Making space to be reminded of grace

A couple weeks ago, I went on a silent retreat. It had been many years since I’d spent several hours in silent prayer, so I decided to aim for a shorter, four-hour retreat this time. Mid-morning, I headed to St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Washington, DC, a place that my counselor had recommended to me. On arriving, I was given a quick tour of the monastery by Brother Isaiah, the guestmaster, before being shown to my room.

Over the course of the hours that followed, I engaged in times of stillness and listening, practicing lectio divina, praying and journaling. I walked around the monastery grounds, joined the monks for noon prayer, and even enjoyed a brief nap. It was tremendously refreshing; I felt reconnected with God in a way I hadn’t in quite a while, and it was so soul-restoring and life-giving that I’m going to make it a monthly part of my sabbath rhythms.

One of the things I appreciated from the retreat was the opportunity to practice just listening to God—something I’ve wanted to do more consistently and build into my life rhythms. The questions I felt God asking me, the things I was told, the truths that were reaffirmed were all immensely germane, and I felt refreshed in my whole being, specifically in my calling to be more like Jesus.

I’d been reading Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus, and it was an important companion, particularly as I’ve been reflecting on the nature of ministry and leadership much more intentionally over the last few months. The question Nouwen asks right at the beginning—“Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?”—is one that has been at the forefront of my mind recently on two levels. First, on a personal level: one of the projects I have been tasked with this year is to help our church clarify its discipleship process, which is both exhilarating and daunting. Thinking about how I am making disciples of Jesus has also made me aware of the ways in which I am—or am not—being a disciple of Jesus. I want to be able to say, as Paul does, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Second, on the communal level: as I consider and pray through how we as a church are making disciples, Nouwen’s question is a clear, concise, and focused one, which gets to the heart of the journey of Christian faith.

It was also helpful to pray about and reflect on my responsibility as a pastor, as one of the main leaders of a Christian community. Particularly in DC, the temptations of relevance, popularity, and power are pervasive—they essentially form a kind of currency in the city, especially among the young, educated transplants who make up the majority of our congregation. In the face of these cultural values and inclinations, it is important to know how to counteract them—and what good we are building into our lives in their place: prayer, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection.

As I mentioned, I participated with the monks in noon prayer. I didn’t know what to expect, nor even really what to do. But a kind monk showed me to my seat when I was about to go in the wrong door, and then Brother Isaiah provided me the info I needed.

St.-AnselmsAs we were waiting to begin, as I sat on the hard wooden pew, drinking in the sight of the arched ceiling of the chapel, the thick wooden rafters, the simple altar, the monks in their dark habits, and the cross of Christ suspended above the altar, I felt the warmth of sunlight on my shoulder and my face, as if God were laying a hand on me, or smiling on me. And I felt a peace, that full kind of peace where I know I have encountered God.

There was no ecstasy, no loud noises or instruments, no jumping up and down; only the simple grace that comes with every breath, and a reminding peace, the assurance that comes with the presence and hope of God. It was a reminder to me personally, as well as a reminder to me to remind others, that as Nouwen writes,

It is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I.[1]

[1] Nouwen, Henri, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company (1989), 58.

[Picture by Bill Black]

Keeping busy

There’s a great piece from the weekend by Tim Kreider, entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” which speaks into the cultural inclination toward busyness–something that’s particularly prevalent in cities, with Washington, DC being no exception. It gives an insightful look into one of the ways by which we try to give ourselves meaning:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

This is framed in non-faith terms but the truth remains (I’m in agreement with Aquinas and Augustine here that all truth is God’s truth, but this opens another discussion for another day), and it raises a whole lot of other questions about worth and value and purpose and meaning. And for Christians especially, it should give us pause; we shouldn’t simply be thinking about the external symptom of busyness–though many of us need to think about this, for starters!–but also about the deeper questions of what we’re about and who we are.

Now, I disagree with Kreider on one point; he says, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But Scripture tells us that God created us for work as well as rest and relationship–when humanity was made in the image of God, each of us was commissioned to have dominion and to bring order to the world he had created (Genesis 1:28). The outcome of the disobedience in the garden of Eden was that the work would be accompanied by toil and struggle, that the relationship between humanity and creation had been corrupted (Genesis 3:17-19).

Work is a good thing, but we have a way of making good things into idols (sex, power, relationships)–and I’d say that work has become, for many of us, an idol.

One of the things I’ve done recently is reach out to friends who’ve been or served in pastoral ministry for many years to ask what practices or habits they would recommend for a young pastor. Without exception, one of the things that everyone has said is, “Take a sabbath.” I talked about this six months ago–“In the beginning … rest.” Establish a rhythm of work and rest–of working from your rest. Remind yourself that it’s not you who’s in charge but God, and that even if you don’t do anything for a day, the world will still turn and things will still get done. Don’t be defined by your work. Don’t let work become an idol. Live out the gospel story, which says that, because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are no longer defined by what we do, how much we do, or even how we do it, but first and foremost by the God who calls us his own, who invites us into his family, and who asks us to join him in telling the tremendous story of grace with our lives.

So … take a break.

Isaiah 58: the chapter that changed my life

(Well, one of the chapters that changed my life–see also “The day God broke my heart.”) I pretty much underlined the whole chapter …

A reminder, Isaiah 58:6-14:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflictedthen your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

 

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

In the beginning … rest

On New Year’s Day, I preached at The District Church (and I did the same yesterday at Sojourners chapel) about sabbath and rest. Here are some excerpts:

This message is as much for me and a result of what God’s been doing in me as anyone. For much of 2011, when I saw something that needed doing, I did it; when I saw a need that needed to be met, I met it. There wasn’t a cohesive structure to it, and there wasn’t an intentionality to it. And so it shouldn’t have been a great surprise to me that by last month, having worked two at-least-30-hour-a-week jobs for 10 months and running from one need to the next, from one campaign to the next, from one person to the next, I was absolutely exhausted. I remember thinking that I’d actually never been more physically drained. Spiritually, I was ecstatic because I was in the place God wanted me to be and doing what I knew God had made me to do; but physically and mentally, I was exhausted because I wasn’t practicing sabbath. I wasn’t stopping, I wasn’t resting, I wasn’t recovering, and that led me to do those very things I felt called to do, poorly.

Can you imagine what it would be like for your work, your activity, your productivity to be your identity, your worth, your value, and for you to know nothing else?

Well, yes, of course we can. It’s not hard. We see it all around us. Maybe we even see it in our own lives. For us here in Washington, DC, in the twenty-first century, this same commandment can be a freedom. Maybe not from a life of actual bricks and chains. But from the bricks and chains of perpetual activity, from feeling as if changing the world depends on us and us alone, from feeling as if you are the only one who cares about this cause, or the only one who can make a difference in this person’s life. It is the freedom of God’s world.

If we’re to live lives of integrity in a world that tells us all sorts of messages that are contrary to the gospel and the kingdom of God, we need to be immersing ourselves, constantly and consistently, in what God says to us and about us: even before you did anything of value, even before you were ever productive in any sense of the word, even before you were born, I loved you, I accepted you, and I called you my own.

Jesus, the Lord of the sabbath, said, in John 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and life to the full.” Living life to the full isn’t the same as filling life to the full. A fulfilled life is not the same as a filled life. A fulfilled life is not saying yes to everything. It’s learning what God has called us to, saying yes to that, and saying no to other things. Not because we don’t want to do them—they’re probably great and wonderful and attractive things, otherwise it’d be easy to say no—but because we can trust in what God has called us to, and trust that God has things in hand.

And in living out the sabbath from one day into the rest of the week, we live out an alternative story for the world to see. It is the gospel story—the good news!—where our worth is not determined by our activity or our productivity, where we are not judged—by others or by ourselves—on the basis of what we do or how well we do it; but where the grace of God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ and liberates us from being enslaved to the stressed out, high strung, anxious, reactionary, workaholic lives that we see all around us, and maybe even in ourselves.

You can listen to the full sermon here.

Well, hello there, 2012

Here we are. Two days into 2012. The beginning of a new year. That time when everybody’s making decisions, choices, and resolutions that may last 365 days … or not. I’ve never been one for resolutions. They always seem so nebulous to me–but maybe that’s just the kind I’ve made.

I met someone yesterday who said she has “intentions” rather than resolutions. I like that. But I think I like better JR’s idea of setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals, and particularly of introducing the idea of accountability into the mix. If you actually want to see things happen, the best way is to submit yourself to the checking of community. If you try something on your own, you’re likely to give up at the first sign of trouble; if you have friends walking with you (and either holding you accountable or, even better, seeking similar goals), your chances of success are much higher. What’s the proverb? “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

I haven’t come up with my goals for the year yet. But I have been planning my life.

Recently I committed full-time to the church, which essentially means that all of my time is now mine to schedule–one of the joys of working at a toddler-aged church plant. I haven’t had that sort of time or that sort of freedom (and the accompanying sense of responsibility) in … well, ever, actually. Which makes this year the start of something new, something exciting. The possibilities are endless.

I’ve spent time figuring out what I want and need to build into my life–from sabbath rhythms (I preached about this on New Year’s Day, and will post more on it later this week) to the admin aspects of my job to the time I want to set aside to be creative (writing, writing music, etc.) to trips that I want to schedule. Life is a blank slate, a luxury I realize I’m fortunate to have, and I fully intend to make the most of it.

One idea I’ve had–I suppose you could call it a goal–is to blog at least three times a week. I want and need to get back into the habit of writing, and to think that it’s just going to happen without structuring it into my life is pure folly (I can tell you that from experience).

Sometimes it’ll be a random assortment of links, or other people’s words. I’m hoping at least some of them will be original thoughts, articulately constructed and perspicacious. But let’s set the bar low, shall we?

P.S. This year I’ll turn 30. I think that’s pretty cool. Roll on, 2012.

P.P.S. I love this final thought from JR’s post:

Oh, one final thought. I heard great piece of practical wisdom a while ago, poignant especially for this first week of January when resolutions, goals, dreams, to-do lists, tasks and expectations have a tendency to be sky high:

Don’t try to boil the ocean. Just get a few things done by Thursday.