Are we having fun yet?

I just read Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ thoughts on Purim.  His contemporary application of the raucous Jewish celebration is worth general appreciation in the current climate of terror:

The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends. While the story is being told, you make a rumbustious noise as if not only to blot out the memory of Amalek, but to make a joke out of the whole episode. You wear masks. You drink a little too much. You make a Purim spiel.

Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself. As the three-sentence summary of Jewish history puts it:

“They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Humour is the Jewish way of defeating hate. What you can laugh at, you cannot be held captive by.

Anything here that can flow into the Christian branches of faith?

On the Christian calendar, today is Maundy Thursday.  Followers of Jesus commemorate his institution of what is now shared as Holy Communion with Him.  He speaks two commands (mandates, hence “Maundy”), Do this in remembrance of me and Love one another as I have loved you.  He offers an example of humble service by washing his disciples’ feet.

Most Christian services on this day go in one of  two directions.  Traditional liturgy is quiet, reflective and carried out in the gathering gloom of Jesus’s suffering and death on Good Friday.  Non-traditional churches are already whooping it up, holding their early “Easter Services” to preempt Sunday seating problems.

What Rabbi Lord Sacks says, As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself, might help Christians find balance.  As the darkness that rules the present age seeks to extinguish what little light God keeps shining, rejoice.  But as we rejoice over the empty tomb, we do so knowing that we are still in a mad world bent on refilling it and sealing it up again.  

Gathered to dine with his disciples that night in Jerusalem, facing his great struggle, Jesus taught them, encouraged them and prayed for them.  Why?  According to Him,

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:11 NRSV)

Sitting in a prison cell, the Apostle Paul saw beyond the surrounding walls to surrounding joy,

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!  Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.  (Philippians 4:4 NLT)

The tried to destroy us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.  To rejoice in the Lord as a Christian is to hear those words as Christ’s own – “They tried to destroy me.  I survived.  Let’s eat.”  Because the life in which we rejoice isn’t only the one gifted to us in the here and now, but in the new heavens and new earth He brings despite all of the currently deadly but infinitely mockable efforts to stop Him.


No consolations for you!

All of their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God.  God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners.  If he did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.  This is why it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness.  (John of the Cross, The Dark Night I.6)

Am I wrong or does John sound like a spiritual version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi?

OK, laugh track off. America’s religious life is marked by “spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness.” Christianity or any other religious system is meant to make one feel good.  Prosperity Gospel, spiritual-not-religious and moral therapeutic deism are expressions of this reality.  The guiding creedal affirmation is, “It’s what works for me.”

John of the Cross presents the alternative, which is to seek  God rather than stop short and wallow in the finite things – even good things – that God creates.

Life’s passing consolations throw a parade on Palm Sunday.  Jesus gets a hero’s welcome into Jerusalem. He is praised, waited upon and called upon as the only one who can make things all better.  Human affirmations play into our gluttony for consolation, as a friend of mine points out,

The stones (the people of the temple of God) that would go through that dark time, a time of humility and being silenced, would have to contend with persons who would be a Christ to them. When an individual is going through a hard time, he will reach out to anyone around him in the hopes that a consoling will take place… Jesus was saying that in order to grow into a lively stone of the temple of God, one must not lean on every shoulder that comes his way.

And we know that the shoulders of the welcoming Palm Sunday crowd were no place for Jesus to lean.

A few nights after the big parade Jesus has dinner with his unreliable friends.  He beckons them (and through them, all of us) into a dark night, without handy consolations, but promising something greater,

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.  ” (John 13:36-38 ESV)

Jesus posits a path marked by denial and failure that will ultimately bring Peter to share the place of his Teacher and Lord.  In another of his writings, John of the Cross described the practice of Spanish mothers who rubbed bitter herbs on their breasts to wean their children.  Fullness of life with God – what the Apostle Paul often terms maturity – requires weaning from consolations.

On Friday, Jesus will cry out Scripture’s least consoling passage, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?  Saturday is the profound darkness of the tomb.



A so so silence

Looking over the packaged fruits and veggies at the market, I noticed a container marked “Elegant Berry Blend.”  My dorky imp (impish dork?) kicked in and thought, “What if I don’t want to pay that much?  Do they have a Business Casual Berry Blend?”

A similar question of relative value came up as I tinkered with my rule of life.  (If that’s a new concept you can see some examples here.)

I was reflecting upon the Carmelite Order’s Rule of St. Albert, which includes this call to nightly silence,

The apostle therefore recommends silence, when he tells us to work in it; the prophet too testifies that silence is the promotion of justice; and again, in silence and in hope will be your strength. Therefore we lay down that from the recitation of Compline you are to maintain silence until after Prime the following day. (21)

If you’ve been to a retreat house operated by a major religious order, you’ve likely experienced the Great Silence that Albert is describing, which is observed after the final night prayers until after one of the morning services or even through breakfast.

shh-dont-tell-sm11Like many spiritual exercises, it’s uncomfortable at first.  You get edgy and aren’t sure if even eye contact is OK when passing people in the hallways during the silence.  Like, aren’t you supposed to voice “Good night” or “How’s it going?” or “What do you know, dude?” or some other small talk?

But once you settle in, the silence is indeed Great.  Reading is more focused, prayer less distracted and even more spontaneous, and sleep is deeper.

But how to incorporate this into daily life outside of a monastery or hermit’s cave?  Spouses don’t like to be cold shouldered and kids have precious questions and needs which are to them emergencies no matter what time of night.  Besides which, Jesus doesn’t look well on using piety to ignore others.

So, like swapping Business Class Berry Blend for the Elegant version, I’m seeking a “so so silence” instead of the Great version.

For now, this involves staying off of the computer after 8 pm.  That really does silence a lot of inner, mental noise without pushing away my family.  Seems to be improving the quality of conversation, prayer and sleep as well.

Other ideas for stuff that we can so-so silence?

One advantage of “praying out of a book”

The breadth of Christianity embraces all forms of prayer; private, corporate, contemplative, expressive, extemporaneous, recited, etc.

Now and again you get the zealous Christian who condemns those who “have to pray out of a book.”  I suppose there are those who mumble over pages without ever engaging God, but then there are also those who sing and exult out of their own emotional projections rather than engaging the living God.

One advantage of praying time-tested written prayers is that they express not just ideas about God, but create conversation with the very personality of God.  I experienced (eww, can one really experience anything while offering prayers out of a book?) God’s personality this morning, offering words of confession from The Book of Common Prayer (USA, 1928).  Here’s the beginning of that prayer, with emphasis added:

ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live…

That’s quite an assertion about who God is, what God thinks and feels and what God wants to see happen via my prayer.  But it engages me in what God has revealed in His Word –

In the Law: This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.  (Deuteronomy 30:19)

In the Prophets: Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  (Ezekiel 18:31, ESV)

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?  (Ezekiel 33:11, NLT)

And from the mouth of Jesus Christ the Lord: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15, NASB)

Have you ever been trapped in a “conversation,” maybe with a pushy salesperson or a bad blind date, where who you are and what you want is not even regarded?  I think that must be what God experiences when we fling some of our extemporaneous prayers at Him.

Well composed and tested prayers of the church reflect time – centuries and even millennia in some cases – invested in getting to know God and speaking with Him in honesty and intimacy.

Again, nothing’s perfect.  Heretics write prayers, too.  And plenty of saints pray without scripts.  But it’s worth considering that a mark of Christian maturity is the ability to encounter God in the prayers of the church as well as the movements of the heart and mind.

How’s Lent going?

I can’t believe we’ve reached the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

It’s been a rich season for me.  My reading of Morning Prayer broke down for several weeks, but I found myself engaged in the Lord’s Prayer in the wee hours of the morning all of those days.  The Holy Spirit seemed to initiate prayer and, even more graciously, make me aware of the divine work infusing my weakness.

Meanwhile, the Lenten disciplines I planned toward the end of January are holding up well and proving fruitful.

Daily reading has become a joyful rediscovery, as well as a practiced repentance from lazy, sloppy internet browsing.  I’m smiling about this, as the 4th Sunday of Lent is meant for refreshment and rejoicing in the midst of the penitential season.

The Scripture guiding this discipline is divine Wisdom’s exultation in Proverbs 8:34, Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.  Indeed, one of the books I’ve finished during Lent reminded me that one indicator of Christianity’s universal truth is our ability to engage “non-Christian” ideas and expressions and find Christ at work in them.

Other books have provided comfort and even a measure of healing; spiritual companionship and encouragement that I was able to share with others; and captivating stories with deep thoughts to ponder.

I’ve not abandoned the Bible in all this.  Despite my spotty attention to the Daily Offices, I’ve kept up my discipline of using Scripture to rebut and replace ungodly thoughts, as inspired by …and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17 ESV).

I’ve been recollecting the imperative form of the Hebrew verb naqah, meaning Cleanse me! or Empty me!  as expressed in Psalm 19:12, Who can tell how oft he offendeth /O cleanse thou me from my secret faults (Coverdale version).  This word alone has been like a diversion channel when the devil floods me with self-doubt and accusation.

From a friend’s counsel, I am recollecting Numbers 11:14, I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me and Matthew 11:30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light to resist some of my most self defeating expectations and judgments.

Finally, I’m doing pretty well with the discipline of doing something out of my comfort zone each day.  My wife’s been great about asking me about this each evening.  Most of what I’ve done is to answer others’ questions honestly, rather than trying to filter my response through what I think will keep them happy with me.  A lot more obedience to Jesus’ instruction:  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:37 ESV).

That’s consistent with the Scripture that I use to guide this discipline, I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death (Philippians 3:10 NLT).  Death to self and life to the truth – which is always Christ – so that I might walk in new life with him.

How’s Lent going for you?