30 January, 2007

Howdy, St. Thomas!

Just a quick note for any folks who are reading the blog for the first time because you were directed here by my article in the parish monthly newsletter. You found me!

The sabbath-themed posts that brought you here are below (scroll down or follow the links under the archive to the right).

I call this blog "Ink Smudges," and you, who have seen my fingers, know that they are usually stained with ink. (when I'm feeling liturgically correct, the ink I use is the color of the church season) I call the semi-regular newsletter column "Margin Smudges" because first, I'm not that creative, and second, my original intent was to offer reviews and comments on whatever I was currently reading. The problem is that I have a limit on my Clarion article of about 250 words, and it's hard to do substantive comments in such a short space.

There are a few parishioners who are regular readers, but most of them make comments in person, rather than posting them here. I never published my blog address before, and I'm not sure why. Probably because I wasn't sure at first that I was going to continue, and then because I didn't always have things to write about on a regular basis.

Anyway, enjoy the sabbath conversation!

28 January, 2007

Sabbath 11: Let it be

Sabbath 11: links to Tripp's post, Meeegan's post

I think Muller's main point for this chapter is really made in the first two paragraphs, which I summarize this way:

part of the wisdom of the Jewish Sabbath is that it begins at sundown. We don't stop working on the sabbath day when we are finished with a project, we don't stop when we're done returning our phone calls, we don't stop when our email box is empty, instead, we stop when it's time to stop.
If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die. Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished.

For this week's exercise, Muller tells a story about praying the angelus prayer at noon on a campus of people who all stopped and prayed together for just a moment. He then goes on to suggest "prayer" while being maddeningly unspecific about how or when or why. (I'm coming to realize this as Muller's style.) I'll admit to a little twinge of disappointment, because I've enjoyed his suggestions that fall outside of my normal routine.

My thoughts immediately went in the direction of his 'praying the angelus' story. I don't live, and I've never lived, in a society where the church bells all ring at noon or the voice of the muadhan calls the people to prayer five times a day. But my faith tradition does hold on to a tiny portion of that culture.

One of the roots of the Anglican tradition goes back to the monasteries, and the rule of St. Benedict, which calls for a careful balance between work, rest, and prayer. Benedictine monks would gather for prayer many times a day in the monasteries, and/or do individual prayer at specific hours. I've always sort of admired from afar the concept of a community who agrees to gather for prayer day in, day out, good weather and bad, rain or shine. I've heard it described as the breath of the community--a rhythmic exercise that draws the people in and sends them out, and is the source of life of the community.

In the monastic tradition, some of the prayer hours included the middle of the night, mid-morning, noon, late evening... I've only tried to follow that discipline once, at the suggestion of my spiritual director, and couldn't get into stride. Maybe it was that I was doing it by myself. Setting an alarm clock to remind me of prayer hours (given my hectic schedule at the time) never really worked, and I was tired all the time from changing my schedule around, so I gave it up after a couple of weeks.

When Thomas Cranmer wrote the first English prayer book, he gathered the tradition of the multiple services of monastic prayers (formerly in Latin) into a smaller number of daily offices (in English). They survive in today's version of The Book of Common Prayer as morning prayer, evening prayer, noonday prayer, and compline.

The closest I've ever come to living in that sort of intentional community was during seminary, when the daily offices were observed. I was actually excited, when I arrived, about the possibility of living with an intentionally praying community for a few years. But I lived off campus, which made it really hard to attend early and late prayers, and our services in the chapel....well, um.... had a tendency to be three times as overblown as they needed to be. In the words of one of my favorite professors, who shall remain nameless: "good Lord, every day is Sunday, and every thursday feels like Easter!" So chapel became a chore far more often than I'd like to admit. But now I'm griping about the practice of the praying life of the community in a specific place, which is a different thing than the offices themselves.

For the non-Episcopalians (or Anglophiles), here's the rough outline of "Daily Morning Prayer:"
  • confession of sin
  • psalms and readings from scripture
  • Apostles' Creed (basic statement of belief, said together)
  • Lord's Prayer ("Our Father...")
  • prayers collecting the cares and concerns of the community
  • general thanksgiving, collecting the joys and gratitude of the community
While I won't lie and say that I pray the whole daily office...um, daily, I do manage to use one of the services as a form of prayer (either personal or corporate prayer) more days than not. We actually offer morning prayer as one of our regular services at St. Thomas on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 9:30. It mostly happens through the gentle faithfulness of one of our saints, who leads the service. I join him when I can, and pray one of the offices (usually morning prayer or compline) using a daily office book given to me as a gift by one of my Christian friends.

21 January, 2007

Sabbath 10: hurtling toward the eschaton

Sabbath 10: links to Tripp's post, Meeegan's post

This week's chapter was fabulous. I'd post the whole thing here, except for the whole blatant copyright violation thing. I'm tempted to tell you to buy the book for this chapter alone. I can't copy it, but I can paraphrase.

Scripture talks about, and some of it leans toward, the eschaton (the end of all things). Our modern, western assimilation of the concept, Muller says, is 'progress.' We live in a culture that says that things will be better next year, next decade, than they are today. We work frantically for a future in which we can rest, say that we have arrived.

The trap is that there's always more money, or a bigger house, or a faster car, or...insert your stereotypical object of gratification. But we still participate to a certain extent, even if we see the trap.

Now, here's the important move: if the future is the desirable thing, then the present automatically becomes undesirable, or at least less desirable. We have to work, hard, right now, harder, faster, now now now, and we can't stop to rest, because we haven't reached the promised land yet.

Oh boy, he's hit this generation right on the head.

On to the suggested sabbath exercise. When I first read the chapter on Sunday, I actually laughed out loud. The first reason was that this week's exercise is simple: go outside. Well, I just did that. The other reason to laugh out loud is that this week in San Antonio has been between 25 and 33 degrees with freezing rain. The schools were closed for "ice days." My yard is a lake of not-quite-ice-cold slush. It's a good week to be glad we're members of the local gym.

We did spend some time outside, mostly for the benefit of the well-bundled urchling who had never tried to walk up an icy driveway before (or slid down same), or broken icicles off the trees to eat. But nothing particularly contemplative of the beauty of nature.

In other words, ain't gonna happen. I'm giving myself a bye on the exercise.

14 January, 2007

Sabbath 9: "Inner Music"

Sabbath 9: links to Tripp's post, Meeegan's post

Yes, I know this is two sabbath posts in one day. I started my response to Sabbath 8 a week ago, but didn't quite finish the thought. So I started doing the next week's exercise while simultaneously juggling the other things in my world and waiting for time to write again.

* * * * * * *

Muller belabors a point in this chapter, namely that all things have a natural circadian rhythm. We're hardwired to need rest. well, duh. Anybody who has pulled an all-nighter studying/doing homework/playing computer games and experienced the inevitable subsequent crash landing afterward knows that you can't go without sleep forever. Not even for small values of forever.

He then goes on to talk about how animals can and do find their way without maps and GPS receivers, and almost seem to listen to songs of the earth we can't hear to orient their lives, followed by a nice segue to the suggested exercise for the week, which is simply to meditate on your own breath.

Or, as we said in seminary, "just breathe, baby."

It's a simple exercise, common to many religious traditions. Get comfortable somewhere, preferably quiet to begin with. (we had to take the ticking clock off the wall for this exercise at first.) Clear your mind as best you can. Now concentrate on your breath. Feel the muscles. Feel your ribcage move. When (not if) your thoughts intrude, notice them, let them go for now, and return to the breath.

This is a wonderful exercise. If you've never tried it, five minutes a day for a week will work wonders. If you're doing this by yourself, you might want to set a timer of some kind, even if it makes you feel a bit like a boiled egg. The point is to not think about what time it is and how long you've been breathing. Don't count breaths. Just breathe.

A personal story about breathing:

Almost all third-year students at Episcopal seminaries are required by their dioceses to take the GOEs, which stands for General Ordination Exams (or God's Own Exam). It's a week of comprehensive essay exams, and seems to comprise equal parts of examination, fraternity hazing, and rite of passage (because many third-year students effectively coast it in after the exam). It's stressful, because students are facing a big honkin' exam at the end of at least a five-year process, and this is pretty much the last place where anybody might say "well, maybe you shouldn't be a priest/deacon after all."

On the first day of the exams when I took them, our chapel leader that Monday morning was the liturgics professor. He read to us from the Bible, and then looked up and said, "remember to breathe. Every year, some time about Wednesday, some of you come to me in a panic, and it's almost always true that you're forgotten to breathe."

And doggone it if I didn't find myself forgetting to breathe. And then I would laugh at myself, and take a few deep breaths, and relax, and get back to it.

Sabbath 8: the sabbath walk

Sabbath 8: Meeegan's post, Tripp's post

Before we get to this week's reflections, Meeegan asked a really good question in regard to my post on last week's exercise: how did it feel to pick those things back up again when it was time to get back to work? Instead of answering immediately, I gave it another few days to pay attention to the picking back up ritual. I did the prayers 'in reverse,' giving thanks for things and responsibilities to be taken on.

It felt... refreshing. Orderly (which is a good thing in my world). I was able to be intentional and deliberate about starting off the day, and more ready to pick things up after allowing myself to put them down for the night.

Of course, I really like what I do for a living. In fact, I can't believe I get paid for this. I tried to put myself into the mental space of not liking my job at all, remembering the worst of my time as a consultant, but I have to imagine how the exercise would work if the things to be picked up were burdensome.

* * * * * * *

Now, on to this week's chapter and exercise: the sabbath walk. Walk without purpose, he says. Pay attention. Notice things. Stop if you want to.

I think Meeegan is right; Muller lives near the beach, and is imagining somewhere beautiful and out-of doors to wander in, rather than an urban setting. Wandering aimlessly in downtown anywhere might be dangerous.

My beloved and I got to retreat to Camp Capers for a day over Christmas break, and we actually did Muller's exercise for this week without knowing it, even before I read the chapter. (God is good) We just strolled for a while, being outside, and then we strolled and talked, and then we strolled some more.

For me, the biggest benefit of the time spent was not necessarily the mindfulness of it, but instead this simple idea: go outside. I live in suburbia, and the church where I'm one of the priests meets in a building that's right off a freeway. We do have some of the wildness of West Texas right close to us, but you have to go looking for it.

The biblical narrative, which I use as one of the lenses through which I view my life, has a certain dirt-under-your-fingernails sensibility. The biblical writers, and original readers, tilled the soil and herded the sheep. They gathered in the grain, the wine, and the olive oil, and knew the smells and tastes and textures of each. Things that the original readers understood at a visceral level we have to stretch for.

We lose something when we lose contact with the land. I grew up a city boy, so I don't want to over-romanticize that. And it's not like I suddenly get in touch with some kind of innate pastoral wisdom when I go for a walk in the woods. But just to get outside for a while is refreshing for me.

12 January, 2007

lectionary group

Gordon Atkinson and I have started doing a way-cool lectionary study group. He writes about it here. (my reflections coming soon)

For the moment, I'll just echo his invitation. If you want to join us, come on!

10 January, 2007

Sabbath extra: sabbath discipline?

I call Sabbath keeping one of the seven spiritual disciplines of the modern Christian.

(what are the other six? stay tuned)

Discipline, specifically, because it's not something that comes naturally to us in this crazy overstressed overbusy world we live in. Discipline because it takes determined effort. Discipline because, frankly, it's not always easy. I struggle mightily with aspects of sabbath keeping (I'm thinking, at the moment, of the resting part, not the community worship part).

I've had the idea for a discussion of sabbath "discipline" in general in the back of my head, waiting for the right chapter to come along. Don't know if or when that will happen, because I'm deliberately not reading ahead in Muller's book. But Tripp and Megan have already started the discussion. I'll refer you to their posts for now, and add to that conversation later.

09 January, 2007

new colors!

The new color scheme brought to you by request of Elfie Stafford. (I love you, Elfie)

Please, nobody write me a nastygram about how I'm changing the blog liturgy and We've Always Done It That Way Before.