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.