Discipline Thyself

Yesterday I went to the funeral service for a friend and mentor of mine.  Over the course of his life he was a Benedictine Monk, a Roman Catholic priest, an Episcopal deacon, priest and bishop.  He was also, to put it mildly, a very wise and holy man.

 

During the sermon at the funeral service the preacher reminded us of a spiritual practice that my mentor had undertaken every day of his adult life:  he got up before dawn and prayed.   Sometimes he prayed for hours at a time.  He had mentioned once that he prayed for each of his students by name every day and asking God’s guidance and blessing for each of us.  He said this spiritual discipline was a hold over from his monastic days, and one that he could never give up because he loved praying for us and simply spending time with God.

 

At first glance there may not seem to be many moments where we can “fit in” anything else into our busy lives, certainly not something as seemingly heavy duty as a spiritual discipline.  However busy we think we are though, finding a couple of minutes in our day to become more closely connected with God will become some of the most important and precious time we spend.  After you get into your discipline you’ll find how much you get back from those few moments you set aside to spend time with God as you nurture and grow your faith every day (which is an essential component of being a Christian–see BCP p. 304-5).

 

At Get Fed this past Wednesday the six-week class I’ve been teaching on “Living your Faith Monday through Saturday” wrapped up.  We discussed some of the electronic resources that are available to us that make DOING a spiritual discipline easier and even more enjoyable than one might expect.

 

Before beginning a spiritual discipline there are some basic concepts to consider:

 

1.  Baby Steps.  Undertaking something like a spiritual discipline takes a series of small steps.  Imagine you want to run a marathon.  Currently you do some walking, maybe run a day or so a week (much like you go to church and pray once a week)…you can’t go from running a half mile a week to a full 26+ mile marathon right off the bat.  You have to work at gaining stamina, strength, endurance.  The same thing goes for spiritual disciplines.  My friend who could pray uninterrupted for hours at a time didn’t just start off that way, he worked at praying over years of time.

 

2.  Find a time that works for you and stick to it.  For my friend, that time was before dawn.  For others the commute into work is a perfect time to think, pray, connect with God.  Wherever and whenever you decide is the right time for you to undertake your spiritual discipline stick to that time that place–you are creating holy time and space and that is important; important enough to have it’s own location and time.

 

3.  Start with a set amount of time.  Much like point one above, start with a period of time that you’ll try this discipline of connecting with God.  Advent is coming up and those four weeks before Christmas are a PERFECT time to try a new discipline.  There is a defined start and end time.  After Christmas take a look back and evaluate what you tried, how faithful you were to your discipline, where did things seem to “click” and where did you feel that things didn’t go as well as you’d have liked.

 

4.  Expect to encounter God.  The whole point of doing a spiritual discipline is that our relationship with God will become stronger, closer, more intimate.  The best news of all is that God wants the very same thing.  God is waiting for you and you have to expect that you will find God.

 

Here’s the good news:  there are dozens and dozens of applications, websites, email blasts that can help make undertaking a spiritual discipline fairly easy. Here are my favorite sites, apps, and email blasts.  Take a look and see which one speaks to you, or that you think would fit into your life, and go for it!  Also, if you know of others who might enjoy doing this with you–family, friends, co-workers, etc. please pass this along to them.  Often doing a spiritual discipline with someone else makes for a much richer and meaningful experience for both people.

 

d365:  The message is easy to digest yet invites us to go deeper with our faith; the app, website and email blasts are simple to navigate; and often they have seasonal versions (they’ll have one version especially for Advent).  The format and themes of the devotion are: Pause, Listen, Think, Pray, Go.  Here is the d365 for today.  You can download the app, sign up for the daily email or navigate through today’s devotional from this page.

 

eMeditations from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA:  These meditations come from a partnership with Forward Movement and offer a daily reflection on a verse of scripture.  The reflections come from theologians, priests, lay people and span almost a century of thought about how Holy Scripture integrates and informs our lives as Christians.  Here’s the eMeditation from today.

 

Brother Give Us A Word:  The monks at the Society of St. John the Evangelist write a daily short, thought-provoking meditation.  You can subscribe to receive their email blast.  Often I’ve found that I come back to the question or observation the author makes at several times throughout the day.  Here is the one for today (you can subscribe from the link on this page).

 

Pray as You Go:  This spiritual discipline is a podcast that’s available as an app but is also online.  The format follows a set pattern that will guide you through mediation, music, scripture and questions to keep in mind throughout the day.  Each day’s recording is about 12 minutes long, perfect for a commute, a lunch hour, or start to the day.  Here is the link for today’s Pray as You Go (you can sign up or download the app as well).

 

I hope that these resources are helpful as you consider undertaking a spiritual discipline and nurture your relationship with God.  As I said above, they are only a the tip of a HUGE iceberg of such resources.  If you have one you love that I’ve not mentioned here that you think others would enjoy, by all means share it with us by making a comment to this post.

 

With God’s Peace and Blessing,

Matthewfirst

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Filled with Sorrow

I have made note of this before in these Daily Cups – November is a sorrowful month. All Saints Day moves to the remembrance of All Souls, Kristallnacht, Veteran’s Day. Colorful trees are replaced by a quiet grayness. The earth, in this land of four seasons at least, gently folds into itself for a rest and these feel like times for introspection and stillness. For me, November gives sorrow a valuable place in our lives.

In Alan Paton’s novel of mid-twentieth century South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, he writes: “My friend, your anxiety turned to fear, and your fear turned to sorrow. But sorrow is better than fear. For fear impoverishes always, while sorrow may enrich.” It is said at the point when the father, after searching for his long lost son, finds that he has been arrested for murder, and the father is counseled by a priest to see that “Sorrow is better than fear…fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving.”

If you too feel the sorrow of November, than take heart in having arrived.

The New York Times recently carried an article titled “Wild Messengers” in which the author examined the sorrow she felt when her mother died. She found comfort and connection in the natural world, much as the author of the poem I wrote about last week, Do not stand at my grave and weep [Poem], does. I think God just wants us to stay connected to living, and when grief is that strong, perhaps the simplest connection is with nature and animals. Even in November, if we just open our eyes, there is an abundance of life all around us. New York Times, “Wild Messengers”

I’m aware that this and last week’s Daily Cup writings have been about sadness. They don’t come from any current personal sorrow, I assure you! Rather, the text of the choir’s communion anthem last week resonated with so many people who have taken the time to mention how much they loved it, and I wanted to share the beautiful article from the Times with you because it seems to have been directly born from that poem.

And finally, a soundtrack for this November day, with words of promise found in Psalm 145:16-17: The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand and satisfiest the desire of every living creature [thing].
The eyes of all – Jean Berger

SonyaFirst004

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Creative imagination

I recently acquired a subscription to Popular Mechanics. I haven’t read one in decades. It was good to get reacquainted with an old friend. The latest issue has a preview of forty-four good things to come in 2015 in the field of technology. It is a mixed bag. Some look really useful and could lead to even more useful things. At the really useful end of the spectrum is Toyota’s first fuel cell car, to appear in the U.S. this summer. It is said to have a range of 310 miles and, alternately, can power the average home for a week. Also coming, from two Australian inventors, are printable solar panels, which can be printed on any plastic surface, meaning that your cell phone case can be your phone’s solar powered charger. At the other end of the usefulness spectrum, at least to me, are play-tracking cameras and sensors that will be installed in all the major league baseball fields so that, even while our roads, bridges, atomic power plants and underground water and sewer pipes are deteriorating, there will be a whole new set of metrics about which sports fans can obsess, such as how fast someone swung a bat or how far someone ran to make a catch. But even this I suppose might have useful spinoffs in the field of forensics.

But all of these, the good, the bad and the ugly, set me to thinking about how much I benefit every minute of every day from the creative imagination and tenacity of inventors. They bring about things that revolutionize our lives for the better. Even though they have all come into being in my life time I can’t imagine living without 24 hour world news beamed right into my living room or without my cell phone.

And that set me to wondering why we don’t celebrate these men and women more in our religious life. In the panoply of saints, about the only ones that come close to being celebrated for scientific achievement are in the medical field. Far be if from me to write a Collect for the Book of Common Prayer, but I hope this idea eventually reaches someone who can. Until then, perhaps this will do.

Dear Lord, we thank you for the gift of creativity and for those on whom you bestow it abundantly. May they always apply their talents to the betterment of mankind. Help us to always be appreciative of the many ways in which the products of their minds and hands make our lives not only possible but productive and joyful. To God be the praise of it all. Amen.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 18-November-2014.

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Confessions and Fresh Expressions

Warning:  This post is longer than usual and likely to ruffle a feather or two…

“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you…. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” (St. Augustine, Confessions: Bk. I, 1, p. 21)

During the “check-in” portion of a small group gathering last week I confessed to a group of parishioners and a colleague that my “struggle” for the week began during a service of Holy Eucharist a couple of days before.  The struggle began when, sitting on a bench near the altar during The Liturgy of the Word, I looked out at a partially populated and dimly illuminated fuselage full of people who were, um, bored?  OK, bored may not be the right word.  Unhappy? Uninspired?  Confused?  I dunno.  And I don’t mean to be presumptive.  Maybe what I observed was… “thoughtful.”  Thoughtful is good!  But for the sake of argument let’s just say that from my perspective seated on that Deacon’s bench the passengers on this plane ride didn’t appear to typify the antonyms of any of those words above: excited, happy, inspired… certain.  I felt like Ezekiel in chapter 37: “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Later this week I’m meeting with our Bishop.  As I check in with her on the eve of my second year as a priest in The Episcopal Diocese of Washington I plan to clarify a statistic proclaimed at a recent regional clergy gathering:  “Of all of the mainline Protestant denominations Episcopalians are shrinking the fastest.”  Rev. Hanisian is our statistics guy but from where I sit, as I look around at St. Alban’s Sunday services, I see considerably fewer people than I saw less than two years ago.  What’s up with that?

When I was in seminary one of the seminal texts on liturgical practice was Praying Shapes Believing by Leonel M. Mitchell.  The crux of the book, published shortly after a liturgical renewal movement in the church resulted in a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), is the phrase legem credendi lex statuam supplicandi: the way we pray determines what we believe.  The “re-wording” in the new prayerbook was a “readjustment of the language of our relationship with God.”  The premise is that we needed a readjustment of the language of our relationship with God because the old ways of talking about God were inadequate and the way we talk about God – praise God – affects the relationship we have with God.  Wow. How does our liturgy talk about God today?  What do you hear?  How does or has it shaped your belief?

Our “way” of praising God in a traditional service of Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal church is normative.  It’s kind of like CVS.  It’s meant to be comforting because the CVS in in Glover Park is the same as the one in Arlington.  You know what to expect and you know where to find what you are looking for.  But only if you know the store.  Once you know the store, the norm is comforting.  But fewer and fewer people know our store and fewer and fewer are liking what they see when and if they come in.  These seem to be the facts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “even divinity doesn’t connote decency.” For me, sometimes it seems like we’ve got a liturgical dimmer switch set on medium. The God we Episcopalians praise (and believe in?) is very dignified, very “white.”   Every once in awhile somebody bumps into the switch and then the lights go up and we start seeing color. These are bright and colorful moments but being the genteel and conservative proclaimers we are we are careful to reset the switch.  We don’t want to get too excited because this God we are praising is awfully complex (trust me I get that part)… much of what we believe about God is not black or white… but gray.  Interestingly enough, this past Sunday the two brightest and most colorful moments I observed were  1) during the “passing of the peace” and 2) at the dismissal!  Hmm.

Could it be that in 1979, with the new language assigned to the norm for our worship, which was to reflect and shape our relationship with God, we weren’t colorful enough?  1978fashionknitshirtandpants

When reflecting on his contributions to the Anglican Communion former ArchBishop Rowan Williams said that if there was one thing that he’d like to be remembered for it would be putting his shoulder behind Fresh Expressions.  Fresh Expressions, says Williams, is “the thing that’s most cheered me and encouraged me in recent years.” Here’s Rowan explaining what Fresh Expressions is:

“What is it, I think it’s simply recognising that the conventional forms of worship and Christian life – going to church on Sunday mornings and so on – are wonderful but they don’t answer all the questions. Lots of people don’t start there. So how do you get to where people are and start where they are. And that may mean stepping out of the Sunday morning routine, looking for other places, other ways of assembling people around the presence of Jesus. It can be a group of youngsters on a Friday night, it can be a young mothers’ group on a Wednesday morning, it can be – and I’ve seen some of these extraordinary experiments – a regular meeting for skateboarders, it can be a meeting in a country church for an hour of silence every once a fortnight. So, going where people are, that’s the heart of it. And it’s important to me I think because when I was a bishop in Wales, one of the things I discovered, not really having planned it, one of the things I discovered was that this was happening in lots of contexts all around me. And I felt very strongly, I’m being called to encourage this and give it a bit of a push. So when I first became Archbishop of Canterbury, my first thought was well how do I use this position to further that kind of agenda.”

When asked if Fresh Expressions might create anxiety for those in the church that feared the disappearance of traditional worship Rowan responded:

“I understand the anxiety, but I don’t think it’s really justified. The question is, can we… it’s a term I’ve used sometimes, can we be a mixed economy church. Can we do different things equally well. Traditional worship is exactly what it ought to be for a lot of people: it’s transforming, it’s life-giving, it’s joyful. Wonderful, great, let it flourish and do it well, whether it’s prayer book services, choral evensong, whatever. And then recognise that’s not what will speak to everyone and that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad. It’s having the generosity I think to say there’s more than one way of expressing.” 

After showing Ezekiel the valley of dry bones God asked him if he thought they could live. Ezekiel was unsure… “I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’”  praiseBut God was certain:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of theLord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

The next time you are in church take a look around.  Tell me what you see.  Maybe you’ll agree that it’s time to prophesy.  Maybe you’ll agree that God is calling out to our dry Episcopalian bones.  Maybe you can help us bump the switch and turn up the lights with your spirit, like happened Saturday night when there was dancing at the celebration held by Rev. Reyes and our brothers and sisters who are members of the Spanish speaking service on Sunday nights.  Get on your feet!  Sing loud!  Join us for Get Fed on Wednesdays for the next few weeks – it’s the best, tastiest and cheapest dinner with friends in DC.  Bring a friend that doesn’t want to come on Sunday morning but might like a bright Wednesday night.

When I was in New Orleans Bishop Robert Wright came to speak to the clergy there.   “God is real, God is able and God is generous,”  he said.  “And this is what people need to know… a real, able and generous God.”  And then he asked us priests: Does the way you go about our work and the way you praise God on Sunday mornings communicate that kind of faith?”

It’s an open question.  A good question.  I do believe that God is calling out to our Episcopalian bones, and that amazing things are happening at St. Alban’s.  There is Grace in Action all around us, thanks be to God.  But I also believe that we need to turn up the lights, paint with bigger brushes and use more of the color God has placed on our palette. How about you?

Happy Monday,

Jim+

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Do it. Just do it.

“But be doers of the word…doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”  James 1:22, 25b

 

For the last month I have been teaching a Wednesday evening class “Living our Faith Monday through Saturday” as part of our “Get Fed” program.  A couple of weeks ago I challenged the class to “Sit still.  Don’t DO anything.  Be silent and still for two minutes each day…and listen for God.”

 

When the class met the following Wednesday the results were fairly predictable.  Some found not doing anything and being silent for two minutes a major challenge; others found it difficult either to just sit still and not do anything, or to clear their minds enough to truly listen for the voice of God.  And, some found it to be holy time, a blessed break from the DOING of our lives, even if only for two minutes.

 

We are brought up to be doers, especially here in Washington, D.C.  Our children and our youth have almost every minute of their day scheduled.  The average work week in America is now 47.6 hours long–almost a whole extra eight-hour work day longer than the “40-hour work week.”  In short: we should have zero problem with what James is talking about in his epistle.  His admonishment to be, “doers of the word,” should be right up our alley.

 

Yet, we have feeding ministries that are literally withering on the vine, aching for more volunteers to help feed the neediest in our community; we have a huge need for adults to help work with our children in Sunday school and lead Children’s Chapel–both at the 9:15 a.m. service and especially the 11:15 a.m. service.  Most of these ministries require not more than three or four hours per month of time commitment, and all of them help further the Kingdom of God here in this place, right now.  Indeed there are only a few ministries at St. Alban’s that wouldn’t gladly take a couple more volunteers.  Simply put, we need more “doers of the word” to sustain and even grow the ministries that nourish and enrich the lives of so many.

just-do-it

 

 

Want to get involved with the feeding ministries here?  Contact Marty Kerns, Jonelle Easton, or Susan Morrison.  Don’t know how to get in touch with them?  Email me and I’ll put you in touch with the appropriate person.  Want to assist in the Sunday school program or help lead Children’s Chapel?  Email me and we’ll get you plugged in to those ministries.

 

When you become a “doer of the word,” what you’ll find is that you feel great about yourself–you have given of your time and maybe of the talents God has given you–and you will have made a major difference in the lives of others in the name of Jesus.  The effects of becoming more fully a “doer of the word,” have been written about, debated, analyzed and discussed for centuries–far more in-depth than this blog format will allow.  However, I’ll sum up what happens when you become a “doer of the word,” as this: you will be living your faith more fully, and you will receive far more than you imagine in return for your service.

 

In Christ’s name,

Matthewfirst

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What if he meant it?

What if he meant it?images
 
What if all the words were not metaphor,
but speech plain as bread,
 
plain as the bread
that lights upon our outstretched hands
like a dove
or a beating heart:
this is my body?
 
We do not know what it is, really,
or who he was,
but what if he meant what he said?
What if all the promises are true?
What if heaven
really can be found in the lily’s golden stamen,
What if forgiveness is easy
and it is rage that coats our tongue in ashes?
What if we did spill forth from one womb,
what if “brother” is not just a word we say?
What if we really can have it all –
heaven and earth held in the palm of our hand,
life upon life spilling into us,
and all of heaven’s gold in the simple light of dawn?
 
If all that were true, would you then
take the daring risk,
step aside from yourself, o so gently aside,
and let the light pour in?
 
What if we can only give it to one another,
And never receive it for ourselves?
 
Could you welcome it then?
 
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