting fear of the dark. I'd like to know how and why I survived all of that. I'd like to know why the dark, painful places of my soul are there. Wouldn't you? I don't have a proper answer, but this is what I do seem to have: a god who hangs on a cross, naked and dead. That's no easy answer. This is a god who suffered, and and suffers along with me. As I hang upside down, suffocating as my beard grows thick with my blood, the corpse god Jesus Christ suffocates outside the city walls. His blood pours to the ground for the life of the world, and fills the chalices on our altars.
As I suffered alone, so did he. As I wondered - and wonder - if it meant anything, so did he.
This is our hope. This is the faith of the Church. The God of Jesus Christ - who raised him up from death and exalted him as the world's true Lord - gives life and hope to all of us.
I published this short introduction to the Christian season of Lent in the campus newspaper last week.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Christians around the world heard these words last week as they began the season we call “Lent.” Keeping the “Christian year” – marking time according to God’s saving work – arises from the conviction that twenty centuries ago, God raised up the executed insurrectionist, Jesus of Nazareth, and enthroned him as the world’s Lord. All of life is oriented to this affirmation: that God loves the world, grieves its brokenness and sin, and has graciously acted to redeem it in and through Jesus the Christ. Marking time in this way is one aspect of that orientation.
The Christian year follows the life of Jesus, and tells the story of the world through that lens. Before Jesus began his public ministry of healing the sick, casting out demons, and proclaiming the arrival of God’s Reign, he spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness. This echoes a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures: the number 40 represents a special time of refining the soul for the service of God.
Now, in the 40 days before Easter, we enter the last days of Jesus’ ministry, when he begin to orient himself and his disciples to his vocation of suffering and death for the sake of Israel and the entire world. The story has taken a dark turn, and we join the Master as he sets his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. This is why a cross, draped in penitential purple, stands above Giddings Lawn. The rhythm of our lives has taken on a cadence of mourning and hope as we walk in “bright sadness,” journeying with Jesus through his suffering and into Easter’s light.
As we consider Lenten disciplines, we ask, “what can I do to set my own face toward Jerusalem?” What are the sinful patterns in my life that need to die, and what does God wish to heal? Lent is not meant for Herculean efforts of spiritual zeal - like boot camp for Jesus - but for a time of greater intentionality. We rededicate ourselves in practical ways to learning more deeply the Way of Life found in Christ. Our goal is not a particular spiritual experience, but to be with the Lord and offer to him our readiness to turn in unexpected directions, to listen to words we would not have anticipated, and answer yes to God in ways we would not have imagined.
The time of Great Lent is upon us. May it be a holy one as we walk into the dark places of ourselves and discover that the Lord Himself leads us into the stillness of our solitary fears, to sit with us, to heal us, and to absorb all of our darkness into his Cross.
I cook a mean lasagna, but I hardly ever do it because I want to make three at a time, and decide that lasagna is somehow too expensive.
Except for the two month period that I lost it in my backpack, I wear my name tag at work all the time. You think it’s because I want to be helpful, but it’s really because I’m terribly narcissistic and think everybody should know my name.
One of my most surreal moments working at the bookstore was explaining to management that middle-aged Baptist women buy Beth Moore books, and that therefore we should stock them. Also, emo kids buy eyeliner, gamers have minty green skin, and the Pope is Catholic.
I take that back – the most surreal moments probably involved the ugly guy who was angry we didn’t have more/any books on “tantric sex” (sir, I don’t know what either of those things are, frankly), or the woman who demanded that Chris draw her a map to Barnes and Noble.
I really enjoy Science Fiction. Can’t stand Star Wars. I fell asleep in the cinema when I tried to watch the big re-releases in high school. I did watch a pirated copy of Episode I when I was in Kosovo, however. Couldn’t really follow it.
I love horror novels, especially short stories. I can’t stand anything in the Fantasy genre.
I’m an introvert, specifically an INTJ: the “jerk” type in the Myers-Briggs. I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. I also know what you don’t know, which can make it really bad.
I once threatened to physically fight a roommate over a hygiene concern (no, not my hygiene). He moved out the next day.
I reject much of institutionalized Christianity, but sadly, I usually accept the really unpopular bits, and condemn the parts that most people really like. That’s okay, though. It’s really bad for them.
I have no independent taste in music or films. I watch, listen to, and generally enjoy whatever my friends tell me.
I get really nervous that I might end a sentence with a preposition… in public.
I’m rarely capable of hiding my emotional state. Especially when I think I’m playing things cool, people can read me like a book. It took me forever to discover this; Jim just told me one day, “I would love to play poker with you. You don’t have any unexpressed emotions.”
There are a few people in my life, that regardless of their faults, I would defend them in almost any situation: “Really? He buried a guy in cement after knocking over a liquor store? Hm. He must have had a good reason.”
My housemates and I rescued an old cat from the Humane Society in Summer 2007. The cat follows me around constantly and cries if I come home late. He meows constantly and annoys the piss out of all of us, but I can’t help but delight in a little critter that thinks about me all the time – could you? So much for my tough guy image. Ahem.
Every few months, somebody sits me down to (re)explain the concept of “tact,” and explains how it might be useful in a particular situation – sometimes with diagrams. I always respond with wide eyes and a smile, and vigorous nods of my head, but never have a clue what they’re talking about.
So I’m a campus minister these days. I catalog media, teach research methods, and talk about grace and judgment.* It’s pretty sweet, I won’t lie. So here’s my philosophy and practice of Christian ministry for the first year:
Know and love these people well
build a culture of prayer
Since I set foot on campus again in June, I’ve led the Daily Office nearly every weekday. Often I pray alone** but usually one or two other students will join me.
The Daily Office is shorthand for the Christian practice of “fixed-hour prayer.” Office means work. At various times in the day, Christians stop to attend to the presence of the Lord, read Scripture, pray portions of the Psalter, and to offer prayers for the sake of themselves, and others. Each of these regular services is called “an office.” There are three elements to this culture I’m trying to build – all of which are typically given lip service by the Evangelical culture, but not often practiced:
Praying the Scripture. Not having, constructing, or sharing options about the Bible. Not deciding what it “means.” Not contriving “applications” to the “real world.” This is about taking seriously the idea that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God by actually listening for the voice of God in the text. This is not about reading the Bible to “get something out of it,” but rather to spend time with the Lord simply for its own sake.
Praying with others. I would surely like to see all Christians raising up holy hands for the sake of the world in the privacy of their “prayer closets,”*** but this practice is only one aspect of Christian prayer. Christians pray together. I meet a lot of disciples who can’t or won’t pray audibly in the presence of others – that tells me that we really need to spend time learning to pray. That’s just fine, because God intends to teach us how through the Scriptures and the ancient practices of his Church.
Regular prayer. Our Master calls us to discipline ourselves for the sake of the Kingdom. One of the most basic ways for disciples to do this is by making the time for regular common prayer. We don’t pray just when we feel like it, and certainly not just because we feel like it. We are called to live lives steeped in Scripture, and to join in Christ’s priesthood offering prayers for the world because this is the stuff of God’s intention for our lives. Not because we feel like it, or even because we want to “grow spiritually,” but because we seek to be faithful to the one who loves us so very much, and intends to heal broken people through our ministries.
That’s my agenda for Year One. More shall be added for Year Two (it's not like I'm going to quit the first two points of the agenda, after all). Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.
Oh yeah - and feel free to join me for prayers any week day in the Campus Ministries Lounge at 4:30. We usually pray for 15-20 minutes.
*I’m also a library tech, hence the cataloging and judgment bits.
**Mind you, one never really prays “alone,” since we offer our praises to the Father, with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and this along with the whole Communion of Saints.
***This phrase alludes to Jesus’ caution against making public prayers for the sake of impressing others with one’s eloquence or piety. He told them to go to their “closets.”
I'm a library paraprofessional and occasional theology instructor at a liberal arts college. I teach folks how to do academic research efficiently and throughly, and I teach Christian theology at the college level and in churches. I hold the Master of Applied Theology from the University of Oxford.