Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #4: Humble Feet

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

One of my very favorite stories from the Desert Fathers is from Abba John the Persian. “It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to harm him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet.  But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.” This is more than a scene of “kill them with kindness.” This is a full-blown response of humility and love towards someone who is “other,” who exhibits violent tendencies, towards someone whose life is very different. Instead of calling the authorities (if one could even do so in those days), or rebuking them, or even preaching at them, Abba John simply bends down in front of them and washes their feet. No kidding, these bad dudes were confused! What would you do if you were making fun of someone or were trying to fight someone and they wouldn’t cooperate, but instead humbled themselves before you and began to wash your feet?

foot washing.jpeg
Michal Splho

Foot washing is a very old practice that dates back to times before Jesus. In my church, we practice footwashing at the Maundy Thursday service before Good Friday, in memory of the night that Jesus gathered his community around him, called them friends, and washed their feet. The symbolism within the actual act is important to understand. Feet in ancient times were considered unclean, a part of the body that touched the ground and could be contaminated by all sorts of things–plants and dirt and decaying things. And remember that before the last century or so, people were not bathing all that often, especially if you weren’t a rich person. So, these feet that Jesus was washing were pretty stinky. It was considered a low-class job to wash feet because you were touching the most undesirable part of the body, so the task required someone to do it who was not very worried about status.

Abba John, in this story, is similar to Jesus, was not worried about status or class, and concerned himself with spiritual things. He knew that his life was just as valuable as the lives of the bad dudes who intended evil against him, no matter if he was a spiritual leader or not. As Brother Roger of Taize wrote, “Only compassion allows us to see others as they are. When we look at them with love, we discern in each person the profound beauty of the human soul.”

The Simple Way community, founded by Shane Claiborne and others in Philadelphia, PA, holds as one of their principal values “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.” That means that the community values the people around them, the churchfolk who are the body of Christ. They also value racial reconciliation, shared economics, and care for the earth, each issue necessitating a humble attitude. If racial tensions are going to be healed, we must recognize that #blacklivesmatter and that white folk don’t experience the racism that black folks do. If the hefty gap between rich and poor is going to be narrowed, we must get used to the idea that the wealthy will come down from their thrones and help increase the minimum wage and work to eliminate cycles of economic injustice that have existed for centuries. If the earth is going to be delivered from the plight of climate change, and if we are going to still be here to see that, we must get used to the idea that we cannot continue to violate the wealth of the forest, mountains and plains by extracting lumber, coal and natural gas.

foot washing ceremony.jpeg

If we truly believe in being humble before God, we must be humble before one another, as the ancient ascetics taught us through their practices of welcoming, feeding and healing the poor. If we are to be humble before each other, we ought to be humble before the earth which sustains us. Shane writes, “The kingdom of God is not just something we were to hope for when we die. It is something we are to live out here on earth.”

For this week, practice humility by remaining attentive to any unkind thoughts that might pass through your mind. Be aware of when you are passing judgment on others. Practice sending out “good vibes” to those around you. Recognize any inclination you might have to think of yourself as “better” than others. Remind yourself that you, like all those around you, are a child of God, beloved, and beautiful to behold!

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How do I want to be a humble servant of God in the world?

Peace be with you!

 

Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #3: Shhhhhhhhh! It’s Quiet Hours! Contemplative Silence in Monasticism

 

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

When I was a guest of the Taize community in southeastern France during my first year of college, my companions and I were invited to take on a week of silence. Yes, a WEEK of SILENCE. No talking, no communication of any sort–even when meeting people on the road, we were supposed to avert our eyes. My three companions and I were assigned a small area of one of the women’s houses, each given separate rooms, and instructed that we would have Bible study with one of the Sisters (a nun associated with the Taize community) each morning. We would still participate in worship morning, noon and night with the whole community, but we would spend days and nights in solitude.

To this day, I don’t think my parents believe that I actually was silent for a whole week. I love talking and communicating with people, especially when we were in France and surrounded by a bunch of people from all over the world! But I was scared, and didn’t think I could do it. That’s a LONG TIME to not speak. And more than my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I was terrified to be left alone with God. The first semester of my freshmen year of college had been filled with a rough break-up, a grandparent’s stroke, and friend troubles–going into this period of silence, I knew that my soul had a lot of work to do and it would be a difficult week.

Here’s the truth: silence is not easy. It is an intensive spiritual discipline and, though difficult and alienating at times, it can be very rewarding. The Desert Fathers and Mothers sometimes took on practices of contemplative silence, the virtue of which was not only in their refraining from communication with the outside world, but was in learning to be intentional with what words they do choose to speak aloud.

The Desert Father Abba Poemen said, “If we remembered that it is written, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned,” we would choose to remain silent.” By saying this, he was reprimanding those who were tempted to speak unjustly. Did your parent ever tell you to “Say something nice or say nothing at all?” Yeah. If Abba Poemen had been a family guy, he would have been one of those parents.

Here’s another one: Abba Poemen also said,

“A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”

Here, the carelessness in the internal spiritual practice that leads to judging others in your heart is what is bad–even if you appear to be pious on the outside. And, conversely, people whose hearts are focused on God can speak a lot and be dropping wisdom all over the place! So, translated into parent aphorisms, that means “mean what you say and say what you mean.”

So if we can be intentional about how we talk, how can we be intentional about how we are silent? Isn’t that kinda the same thing? At the time I went into the silence in Taize, I didn’t know how to pray. Weird to say, right, for someone raised in the church like I was? Not really–I thought praying was saying the Lord’s Prayer with your congregation, listing your sins and saying “thank you” at the end. But Brother Roger of Taize, quoting St. Augustine, offers some help on this matter of silence and prayer:

“There is also a voice of the heart and a language of the heart…That inner voice is our prayer when our lips are closed and our soul open before God. We remain silent and our heart speaks, not to human ears but to God. Be sure that God will listen to you.”

contemplative prayer.jpeg

Even in silence, and perhaps especially in silence, we are not distracted with the words coming out of our mouths or even the words from someone else. We are trusting that God knows what our hearts are concerned with, as long as we can be present and open before God. This can take some practice for those of us who grew up in Western United States American culture and have many technological distractions at our fingertips. One of my college roommates would always be watching Netflix on her computer while playing a game on her phone and maybe brainstorming about her homework on her iPad, when all I wanted to do was hang out and talk with her. God wants us to rest in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is always with us, in silence or in chatter.

Something that surprised me about my time in the silence (doesn’t it sound like a movie? “In the Silence”–horror and intrigue, ooh!) was that people could be silent together. This shouldn’t have been surprising for me, since I loved sitting around my loved ones and not talking but enjoying the togetherness quietly. But this time, having no distractions (no technology! no talking! woohoo!) left me and my companions to be alone…together. A member of the Leb Shomea community in Texas offers this thought on communal silence, “Silence is not ‘me and God’ but a way of being present to each other in God.” From the desert of old into the modern college campus, this remains compelling: if we can turn off the noise around us, turn off the internal distractions of worries and comparisons and judgments, and rest in the presence of God, we can share in God’s peace, alone or together.

prayer around the cross

For your practice this week, try on some silence. That doesn’t necessarily mean not answering a question your professor or TA asks you–it can be, if you want!–but maybe try setting aside several morning hours on the weekend (wait, are you even awake on the weekend, you college students out there?) to practice not talking or communicating with anyone around you. You might want to let your roommate and your family know that you are taking on this practice for a few hours, so they won’t be offended if you brush off their “good mornings” or miss the weekly phone call from home. Remember, silence does not necessarily mean solitude–there are plenty of spaces where public silence is held (think of your school library, public vigils, contemplative church services, and annoying coffee shops where everyone is on their laptops). Some things you might want to do during your time of silence are:

  • walk outside–what do you notice that you’d usually pass by because you are texting or talking to friends?
  • meditate/sit contemplatively–centering prayer might help here.
  • journal or draw–challenge yourself to use as few words as possible while expressing yourself.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How can I continue to be engaged in my life (doing school/work/family, etc.) and carry this practice of silence with me?

 

Peace be with you!

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

Living Like God is Real

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Who has ever asked God for something? Who has ever prayed for something to happen or for God to reveal the meaning of something? Well, then, in a way, we are just like Hannah.

Before we talk about the famous song of Hannah in our scripture today, we are going to need to look at the context, the surrounding details of Hannah’s life. Hannah was used to asking God for help. We all have our own individual reasons for asking God for help or assurance, whether it’s because of illness, disappointment, natural disasters, trouble at work, or a whole host of other reasons. And in fact, many passages in Scripture urge us to cry out to God in our times of need.

Here are Hannah’s reasons for calling upon God repeatedly:

  1. Hannah is shamed in her house and in her community because she is barren. In ancient times, a woman’s worth was directly linked to her ability to produce offspring. The Bible says that Elkanah was a righteous man, always worshipping the Lord of hosts, and he loved Hannah, always giving her a double portion of the sacrifice at the temple (better than roses or chocolate?) to show his love. But, Elkanah took a second wife, probably because Hannah was not producing children. 1st Samuel 1:6 says “her rival (meaning her co-wife, the second wife Peninnah) used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her [Hannah’s] womb.”
  2. Hannah’s husband can’t seem to figure out how to offer support and care: in 1st Samuel 1:8 Elkanah asks her, supposedly rhetorically (according to him): “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Thanks, Elkanah, very helpful. If we put ourselves in Hannah’s place, how would we feel about this gesture of so-called “comfort”? He is asking her why she is crying when he should know full well the shame that is brought upon women in that time who don’t fulfill their prescribed duties to their house by having children. He should know what’s wrong! Where is pastoral care when you need some?!
  3. Hannah goes to the house of the Lord, the tent of meeting at Shiloh, and she prays so fervently and so rapturously that the priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk! It was not the custom at that time to pray silently, so when “her lips moved but her voice was not heard,” Eli was concerned that she’d been sampling the wine a little too much. But Hannah replies in verse 15: “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” This reminds me of those times that I know we have all had, when we are lost for words or when our tears dry up because we are so tired of asking God to help us, asking others to believe us, reminding ourselves to keep going in whatever struggles might be facing us at the time.

 

But what I find really intriguing about Hannah, is that she kept asking God for a son. Hannah encourages us to be ourselves, to worship God so intensely and so intimately that people think we are intoxicated–and intoxicated we might be with the desire for deliverance from our troubles. Hannah lives in the middle of a dysfunctional family, where empathy is hard to come by, but Hannah knows who she is as a person and who she is to God--she never pauses to say, “God doesn’t think I’m important enough to answer my prayer”–no, she persists in prayer and she actually makes a deal with God, though perhaps inadvisable and potentially leading to disappointment, it is a natural thing to want to do! Through it all, Hannah was persistent and believed that God would be present with her and answer her prayers. Unlike Moses, who struggled with self-doubt and questioned himself, almost letting himself be turned back from his divine calling at the site of the burning bush, Hannah persists. We can imagine that she, too, must have been burdened by self-doubt and wanted to give up at many points along the way. All sorts of discouraging things happened in her life (infertility in the face of desiring a child; an insensitive partner; a rivalry within the household; religious authorities belittling her without understanding her life context) and, through it all, all the times she could have turned back or given up, she kept believing in God’s presence with her. Now, my point is not that we have to pray until we get what we want, because I don’t think that’s the way prayer does, and should, work. Prayer is a way of connecting with God, it’s not a hotline to getting all of our dreams fulfilled. What I see in Hannah is not that she always believed God was going to give her what she wanted, but that God was going to be active.

In short, Hannah lived like God was real. That might sound like an odd or funny thing to say–yes, most likely, if you’re joining me here today, we believe God is real and present and active in our lives–but believing something and living it out every day are different things. I encourage you to think about the times in your life where you counted only on yourself to

What does it mean to live like God is real? I first heard this turn of phrase from a community organizer out in California, Alexia Salvatierra who works to encourage Christians to shape their organizing around the “implications of the truth that God is real and Jesus is risen.” This phrase caught me off guard for a couple reasons: first, I know God is real! Right? In my heart, I have a conviction that there is a greater spirit of love and justice at work in this world, and whom I feel I can connect with. Second, as someone who studies religion academically, I sometimes find that it is a lot easier to think about God instead of pray or focus on being present with God.

How do we live everyday knowing that God is real? The take-aways of this idea are these: 1. to not rely on ourselves to do everything; 2. to not give up b/c it’s taking a long time. 3. to sustain the sure hope that God is present with you in your time of distress.

Hannah’s song shows us what living like God was real meant for her.

  1. She praised God for the things God had done in her life already. Hannah says, “The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.” Though Hannah did go on to have six children, the number seven here represents a number of wholeness and holiness. By saying this, Hannah recognizes that God was with her and heard her fervent prayers over and over again–through all of the nights when she hoped against hope to have a child, through all the tauntings of the women in her household and in her community, and through Elkanah’s insensitivity. God is present with Hannah in a personal way.
  2. Hannah also praised God’s actions in the wider culture. Hannah is singing a song of national thanksgiving, which is appropriate when we contextualize this reading history and see that it was written after the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. This exile was painful and confusing to the people of Israel, who wondered about their community identity and how they were to continue their traditions in a foreign land. Out of this context arises many psalms that raise questions of identity–people asking: who are we if we can’t live in our homeland and worship our god? In Hannah’s song, we see communal vindication as she refers to the multiple ways that the people of Israel will be liberated. She says, “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

 

What is remarkable about Hannah’s song is that she knows God is with the oppressed and hurting in multiple ways–not only is God walking with her through her personal trials, but God is also present with Israel through their community trials of exile and identity crisis. God is not just one Supreme Being up high in the sky, but God is personal, God is near and God is involved in the day to day workings of the world. Hannah’s faith existed on multiple levels, both personal and community-wide, because God exists on multiple levels.

I am drawn to Hannah’s song today because it is not only a praise for the God who opened her womb, but a song of revolution: her personal salvation is intimately linked to salvation for the people of God. Rev. Karla Suomala writes on her blog: I wonder if Hannah’s suffering is not perhaps more complicated, more profound than the surface of the story suggests.  She is enmeshed in an unjust system that seems at every turn to be working against her desire for a better, more abundant life…Her only recourse, her only option within this system, is to return to the God who closed her womb in the first place… Is the author of this text aware of the acute injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time?  Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history?…As scholars have aptly noted, this just doesn’t sound like the simple prayer of thanks we might expect from a new mother.  This is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and the poor are raised from the dust.  Hannah’s song penetrates the surface, pointing to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down.  Some of those pillars may be the very ones that put her in such a desperate situation in the first place.”

In the last few weeks before Advent, we should also notice that Hannah’s song is also a precursor for Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke. Mary, like Hannah, is a woman who existed on the margins–in Hannah’s situation, she was barren and could not give her husband a child, which would have been a cause of great shame in Biblical times; in Mary’s case she was a virgin, living in Galilee under occupation by the Roman Empire, without much political power, whose destiny was determined by the men in her life. Similar to Hannah, Mary says, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…he has brought the down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

This practice of living like God is real is perhaps especially poignant today, as the world is reeling from the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Kenya, among many other places. Violence is scary, and hard for many of us who have the privilege to live relatively safe and sheltered lives in the USA to understand. I admit that I have no frame of reference to gunshots or explosions on city streets or wars being fought overhead and in my backyard. I admit that as a white educated Christian Westerner in the USA my body, my family and my hometown has never been under attack because of these identities, and yet I am complicit in so much violence because of the privilege that comes with these identities. Many are quick to condemn whole religions over the hateful acts of a handful of dangerous, radicalized people. We MUST NOT be so quick to paint each other with such a broad brush. We MUST NOT only see the violence in Paris, but also that in Kenya, in Beirut, in Syria and Iraq and the countless other places that have also experienced incredible destruction and grief in the past 24 hours. We MUST see the violence done in Nashville, in Tennessee, in the USA just as much as we see that done overseas (Mizzou, Yale, Charleston, St. Louis, New York, Cleveland, and so many other places). We MUST NOT value the grief of some over the grief of others. We MUST NOT value the lives of some over the lives of others. May the God who we know through Hannah’s song be with us in this time of sorrow, as individuals and families mourn the loss of their loved ones, and as the world again questions what we know about terrorism and about religious fundamentalism of all stripes.

As we are getting ready for Advent, for the time of Mary’s waiting to come to fullness, for the birth of Christ entering the world, let us think about these things: How can we live like God is real? Let us focus on how to see the people on the margins, the place where God is at work outside of mainstream culture. Let us remind ourselves and remind each other that God is at work in the world, that God does hear our prayers and is present with us through our time of need. Thanks be to God.

(This sermon was originally preached at Central Christian Church in Springfield, Tennessee on November 15, 2015)

Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #2: Roommates, Monks and Community: Oh My!

(This post is part of series for my Formations of Christian Traditions class)

Do you have a roommate? How is it going? Have you found out each other’s worst habits and Netflix passwords yet? I was blessed when I lived in community after college to have four amazing housemates who were kind and funny and watched Gilmore Girls with me and made dinner with me and cared for me when I was sick.

And yet…

Living in community is hard. We had different cleaning standards–the bathroom and kitchen counters sometimes felt like war zones. Sometimes people had different ideas about what community meant and how much time we should spend together. Even though we shared a lot of values (community, hospitality, empowerment, justice, sustainability, etc.) we had different understandings of how to live out those communal ideals.

newgirl.roommates.jpeg

The Desert Fathers and Mothers had problems like this, too. In popular imagination, monasticism involves being solitary waaaaaaaaay out in the wilderness, far away from the prying eyes and temptations of society. Monks live secretive lives where they eat bread or rocks or something–I don’t know–and, like, sit around being holy. Well, yes, there were some hermits then, and there continue to be hermits today who separate themselves from human community, but actually, early monastic communities–yes, communities!–were made up of small individual “cells” close to each other where monastics were able to practice a balance of solitary living and community. This might seem counterintuitive (can’t you be more pious by yourself where no one is able to distract you?) but some Christian ascetics seemed to think that being together would be more helpful to their understandings of God than being apart!

The New Monastic movement has similar ideals. Ian Adams, in New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church, writes:

“If there has been a particularly rich source for new flowerings of Christ-community in the last few years I would suggest that it has been in the idea of religious community on the road. Community life lived in public space, shaped by contact with neighbor and stranger, recognizing that the journey is equally as important as the destination open to encounter, travelling light.”

I like this idea of being on the road together in a religious community because spiritual journeys do seem an awful lot like a road, winding and diverging and coming together again, with roadblocks and traffic jams and concrete medians. Brother Roger of Taize said that we should “live a parable of community,” which is what is happening on this road of New Monasticism. When we are on the road together, living in community, we are traveling parallel paths as we figure out how to shape our lives into actions and expressions of God’s love and Jesus’ justice worth living. The parable of community functions like a parable in the gospel of Luke: the goal is to provide an opening that changes how people understand their place in the world and their relationship with God. Thus, a community rooted in following Jesus would hopefully point others towards the teachings of Jesus.

Community is actually one of my favorite aspects of the Trinity. Though the Trinity is probably the MOST CONFUSING THING that ever happened to Christianity, it is also an amazing parable of community. By virtue of having 3 different aspects (“Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit”) that are all united under 1 being (“God”), the original posture of the church that values the Trinity is one of community (or in plain speak: 3 things that are kinda different all joined together to represent one big thing are a community–yeah, I know, still confusing).

trinity

But, anyway, how do we form righteous communities of joy and peace and love if living together is so darned hard? How can we study the Psalms when that roommate left his dishes in the sink again? Or if that roommate left her laundry in the washer for the third day in a row? Though I’m not sure if Abba Anthony actually had laundry issues with his fellow ascetics, he offers this saying to help root ourselves: “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” This saying encourages us to act with kindness towards each other, and for us not to go around judging each other, because we are not more righteous that way. If we are close to one another, we are close to God. And if we are hateful to one another, we are being hateful to God. The cause of community is a worthy, though difficult, one to tackle.

Mark Berry writes,

“Spirituality is often expressed as individualistic; even those who seek to do it as a solo pursuit. Christianity, too, has too often made the individual the focus of religion yet we know that the heart of spirituality is community. But this problem is not restricted to spirituality–culture as a whole is still wrestling with the bonds of individualism, with the notion that one has to be self-sufficient, that weakness is a bad thing!”

In Western culture (the context in which I have grown up) rabid individualism is rampant and self-sufficiency is gold. I often have to remind myself that it is ok to rely on people for help. It is ok to look to others to fulfill tasks I cannot fulfill on my own. It is ok that I enjoy working in a communal environment where I don’t have all the answers. This week, I challenge you to consider the ways in which we can create spiritual practices that are not individualistic, but that lift up communities and the communal aspect of God.

For this week’s practice, make a map of your community, widely defined: this can be your school, your family, your workplace, your friend group, etc.) Study it and try to define what values are present in this community. Mark the places where there is room for solitude and individual expression. Mark the places where there is a lot of hustle and bustle, and lots of life takes place. Each day, journal about one aspect of community that you are grateful for, and how you are impacted by being part of this community.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  • What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  • Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  • How do I want to impact my community? How do I want my community to impact me?

Peace be with you.

 

Posted in Sermons

God’s Quilt

Ruth Chapter 1:1-18 

My friend Emily has a beautiful quilt. Her mother made one for each granddaughter in the family following her grandmother’s death from scraps of fabric collected by her grandmother so that they might remember each other when they are far away. As Emily has traveled from her hometown in the desert of California to college in Nebraska to work with me at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, TN to Seattle where she is working on alleviating hunger, she takes this quilt with her and remembers the presence and love of her family. Emily says that is especially important to her because it reminds her of the women in her family. Its warmth and memories often provides unexpected blessings when the going gets rough.

Likewise, Ruth is a book that provides unexpected blessings. Scrunched in between Judges and First Samuel, this small book, only 100 verses, slips in almost unnoticed. In reading it, we get the story of a small Israelite family living in Moab because there was a famine in Judah, undergoing many hardships until the only people left, the women, head to Judah. Naomi and her daughters in law are extremely vulnerable, as there were not many protections for widows, and women were susceptible to the will and exploitation of men. Her daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, were freed from their duty to Naomi’s family when their husbands died. Because both women are foreigners, from the point of view of the Judean writer, they have no reason to return to Israel. Their heritage is with the Moabites, and since they are not cut from the same cloth of Israel, the chosen people of God, they might as well get themselves home. Sending her two daughters in law away is, in a way, the most hospitable thing Naomi could do, since she knows they have no legal obligation to her, and that she has nothing to give them but a way out. She hopes there is a better life available for them back with their fathers’ families Moab.

I love that the main characters in this book are women, which is rare, only comparable to the book of Esther, in that matter. This story of Ruth pledging to stay with Naomi has always been one of my favorite Biblical passages. There are so few times when the relationships between women, especially women of different generations, are celebrated. And to have this story be part of one of the two books in the Bible named for women is nothing short of incredible. How often do we hear, even today, stories of women protecting each other and loving each other, instead of cutting each other down and shaming each other? Not all that often, if we trust mainstream media sources and teen movies. In the Bible, stories of women are often read (and many are written this way by the patriarchal ancient authors) to pit women against each other: think of the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Mary and Martha.

But when given the chance, Ruth will not leave Naomi, and the Bible says, she “clings to” Naomi. The Hebrew word for this is “dabaq”, the same word used for the love that Adam felt for Eve. Remember that in Genesis 2, God made woman out of the flesh of Adam’s rib to be a “helpmeet” or “companion” for him because “it is not good for man to be alone.” Adam was lonely, the only one of his kind, and God provided for Adam in the form of Eve, a human being like him, and one that could reciprocate his love and match his place in the good Creation. This likeness of language is to be noted in our discussion of Ruth because the story of Ruth and Naomi has been read over time to validate homosexual relationships. This passage, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” is often used in marriage ceremonies, as two people pledge to be family to each other. The book of Ruth also provides a model for intergenerational community and healing, as Naomi returns to her kin emptyhanded and “bitter,” as her name change to “Mara” tells us. She knows her redemption lies not in Moab, but in the land of her birth, among people she has not seen for a long time, but who are family to her. And through it all, Ruth proves her worth, despite her status as a foreign wife, and shows her love for Naomi as she follows her chosen family to the land of Judah. Truly, the story of Ruth and Naomi is dynamic and applicable to many life situations that have to do with unity and family in God’s eyes.

The story of Ruth is so amazing to me because, it should be recognized, she is one of the only women listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the book of Matthew. She shows up as David’s great-grandmother, and Jesus follows from the Davidic line (through his earthly father Joseph). Scholars posit that the author’s purpose in writing this book was to show that taking wives from nations other than Israel is acceptable, that Ruth was a good egg, and the era which disallows inter-tribal marriage is over. Thus, King David himself, one of the best-known leaders in Israel’s history, is a leader from the margins, arising with a back-story that is not purely upstanding, law-abiding Israelite. His great grandmother was a Moabite, part of a kinship group that had a complicated relationship with Israel, sometimes at war, sometimes allied, sometimes in peace—but always Other. And Ruth is not even the only woman in Matthew’s genealogy: Rahab and Tamar, other women praised for their unconventional acts of courage for God’s people. These women have been traditionally seen as outsiders, because of either the way they use their sexuality or their ethnicity. And yet: they courageously rise to the challenge of helping God’s people. Perhaps this suggests that we, too, should look for leadership from the margins, because difference and diversity are integral in the family of David and Jesus. Jesus, who in the stories of his life continues to show us the way to prepare the world for God’s kin-dom of peace rooted in justice, was made possible because of the faithfulness of God in including all people in the vision for salvation, in God’s family.

I love the imagery of my friend Emily’s quilt in relation to the Ruth and Naomi story, in part because I can imagine the two women sitting knitting or sewing together at night, mourning over their losses in Moab, or planning and supporting each other during the first nights back in Judah. I can just see them–sitting close together, embroidering their lives and stories and all they’ve seen into the quilt, including Naomi’s questioning God and Ruth’s conversion and the care shared between generations.

Indeed, when making a quilt, having company helps. This does not need to be a solitary act, but it can involve quilting circles of people who chat and exchange news about loved ones and trials in their lives. Women’s circles have, in fact, always been subversive places where women share the truth about their lives–a truly radical conversation. Women telling the truth about their experiences have changed many lives, as with the women who were instrumental in starting the environmental movement by sharing about the illnesses their children were facing around the Love Canal disasters. Think also of Emmett Till’s mother, who knew the truth of her son’s violent death and that it could send a powerful message to the people of this nation rent by conflict and the evil of racism. Last year in Nashville, during my fellowship in an intentional community of young women doing social justice work, I was part of multiple circles of women who gathered to talk about feminism and how the so-called “fourth wave” can be hospitable and inclusive to women of color and transgender women. Even here at Oberlin College, the circles of women who surrounded me to share stories about abuse, eating disorders, distorted self-image and mental health were instrumental in how I came to feel affirmed by the forces outside academia—they helped me recognize my calling to ministry. These truth-speakers in our lives are like living clouds of witnesses, encircling us and covering us with God’s quilt of love.

Look around you. We are all part of God’s family quilt, with one square for each of us, clipped from a favorite garment, a baby blanket, or a funeral shroud of a loved one. We are all included, no matter what fibers make up our being, what color we were dyed, what type of garment we were clipped from. Instead of being satisfied with a quilt made of one color from basic cotton, made in China, we should look for the vibrancy of all the colors and shapes and sizes and beings in Creation. We should rejoice in the beauty of the finished product of the quilt, but also remember that the process of becoming something beautiful can be long and difficult. In constructing a quilt, the material is ironed and pierced with needles and pulled tight and cut down to size. It is in the dedication and passion for the craft that the quilt becomes whole.

Remember that it is the same for becoming God’s quilt. We need to remember that it’s not easy to practice inclusive love. Even Naomi resisted bringing Ruth with her to Judah, because she knew that crossing the boundaries of ethnicity between Moabite and Israelite society would be difficult. And Ruth, too, knew it would not be easy, but she persisted because she viewed Naomi, a woman from a different homeland, was her chosen family.

In becoming God’s quilt, we too have holes poked through us and through everything we know, challenging ideologies and assumptions. Imagine the talk in Judah when Naomi and Ruth returned: where have they been, who is that foreign woman, what will they do without a man? But Ruth and Naomi show them a different way, show them the meaning of family.

In the process of becoming God’s quilt, we are pulled tight, stretched and challenged and sometimes cut down to size. The process of living into our destiny as part of God’s family is hard, because diversity is hard, because recognizing our privilege is hard, because recognizing our complicity in destructive and oppressive behaviors is hard–because love is hard. But we have each other and in the end we make something bigger and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined, and more than we could ever have been by ourselves. God’s quilt, crafted by brave people who tell the stories of the generations and who practice love daily, is made from diversity and has incomparable beauty. God’s quilt becomes a reminder to notice people on the margins of society, the folks who hang around the edges; when we see them for who they are, outsiders and addicts and emotionally unstable and incarcerated folks–it is then that we can spread the beautiful quilt of God’s family over the shoulders of people experiencing pain and sorrow, and even spread before us as we prepare a table to partake of the Eucharist. When we look for God in the outsider, on the periphery, about to slide out of the edge of our vision, then we are ready to receive unexpected blessings.

(Sermon preached at Peace Community Church in Oberlin, OH on November 8, 2015)

Posted in School, Uncategorized

What Do Monks Have To Do With It? (Formations Blog #1)

(This post is part of a series of blog posts I am writing for my Formations of Christian Traditions class. They are aimed towards progressive Christian college students!)

The January dawn was dark and chilly. I slept in my wool socks and a sweater inside my sleeping bag. My college friends and I roused ourselves from our bunk beds and pulled on extra sweaters and hats and trekked into the pale French dawn. Upon arriving at the Chapel of Reconciliation, we entered into a warm room smelling of cedar and incense, picked up our multilingual prayer books and found our seats on comfortable prayer stools. The morning worship at the Taizé monastery in southern France was quiet, contemplative, and moving. The worshippers sang repetitive chants with simple melodies and single phrases led by the ecumenical brothers of the Taizé community, shared silence, and contemplated short passages of Scripture. When all singing had ended (for it can go on quite a while, as long as there is someone who wants to sing), we would emerge into the bright sunlight and transition to a simple breakfast of bread, jam and spice tea before a Bible study and chore time. In two weeks of praying, singing, communing and working (what I like to call “scrubbing toilets for Jesus”), I, like many visitors to the historic ecumenical monastery, experienced a small taste of what monasticism looks like in the 21st century–and maybe even what it has been like for many centuries.

taizeThe main branch of the Western-style of monasticism seems to have originated, or at least taken a familiar form, in the lives and communities of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These were men and women ascetics (people who practiced simplicity in physical and spiritual life–e.g. eating bread and water only, etc.) who lived in the 4th-5th centuries AD, scattered across the Nile watershed in Egypt, Syria and Palestine whose lives and works are preserved in the Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers!]).[1] These sayings were collected and penned from stories circulating in the oral tradition by a monk named Cassian in the 6th century AD. From reading the Sayings and examining what kinds of stories were preserved about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we often can discern the ancient editor’s point of view about solitude, community and theology, and sometimes even get a glimpse of what life was like for the early monastics. With these teachings as a starting point, monasticism in the Western Christian world[2] (the Roman Empire and then Europe, primarily) got a move on, and throughout the medieval times and Middle Ages crystallized into different threads of traditions: Basilian (from St. Basil of Caesarea), Franciscan (from St. Francis of Assisi), and Benedictine (from St. Benedict of Nursia) being some of the most famous and widespread strains.

My visit to Taizé was almost five years ago, and contemplation in the style of certain monastic traditions has continued to be part of my life. This is in part because of the “new monasticism” movement, which now is about 20 years old and gaining in popularity among young progressive Christians of both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. I have witnessed and participated in several communities engaged in “intentional” or “new monastic” communities. These communities are united by some basic similarities: generally they are governed by a community covenant or rule of life that expresses the values the community wishes to practice. The basic concept of intentional living is cohabiting with others who are collectively dedicated to practicing certain values (spiritual, ecological, vocational, etc.) in a cooperative setting. Common life is important as it is the setting for exploring and expressing the values held in the community. This could be anything from holding all money in common to sharing all food to using politically correct language and practicing healthy conflict transformation styles–many communities all over the world practice their versions of living in community differently. Some intentional communities focus a lot on both individual and community development. Some focus on practicing “downward mobility” and living in solidarity with the poor and people experiencing homelessness. Some focus on able-bodied folks living alongside differently-abled folks and the ways in which these types of relationships can help all involved get through life.

communitysculpture

Last year, I participated in the Belle H. Bennett House Fellowship hosted at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, an intentional community program for young female-identifying people recently graduated from college who want to experience intentional living and do social justice work through unpaid internships in local nonprofits. This was a transformational time for me, where I was challenged and supported in ways I could never have imagined. I learned a lot about myself (trust me, A LOT) and also was able to set apart time for vocational discernment, all the while figuring out what community means to me. This trend of bringing young people recently graduated from college to live intentionally and do good work for their community is growing in popularity and is shared among many denominations (find more out about these wonderful faith-based volunteer programs here).

Here I have compiled a chart comparing some examples of the values of the early ascetics to the values of the “new monastic” movement as expressed by the founders of this movement, including one founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, PA.[3] This list is by no means exhaustive of all of the values that ancient monastic communities observed and new monastic communities live by, but they can give you and idea of some of the similarities important to these models of shared life that transcend time.

Desert Fathers and Mothers[4] Basic Philosophies of New Monasticism
Renunciation: of the world, namely, bodily pleasures like eating decadent food, drinking alcohol, sexual activity 1) “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.”
Inversion of Social Norms: rejecting Empire and drive to self-betterment 2) “Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.”
Hospitality: early ascetics would often take in novitiates and visitors and serve them humbly 3) “Hospitality to the stranger.”
Pursuit of the Divine: following the pattern of Jesus the Christ 4) “Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.”
Humility: placing oneself as a servant to others and to God 5) “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.”
Voluntary Social Death: for solitary monks, renouncing the world such that one does not exist there anymore (ex. leaving the city, living alone, not participating in commerce, etc.) 6) “Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.”
Common Life: early ascetics would have mentors with whom they’d address spiritual matters and from whom they’d gain encouragement or reprimanding 7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
Celibacy (another form of renunciation of the world) 8) “Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.”
Community (for some early Egyptian monks, they would live in solitary cells but in communities along the Nile River Valley) 9) “Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.”
Simplicity: early ascetics would use only what they needed, nothing more and nothing less (a practice that is now called “enoughness”)[5] 10) “Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.”
Pacifism (sometimes related to humility, sometimes seen to show the strength of the spirit as dominating a human brute instinct to conflict) 11) “Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.”
Spiritual Transformation: the ascetics had many spiritual practices that they would use to try to achieve spiritual purity and union with God (one important one was the practice of Silence) 12) “Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.”

Looking at this chart, you can possibly imagine the ways the values of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have been interpreted over the centuries, as well as imagine how the “new monastic” values could be interpreted in the future. And, the most interesting thing is, there are not too many differences in the origin of these values and practices: humility, simplicity and community seem to be the basis for both columns.

As you read these values, I encourage you to think about what kind of community you are experiencing currently. Are you living at home and going to a vocational school or a community college? Do you live far away from your family and attend a small liberal arts college? Who makes up your community—is it primarily 18-22 year olds or are there older adults and young children in addition to people your age? What guiding principles create cohesion in your community? Are there practices that you regularly engage in with people around you?

Here’s my challenge to you: try on one of these values for a week! Look at your life and make a list of what activities, practices and rituals you complete during your typical day (i.e. Do you pray in the morning and at night? Do you serve food in soup kitchens? Do you journal? Do you try to use your money sparingly and for good causes?) Try to fit any of those practices into the categories named in the columns above. Then, pick an item from the list of monastic values (either ancient or “new”) that you want to experiment with. Do some research (yeah, just Google it, ok? J) on what kinds of everyday practices you could try that complement the value. If you’ve never done meditative contemplation, try out a lectio divina or a centering prayer. If you mostly keep to yourself during meal times, exercise some hospitality and have a friend join you—or vice versa: eat a meal alone or in silence! Or, for some real challenge [J] try out “voluntary social death” in the form of taking a technology Sabbath and limiting your presence on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Also, follow this blog for the next four weeks, and I will post more about several of the values listed here: Solitude/Community, Silence, Humility and Hospitality. Each week, I will suggest spiritual practices to help you dig deeper into both the history of monasticism (as explored through the Sayings) and the living practices of modern “new monastics.” I do hope you will join me in learning more about the life of contemplation and service to God! If you have any questions, comments, would like to share insights or meditations that really work for you—feel free to post a comment publically or send me a private message!

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. What practices do I find myself yearning for? Create your own spiritual practices and rituals! (For example, mine include baking and drinking tea on my porch–run with your ideas!)

Peace be with you!

[1] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984).

[2] Though monasticism has taken various forms around the world (Tibetan Buddhism, Islamic ascetics, Confucian monks, etc.) I am choosing to focus on the (more or less) direct lineage of the new monastic movement, which gathers its heritage from the Benedictine Rule and models such as the Taizé, France and Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

[3] Found in Josh Anderson, “The 12 Marks of a New Monasticism,” Sojourners.com, accessed October 21, 2015, https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2007/12-marks-new-monasticism. Also found in Shane Claiborne, “Marks of New Monasticism,” in New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church, ed. Graham Cray, et. al. (London: Canterbury Press, 2010), 19-36.

[4] These values are based on Dr. David Michaelson’s Paper 1 Assignment Criteria handout, as well as gleaned from William Harmless (William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Cary, NC (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004), ProQuest ebrary, accessed 22 October 2015) and by my own reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[5] Bill McKibben, “Enoughness,” Resurgence.org, accessed November 3, 2015, http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article658-ENOUGHNESS.html.

Posted in Uncategorized

If you’re bummed by the time change and the coming darkness, read this!

Hello y’all.

It’s been a while (August 18 to November 3–wow!) I’ll post an update soon, but I wanted to share this great article with you all. This author writes about why she loves the beginning of winter, the times of dark creeping earlier into the daytime. This resonates with me a lot right now, as the time change just ocurred this last weekend and now, being in the eastern part of the Central time zone of the USA, it gets fully dark by 5:00pm. Not ok. But Jeanette Winterson reminds us that this is a beautiful time of mystery, a time to light candles and separate ourselves from artificial light. A time to embrace the need to hibernate, but also to sink into the familiar landscape around us that becomes unfamiliar in the darkness.

I like thinking about this article in terms of the coming of Advent (which you know is MY FAVORITE TIME OF THE YEAR). It is important to wait in the darkness of Advent before we can bear witness to the humble birth of Christ, the Light of the World. It is important to contemplate the brokenness of the world from time to time, to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation. It is special because we can see the coming light far off in the distance, even while we are surrounded by darkness.

Enjoy!

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/31/jeanette-winterson-night-guide