ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger



The light shines in the darkness

A lightIt is late – midnight – and I’m just now reminded that this is the longest night of the year. Some of us struggle against the darkness. Some of us struggle against doubt. Some of us struggle against evil. For those who are struggling deep into the night, I offer my prayer.

 The light shines in the darkness;
The darkness has not overcome it.


Experiments in prayer

My congregation is in the middle of its worship series entitled, “Experiments in Kingdom Living”. We’re studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and attempting to put his teachings into action in a manner similar to the one that Mark Scandrette outlines in his new book, Practicing the Way of Jesus.

One of the things that I’ve been learning throughout this series is a new appreciation of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Many people are familiar with it. In Matthew’s gospel, it reads like this:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6.9-13

In our experiments, we’re trying to experience a new way of living — one that is Christ-like and rooted in discipleship. That new way of living is tied to a new way of thinking*, and that way of thinking was taught to Jesus’ disciples in the Lord’s Prayer. In this short prayer, we seem to find references to the entire Sermon on the Mount, if we look for it.

Scandrette talks about this in his book**. As they read the gospels, Scandrette and his community wanted a way to simplify all of the different teachings that they found. They identified five broad themes which seemed to encapsulate the individual instructions that Jesus gave to the disciples:

1) Identity
2) Purpose
3) Security
4) Community
5) Freedom and peace

And these themes are mirrored in the five lines of the Lord’s Prayer, as I’ve formatted it above.

Those of us who have memorized this prayer may have a tendency to recite it without thinking. After all, there is a good chance that we’ve been saying it since we were children. Throughout this worship series, the experiment that seems to be transforming me most is an intentional, deliberate, and conscious practice of prayer – learning the Lord’s Prayer again for the first time.

* Which comes first: Christ-like thinking or Christ-like living? Talk amongst yourselves.

** Practicing the Way of Jesus by Mark Scandrette, pp. 64-67.

Post-modernism, privilege, poetry, and prayer

Wow – how about that title? Don’t let it scare you away. Really, all I want to do is to get you to listen to some poetry by Ruth Forman. So I won’t be offended if you scroll down to the end and do just that.

No. Seriously. This post is sort of a random bunch of thoughts swirling in my mind that aren’t meant for anyone other than myself.  It’s not coherent at all. Just go listen to the poetry.

Ok – with that out of the way…

I’m not an expert on post-modernism. I do know that it questions objective truth. However, I don’t know if it rejects objective truth outright, or just cautions us that our personal truth is probably not the whole story.

Ironically(?), I accept this post-modern critique – that I don’t see the whole picture – as part of my personal truth. However, I do tend to believe that there is objective truth – it’s just that I can’t completely grasp it.

In particular, in the past few years I’ve been thinking about privilege. (Uh-oh – here he goes again!) I have about all the privileges that a person could have – gender, race, class, education, and so forth. Those of us with privilege often have trouble seeing it, and the process of letting it go can be painful. So – even though I accept a post-modern critique, even though I know I have privilege, and even though I know I should give it up, it’s still hard.

One area of privilege may be in theology. Now, personally, I don’t have much at stake. However, much of what has been regarded as “truth” in North America has been inherited from Europe and whatever emerged from the reformation. This has become apparent to me recently as I read J. Denny Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement. In addition to exploring some Anabaptist theology, he also includes the insights of Caucasian women and both African-American men and women. The thinking of the last group is sometimes termed ‘Womanism’.

Alice Walker defines a ‘womanist’ as someone who is:

Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female

and who:

Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

(Please note: there’s much more to her definition. I’m just excerpting.)

Back to privilege… Like I said, giving it up is hard. But it is made a whole lot easier by people who are willing to point out my privilege in love – like Alice Walker describes.

And finally, we get to the poetry of Ruth Forman. The other night, I was reading from Renaissance, a collection of her poems, and I came across “Reunion”. It starts this way:

Bring someone some hope
like a basket of good nectarines
to share n bite n
love the sweet

And I thought – this is a person who could teach me about privilege. And hope. And womanist theology. Which she does in this poem that she read one day on NPR:

Prayers Like Shoes

Reflecting on Ramadan

(As I blogged earlier, I decided to fast during the month of Ramadan.  I didn’t provide as many updates here as I would have liked.  However, I did write about my experience for my congregation’s newsletter, and I’ve reproduced that below.)

Saturday, September 19 marked the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan.  According to the Islamic faith, Ramadan is the month during which Muhammad received the Qur’an.  Throughout the month, Muslims observe a fast which begins at dawn and lasts until dusk.  They refrain from eating, drinking, or indulging in any excess.  The month is also a time for additional prayer, for acts of charity, and for reconciliation.

I also decided to fast throughout the month.  My hope was that I could develop a greater appreciation for our Muslim brothers and sisters, learn from their experience, and benefit personally from practicing some of the same spiritual disciplines.  At the same time, I described my participation as a fast to coincide with Ramadan, rather than a Ramadan fast.  It was my intent to remain faithful to my Christian faith, and I didn’t want to dishonor Islamic faith, since I knew ahead of time that I wouldn’t be observing the fast in quite the same way as Muslims.  (For example, each day I broke my fast early in order to eat supper with my family.)

So what did I gain from this experience?  One thing I immediately realized is how much I take food for granted.  For instance, I snack frequently without expressing thanks to God, and I sit down to many regular meals without being grateful.  And so I became aware of my need to change, and my heart was softened.

Another thing that I gained was a new and growing appreciation for a lectio divina approach for reading and praying scripture.  I was eating breakfast at an early time before sunrise, and I also tried to add Bible study to that time.  Lectio divina was a new experience for me, but I found it to be refreshing and life giving.

Finally, as Ramadan is a time for reconciliation, I was glad to work toward reconciliation that was needed in my own life, and was thankful for healing.

There was also one main opportunity that I feel that I missed during Ramadan.  I had hoped to learn more about Islam than I did.  I had considered visiting a mosque to observe prayer or to meet a Muslim for conversation.  I didn’t do that, even though I think that might be one of the best ways of learning and increasing understanding.

I’m hopeful that in the future, I will have these opportunities again.  I believe that in building these kinds of bridges, we are following the Spirit’s leading and working as peacemakers.

Jesus’ humanity

Let me preface this whole post by acknowledging that I don’t understand the mystery of Jesus’ dual human/divine nature.  I might make the mistake in this particular blog of ascribing too much to his humanity.  On the other hand, I think that there also might be a tendency by Christians to downplay Jesus’ human side of things when his deity seems to be under attack in our pluralistic society.  Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from stories where Jesus seems to be a bit too human for our own comfort – stories like the cleansing of the temple, for example, or the story I’ll discuss below.  Maybe we’ll learn a little about the nature of sin; about what God regards as sin; and about what masquerades as sin, but which really only offends our sense of politeness, social propriety, or political correctness.

Anyway, this morning I was reading this coming Sunday’s lectionary passage from the gospel of Mark.  At the end of Chapter 7, I have the impression that Jesus is just really exhausted and would like to get away from it all and go on a little vacation.  He’s gone to Tyre, which is on the Mediterranean Sea, and the scripture says…

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Sounds like me sometimes.  (Well, actually I probably want to take a vacation at the slightest hint of weariness.  I have the impression that Jesus got a whole lot wearier than I do.)

So Jesus is off on vacation, but he isn’t even able to rest there.  He’s found by some Gentile woman who has heard about the kinds of amazing things that he has been doing and wants him to heal her daughter.  At this point, Jesus seems to be a bit exasperated (and that’s putting it gently).  He tells her that his work is with the Jews and not the Gentiles, but he’s a bit more gruff than that (at least to my ear)…

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

But check out this reply:

Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Now this is where I don’t quite know how to understand Jesus’  humanity.  I wouldn’t suggest that Jesus needs grace, at least not in the sense that the rest of us do.  But doesn’t it seem like that’s just what he’s received in this woman’s response?  Hasn’t he just called her a dog?  And didn’t she just let that one slip by?  I know I’m interpreting this one from a 21st century middle-class North America cultural viewpoint, but still…

Anyway, maybe the woman has ministered to Jesus’ need.  Perhaps, in this time when he’s on vacation for some rest, she has reminded him of the faith that he inspires in people, and perhaps that is an inspiration to his own faith, as well.  (I do think that Jesus needed faith in his Father to achieve his work on earth.   I don’t think that is too much of a stretch or a threat to his divinity.)

Ok – let me move on to take a quick look at the next story.  Jesus is on his way home from vacation, and some people bring him a man who is deaf and who also has a speech impediment.  Jesus takes the man aside to pray for him and only utters one word, “Ephphatha”, which means, “Be opened.”  But look at what else he does – he sighs.  I’m not a scholar of Greek, but my understanding is that this is the same word found in Romans 8 where Paul describes how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.

What is happening here?  Does Jesus sigh because of lingering tiredness?  Does he not know what words to pray, or does he express a deeper prayer from the depths of his soul?  Does the Holy Spirit also intercede with the Father on behalf of the Son?  Do we learn that at times there are prayers that reflect the heart of God that just can’t be expressed with the words that we have?

Today, I’m reminded that Jesus’ humanity was not an impediment to his ministry, but rather a vital part of it.  It was only by becoming human that Jesus was able to show us the way back to God.

Fasting and learning

Sunset tomorrow (August 21) marks the beginning of the observance of Ramadan, the month in which Muhammad received the Qur’an, according to Islamic faith.  For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of fasting, as well as praying and reading the Qur’an more than would usually be done.

When I was in grad school, one of my friends also fasted throughout the month.  As a Christian, his goal was not to become a Muslim, but rather to develop a level of respect for Muslims and an understanding of Islamic faith.  And recently, I’ve read that Brian McLaren is also planning on fasting through this month.

This seemed good to me, as well, and so I’ve decided to fast throughout this month, also.  This is my hope:

  • I’m not going to call this a Ramadan fast, but rather a fast to coincide with the month of Ramadan.  The difference may just be semantics, but my aim is two-fold: be true to my Christian faith, while not dishonoring Islamic faith.*
  • Along those lines, I know that I won’t be able to observe this fast exactly as Muslims would.  I will try to begin my fast at dawn, as Muslims do.  However, I’ll break it earlier than Muslims would so that I can join my family for supper.  And I might break my fast for the sake of accepting another person’s hopitality (for example, being invited to someone else’s home).
  • Muslims view this as a time for seeking God in prayer, practicing kindness, learning humility, and so on.  As a Christian, I also view these as worthy goals, and can do the same.
  • Additionally, I believe that there is too little understanding of the Islamic faith by Christians.  I will try to learn more this month.

* Brian McLaren intends to be in conversation with a Muslim friend during this month.  As I understand it, this is partly to avoid doing things would be dishonoring.  I realized that I don’t actually know any Muslims, so I can’t be in conversation.  Maybe part  of my goal should be actually meeting someone with whom I can converse.

I’ll try to report on my experience here.

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