Spiritual Disciplines

On Living in a Futile and Crooked Generation

This reflection is a riff on  the Sermon I preached at Reconciler on May 4th, the Third Sunday of  Easter. The Gospel text is the Road to Emmaus, the other Scripture texts are a portion of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and the beginning of the First Letter of Peter

We can lose sight of the meaning of Pascha, of the Resurrection and this season of Easter.  Conservative or Liberal we may be tempted to see this as about morals, or justice, or ethics.  Or maybe we want the Resurrection and the incarnation to be a principle we can apply.  All of this doesn’t take seriously enough the human predicament.  Doesn’t take seriously our own, my own, predicament.

Our predicament (my predicament) is futile, it leads towards death. It is a dead end.

What was Peter preaching on that first Pentecost?  Was he calling people to repent from being part of the mob that handed Jesus of Nazareth over to be crucified. I don’t think so. Jesus on the way to Emmaus tells Cleopas and his companion that  the Messiah had to suffer, had to die, had to enter the tomb.  It doesn’t help to repent from our predicament, that we are stuck.  That we live in a world dominated by death, violence, injustice and oppression.  No, the change of mind Peter called for and which Peter still calls us to, is to decide with what will we identify, the one who was crucified, who we crucified, or the crooked generation.  Are we going to identify the one who entered our tombs our dead end world, or are we going to identify with an age and a generation that can only offer us a life that ends in our death, the dead end.

If we have difficulty understanding the faith of the Apostles and the nature of the Joy of this season of  Easter it is because we think God came to transform a dead end age into the Kingdom of God.  This is also what everyone at the time of jesus thought the Messiah was going to do, no one thought the Messiah was going to become accursed in Death, die on a Cross.  The Messiah wasn’t supposed to do that, Cleopas says so.

Jesus has to set us on a different path.

Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter after the Resurrection still has the wounds.  Christ really died, and by death beat down death an on those in the tombs bestowing life.

If we are to understand what has been achieved for us and live it out in our daily life,  ff the joy of the Resurrection is to penetrate, we must admit that we are still in the tombs.  It is to us and all humanity that Christ has come.  The tombs, Christ undergoing death isn’t simply some past event, it is what it means to be rescued from the futility and meandering path of our generation, of this age.

This should lead us to repentance and conversion (one that is continual throughout our lives, not a one time event) as we encounter again and again how we tend to simply wander to our deaths, without purpose.  Continually repent from how we live according to this generation and age that is passing away and convert to the age of life and Joy that has come, and is to come.

The futility and crookedness of this age has little  to do with its ethics or morality, nor its principles, but simply that it is given over to death.  We can live as Martin Heidegger described in his philosophy as being towards death, or we can become identified in baptism and Eucharist with the one who is Life itself.  This doesn’t change the nature of this generation and age that is being towards death, but it changes us so that in these tombs we and those around us may have life.  This is the path of discipleship, this is the path of the cross, this is the purpose of the ascetic and mystical path, that we may be Christ, who is life in the midst of this futile age that is passing away, that is being towards death.

There’s another possible misunderstanding here, to identify this age or generation with the physical universe and the age to come and of life with the non-material.   Or to see it as a past/present verse future dichotomy.  What is proclaimed though is to ages and generations existing as alternate “dimensions”.  Or another way of putting it two ways of being, one way which is being towards death the other which is being in life.  Both are physical and spiritual, material and immaterial.  This is why it is key to affirm the bodily Resurrection of jesus and that Thomas could have put his finger in Jesus’ wounds.

I recommend also reading the sermon, if you haven’t already done so, to get the fullness of this thought.

Further reflections on fasting and Lent

As I mentioned in this previous post, I’m a novice when it comes to fasting.  Other spiritual practices I’m much more adept at and find much more congenial.  Since this Lenten fast has been one I’m practicing with the church communities I lead The Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler and the Community of the Holy Trinity  fasting has come up in conversation this Lent.

One common thought I’ve run across in these various conversations is that  the point of fasting is endurance.  Fasting is a contest of ones will, and certainly it is that in part.  One could read certain passages of scripture and the desert fathers that do compare asceticism to a type of athleticism, I’d still argue that the point isn’t the endurance.  More to the point endurance is only part of what ascetic practices are about.

Specifically fasting is about awareness that allows us to strengthen or reorient our relationships.  This isn’t obvious.  I’ve discovered that in fasting I become aware of all sorts of things, some of them trivial, some of them significant.  Having good relationships, with our loved ones, with God, with our bodies and what we eat takes awareness.  In our daily life, our ordinary day in and day out habits can deaden us to certain aspects of our lives and relationships.

Now to gain an awareness of the connections and our good and sinful relationships to things and other, one has to endure.  But if one’s focus is upon enduring the hunger, or the abstinence from certain foods, one misses the opportunity to examine what other hungers and desires are also stirred up in one’s self.  Fasting allows us as I said in that other post at the beginning of Lent, to examine our desires.  This is why fasting should be accompanied with prayer and meditation.

But there is even a more.  Since Lent is a penitential season we can see this asceticism as merely the rooting out of sin or evil.  But again if this is our focus we will be frustrated, and only partly effective. What fasting allows is for us to be aware of what good we desire.  The problem isn’t with desire or hunger but that we sometimes desire or hunger for what is ultimately undesirable.

Here, the current secular practice of a vegetable juice fast brings home this spiritual reality.  Part of the point of the juice fast is not only to detoxify (root out sin by analogy) but also to reset what one desires in food, so that one’s hunger actually will satisfy what your body needs.(by analogy fasting can teach us to desire the Good, and find that we truly desire God.)

I’ve said the above is an analogy.  Yet, I’d suggest that spiritual and bodily processes aren’t so separate.  What happens in our body when we fast is also happening to us spiritually, in our souls.  We fast and take up ascetic bodily disciplines not because our souls and bodies are who we are.  At times we need recalibration.  Our hungers and desires are a mismatch of good, mediocre, and evil.  Lent becomes a time to realign ourselves and our relationships to food, to things and to each other.  A basic and primordial way to do this is in our relationship to food, and so we fast.  With prayer and meditation such fasting during Lent can truly lead us to a joyful seasons of Easter where we can find our true desires restored, and find that we simply don’t have the appetite for the mediocre and evil.

The place of intimacy with God in life and worship

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz  has recently made a stir admitting he rarely attends church and when he does he doesn’t really get much out of it.

Miller says he can worship God in other ways, and other means of intimacy with God suit him better than the corporate worship of a local congregation on a Sunday (morning).    He assumes a few things about worship:  any form of worship serves the same purpose as any other form of worship. Therefore, as long as you have something in your life you can call worship you are in a spiritually good place.  He assumes worship is about learning about God. He assumes that worship is about intimacy with God.  There are a few of problems with these assumptions.

There is a deficient ecclesiology that underlies these assumptions, which isn’t the focus of this post but will eventually post something here.

 Another problem is that “worship” is a catch-all term for anything that brings you close to God, or provides you with an intimacy with God.  A view of worship that focuses on  intimacy with God, does not jive easily with images of heavenly worship of God found in Isaiah and Apocalypse/Revelation of St John, nor does it easily jive with Ezekiel’s Vision of God on the move with the four living creatures.  These biblical descriptions of worshipful meeting God aren’t intimate affairs.   To be fair, the worship that Donald miller is talking about hardly if at all reflects these biblical accounts of heavenly worship at the throne. I dare say few if any in these churches think that in their worship they are before God at the Throne with the twenty-four Elder’s and the four living creatures, and the seraphim and cherubim, but maybe they should.

I don’t mean to say that intimacy with God is unimportant or that all “worship” must be earthshaking, psyche rending, overwhelming with mind bending beauty and awe described by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Saint John the Apostle (though we probably need more of that kind of worship than current American Christianity offers).   There are ways to develop intimacy with God, I just am not convinced the worship of the gathered people of God is the best place to foster that intimacy.

I believe we should cultivate intimacy with God and I agree with Donald Miller that the corporate worship of the church isn’t the place to do it, though we may experience intimacy with God in “church”.  I would argue a more proper place for fostering intimacy with God is in the work of the Church known as the cure of souls, or in more contemporary parlance – in spiritual direction and the spiritual disciplines.

When Miller talks about worshiping God in his work, I say well yes I’m glad you are preaching what Benedictine Monasticism has known for centuries and what a particular monk, Brother Lawrence, taught in a collection of sayings The Practice of  the Presence of God.  And there is also the Apostle Paul as well saying do your work as unto the Lord.  But strictly speaking having a worshipful and prayerful attitude in ones work is a spiritual discipline of  a member of Christ’s body the Church, who is also to have the spiritual discipline of gathering with other members of that body.  So, yes we find God in our work and find it to be worshipful (even if our work isn’t as fulfilling as Donald Miller’s work is, though I’m sure there is drudgery in what he does as well.).  Finding God in our work doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find God in the gathered people of God.  The practicing the presence of God in all things and in all times is a key and important discipline for maintaining and developing intimacy with God, but it doesn’t replace being the ecclesia.

 If  I say I find God in the world it doesn’t mean I won’t find God in Christ’s body the Church. (I seem unable to avoid ecclesiology).

There are many ways through which one can develop intimacy with God: Spiritual journaling, painting icons,  centering prayer, etc.  What does or doesn’t foster intimacy with God will (as Miller points out) vary from person to person.  You should work with a spiritual companion or spiritual mother or father (that is a spiritual director) and work out what will foster such intimate worship and relationship.  Such practices and awareness should eventually permeate your life (though it probably will take your entire life time).

If you think that  going to church once a week will bring you closer to God, well…, you are fooling yourself.  What happens on the day members of the Body of Christ gather together to worship God should certainly permeate one’s life, and one should find ways to carry that corporate encounter with God and God’s saving work and intention for the world into ones daily life.  Yet, that hour on a Sunday morning isn’t going to (on it’s own) provide you with intimacy with God, or really much of anything else.  It’s just an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, out of all the many hours in a week with which we occupy ourselves in other myriad of things.

Certainly there are intimate moments in a worship service, when one receives the bread and wine, or when one is anointed with oil, or when hands laid upon.  There is an intimacy in a number of liturgical, symbolic and ritual acts in worship, but that intimacy might be missed if one isn’t’ practicing the presence of God in one’s daily life.

All in all the point of corporate worship isn’t intimacy.  Corporate worship with God is perhaps actually distancing, and this is as good and true as good and true as the experience of intimacy.  God is after all totally other than we are and is incomprehensible, unknown, and unknowable.  We come together and we are to realize that God isn’t like us at all, and we are reminded that we’ve done somethings were not proud of during the week.  God is confounding, refuses to be controlled by us, and that’s kind of off-putting, even scary.    Being in relationship with God is at times raw and unnerving and a disintegrating encounter with that which is other than we are.   This, perhaps is what corporate worship  is about, and it is out of that experience that we can have true intimacy with God.