20 December, 2007

$6000 per pound

The baby bills are starting to come in. Some of them are enormous. I'm keeping a running tally, and the current cost of bringing Zachary home from the hospital: approximately six thousand dollars a pound. That's just the hospital cost... individual bills for the physicians will arrive separately, or so they told me.

Several thoughts come to mind.

First, it really doesn't matter what the bill is; a child is priceless.

Second, it's odd to incur such a huge bill for services that I didn't deliberately choose to pay. Sure, you sign a waiver and agreement for treatment and all that legalese when you check in to the hospital. Then your wife is in labor and they want to give her IV drips of drugs you've never heard of, and then she eventually requires an emergency c-section (read: major abdominal surgery), and then they whisk the baby off to the NICU because he's not breathing properly and keep him there for four days, and meanwhile, your beloved's life is saved, not once, but twice, by an attentive nurse, OB, and anesthesiologist. Nowhere in this process do you say, or even think, "hey, wait a second, what's this going to cost?"

Third, I'm thankful we are insured. It's actually rather good insurance. There are a few ways that the church takes care of our clergy, and the insurance coverage is one of them. So my out of pocket cost will be a fraction of that. A surprisingly small fraction.

But what if I wasn't insured? I guess we might have tried to deliver the baby somewhere cheaper. (But if we hadn't been at a first-class medical facility, my wife and son would have died. No kidding.) Or we would have sucked it up and paid it ourselves, which would have exhausted all our savings, and we're people who are living privileged lives. There are plenty of people in America who don't have health insurance, can't afford it, or don't qualify. Gordon wrote about this recently, with more eloquence than I have at my disposal at the moment.

No matter how you look at it, the health care system in this country needs fixing. And what irks me is that this is an election year coming up. Which means we're going to hear a lot of hot air about health care and prescription drugs for seniors (because seniors vote in large numbers), and not a whole heck of lot about addressing the difficult issues of who's going to pay for it and overhauling the system. And then the new administration will take a while to settle in, and...

09 November, 2007

New Daddy Brain = no blog posts

There are some things in life that affect you whether or not you see them coming. The syndrome I cheerfully call "New Daddy Brain" falls into that category.

You know the symptoms: heavy-lidded eyes, rumpled clothing, coffee mug permanently attached to left hand (regardless of how hot or how empty the mug is), a tendency to wander into rooms and then look around in bemusement, wondering why you're there...

I pitched up to Bible study a couple of days ago without my Bible, which is usually considered an essential piece of equipment if you're the one leading the study. Hey, at least I've managed to remember to wear pants every day this week.

And it's not like there hasn't been material worthy of reflection in my life. Declining numbers in the church, comic strips, hospital experiences (mine and those of others), reflections on new babies, letters from loved ones... all of them flit past, then go get trapped somewhere in the cobwebs of my mind, possibly never to return. I'm aware that I've promised you, dear readers, a wrap-up to the Sabbath set of posts, and also some reflections on the trip to Tanzania. Stay tuned. I'm giving myself another half a week to climb far enough out of the fog to function without a coffee IV drip, and then I'll get to some of this backlog.

02 November, 2007

Here he is....

Home from the hospital!

31 October, 2007

It's a boy!

Rejoice with us! The Lord has given us a son.

We're going to call him Zachary Alexander.

Mom and baby are still in the hospital. Pictures to follow when I get a chance. And a cool story or two.

18 October, 2007

Death of a preacher man

One of my seminary classmates died yesterday. That's one of those things you know is going happen eventually, but it's never welcome news when it gets to you.

His name was Bill Wiseman.

Hard to know where to start describing him, really. Bill kinda defied categorization. I knew him best, not as a classmate, but as a prayer partner. We were part of a small group that met together on a weekly-ish basis, prayed together, shared lives and stories, read scripture and discussed it, that sort of thing. The rules of the group made our discussions confidential, and there are some stories about him, or stories that he told, that I'd love to share--but I never got his permission to do so.

Those of you in small groups know what kind of special relationship forms between people who regularly pray for each other. We didn't always hang out together, but I always knew he was there. Some corner of my mind paid attention to where he was in chapel (along with the rest of the members of the small group), and at the prayers of the people it was a kind of anchor in reality to know that I was praying for Bill, that wise-cracking dude right over there, rather than some random name off the list of alumni and donors. He'd occasionally come down to my study desk in the basement of the library and keep me company.

Bill got to seminary by a roundabout route. Somewhere around age 30 he got himself elected to the Oklahoma state legislature, served a couple of terms, and then switched parties and lost his next election. Never really left politics altogether, in the sense of politics being the realm of people trying to make a difference in the world and make the world a better place. After he left office, he did a number of things. Worked in advertising for a while, if I remember right, and then was a consultant of some kind. Learned to fly somewhere along the way. He earned at least four academic degrees, including a doctorate (jurisprudence, I think), read Hebrew fluently and enthusiastically, and had a depth of connection to literature that astounded me.

He was in his late 50s at seminary, and you always knew that he was working from a slightly different paradigm than everybody else. Thought he was smarter than the professors (and was in some cases), concentrated on things differently than the rest of us, and was driven by different motivations. I remember him as a passionate reader and scholar of Hebrew and the old testament.

The thing many of my classmates are going to remember was one of his signature moments... his senior sermon. Now, you gotta have a little background on this to understand it. At the seminary in Austin, you get one chance, exactly one, to preach to the community in chapel. Usually it was Thursday, which was the weekly Eucharist, and was your garden-variety Episcopalian sermon: 10 to 12 minutes (maybe 15 at the outside), a few Biblical references, a carefully politically correct joke or two...

Well, old Bill preached on a Wednesday, if I remember right. Wednesday's service (Choral morning prayer, at least a couple of years ago) was usually about 25-30 minutes long, followed by lunch, followed by committee meetings. There's not usually a sermon. Well, that day we had a sermon. Boy did we. Bill preached for, I kid you not, I timed it, forty-seven minutes.

Bless his heart, it was the worst sermon I ever heard in the chapel. It had about four false endings, where people started to pull out their prayer books and shift in their seats, ready to move on... and then he kept talking. At one point, he pulled out a prayer shawl and a zucchetto (skullcap), put them on, and began to chant from the Torah. He rambled, he gushed, he told stories from the prophets, he told stories about his own life. And I'm sitting there the whole time, rear end long ago fallen asleep from the uncomfortable chairs, loving him because he's my prayer partner and wanting to wave the white surrender flag and tell him to shut up at the same time.

My feedback to him was this: in the end, it was basically an eight-word sermon with 46 minutes of commentary. Somewhere in the middle of that rambling and gushing over the beauty and richness of Hebrew scripture and tradition, he said:

I beg of you, drink from this well.

I actually agreed with him on that, and I envied his depth in the scriptures and his knowledge of Hebrew. At one point, he had me convinced that I should wear a zucchetto as part of my normal Sunday clerical attire. (okay, most of you, quit laughing.) I talked myself out of that, mostly because I didn't want to have to explain it a thousand times. (Also because I landed in San Antonio, and the combination of cowboy boots, a clerical collar, and a zucchetto is bizarre.) But hey, I just might go get one and wear it in Bill's honor one of these days.

He died, along with four other people, when the plane he was flying crashed. he was heading from Tulsa to my old home town of Sugar Land, but never got out of town. The funeral is next week, but I'll be at clergy conference. I'll have to let my friends Ron and Stephanie and Reid be my tears for me.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting

08 September, 2007

the other side of the world

So, here I am in Zanzibar. And here's a quick blog post, just because it's cool to post from the other side of God's world.

We saw the sites today of some caves where slaves were kept before being sold at the markets, and the cathedral built on the site of the slave market. I was invited to preside at worship and preach there--talk about intimidating! I'll get through somehow. God is good.

This afternoon, I'm engaging in a little sabbath time with my host and friend Masalakulangwa.

Can't download pictures, unfortunately, but I'll post a couple when I get home.

03 September, 2007

blogslacking: guilty as charged

Yes, I've been blogslacking.

I've been busy, really.

First, the sabbath chapter for three weeks ago was right down the middle of what I planned to preach about, so I put off posting till the sermon was over. Then Sunday was crazy and I didn't post it and put it off till later. Then the next chapter was what I thought was the last one of the book, so I got ready to do some kind of wrap-up...but Megan and Tripp read it differently, and the good news is we have a few more weeks to go. Their posts are good ones, and reflect well on the material. I may or not catch up. (Megan and Tripp, I've been reading along, and reflecting, just not posting.)

Then our senior pastor went on vacation for two weeks, and I tried to hold down the fort in his absence. That's not normally so busy a job, but this time it was.

And now I'm leaving tomorrow, for a short (weeklong) trip to see a seminary buddy--in Dar Es Salaam. I'll post about that when I get back.

31 July, 2007

Five shiny things

There are days I love living in San Antonio.

Yesterday was one of those days.

23 July, 2007

Sabbath 28: The Way Of Enough

Sabbath 28: Tripp's post, Meeegan's post

In this chapter, Muller returns to a familiar theme. He wants to draw a distinction between sufficiency (having enough) and abundance (having more than enough). Sabbath is about recognizing that enough is enough; a time to focus on what we have, rather than what we lack. "When we are trapped in seeking, nothing is enough. Everything we have mocks us; we see only what is missing, and all that is already here seems pale and unsatisfying."

This is another verse to a familiar tune of Muller's: simplicity. He devoted what I think is an entire section to it earlier in the book. (chapters 17-20, if you want to search back and look at them again) And he's right on target, for me at least, and probably for the vast majority of his intended audience--people who live in the developed world, probably America--who are, by the global standards of the world, incredibly, ridiculously rich.

But for the vast majority of the world, the story is different.

One billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day--or try to.

Two billion more live on just slightly more than that, two or three dollars a day.

There are people on this Earth right now who will never in their lives have as much food in their home at one time as I have in my refrigerator and pantry right now--and we were just thinking that we needed to make a run to the supermarket, because we're out of a few things.

Yes, I'm ridiculously rich. Yes, I have literally half a garage full of stuff my family never uses. And yes, I am trying to do my part to do something about it. Those of you at St. Thomas heard me mention this in the sermon last week.

I guess that Muller's chapter served not to remind me of the abundance of God's creation (which is true--there is enough food in the world to feed the world) but to remind me of the unequal distribution of wealth. Much of the world doesn't have enough, even as Muller tries to remind me that I do.

20 July, 2007


We've had something of a family tradition--I read the first six books out loud to my beloved, in way-over-the-top pythonesque accents, thankyouverymuch.

She has asked me to do the same with the last one, which means that it will take us at least a week to ten days to get to the end.

Don't tell me what happens, or I ain't gonna be your friend no more.

* * * * * * * * *

Post script--
Until we are finished with the book, I will not be reading anonymous comments posted to the blog, opening emails from unknown addresses, answering blocked phone calls, or reading billboards on the side of the highway.

Constant Vigilance!!!

16 July, 2007

Millennium Development Goals follow-up

For the readers at St. Thomas, here are a couple of links to things I referenced in Sunday's sermon.

ONE Campaign

(and here)

29 June, 2007

Sababth 27: Mindfulness and Holiness

Sabbath 27: Meeegan's post, Tripp's post

Okay, we're back in the blog saddle after a few weeks of travel and other craziness.

This week's chapter begins a new section, one called "Consecration." In the chapter, Wayne makes the point that Sabbath is time for re-creation, for restoration, and that restoration involves taking stock of where you are, and acknowledging the reality of that.

His suggested exercise for this chapter is confession. It reads like a natural progression from where he's been going all chapter, in that seeing the reality of life often means seeing your faults and failures, and wanting to make those better. He tells stories of couples he knows who take time to deliberately talk on the Sabbath about the times they have wronged one another in the last week, and asking forgiveness.

The health of honesty in relationships is something that happens more often, these days, in the psychologist's office rather than the confessional booth. Either way, Muller's treading on ground that's going to be sensitive for many people. Once again, he's is playing in deep water for my faith tradition, and it's the practice of confession that I want to spend my time on this week.

* * * * * * * * *

Last week, I visited one of my parishioners, and she started telling me stories (unprompted) about going to confession as a child.

"We used to make things up," she said with a giggle. "Well, you had to go to mass, because if you didn't your soul was in danger, and you couldn't go to mass without going to confession, and you couldn't go into the booth without having something to confess! So we'd make things up!"

I have about a hundred confessional-booth jokes in my back pocket. You've probably heard a few yourself. I think the problem has nothing to do with what Muller is reaching for--the reconciliation of people to each other and to God--and everything to do with the institutional logistics of the system. When you start making rules around the grace of God, strange things start happening. And the have-to-do-it-this-way mentality that is all too often the product of institutional church (the Roman Catholic church is only the biggest example) can actually become the hindrance to God's action in the world that it was trying to avoid by making the guidelines in the first place.

Viewed the wrong way, the system seems to put a requirement for human participation (the priest) in the way of God's forgiveness. You need a priest to pronounce you clean, or you'[re going to hell, because that's what the rules say.

And that same system is the one that can lead to great abuse. Today's legal decision to settle with victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the tune of some $60 million casts a long, dark shadow over this discussion.

Every week, my community says a prayer of confession as a part of our regular worship.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

This prayer is usually sufficient for most people. But some sins are just too heavy, and too hard to let go of. The Episcopal church does still retain the one-on-one sacrament of "reconciliation of a penitent," although it surprises most people to know that there's a rite in the prayer book. We tend not to do it with the old-school confessional booth, instead meeting privately in an otherwise empty church building, or in the priest's study. This is the formal prayer used in confession:

I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone; especially__________. For these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me. I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.

When I hear a confession, whether from an individual or from a congregation of Christians, I think of myself as a witness. I witness the penitent(s) confessing their sins to God, and I in turn remind them of God's forgiveness. (or, in the language of the ordination liturgy, 'declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners') It's not that God won't extend God's grace without my participation--that's ridiculous--but I can sometimes be the needed catalyst on the receiving end.

Sacraments are just patterns; material, tangible reminders of the countless ways God reaches out to us. We are material beings, and we need some way to be touched (literally) by God. The water of baptism, or oil of anointing, or bread of communion, are ways for us to experience the presence of the living God.

For some people, they need to hear someone look them in the eyes and audibly tell them that God's grace is sufficient to cover even their sin. (As in: Yes, even you are forgiven. Yes, even for THAT. No, really, God still loves you.) To get to be that person, occasionally, by virtue of the function assigned to me by God's people, is one of the great joys of my vocation. (and one of the frightening things).

05 June, 2007

sabbath sabbath: off to camp

I really have no idea how many readers I have, because I took the hit counter off the blog a long time ago. (though I did install one of those cool world maps to see where the visitors come from. It's a small planet, friends, and we need each other.)

Anyway, for those of you waiting with bated breath for each new installment of Sabbath reflection (yeah, right) we're taking the next three weeks off. I'm off to camp!

Sabbath 26: Beginner's Mind

Sabbath 26 (finally!): Tripp's post, Megan's post

This chapter was a bit scattered for me, and I had to read it several times over before it made sense at all. I ended up understanding it best as a part of a longer section of thought entitled "wisdom."

It seems to me that Muller is trying to explore what the Sabbath teaches us about wisdom from several angles, but instead of accomplishing that he ends up saying the same thing in five different ways. My summary of the section: you're not in control. You don't know what's going to happen in the future.

He tells a few stories in this chapter, some legendary, some real-life anecdotes, about people who struggle for control of their lives, and are swept away by unforeseen and uncontrollable forces. This whole section is steeped in eastern thought; he quotes the Tao Te Ching and references the Buddhas several times.

I struggled with this chapter as I did with the others in the section. After five chapters of the same argument, the same things are true: Wayne seems to think that things will solve themselves if you leave them alone, and I don't. There's a difference between allowing yourself a break from working and worrying at something and deciding that it's going to fix itself.

also, if you go down the track of "we don't know what's going to happen in the future and we can't control it," you eventually stop at a station called "why should I work at anything at all?" Here I will admit that I'm not well schooled in Eastern philosophy, so maybe I'm being too critical. Maybe my friend Brendan over at Off the Beaten Path can help me understand where Wayne is trying to go.

When Muller says that each Sabbath is an opportunity for a new beginning, my response is to think that he's missing his own point. If you're not in control of events, then what's the use of new beginnings?

Wayne's suggested exercise for this chapter is "sabbath bathing." Wash as if you're taking a ritual bath, cleansing all your parts and starting anew. If I could disconnect it from the chapter, I might feel better about it. I like the idea, even if I had to clean the tub before I could do the exercise.

27 May, 2007

Sabbath 25: Being Sabbath

Sabbath 25: Megan's post, Tripp's post

Muller spends this chapter talking about how he began a life spent as a therapist, counselor, and pastor.
"As early as I can remember, I was both drawn to, and pained by, the sorrows of others."
"Today, 25 years later, they still call me."

He says that his biggest asset, his biggest gift, is the ability to be nothing. To be invisible. To be so completely non-obtrusive that it draws others out, and so that others can be completely at peace.

He ties this to sabbath in that we can create sacred spaces of time for one another, by being present, calm, in the midst of crisis: "Others share with me how they are sabbath for one another. 'After years of running from patients to meetings and writing reports and calling volunteers I have finally learned that my real job, when dealing with dying patients, is to be calm, the eye of the storm.' "

"...at our best, we become Sabbath for one another... we become space, that our loved ones, the lost and sorrowful, may find rest in us."

Muller has a gift. It's obvious from his description of his life. But I'm not sure I agree with his description of it, or that I understand it the same way he does.

* * * * * * * * * *

Muller's experience rings with a certain amount of truth. The first rule they tell you in chaplaincy training is: shut up. Let people talk. They are not interested in your answers to their problems, even if you would love to solve the problems of the world to your own satisfaction.

The second general rule is: Just be a calm, non-anxious presence. In crisis, people want to know that you're there, but they don't necessarily want to talk to you.

That's true, in my limited experience, in the vast majority of crisis situations, or health emergencies. But there's a significant difference between 'being sabbath' for people as a counselor or a chaplain, and 'being sabbath' as a friend or a pastor--or a priest. Hold that thought for a second...

Muller's suggested Sabbath exercise threw me for a loop for a while, until I think I figured it out. He suggests getting rid of stuff you don't need. Take a box of old clothes to a charity, for example. Let go of stuff. Okay, that's probably a good idea on general principles, but... I think the connection is that he spends time in the chapter talking about being in the midst of counseling relationships, and bringing none of himself into the conversation, so that others were free to speak about what burdened them. So, he suggests, do something to diminish yourself. Let go of physical things you don't need, and that effort will help you be spiritually more invisible, thus more able to help.

I think his suggestion is a good one, but the connection (which he doesn't make, but again I'm guessing) is ridiculous.

coming back to the thought you were holding, I'm going say that I think Muller is talking as a crisis visitor or a therapist. His job really is to get out of the way and focus on the person in crisis or therapy. But as a friend, or a pastor, what people need most when they ask you to be with them, when they ask you to talk with them, is not your absence, the way Muller talks about "making yourself a zero." They don't want your absence, they want your presence.

I got a call from the family of one of my parishioners this week, asking me to come to the hospital. It turns out that I had the great privilege of holding her hand while she died.

And while I think my teachers were right about the best thing I could do was be there, they didn't call me so I could be a vacuum in the room to draw out their pain--they called me to be their friend and their priest, to pray with them and sing favorite hymns and commend her soul to God.

Yes, we can be Sabbath time for each other, but I think being Sabbath time is more about presence that absence.

24 May, 2007

Sabbath 24: Nobody Special

Sabbath 24: Tripp's post, Megan's post

With respect to Wayne, I don't think this chapter is about Sabbath. It's about humility, with a sabbath exercise. And it's a great chapter. Another chapter worth buying the book for. Here's the closest I can come to a summary:

According to Henri [Nouwen], Jesus' three temptations were these: To be useful. To be important. To be powerful.

Useful, important, and powerful--are these not the attributes that still tempt every one of us who seek to do good in the world? Yet the saints and sages teach us to offer or kindness humbly, invisibly, quietly. Jesus did not seek worldly power or influence. He spent his time with unknown, disliked people.

This week, I think Muller continues on the trajectory of things that are extremely valuable to say, and have the ring of deep truth (even if painful for some), but I'm not sure how they connect to the rest of his book. We're in the middle of a section of chapters called Wisdom; I read this chapter as a part of Muller trying to elaborate on what the kind of wisdom is we're looking for when we practice Sabbath on a regular basis, or when we are freed by the Sabbath to be the wisest and best people we know.

I think his central point is, once again, in the last paragraph. "We are most human when we do no great things. We are not so important; we are...participants in a process much larger than we." He encourages us to follow the practice of the desert fathers and mothers, who would retreat to their monastic cells. He encourages us to spend some time alone this week, believing that the time alone will allow us to look honestly at ourselves in the mirror.

Okay, I guess I haven't spent enough time in the cell for the wisdom of the desert mystics to work on me. I did notice that when I was alone, I tended to spend the time planning ahead, thinking of ways to be useful or important or powerful. I caught myself daydreaming this week about what might have happened if I had chosen another career path, one that I looked closely at before rejecting, or if I had never left the airport consulting industry to go to seminary. I learned, in short, that it is indeed my unconscious nature to not be humble.

In this week's chapter, Muller tells us the story of his ordination, and how Henri Nouwen, who preached at his ordination, used repeatedly the phrase "downward mobility" to describe the task of Christian ministry.

He uses this phrase to describe his ordination:
In the Christian lineage, Jesus ordained Peter, who ordained a long line of priests, who eventually ordained Henri Nouwen, who put his hands on me. This is my lineage, an unbroken chain of hands. My words and actions, if they bear fruit, come from the soil of that lineage.

That's close to home for me. When the church made me a priest, I could substitute "Gary Lillibridge" for "Henri Nouwen" above, and the same is true. I am the latest in a long line of messengers and ambassadors of Jesus, and any good that comes out of my ministry is not because I'm good at being a messenger, but because God is good.

My friend The Rev was gracious enough to come preach on the day the church made me a priest. I'll cheerfully admit that I threw away Muller's suggested sabbath discipline in favor of my own: listening to the recording of the ordination sermon. I offer you just this snippet, transcribed from close to the end:

Having faith is more than just about being tough; there are resources that rise up, that there's a power that rises up out of the human heart out of brokenness that has power to transform the world.

our challenge is to hear the same voice that called Abram out of the land of Ur...to leave what makes us comfortable, to leave what makes us feel secure, and to tell the story of the transformation of the world that was effected one dark day on Calvary. And here's how it's going to happen: not by a bunch of Texans being tough, not by a bunch of Atlantans being genteel, not by a bunch of New Yorkers being rich or a bunch of Bostonians being smart or a bunch of Californians being sentimental. It's going to happen when we embrace our brokenness, and we recognize that there's a greater power at work, who is alive in us, when our hearts are broken, to allow the blessing and the power of God to flow through us, so that the world may be transformed.

15 May, 2007

Sabbath 23: Be Still and Know

Sabbath 23: Megan's post, Tripp's post

I think Wayne's chapter is summed up in this quote: "Through meditation, prayer, and stillness, we refine our vision, we sharpen our hearing." He does on to apply this principle in the realm of social-service concerns, where his organization Bread For the Journey does its work.

Megan has a good summary of the chapter this week.

I did something scary this week. I preached about Sabbath. The text was one of the Jesus-heals-on-the-Sabbath stories, where "the Jews" (in this case, meaning not Jesus and his disciples, but those who did not follow Jesus) criticize him for healing (i.e., working) on the Sabbath. I tried to use the misunderstanding in the text to gently point out that we tend to misunderstand Sabbath just as much as those characters in the gospel stories who criticized Jesus--it's just that we miss the point of the Sabbath by working too hard.

The first scary part is that I know--know--that my congregation is as crazy-busy-overworked as anyone else. And as a preacher, you have to be very, very careful about things that might sound critical. (I'm sure somebody on Sunday heard me say that they were bad and sinful people for not properly observing the Sabbath, even though I didn't say anything of the kind.)

The second, and bigger, scary part, is that I asked the congregation to do something--one of Wayne's Sabbath exercises, specifically. Go for a walk. Stroll. Be. Recognize that you have great value and worth even when you're not producing.

My prayer this week is that three hundred people are out there taking an evening stroll, and being aware of God's presence while doing that.

06 May, 2007

Sabbath 22: Doing Good Badly

Sabbath 22: Megan's post, Tripp's post

This week's chapter begins a new section, one entitled Wisdom. I'll start off by saying that, once again, I have problems with this week's chapter, and I'm not sure how the exercise and the chapter connect. However, I'm learning to trust Muller to a certain extent, in that his ideas in sequence work like the moves in a sermon, getting you to a point, and not always standing alone. Let me try to summarize this chapter:

Muller begins by telling a story of how he, in what he seems to describe as a fit of 70's-induced wide-eyed idealism, championed the idea of getting juvenile criminals and psychiatric patients set free to return to their homes. The idea was, he says, to fully engage the community in the raising of our children...they would be "free to be cared for by their families, back home where they belonged."

You know the end of the story, of course:
"eager to be useful, we just let them go. Now the nation is awash in lost children, some violent, many in pain. And now they are not first-time offenders, they are multiple felons. We, for our part, now rush to blame them for threatening the safety of our society, and we cannot build prisons fast enough to hold them."

He then goes on to other stories of not thinking through the possible implications of our attempts to be helpful--attempts that tried to help children in Africa that instead helped the warlords who enslaved them, or attempts at improving the food production of a region that seriously imbalanced a fragile equilibrium in the ecosystem.

His next move, given that we're on a Sabbath groove, is to say that if we/they had only taken some Sabbath time to think about the implications of their ideas, they would have done better. This is oversimplifying at best--we can't always see the results of what we intend ahead of time, even with the best planning.

He then moves on to say that the kind of love that raises healthy children requires time. Quantity time and quality time. The kind of time you have if you practice Sabbath.

This, I think, is his conclusion: "Doing good requires more than simply knowing what is wrong. Like God in the creation story, we need Sabbath time to step back, pause, and be quiet enough to recognize what is good."

* * * * *

Here's my fundamental problem with the chapter: I'm honestly sorry that Wayne feels guilty for the unforeseen consequences, and that his hindsight shows him a clearer picture. But I can't agree with him that if he would have just slowed down to think some more, he (and the State of California) would have made the right choice, children in Africa would not have starved... the logical conclusion to his exercise is to not do good at all, or else to do so in such a careful manner as makes no difference.

I do agree that there is wisdom in slow deliberation, and in taking the time to try our best to see ahead and consider the consequences.

I'm also going to re-frame his exercise, because I think he's aiming for intercessory prayer and trying to describe it in different words. I'll paraphrase: Think of a problem you struggle with. Now, imagine that problem as a seed, growing toward resolution in some invisible soil. Imagine, just as a seed knows how to grow, this problem may already know how to be resolved. How does this change your feeling about the problem?

Okay, that's interesting. But the focus of his exercise, I think, is in the wrong direction.

And here I'm going to say something that all of you might not agree with. I think that God answers intercessory prayer. There are some people who say that God will not act just because we ask. (another way of saying that is that I can't control God.) There are people who say that their prayers are "answered" so infrequently that they've decided God's not listening or that God's not there to listen, and the times they did seem to hear an answer were just coincidence.

Muller's suggestion seems to be: the problem knows how to solve itself. Leave it alone and let it time to grow. If you imagine that the problem can solve itself, (or, if I'm feeling snarky, pretend that the problem can solve itself), do you feel better?

Let me use one example of the things that I'm praying about right now: I'm planning a session of camp for the summer. Camp doesn't inherently know how to plan itself. Now, if I sit still and visualize a wonderful camp session, I feel better, at least while I'm visualizing (or daydreaming). That's internally focused--my feelings are happier. But if I ask God to (to use Muller's metaphor) grow the hearts of my campers, and prepare them to experience the transforming love of Christ Jesus, then that's externally focused. The first way says "let it be," and accepts that whatever happens will happen. The second, while still recognizing that the problem is bigger than my ability to control it, turns it over to God and asks for help.

30 April, 2007

Sabbath 21: Sensuality and Delight

Sabbath 21: Tripp's post, Megan's post.

Muller waxes rhapsodic this week about our sensual connection to re-creation. He starts by asking a great question: let's assume, for just a minute, that you're ready for Sabbath. You've actually turned off all the electronic gadgets, cleared your calendar, etc. What do you do to enjoy the day?

He then points out that the Jewish Sabbath ritual is wonderfully sensual--the sight and scent of candles, the taste of familiar favorite foods, soft cushions to rest on. Muller then goes into some detail about the sensual delights of physical affection, points out that the Talmud decrees that a husband's (ahem) obligations to his wife should be performed on the Sabbath, and quotes the Song of Solomon.... And then, his suggested exercise is......

Go for a walk. Barefoot. Indulge your senses.

Ha! A suggested Sabbath exercise of "now go enjoy the sensuality of taking a cold shower" might have been funnier. But I guess you just can't be a pastor and write a book that suggests that people go have sex. At least not one that suggests that you enjoy it.

(if you're getting mad at me right now, you go take a cold shower.)

First, to the exercise: I'm not much of an outdoorsy type, to start with. And my spouse has said several times that her idea of roughing it on vacation is a hotel that doesn't offer room service. It's not that I dislike nature, or that I don't spend time outside. But I'm usually indoors, or I'm outside with running shoes on, or I'm walking my dog, who seems to prefer sidewalks to grass. It's been a long time since I took off my shoes and stepped onto the earth (or the grass), as if I was stepping onto holy ground.

So I did. Fearing only briefly for stickers and chiggers and random dog poo and other suburban terrors, I went out for a walk, imagining that I was Moses, being told to take off my shoes and step into the presence of God... and I was surprised by the hair-raising holiness of those few minutes. No, it wasn't the feel of the grass and the dirt, or that there was a bush in my backyard that was on fire (but not consumed).

Muller touches on something true--we are sensual people. In my worship tradition, the engagement of the senses is an essential part of the sacraments of the church. We feel the splash of cold water, the touch of another hand, catch the scent of healing oil, taste the wine of the thanksgiving feast. These things provide moments, specific times and places, when we can be opened to the presence of God. And without the engagement of the senses, worship becomes an intellectual exercise, easily untethered from its original purpose and left to roam.

28 April, 2007

sabbath 20 extra: cartoons!

As promised, here are some of my recent cartoons.

Harvey does several teaching techniques to get our little linear brains out into cartoonland. We do pictures from squiggles, compound words (e.g., "bull-frog") and charaters out of letters or numbers (which I think he's calling alpha-pics). Anyway, here are some examples:

23 April, 2007

Sabbath 20: The Tyranny of Choice

Sabbath 20: Megan's post, Tripp's post

Here's my summary of Wayne's chapter (quoting him, as we read through the chapter):
(1) sometimes it is necessary to stop one thing so that another can begin
(2) What if we hear these [sabbath] prohibitions with different ears? What if...these teachings are...a useful boundary that keeps out things that would do us harm?
(3) freedom of choice can suffocate us; we drown in a sea of options.
(4) sabbath restrictions on work and activity actually create a space of great freedom; without these self-imposed restrictions, we may never be truly free.

My summary differs a little from Megan's; not that I think she's wrong, but Muller poked her in a sore spot this week and her response is appropriate.

My life's analogy to Muller's point this week is what it's like for me to tell my young son that he needs a nap. (We've almost, but not completely, outgrown the afternoon nap stage.) Some days, especially weekends when we're going full speed at some series of activities, he gets cranky. He almost always reacts the same way to my suggested nap: with an explosive negative response. I know a nap will help, he'll feel better, he'll enjoy the rest of the day, so I make him go rest. Lie down, I tell him, but you don't have to sleep.

Yes, sometimes I'm grumpy myself when I send him off to his room, but the point is that it's to help teach him that when he's tired, if he rests, he'll be better able to enjoy things.

* * * * * * *

Muller's suggested exercise is one that only tangentially touches on the chapter: do something creative and fun and refreshing daily. Some small thing. Snip a flower, tear a picture of something you enjoy out of a magazine and keep it with you to look at it during the day, sing, draw, dance...

I've been looking for a while now for an excuse to talk about one of the odd joys in my life... I'm learning how to draw cartoons.

We have an after-classes enrichment program at our church school, and one of the offerings is called "kid-tooning." The instructor is a fellow named Harvey S. Williams, the creator of a whole "who's who" of cartoon characters, including Bullwinkle, Tony the Tiger, the Trix Rabbit, the Raid Bugs, and a bunch of others. (I'd link you to a web site, but he doesn't have one)

Harvey is a wonderful guy, jovial, enthusiastic, and fun-loving. He loves kids, he loves to draw--it's a great match.

I called him an artist one time, and he corrected me--"I'm a cartoonist." Maybe that's why I've loved drawing with him, and why I never learned how to draw myself. I always wanted things to look right, for the perspective to work, for the lines to meet, for the shading to make sense. I never doodled in the margins of my homework, because it never looked right--I did geometrical shapes and patterns instead.

Ah, but if it's a cartoon, it's supposed to be a little silly. Bullwinkle doesn't look like a real moose, right? The funnier, the better. There are still rules on what works and what doesn't, but they're inherently flexible. Harvey's constantly telling his students, "you can't mess up. It's just different, that's all. Or, if you don't like it, start over. No big deal."

Here's where I really need to learn more about blogger software, and take the time to scan some of my drawings and put them up here. To do that, I gotta go borrow a scanner, and... okay, okay, I'll figure out how to do it, so you can see my silly frogs and camels and roly-poly bears. Real soon now...

17 April, 2007

Sabbath extra: Easter break

I've been recently chastised for lack of Sabbath posts, and lack of explanation. mea culpa.

The Three Amigos (or whatever we're calling ourselves) decided to take a few weeks off for Palm Sunday, Easter, and the week following. We'll return to your regularly-scheduled programming next Sunday.

25 March, 2007

Sabbath 19: Selling Unhappiness

Sabbath 19: Megan's post

This chapter contains a great paragraph:

Sabbath is a time to stop, to refrain from being seduced by our desires. To stop working, stop making money, stop spending money. See what you have. Look around. Listen to your life. Do you really need more than this? Spend a day with your family...sit with your spouse on the couch, hang out--do what they do in the [catalog advertisement] picture without paying for it. Just stop. That is, after all, what they are selling in the picture: people who have stopped. You cannot buy stopped. You simply have to stop.

...then, at the end of the day, where is the desperate yearning to consume, to shop, to buy what we do not need? It dissolves. Little by little, it falls away.

Amen, Wayne!

But the rest of the chapter, unfortunately, is a diatribe against consumerism whose train of thought derails (in my opinion). It makes a little more sense when the previous chapter and this one are combined. Under the umbrella of a section called "the pursuit of happiness," the previous chapter says "money can't buy happiness" and this one says that if you participate in an understanding of the world where you consume to be happy, then your fundamental state has to be unhappiness, so that the things you buy can make you (momentarily, but never completely) happy--until you take Sabbath time to stop and realize that you really do have enough.

I think Tripp has it right--Muller is aiming at simplicity. It's just the whole "thus the free market canonized grasping, conumption, and desire as the essential human impulses" thing that gets under my skin.

The first time I ever encountered the idea of the Sabbath as a break from spending money, it was in conversation with another priest. She was the massively overworked type; I caught her, one day, strung out and exhausted, and asked when the last time it was she took a day off. She explained that today was the Sabbath for her, and the way she kept it was to not spend any money... not even for a diet coke out of the machine. This sounded just a little bizarre to me (and yes, I became the goyim who would buy her sodas from the machine that day), and I thought it missed the point of a day off. But it was an odd enough idea that it stuck with me, and grew on me over time. After thinking about Muller's anti-consumer rhetoric for a couple of weeks, I think he's got a significant point to make for modern society, and I'm going to have to keep ruminating on the idea of non-participation in the wheels of economy as a Sabbath practice.

Muller's suggested exercise this week actually made me laugh out loud when I read it. His suggestion: practice some "slotha yoga," a cute name for staying in bed in the morning when you wake up. Let yourself wake up, Wayne says, and spend the next hour in bed...

My beloved probably said it best (just picture her counting on her fingers, please): This is the advice of (1) a morning person, who has (2) no children at home, (3) no pets, and (4) no job.

I honestly can't recall a stretch two days in a row in my whole life (not since summers in junior high school) when I woke up without an alarm clock of some kind. Wayne might say that my life is seriously out of balance... but the point is, I can't even imagine what his exercise looks like.

I tried a modified version, this Sabbath day (which is why this post is late): I got up, made coffee, walked the dog, took the kid to school, came home, got back into my pyjamas, and lazed around all morning. I even took a morning nap. (this is exactly what would happen if I tried Wayne's exercise as suggested: about three minutes of contemplating restfulness, followed by immediately going back to sleep) I deliberately didn't work on anything, not even (at the risk of losing husband points) fixing the broken upstairs toilet. I played games; picked up our son early from school, and walked the dog. To my surprise, at the end of the day, I felt slightly disgruntled at not having accomplished anything all day!

I guess I'm enough of a people person that trying to 'stop' without having my family and friends around to be stopped with (my Sabbath days are spent alone) defeats the intent of the suggested exercise. Oh well, better luck next week.

18 March, 2007

Sabbath 18: The Gospel of Consumption

Sabbath 18: Meeegan's post, Tripp's post

I think Muller gets to the point he wants to make for this chapter rather towards the end: "Happiness is the single commodity not produced by the free-market economy." He goes on to say that when we are happy, we don't feel the need to buy anything, and that the Sabbath is supposed to be a day of delight, a day of being "at peace with all we have" rather than yearning for more.

Muller points out that the United States (most of his assumed audience) leads the world in consumption, and if the rest of the world followed our example we'd denude the planet in incredibly short order.

To get there, though, he goes in a direction I just can't follow. He says that we now follow a gospel of mass consumption, as in, consumption will make you happy. He hints that there's some kind of huge dark big-brother conspiracy among manufacturers to promote this gospel (either that, or he anthropomorphizes "the market" and says that the market has made greed the essential human impulse).

Um... no.

Basically, this week's chapter sounded like a warning against conspicuous consumption (and I happen to agree with him on that, by the way) that Muller has force-fit into the ongoing theme of Sabbath rest.

I also disagree with his basic premise in this chapter: that money can't buy happiness. Yes, it can! Maybe I should draw a distinction between two situations: poverty, or a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, versus a certain financial stability. I know of nobody who has come from the first to the second who isn't far happier in the latter condition. But to draw the distinction between comfortable and rich... Muller might have a point there.

If we say that money can't buy happiness, then are we saying that global poverty means that most of the people in the world are happy, and we should leave them alone? Of course not!

* * * * * * *

Muller's suggested exercise this week sounded interesting: go to a favorite store, one where you particularly enjoy shopping. Walk around for an hour in that store, but do it knowing you're not going to buy anything. Pay attention to how you feel. Let yourself feel the tug of buying. Listen to the things tell you "you want me, you would be happier if you had me." Walk away, hopefully free of the impulse to buy things, feeling a sense of sufficiency.

Okay, this sounded interesting in principle. But, I'll admit ahead of time, I haven't done it yet. We've had multiple house guests for the last week, and I haven't spent an hour on his exercise. I'll try to do it, but I'm not sure how much help it's going to be for me, because I don't really enjoy shopping in the first place. I don't wander and look at random things. I'm not even sure what store I should go to for the exercise. (A bookstore, probably) I'm also skeptical that the exercise would make me more frustrated rather than more rested. We'll see how Megan and Tripp do with it.

12 March, 2007

Sabbath 17: The pursuit of happiness

Sabbath 17: Tripp's post, Meeegan's post.

This week, we enter a new section in Muller's text, this one titled "Happiness."

His main point in the chapter, as I see it, is to draw a distinction between the gratification of desire and the state of happiness. Gratification fades. Gratification, in fact, can become an insatiable monster. Happiness, Wayne says, is more about being enjoying what you have than about the acquisition of more or better things.

Jesus taught his disciples (and teaches us) that God's desire for us is that we live in happiness and peace. Muller says, "finding happiness in life is universally perceived as an essential human endeavor." He references several other philosophers and religious leaders who have similar messages.

Side note: I'd always understood Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to mean, not the chase of happiness, but the occupation of happiness... meaning that it is a right of humanity to choose one's life work, rather than having it determined by someone else, and to do something that you find happiness in.

I've been gently disagreeing with Muller for much of the book, when he tries to draw distinctions between "work" as a draining activity and "rest" as an energizing activity. A good bit of what I do that could be called work is actually energizing for me. Not all, of course. Some of it is exhausting.

Muller says that when we look for happiness in a market-driven world (my words, not his) that we tend to look to consume, to buy our happiness. But this is a trap--to consume is merely to gratify desire. In an echo, or a deliberate recall of his last section, he says that happiness only grows in the soil of time.

So, he says, as the sabbath exercise, be grateful this week. Recognize the blessed nature of your life. Count your blessings, name them one by one...

Okay, can do. It's a simple exercise, almost cliche if you're not careful, but one with rich rewards. Give it a shot for a day if you've never tried it. If thanking God for the things that bless you is too hard, try it this way: I'm grateful for this food. I'm grateful for a roof over my head. I'm grateful for my friends...

07 March, 2007

5 fabulous things about Megan

here are five fabulous things about Meeegan, in no particular order:

* she has the best posture, carriage, and personal presence of anyone I know.
* she sings! And makes time in a crazy busy schedule to go make the world a little more beautiful with the gift of her beautiful voice.
* she's fiercely loyal to Clan Monaghan.
* she came from hither and/or yon to stand up with me at my wedding. Yikes, that was eleven years ago!
* her vocation is the encouragement and development of art. Huzzah!

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...

05 March, 2007

Sabbath 16: A Deeper Wealth

Sabbath 16: Megan's post, Tripp's post

In this chapter, the end of the section titled "time," Muller's makes two main points:
(1) in a free market economy, we financially reward some people far, far out of proportion to what they produce, and those whose primary work involves the investment of time tend to hardly get any financial reward at all. Money's not a good way to keep score if you're trying to measure the value of vocation.
(2) he then goes on to share stories about how Bread for the Journey, the organization that Wayne founded, seeks out "people in impoverished communities who measure their wealth in terms of the time they have to give to their community." They make grants of small amounts of money with which to start programs, and those communities have been impacted far more by the expenditure of time than of money. (by the way, there's a picture of Wayne Muller here.)

Wayne ends the chapter by saying that "during Sabbath, we specifically honor those precious things--courage, creativity, wisdom, peace, kindness, and delight--that grow only in the soil of time." His suggested exercise is called 'the wealth of companionship.' Wayne points out that when we are lost or afraid we tend to isolate from each other, and he encourages us to seek out those when we lose our way, so that we might be a place of refuge for each other.

I read his suggested exercise, and wanted to change it to seek out other people, period. We are a society living in crazy isolation. (In fact, it was part of the impetus to get me to start doing this blog-writing reflection exercise. See this post.) To make friends, and to be friends, requires intentionality, practice, and patience.

At my home parish, a small-ish group of us has begun to gather to do just that. We're (mostly) parents of small children, and we only meet for a short time (too short, really). But we're beginning to see the fruit of deeper relationship, or to use Wayne's terms, see the early returns on an investment of time. We have an agreement among us not to share each other's stories, so you won't see me talking or writing anything more about the group than the fact that we meet together. But it's good stuff we're doing. If you're in the area and you're thirsty for authentic human relationship, come see what we're up to.

03 March, 2007

Principle: I am my brother's keeper

One of the stories in the "prologue" section of Genesis (i.e., Genesis 1-11), is the story of Cain and Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground..."
--Genesis 4:2-10, NIV

Am I my brother's keeper?

It's been said that the rest of the Bible is an attempt to answer that question.

This is dangerous ground in America. Our legal system is based on the principle that the rights of the individual are sacrosanct. I'm not supposed to care about you too much. I'm supposed to leave you alone. I'm not supposed to presume to know what's good for you.

I got a tremendous chewing-out during the course of my chaplaincy training, merely for using one high-voltage word in conversation with a patient: should. As in, "Well, maybe you should [take a certain action]." I disagreed with the instructor about whether I was imposing my own stuff onto the patient, but what was communicated to me was that the nature of the offense was not about the specific patient, but that I had violated a cardinal rule of pastoral care--never, never, never say "ought" or "should." What right do you have?

Am I my brother's keeper?
  • One in five people around the world survives on less than $1US per day, with few opportunities to earn more.
  • More than 38 million people around the world are infected by HIV/AIDS, 25 million in Africa alone.
  • One person in seven has no access to clean water for drinking, cooking or washing.
  • Around the world, 104 million children do not go to grade school, because their parents cannot afford fees, books or uniforms for all their children.
  • every day, somewhere in the world, approximately twenty thousand children starve to death.
Am I my brother's keeper, or is this somebody else's problem?

02 March, 2007

Principle: Jesus is the savior of the world

This is how far God loves me--God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. You've probably heard that story before; if not, go read the gospel according to Mark and the letter to the Romans.

At the time, God's people didn't understand. How could we? There's a sense in which I don't understand it (exactly what does it mean for Jesus to be God incarnate?), and I have the wosdom of centuries of faithful people to help me. Though I have seen the Holy Spirit working in the midst of God's people, I didn't, y'know, eat lunch in Galilee in 27 a.d. with this guy named Yeshua.

Anyway, Jesus came, and tried to tell us about the reign of God. About God's will for creation. We misunderstood. And when we understood, we got scared. Or selfish. Or mad. Or all three.

Mel Gibson, director of The Passion of the Christ, revealed in an interview that in the shot where Jesus is nailed to the cross, it is Gibson's hands that are shown wielding the spike and mallet. When asked why, he replied, "It was me that put him on the cross. It was my sins."

"I put Jesus on the cross." what he might have been reaching for is something of a universal truth for humanity: when we encounter the Kingdom of God, we reject it, over and over. When faced with the decision to make a covenantal choice or not, we often choose not. That's just the reality of sin. Jesus came, and reminded us of God's desire, that we bless the world instead of grabbing power and control for ourselves, and we killed him. And God raised him to life.

Jesus called to the world, the way God has always called to the world, to live into the kingdom of God.
the whole world.
no exceptions.

Principle: I am blessed to be a blessing

This is a foundational text for me:

The LORD said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

--Genesis 12: 1-4

This is the beginning of the calling of God's people. This is where the story really begins (more about the Genesis 1-11 prologue some other time). And the story begins like this: God desires to bein covenant relationship with humanity. And God picks one person to start the particular story we find ourselves in, and God says: you are blessed, you and all your heirs, for a purpose. And that purpose is to be a blessing to the world.

All too often we get it backward. We'd rather say that God blesses us so that we'll feel good, or that God will bless us so that we get ahead financially, or that we'll be safe, or that we'll be unafraid, or that we won't get sick... we tend, in short, to be inwardly focused. But God's mission has always been outward, not inward.

I, personally, have been blessed almost beyond my ability to write it down. I'm (mostly) healthy, I have a loving family, I live in an embarrassingly large house, I've earned three (!) university degrees, and I'm among the top 0.33% of the richest people in the world. And I could go on and on.

That blessing has a purpose: I am supposed to be a blessing to the world.

01 March, 2007

Principle: I am part of the story of God's people

This one is eluding a short little blurb description for the moment; I may pin it down later. It has to do with identity, which I need far more room to talk about than I have time for today, but here's a start.

I once sat around in a friend's apartment with a group of fellow college students. Somebody asked the question "who are you?" and I tried to answer in terms of who I currently was, i.e., I'm a student, I'm an engineer, I'm a dancer, I'm a musician, I'm a Christian, I'm courting this woman who lives in New Orleans right now... Most of the rest of the room responded to that question by starting, "I'm from [Gopherbutt, Tennessee], and I have three brothers and two sisters..." and going on with a historical account of themselves.

Where we come from is an important part of our identity. (It's not causal for everything we do, ala Skinner's rats, but it is important.) Our story places us in the world, tells us where we've been, and tells us (to a certain extent) where we're going. For God's people, a part of our story begins with, "My father was a wandering Aramean." This is a quotation from a section of Deuteronomy in which a festival of thanksgiving is described, where the people bring the first fruits of their harvest to the temple, and recite their place in the story, beginning with the quote above, as a way of acknowledging all that God had done for them.

One of the pillars of my faith is the collection of books that are, together, called the Bible. The Bible tells the story of God's people, from the calling of the first Hebrew to the establishment of the early church, and covers some two thousand years in the process. The writings that have been included in the Bible were inspired by God, and written by an unknown number of human hands through the centuries.

It is a story that bears the marks of revision, of adapting to the times and places we find ourselves in. It is a story that points toward an unfinished future. But it is more than story. It "breathes." It touches us in ways that other literature doesn't. And because I am one of God's people, I am in the story. Somewhere.

One of my guiding principles is that the story of God's people is not somebody else's story. It is my story. I am a Christian because many people (I could name a few prominent ones, and so could most Christians) showed me the transforming love of Christ Jesus at work in their lives, and I wanted the same thing for my life. I am a Christian because Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and a host of others were faithful. I am a Christian because Moses led the people out of Egypt. I am a Christian because of the faithfulness of David, Ezra, Nehemiah, John the Baptizer, Athanasius, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, and thousands of others.

My story is not wholly my own. I am part of a much greater story, the ongoing story of God's people.

A related principle tomorrow.

28 February, 2007

Principle: God loves me

One of the great joys of my vocation is that I regularly get to share in the leadership of chapel for our day school. Children from 4 years old to 5th grade.

When it's my turn to lead chapel, I always begin my homily with the same call-and-response prayer:

God is
God is

God loves
God loves

God loves me
God loves me

It's my hope that they will remember this, in the years to come, if they remember nothing else. And now you know why there's a pattern to my last three entries.

Not only does God love, God loves me.

Hear the words of the scriptures:
Jesus said: "indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered." (This is in the middle of a joke Jesus is telling, so I won't distract you)

and, in another place, Jesus said: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my father I have made known to you."

I am known to God, all of me, good parts and bad parts, in such a way as to be valued, treasured.
I matter.
And that changes everything.

27 February, 2007

Principle: God loves

God loves.

The first thing I know about God, the first thing that the scriptures, the tradition, and my own experience tell me, is that God loves. The source of all things, toward which I stretch, the creator of all that is, can be described as loving.

Think about that for a second. When I studied the Greek gods in literature class, the stories were all about a universe ruled by deities that were vengeful and cruel. Selfish, spiteful, manipulative beings. If you were an ancient Greek, you didn't want the gods to notice you, most of the time. Other cultures had, or have, similar understandings of the universe -- that the universe is capricious, cold, mean. At best, indifferent.

Maybe creation is indifferent, but the Creator is not.

God is not malicious and cruel. God does not intend suffering and pain. God is revealed in self-giving love for all of creation. We walk around, every day, in a universe created by One who gives ridiculous, self-sacrificing, boundless love.

Because the Creator loves, so we are freed to love. To live in love, not in hatred. To give, rather than take. To be joyful, not afraid.

26 February, 2007

Principle: God is

First, we gotta talk about what we're talkin' about.

from dictionary.com:
prin·ci·ple /ˈprɪnsəpəl/
1. an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct: a person of good moral principles.
2. a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived: the principles of modern physics.
3. a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a distinctive ruling opinion: the principles of the Stoics.
4. principles, a personal or specific basis of conduct or management: to adhere to one's principles; a kindergarten run on modern principles.

I'm not sure which of the above definitions Wayne is talking about. (and I hope that if I asked him, he wouldn't say, with a spiritual-ish glance, "whatever you want." I hate it when people say that.) Are we talking about truth from which rules are derived (#2, above), or are we talking about the rules themselves (#1,#4)?

Meeegan seems to be going with the latter (seriously, go read the link. She is, as usual, spot on). I think I'm going to go with the former, and leave the latter for later. I made two lists, and decided to flesh out one of them, in brief form, one per day.

* * * * * * * * * *

God is.

No, I'm not going to try to prove God's existence by rhetoric. I remember reading Kant and Descartes in college, and getting a tremendous headache, and then falling asleep. Plenty of people smarter and more eloquent than me have written on this; go read them instead.

The vast majority of people in this world have some sort of spiritual dimension to their lives. We understand God in different ways, of course. While I'm not a universalist (i..e, all spiritual paths lead to the same place, or all religions are essentially the same), and I sure don't think that I have cornered the market on the right answer (dude, I'm an Episcopalian, just look at us recently), I do think that the essence of spirituality is a search to respond to the self-revealing God. AA uses the term "higher power" instead of God, which I think is a stroke of genius.

The rest of my life flows downhill from this source. Because there is a God, I believe what I have come to believe. Because there is a God, I try to govern my actions in a certain way.

more tomorrow.

Sabbath 15 addendum

A monday-morning addendum...

Okay, so I wasn't going to do Wayne's exercise. Them are deep waters. But this weekend, my bishop asked me to go out into deep waters. And then Megan also specifically asked me to. Oh, drat. Well, maybe I will after all.

* * * * * * *

Now, just so's you know, here are the thoughts that flew through my head in rapid succession:
where did I put that "I believe" statement I did during the last confirmation class? Is it in the file drawer? No, I think it's on the hard drive of my work computer. No, remember, you wrote it out longhand. It's in the file drawer.....hey, wait a minute, does that defeat the purpose of the exercise, to use something you've done before? No, not really. yes, it does. well, maybe.
The next set of thoughts had to do with making statements of important principles on a blog. Back when I was an airport consultant, "Robinson's First Law of Consulting "was: if it leaves your hand, it's gone. You can't get it back, you can't ask for a do-over, and you will always be asked to account for your mistakes in the first draft, even if they were typographical errors rather than calculation errors.

The Law applies to blogging. Big Brother's hard drive, somewhere, may have copies of everything I say, and it might be held against me later... and now we're not talking about the amusing antics of my pets, we're talking about life-governing principles. eek! But hey, I already wrote about this, just about a year ago.

* * * * * * *

Are you ready for the concept of a priest whose theology is not a fixed structure, but is instead a tent? Not a symphony, but a song made up as we go along, and always unfinished?

You might have said yes. Do you mean that?

Okay, here we go. And, by the way, welcome to the emergent church.

* * * * * * * *

Muller asks, "What are some of the inviolable precepts that guide your life?... Make a list of the principles that shape your days. Include both those you currently follow and those you would like to be able to follow."

Okay, here we go. A week's worth of principles, not necessarily in any order. Starting... tonight, maybe tomorrow. I gotta think about it for a few minutes.

25 February, 2007

Sabbath 15: why time is not money

Sabbath 15: Megan's post. (everyone send Tripp a quick get-well email)

Summary of Muller's chapter:
(1) Gross Domestic Product is a bad metric to use for measuring the value of the activities of a country. (my note: duh. It's not about "value," Wayne, it's an indicator of the industrial output of a national economy.)
(2) many things of value are "bought" with time, not money.

there, I just saved you several pages of reading.

I didn't get the connection between the chapter and the suggested exercise, though it's a doozy: make a statement of your most important priorities. Write it down; say it out loud.

I have a love-hate relationship with several of my duties as a priest. One of them that fits this description is to hold 'preparation classes' for baptism and confirmation. The reason I don't like it is that we don't spend enough time on the process, and don't acknowledge the gravity of the moment in some people's lives. Publicly stating your intention to deliberately be a part of a Christian community, to try to live as a Christian in the 21st century, might seem like a teeny thing to some ('specially here, in the Bible Belt, where people tend to ask where you go to church instead of whether you go). But it's an enormous deal for others, a day that your life story will always pivot around. Preparing for that day can either be done in the one-meeting method, or it can take years.

We tend to do the one-class method for baptizing infants (in which the parents make the enormous commitment to raise the child in the Christian faith and life, and the community of the baptized promises to help in that task), mostly for pastoral reasons--gathering parents of teeny to toddler age children more than once or twice is usually a deal-breaker. For baptisms of adults, or adult confirmations, we meet together for a few weeks.

Where I'm going with this is that I always ask the adults I meet with to do an exercise similar to Muller's, and I realize what a big deal it is. Go get a blank sheet of paper (or several), start at the top with "I believe..." and then go until you're done. We do this in the context of talking about credal statements of faith, since Episcopalians recite one of the ancient statements of faith together when we gather for worship.

Some of the responses have been simple. Some have been orderly and logical. Some have been halting and brief, which is also okay. I often hear things like "I've never done something like this before." Some of the statements of belief I've heard have been absolutely beautiful.
(if you're reading this and you've done this exercise with me at some church or another, and would like to share it--unattributed--send it to me or let me copy it and I'll post it here.)

However, it's a big exercise, requiring some introspection... and I don't have time for it this week. Council is this weekend, Ash Wednesday, and other things. Sorry, Wayne.

19 February, 2007

sabbath 14: carpe diem

Sabbath 14: Tripp's post, Megan's post

In his second chapter on the section titled "Time," Muller asks us what our time is worth, and how we value it. He begins by telling the story of the Kellogg plant in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the 1930s. Kellogg experimented with four six-hour shifts instead of three eight-hour shifts, and the result, at the time, was viewed positively.

In 1932, the U.S. department of Labor sent a research team to Battle Creek to interview Kellogg's workers. They found that nearly eighty-five percent preferred the six-hour shift, primarily because it provided "more time for family activities and home duties and leisure" and because it helped some of the unemployed find work. The great majority of the Kellogg workers used freedom or closely related words when the agents asked them to compare the eight-hour and six-hour shifts.
(Muller, p. 104, paraphrasing B. Hunnicutt, Work Without End)

He goes on to describe how the workers described the shorter hours as "a moral act," stressing their willingness to share with others. But in the 21st century, workers no longer use words like "freedom" and "family" to describe the benefits of work. We tend to work for one thing--money--and we can never get enough of it unless we work full time or overtime. Theoretically, enough money is supposed to buy back our leisure time, but we tend to use any extra time we have to...work.

Muller begins his description of the suggested exercise by asking: "What do we place on the altar of our life? It is useful to have a visual reminder of what we hold sacred..." And only now does the title of his chapter begin to make sense. He might have tried "the value of time" or "take back the leisure hours," but it doesn't have the same pithy punch as "Carpe Diem." I, of course, immediately went in a tangential direction in my head:

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.
--John Keating, "Dead Poets Society," 1989

Muller's suggested sabbath practice for this week is to create a sacred space in your home, a space where you can remember things that are important to you, a place to put reminders of what's important--for example, pictures of family. This follows somewhat naturally from the chapter, in which he mourns that we have come to value money as a society more than time with family.

Unfortunately, he uses the loaded word "altar" to describe the special place. In my world, particularly in my parish, that conjures a very different image than the one he intends.

It's an open question whether the piece of liturgical furniture we gather around on Sunday is a "table" or an "altar." The liturgy, and the tradition, and the prayers, mix the images up. On the one hand, we put bread and wine on it and say grace and then eat, deliberately and mindfully recalling a meal that Jesus ate with his disciples and asked us to continue, so it's a meal, and the thing the bread and wine sit on is a table. On the other hand, the Eucharistic prayers refer to our "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" and we give thanks for the death and resurrection of Jesus, which has elements of a substitutionary sacrifice... so it's an altar.

The liturgical architecture clearly thinks the thing at St. Thomas is an altar--it's on a raised platform, three steps higher than any other thing in the room, and lit by nine theater-style stage lights. It's mostly surrounded by a waist-high railing, so that it feels like crossing a boundary to deliberately step into the area immediately adjacent to it. We even tend to dress differently for Sunday--the people who serve inside the rail wear special dresses, and the people who serve outside the rail wear street clothes.

I will occasionally say "table" to describe the thing, but I don't really pay attention to deliberately using one or the other. It comes up in odd conversational moments. Yesterday, for example:
me: would you put this [handing over a folded stole] on the table for me, please?
parishioner: oh, on the [pause, glance at me] altar?

I love the concept of having a sacred space in your house. In our house in California, we had a whole room that served as the chapel. (okay, it wasn't much bigger than a closet, but still) There was an altar there (we used a bookshelf), with a cross, and a bible, and a finger labyrinth, and a few other prayer tools and/or reminders of grace. There was a comfy-ish seat, and some artwork. We dedicated it as a chapel in the company of friends.

Given the directions Muller seems to be going with his text, I'm sure I'll get a chance to talk more about the chapel in a future another post.

However... I balked at Muller's suggested exercise. Maybe it was because I'm doing these exercises to try to rest, and having an altar at home is too close to a job-related thing. Tripp didn't feel that way; let's see how Megan reacts when Muller asks her to read a new play for relaxation.

If I decide to put one up in the house, though, I know exactly where it would go.

14 February, 2007

I'm a saint?

Somebody trying to find me via google search misspelled my name, and came up with this link. She thought I would find it amusing.

It's from the "patron saints" section of the new catholic encyclopedia.


It doesn't say who Christopher Robinson is the patron of, but that he's been beatified. If I ever get to be a patron saint, I'll be the patron of liturgical irreverence or something.

13 February, 2007

Sabbath 13: a life well lived

Sabbath 13: Tripp's post, Meeegan's post

Meeegan's post does a good job of summarizing the chapter, so I'll refer you there for the summary.

The new currency of the 21st century, friends, is time. I find this particularly true in the work that I do, trying to get people to connect to each other and help them to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

I spent the weekend getting my ticket punched to be able to mentor an education program called "Education for Ministry." This program is serious, varsity-level stuff, sometimes called "seminary lite." We did some talking about recruiting and advertising the requirements of the course, which involve a $350-$450 annual fee. But the bigger deal is that the program involves one evening a week spent in group study and reflection during the school year, and as much as 8 hours per week of homework and study. Most people in my congregation could find the money without too much trouble, but that amount of time is a tremendous commitment.

Muller's suggested exercise this week is to spend our most precious resource--time--on play. Make time, he suggests, in the evening, to be together. Talk, play catch, play cards, whatever. Turn off the phone, the TV, the computer. Lock the door, it's play time.

A few thoughts come to mind. The first is to remember a high school friend of mine, who was (and is) LDS, introducing me to the concept of Family Home Evening. Her family would spend an evening together each week, being together. I thought that was a cool idea. And then I heard that there was a church-distributed program or agenda for the evening, which dampened my enthusiasm a little. And then, being a teenager, I realized that a night at home with my parents wasn't my favorite thing either. But if we had done it regularly, it might have been cool rather than forced.

The second thought, is: believe it or not, we do this on a regular basis at home. The time between coming home from school and suppertime is usually play time with our son, although we do take him with us to the gym or run errands occasionally. It's a part of my rule of life that this time belongs to him, and I do my best to let him be a little boy and drive the agenda, because I believe that it's important to do that for him. But here's the place I disconnect with Muller. I have to try, hard, to give our son my full attention, and I don't always succeed. He's a tornado of energy, with a five-year-old's attention span. What is a recipe for rest for Muller is a recipe for tired for me.

I'm writing this with his best friend over at the house to play, and I just had to separate them and give them time-outs because they ran full-force at each other and bumped heads. On purpose.

Forgive me, Wayne, if I think I'll appreciate your suggested exercise more when my son is a little older.

04 February, 2007

Sabbath 12: The Book of Hours

Sabbath 12: meeegan's post, tripp's post

Muller's way to talk about rest this week is to point us the direction of things that don't change. The specific example he uses is the seasons and festivals of the church. The seasons of the year come and go: advent, christmas, epiphany, lent, easter, pentecost, advent, christmas... There is comfort in knowing, Muller says, that millions have prayed this way before you, millions have observed these festivals, and millions will do so after you are gone.

Every year people make resolutions for the new year. Some do it in January, some do it in Lent, a few rare ones at the beginning of the church year in advent. The idea of a resolution, for most people, is self-improvement. By this time next year, we will be morally, physically, emotionally, spiritually stronger. Better behaved. Closer to God. Muller offers liturgical celebration as an odd antidote to the constant need for self-improvement. Liturgical ritual, he points out, is meant to be repeated. Not done until we "get it right," but done over and over again in its proper time and season. To recognize our place in a long chain of worship is to remember our history, to free us from the need to try to get it right, and not rest or be satisfied until it's perfect.

While I can appreciate the scriptural idea that there is something about God that is solid and immutable, as in Malachi 3:6; "For I, the Lord, do not change," I'm wary of ascribing the same attribute of changelessness to the liturgy. Liturgy is meant to allow the people to pray according to ancient patterns of worship, but not in exactly the same way as in years past. (Just as an example, we tend to bathe regularly, and so need less incense in church... ) Language, movement, dress, music, all these have changed over the centuries, and will continue to do so.

Some of the biggest fights I've ever seen in church have been over liturgy. I've also, unfortunately, seen more people driven away from the church, and from God, by trying to make the liturgy play the changeless role. In fact, the key attribute of God's people at worship should be agility, not immovability.