Rule of Benedict

by this, we know love

Some of you may have heard this.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the shortest sermon ever preached was delivered by John Albrecht, an Episcopal priest in Michigan.  Apparently, he walked to the pulpit, paused for a moment, and then uttered a single word: “Love!”  He then sat down.  And, as the story goes, some of the church’s members claimed it was the best sermon he ever preached.[1]

Thinking about that one-word sermon, two possibilities come to mind.  The first one is here’s a guy who was definitely not prepared for Sunday morning!  The other possibility is here’s a guy who wanted to take being concise to a whole new level!  He picked a word super packed with meaning.  In fact, the word “love” is so full of meaning it’s almost impossible to define.

 

Ironically, because “love” is difficult to define, something else might be said about Rev. Albrecht’s one-word sermon: he picked an easy topic.  Some might suggest that one could offer any greeting card sentiment, any saccharine sweet emotional goo, when addressing the subject of love.  Fortunately, the epistle reading in 1 John 3 gives us some indicators to show what love is.

Near the end of the first century, the author (John the apostle or someone in his circle), deals with several issues, one of them being the question of love.  By this time, there increasingly is a belief that love is an inner, private matter.  That parallels a belief that salvation belongs to those possessing secret knowledge.

The Bible has a slightly different take.  Contrary to those who claim otherwise, and in harmony with the scriptural witness from the beginning, John describes love as something visible; it’s expressed with action.  Neither is it the private domain of some secret society.  That wasn’t the way of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Right before today’s scripture reading, verse 15 says, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers.”  Contrast that with verse 16: “We know love by this, that he [speaking of Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  That is the way of the Good Shepherd.  Love doesn’t take life.  If anything, it lays down its life.

That’s followed with a fairly detailed example.  “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (v. 17).  John sums up his point in verse 18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  The Revised English Bible says, “love must not be a matter of theory or talk.

I’m from the South.  One of the cultural features of that part of the country is what’s been called “that southern hospitality.”  I suppose that means different things to different people.  One example might be the somewhat stereotypical request, “Come along over here.  How about a coool glass of lemonade, or should I get y’all some sweet tea?”  That reflects the slower pace of life in the old South.  Of course, as people from other parts of the US have migrated to the South—as well as people from around the world—that slower pace has speeded up a bit.  (But sweet tea is served in almost every restaurant we went to!)

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Still, amazingly enough, hospitality wasn’t invented in the American South!  There is a very long tradition of hospitality in the church.  It’s the source of our word “hospital.”  Hospitality even precedes the church.  For example, the ancient Middle East insisted on the duties of a host.

I mention the subject of hospitality because it’s a perfect expression of the love described in our epistle reading.  Hospitality, much more than making sure we’ve offered our guests coffee or tea, is a deeply spiritual reality.  And as our country becomes less hospitable, it’s all the more noticeable by its absence.  At its heart, hospitality is about welcoming the stranger.

My wife and I are Benedictine oblates.  (Very quickly as a side note: those are people who read and live by the Rule of Benedict and who have a relationship with a particular Benedictine community.  Of course, there’s more to it.)

When we lived in Jamestown, we made frequent visits to the Benedictine monastery in Erie.  We were introduced to the Rule of Benedict, a document from the sixth century which provides insights for life together.  Chapter 53 of the Rule begins, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25:35).’”

Speaking of Benedictines, there’s a Benedictine monastery in eastern New York, not far from Poughkeepsie.  One of its residents, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, tells this story in his book Blessings of the Daily:[2]

“A few years ago, I was awakened in the middle of the night by two women, mother and daughter, crying by the window.  I got dressed and descended the stairs to open the doors.  When we had a chance to sit down, the mother explained that they desperately needed a place for the night.  She explained that her present husband usually got drunk after work on Fridays and then would return home to abuse her daughter.  This was a Friday night and he had called, already drunk, saying he was on his way home.  Fearful of what might again happen, she got her daughter into the car and drove with her to the monastery.  She had never been here before, so I asked her why she chose to come here instead of going elsewhere.  She answered, ‘I read about you in the newspaper, and I knew that if I came here I would not be turned away.’

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Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette

“After making sure they were all right, I led them into our small guesthouse and quickly prepared their beds.  They were safe for the night.  Unfortunately, there was no more I could do except to pray for them.  The following morning, after breakfast, I suggested that we call social services and seek the advice of a social worker.  After making an appointment to see the social worker, they left and I never heard from them again.

“People like these are no different from some of the guests and pilgrims who, for reasons of their own, request to partake of our monastic hospitality.  The important thing, however, is not their diverse motives but that during the short time they spend here they come to experience something of the peace of God—the peace that everyone seeks, even when not aware of it.”

We have that opportunity here.  We have the opportunity to welcome the stranger, to extend the peace of God.  And I’m not just talking about welcoming people into our worship services.  And by the way, welcoming means more than just saying, “How are you doing?”

What do people experience when they visit here?  Do they encounter the peace of Christ?  (And I’m talking about more than the part of the service when we shake hands and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.”)  Do they encounter a frosty or dismissive environment?

Still, I’m thinking of other ways we can extend hospitality.  Life is, after all, an endless series of hellos and goodbyes.  Every time we encounter someone, there’s the invitation to welcome them as Christ.

I’ll admit, I’m not terribly fond of rude, ungrateful people, but the goal is to receive them as Christ.  No matter who is standing in front of us, the point is to remember that it’s Christ we’re serving.  It might also help to remember when we ourselves have been rude and ungrateful!

Certainly love requires patience with each other, bearing with each other’s faults.  Within ourselves, this is a near impossible task.  We need help.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks about this.[3]  “God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped.  When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.

“On a practical level such experiences will feel like a new freedom to love, and you wonder where it comes from…  Clearly, you are participating in a Love that’s being given to you.  You are not creating this.  You are not generating this.  It is being generated through you and in you and for you.”

As I draw near my conclusion, there’s a paradox of love I want to mention.  It’s this: love is, by its very nature, voluntary—it can’t be coerced.  Yet at the same time, failure to love isn’t an option!  Our scripture says the Lord commands us to “love one another” (v. 23).  Without love, the very fabric of human social existence falls apart.  The power of force, the power of law, isn’t sufficient to hold us all together.  Love has its own ways of being an enforcer.

4 1 jn 3

For our own sake, for the sake of everyone else, for the sake of our planet, we’re compelled to freely choose love!  Only then can we be accountable to each other.  Only then can we be hospitable to each other.  Only then can we welcome each other as Christ.

 

[1] christchurchepiscopal.org/?p=3042

[2] Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, Blessings of the Daily (Liguori, MO:  Liguori/Triumph, 2002), 300-1.

[3] lovewins.us/1203/freedom-for-love


denying the best within us

Everyone’s heard the saying about “biting off more than we can chew.”  Well, in John 18, we see the result of it.  This is the passage in which Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him.  In fact, Peter is quite adamant in declaring he has no connection with Jesus.  “Wait.  Jesus who?  Can’t say the name rings a bell.”

The part about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew happens earlier, in chapter 13.  It comes after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and after the meal which has come to be known as the Last Supper.  Peter boldly says to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (v. 37).  That is some pretty big talk!

Jesus doesn’t seem to be impressed.  He comes back at Peter, “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (v. 38).  Peter, you’ve done the easy part; you’ve done the talking.  But before sunrise, before the rooster crows, three different times you will claim you don’t even know me!

Tragically, as we see in chapter 18, the prediction of Jesus comes true.

What about Peter’s big talk—that he will lay down his life for Jesus?  In one of the ironic twists of history, Peter does indeed lay down his life for Jesus.  Tradition holds that Peter is crucified by the Romans (in the year 63 or 64), but they do grant him a last request.  He wishes to be put to death on an upside-down cross, because he feels unworthy of being crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

(Satanists have stolen the upside-down cross and claimed it as their own, but it’s still a Christian cross!)

1 jn 18

So maybe we should revisit that comment about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew.  Sadly, he winds up choking on it!

The subject matter he deals with is pretty grim, but John is a wonderful story teller.  I like the way he throws in little details.  A good example is when Peter is lying and saying he is not a disciple of Jesus.

A woman at the gate of the high priest’s courtyard is questioning him.  “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” (v. 17).  As we’ve seen, Peter says, “No way!  You’ve got the wrong guy.”  Here’s a nice detail: “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves.  Peter also was standing with them and warming himself” (v. 18).

Why add the bit about the charcoal fire?  What’s the point?

It does add color.  It invokes the senses.  Can you smell the smoke of the burning coals?  Can you feel the chill of the pre-dawn cold as Peter huddles with the others to gain warmth?

Lutheran bishop Craig Satterlee talks about Peter joining “the very ones who came to the garden to seize Jesus as they warm themselves around a charcoal fire.”  He compares him to “the junior high kid who abandons a buddy to hang with the cool kids.”  He is the “bystander who does not intervene to oppose abuse because to do so is just too dangerous.”[1]

Have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever betrayed someone, especially someone we care about very deeply?  Have we ever been too scared to stand by someone?  I think if we’re honest, we’ve all been in that position, at least once in our lives, maybe more.  It’s a horrible feeling.

At various times, I’ve had dreams in which somebody is being picked on or someone is being mean to an animal, and I haven’t stepped in.  I haven’t said anything.

I’ve heard that when we dream, we do so in order to learn, to practice different scenarios.  We see what happens when we do or don’t do something.  So maybe I’m learning some lessons!

Fortunately for Peter, he will find himself once again standing next to a charcoal fire.  They’re on the beach, cooking fish for breakfast.  This is after Jesus has been resurrected.  He asks Peter three times, once for each denial, “Do you love me?” (21:9, 15-17).  John makes sure to include this act of restoration, because it is such a powerful part of the story.

I’ll ask again, have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever experienced the overwhelming, humbling, and heart wrenching moment of being forgiven by someone we have betrayed?

2 jn 18

Have we ever been in Jesus’ place?  Have we ever granted to someone the awesome grace of forgiveness?

If we follow this particular thread of the story of Jesus and Peter into the book of Acts, we see something marvelous.  Along with John, Peter is teaching the people about Jesus, and “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees” are upset about it, and they have them arrested (4:1-3).  The leadership is interrogating them, and we have this remarkable comment: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (v. 13).

Companions of Jesus.  After being filled with the Spirit of Christ, there’s no way in the world Peter is denying that anymore!  He now has a true knowledge, a holy boldness.

Still, what does it mean to deny we are disciples of Christ?  What does it mean to deny we know him?  Does it mean giving in to the voices of fear and selfishness and apathy?  Does it mean settling for karma when grace is so abundantly present?

A few years ago, the lead singer for the rock group U2, Bono, did an interview in which he talked about the difference between karma and grace.[2]  He said that “at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma.  You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one.  It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.  I’m absolutely sure of it.  [I’m not so sure of it, but I still like what he has to say!]  And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow’ stuff.  Grace defies reason and logic.  Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…

“I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge.  I’d be in deep s___.  It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.  I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Karma is what we deserve.  Grace is what we do not deserve.  Let me transition from a rock star to a Benedictine sister.

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Sister Joan blessing Bono at the 2008 Women’s Conference in California

Joan Chittister comments on a chapter in the sixth-century Rule of Benedict that deals with “serious faults.”[3]

“Each of us is capable of betraying the best in us.  We cut corners in the office, we stop cleaning the house, we let the study and the reading and the praying go.  We sit around in life letting the juice turn black in us.  We let the family down.  We let the business slide.  We let our minds and souls go to straw.  We fight the call to growth and goodness with everything in us.  We let the world carry us instead of carrying our part of the world.”

To return to our story, while his dear friend and Lord is being mistreated, Peter denies him.  How often have we denied Jesus?  How often have we denied the best within us?  What is to be done?

Chittister continues, “The problem, of course, is that a human being needs help to be a human being.  At our worst we seek the solace of another’s hand.”[4]

When the cock crows, Peter wonders, “What have I done?”  This is the very thing he swore he would never do.  He is gripped by intense remorse.  He can’t believe he has done such a thing.  This is Peter at his worst.  And yet, soon the time will come when Jesus offers him his hand.  He sets that as an example for us.

We need not sit around in life letting the divine juice spoil and turn black in us.  Our very best self is being transformed into Christ-likeness.  We need to seek it and hold on to it, because that is where we find life.

By the grace of God, we do not deny, but we express the best within us.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1926

[2] www.thepoachedegg.net/the-poached-egg/2010/09/bono-interview-grace-over-karma.html

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 97.

[4] Chittister, 98.


living in exile

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997.  Both of our pastors, just before the benediction, gave us a charge.  Banu’s pastor charged her “to fail.”  He wasn’t wishing ill on her, rather, he wanted her to take risks that would probably end in failure.  Still, keep pressing on.  That’s advice I need to remember.

Using imagery from the parable of the prodigal son, my pastor charged me to tell my story of being in a “distant land,” a “far country.”  He might have thought of several things, like my worshipping with Christians of many different stripes.  (One example would be going from the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church, to going to the Presbyterian Church.)  But his main meaning of being in a “far country” was my experience with brain cancer.

1 exile

The charge to fail from Banu’s pastor also has that sense of exile, of not belonging.  His church was in an inner-city neighborhood of Philadelphia.  The streets around the church were not in good shape.  There were even what you might call ditches.  He spoke of a pansy that he saw growing in one of those ditches.  That pansy didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be there, but we might think it was in exile, a place where it didn’t belong.

We can see that sense of exile, of being in a far country, in our epistle reading in 1 Peter.

In the very first verse of our letter, Peter calls his audience “exiles.”  The Greek word (παροικια, paroikia) can also mean “sojourning” or “living in a strange land.”  For them, being exiles, being refugees, is something they can relate to.  For us, it’s no doubt less likely.  But it is possible.  It’s more likely we would at least feel that way.  Have you ever been—or are you now—in a far country?  Can you see yourself as an exile or as a refugee?  In this season of Easter, can we see ourselves as resurrection people?

I want us to think about that.  If we can’t imagine or feel the need to live another way, then it will be pretty difficult to in fact live any other way!  If we have no longing to live more deeply, more fully, then in a sense, we’re already dead.  We need to be resurrected!

Peter picks up the theme of exile in verse 17.  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”

There are Christians in this country who actually claim the identity of exile.  It isn’t such a stretch for them to see themselves as living in a strange land.  That’s “strange” as in “foreign,” but I suppose “strange” as in “weird,” would also apply!  I imagine all of us could testify to times when we’ve felt like we’re living in a strange land!

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the chapel at Emmaus Community in Victoria, BC

When I speak of Christians who claim the identity of exile, I’m thinking especially of those who might be called neomonastics, the “new” monastics.  From every tradition and denomination, these are Christians who really do put into practice the idea of “blessed be the tie that binds.”  They don’t live in monasteries, but as communities of faith, they make a commitment to follow Christ in a particular way, which I’ll get to in a few moments.  They do this as communities, not just as a collection of individuals.

They take Peter quite seriously when he says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  That last line in the Good News Bible says to “love one another earnestly with all your heart.”  How about Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  It’s “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”  The original word (εκτενως, ektenōs) means “intensely.”

Kyle Childress, a long-time Baptist pastor in Nacogdoches, Texas, tells an interesting, and sobering, story.[1]  In September 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Rita slammed into East Texas.  There was plenty of destruction, but their church building avoided the worst of it.  They were able to house some evacuees from Houston, as well as some of their own church members.

During the day, people would be cleaning up from the hurricane.  At day’s end, they gathered at the church, eating delicious meals—then playing games, having conversations, and getting ready for bed.  It was, as Rev. Childress says, “a good time of sharing life in Christ” (p. 33).  Now, here’s the story he tells.

“After most of the people from Houston had left town,” he says, “I went down to put gas in my car.  By this time, the lines were short and I waited behind a man and his wife in their one-ton pickup with a dual-wheel rear-end.  Guns were hanging prominently in the truck as they got out.  She glared at everyone and kept the door open on the truck with the guns in easy reach, while he proceeded to fill up his two twenty-two-gallon tanks on the pickup and then fill up his many gas cans and two fifty-five-gallon drums in the back-end.  I watched them, gave them a wide berth, and I felt a shiver.  I was not only looking at American society in microcosm, I was also witnessing what the Church is up against.  Here was an apocalyptic moment, when our society’s pretense, politeness, and orderliness were blown aside.  Clearly, this couple believed they were on their own; they did not need anyone or want anyone to interfere with their individual lives, and they were going to make sure they got what they wanted or needed, by any means, including the use of violence.  Meanwhile, down the street was a church full of people who believed that the good life was found in sharing a common life in Jesus Christ” (34).

When Childress speaks of that “common life in Jesus Christ,” he isn’t referring to something that happens by accident.  He isn’t talking about something that just comes up out of nowhere.  He’s talking about a rule of life.  A rule of life is something that people agree together to follow.

He continues, “Since it is rare to see local congregations share such a common life, and most church members have no idea such a life exists, much less is desirable, it is imperative that we look around for other glimpses and models of what a common life might look like.  One of those places is among the communities of the New Monasticism movement.  As a local church pastor I am interested in what the new monastics might teach us” (34).

He’s not proposing that his local Baptist congregation become a neomonastic community, but he’s convinced there are things to learn from them.

A rule of life isn’t so much a set of beliefs; it isn’t so much a confession or a creed.  It’s about how we behave in the world.  Probably the best-known rule of life is the Rule of Benedict.  This goes back to the early sixth century.  Saint Benedict is known as the father of western monasticism.  He wrote his Rule to govern life within the monastery, but it has principles that can be applied in every walk of life.

One good example of this is in chapter 53.  Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  That’s the spiritual foundation for Christian hospitality that extends throughout the Rule, and for that matter, throughout life itself.

3 exileWhat a revolutionary, and counter-cultural, thought.  Imagine if we welcomed every visitor as Christ!  Imagine if we welcomed each other as Christ!

There isn’t any one single way to arrange a rule of life.  At the institutional level, our Presbyterian Book of Order does that in some respect, at least in how we govern ourselves.  It’s a way of helping us follow processes that are laid out.  It’s a way of making sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak!

Childress notes, “Whenever there is conflict or misunderstanding—and living in close proximity to others, there always is conflict—the rule is part of the conversation among the members.  Over time the rule is often clarified or modified…  What is essential is that the rule is used in service to sharing their common life in Christ and not as a form of domination” (36).

This is an extremely important point.  If we are to follow Peter’s mandate to “love one another deeply from the heart,” the way we go about it cannot be “a form of domination.”

This might be a shock to you, but there are churches which seek to control and coerce their members!

To embrace a common life in Christ, the American church has to resist that “lone wolf” mentality that is so much a part of our culture.  One last quote from Childress: “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life, then they had better do it as a body or else they will never make it.  Lone individuals trying to live faithfully cannot stand against sin, death, the Powers, and the overwhelming pressure of society.  Church members, as individuals, are easy pickings for the Powers of Death; they will separate us, isolate us, dismember us, pick us off one at a time, and grind us down into the dust” (39).

That is an awesome statement, and I couldn’t agree more with it.

What are the “Powers of Death” he refers to?  What are the forces that kill us inside and turn us against each other?  What are the things that distress the Spirit of Christ, and bring suffering?  These are some of the “Powers of Death.”

Sometimes events happen, and we are compelled to say something about it, because it’s right there in our faces.  I remember when we all heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I guess like most people, I did feel a sense of relief when I heard the news.

4 exileHowever, my real preference would have been for him to be captured and then put on trial before the entire world.  Still, I have to say that I didn’t shed any tears because he was dead.

But when I saw the images of people dancing in the street, having parties, I was saddened.  On 9-11, the terrorists were doing the exact same thing.  Imitating that kind of behavior is, in my opinion, probably the very least Christian thing we could do.  It is the most un-Christlike way to go.  I would dare say that we could see the “Powers of Death” at work.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to apply Jesus’ call to love our enemies when the enemy is a mass-murderer.  It’s difficult to know what that would look like.  Still, if we would be people who love Jesus, we need to learn to love what Jesus loves.

Verse 23 says, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  The powers of death, the forces that have us living in exile (whether we realize it or not), can do nothing when faced with the living and enduring word of God.

It’s kind of like the old country gospel song, “This World is not My Home.”  “This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

We are living as refugees in our homeland, but we also need to remember what Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (v. 1).

One thing that is sure; we belong to the kingdom of God and its exhibition to the world.  That’s paraphrased from the Great Ends of the Church in our Book of Order (F-1.0304).  When we commit ourselves to follow the one who leads us out of exile, we automatically invite others to join the journey.

“‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  That word is the good news that was announced to you” (vv. 24-25).

That’s the good news.  When we fail, and fail we will, in that far country, in the place of our exile, the Lord fails with us, only to raise us up.

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After all, even in a ditch a pansy will grow.

 

[1] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/116016.pdf

(“Ties that Bind: Sharing a Common Rule of Life”)


Lydian listening

I have a special affinity for St. Lydia. Her feast day is on August 3rd, which was the date of my baptism! We find the story of her conversion and baptism in the book of Acts chapter 16:

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us.

The story of Lydia is a key moment in the early church. Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). So Paul makes his first journey to Europe. He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.  After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future. There is a spirit of divination within her. The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her! After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, stir up the crowd to beat them, and have them tossed into jail. To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape. In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that they have illegally ordered the arrest and beating of Roman citizens. Relatively few residents of the empire are citizens. And they do have certain rights. The magistrates want Paul and Silas to get out of town quickly and quietly.

But Paul says, “Are you serious? I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize in front of everyone!” It’s only then that they agree to leave. But they still have one more stop to make. Before taking off, who do they insist on seeing? Lydia—and the young church that is now meeting in her home. So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us. (That’s a rarity with women in the Bible.)

So who is Lydia? The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13). That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14). That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.” They were Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith and followed it as best they could. We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.” That’s a lucrative trade, so she must have some money.

So what’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means? While we’re finding out who she is, we also find out what’s happening with her. She “was listening to us” and that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” There’s a theme of listening.

Why is listening so important? Why do we listen? Do we listen?

We listen to go deeper. We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life. What is the result of Lydia’s listening? It’s her conversion.

True conversion is an ongoing conversion. In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our world with the word from God). We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality. There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies! “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.” In Acts 16:40, Lydia welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison. 

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia finds. Gallares frames hospitality in these terms: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter. As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves. We feel like we’re in a foreign land. We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).

As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland. Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved. Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism. Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from? This is the true spirit of hospitality. It is not [removed] when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

How can we imitate that Lydian listening in the Church?

 

St. Lydia Purpuraria

It involves being both mystic and prophet. It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

One time I had a quite curious dream. Or to be more precise, it was in that in-between land where you’re just about to go to sleep, but it feels like a dream. Anyway, I seemed to be aware of what I was talking about a moment ago: why we listen. I imagined that I was living on the surface of life, like floating on water, and that I needed to go deeper. I’m reminded of something Thomas Merton wrote in the 1950s. It’s in his book, The Sign of Jonas, which was a journal he kept during his first years after moving to the monastery in Kentucky.

Praying to God, he laments the noisiness he finds within himself. One might say that he recognizes his own living on the surface of life and his need to go deeper. “You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence,” he says, “but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires. My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction. And I do not possess my house in silence…

“I am content that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!” (47)

Ruined as the house that all of us are, God lives there.

Hearing these words coming from a monk lets me know: I am not alone in my noise and refusal to listen. Many times in our culture, politics, religious discourse we see the refusal to listen—people talking at each other, but not with each other. As a consequence, people get hurt. It looks like people will continue to be hurt.

Using myself as an example, I can be so darn convinced that I’m right that I wind up doing some pretty terrible things. So, again I ask, why is listening so important? Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith. Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we must listen. We must listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion. We must listen for the word of God.

As oblates of St. Benedict, Banu and I pay special attention to how he begins his Rule:

“Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for Jesus, the Christ.”

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.

We must listen like Lydia.


affluenza

During the time of the prophet Amos’ ministry, the mid 8th century B.C. (about 760-750), Jeroboam II is king of Israel. His reign has been long and prosperous. His army has reclaimed land in the north that had been conquered, and the economy is booming. Having said that, Jeroboam has come to the throne during a period when Israel is on borrowed time. There is a certain amount of luck involved.

To the east, the mighty Assyrians have had to halt their westward expansion. They’ve had their hands full, dealing with intrigues inside the empire and also fighting the Babylonians and the Elamites—areas near what we now call the Persian Gulf. But don’t count the Assyrians out: they’ll be back!

Amos identifies some idols that Israel worships, idols that will result in the nation’s days being numbered. What are these idols? Are they something as obvious as sculptures of wood and stone? Are they something more insidious, something more subtle?

Well, let’s hear what he has to say. In chapter 6, he speaks of woe to “those who are at ease in Zion,” to “those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,” to those who are “the notables of the first of the nations” (v. 1). So in verse 1, Amos begins the passage with “the first of the nations.” In verse 7, he ends it with “they shall now be the first to go into exile.” That’s when the Assyrians make their return!

“So you think you’re the first of all?” the prophet asks the rich and powerful. “Well, guess what? You will be the first!”

It’s in verses 4 to 6, however, that Amos really makes his point. “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (The term “Joseph” is sometimes used as a substitute for “Israel.”)

image from www.acting-man.com

This is a picture of those gripped by the disease of “affluenza.” (Not influenza—affluenza!) It’s been noted that these are people “who enjoy a life of luxury and ease, but who are indifferent to the sociological and political problems which are about to bring the roof down upon their heads.”1

Seven verbs are used to describe this affluent society. They lie (on beds of ivory)…they lounge…they eat meat (as opposed to the poor, who can’t afford it)…they sing…they improvise…they drink wine (not from goblets, but by the bowl full)…they anoint themselves (with expensive perfume). This picture of decadence should not be unfamiliar!

There is an eighth verb mentioned, something that the affluenza of Amos’ audience prevents. It’s in the final line of verse 6. They “are not grieved” about the ruin of their nation. Their lifestyle has blinded and hardened them to its ill effects.

So, what are the idols that Amos identifies? As I hinted earlier, they may not be things that immediately come to mind. There’s no golden calf, like back in the days of Aaron and Moses. Rather, things that have become idols for them are questions of national pride, military might, and economic prowess. That’s why the prophet is so critical of their worship. Their heart and soul isn’t in God; they really worship these things.

Chapter 7 features a confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, the priest. Amaziah serves as a kind of religious chief of staff for the king. And in his report to Jeroboam about Amos’ activities, he accuses him of treason. The prophet is painted as a conspirator, a subversive.

Amaziah gives him fair warning. He tells Amos that it’s time to hit the road. Go back home—or else. Verse 13 provides a revealing remark. Amos is cautioned to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Without realizing it, Amaziah is admitting that he’s a spiritual sellout. He has allowed his relationship to the king to determine his message. He’s unable to speak truth to power, because he has so completely identified with power.

So, to the idols of national pride, military might, and economic prowess, we now add, as Daniel Clendenin puts it, “pimping religion for political empire.”2 I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we can see these dynamics in America today. It’s safe to say we’ve done at least as much pimping with those idols than Israel ever did.

Bringing Cullen Murphy’s book, Are We Rome?, into the discussion, Clendenin says that America and the Roman Empire “both suffer from an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism.” That’s the idea that we’re a special case. We can get away with stuff no one else can.

Here’s but one example: just as the Romans spread their military throughout much of their known world, so have we. It’s hard to get an exact count, but a rough estimate would be almost 800 bases in over 70 countries and territories.3

I mention all this, not for the purpose of debating foreign policy, but to recognize what it does. In my humble opinion, it builds and defends a foundation for what is our greatest idol: affluenza. It’s a disease that infects all of us—a disease that leaves us restless, constantly urging us to consume, to buy more and more…stuff. It’s no wonder we can’t hear God! We’re too busy worrying, “How can I pay for the junk I already have? And for the junk I still want to get?”

I did say that affluenza infects all of us. Therefore, I have to ask the question: how does it infect me? This isn’t a disease with symptoms seen only in the purchase of items. It is a lifestyle. Do I insulate myself from people who make me feel uncomfortable with my privilege?

Do I too often join with the apostle Paul in saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15)? Do I too often take refuge in that thought? To all these things and more, I have to say, with some degree of embarrassment, “Yes, I do.”

Benedictine writer Joan Chittister observes, “We take things and hoard things and give things to control our little worlds and the things wind up controlling us. They clutter our space; they crimp our hearts; they sour our souls.”4

The remedy for affluenza is simplicity. That is, to unclutter, to untangle one’s life. “Benedictine simplicity” [however], Chittister adds, “is not a deprivation. It frees us for all of life’s surprises.” Simplicity frees us for all of life’s surprises.

Perhaps that’s one of the most seductive and sinister aspects of affluenza. It deludes us into thinking that we’re really living. It hides from us its ill effects on others and on the earth. We find ourselves unwilling to pursue the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers.

The process of choosing between the paths of, say, Amos and Amaziah is just that—a process. The choice between authentic faith and being a spiritual sellout isn’t made once and for all. It’s a continuous thing. And our Lord knows that.

As Anne Lamott puts it, “I don’t think much surprises him: this is how we make important changes—barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.”5

There are few changes more important for our own sake, and for the sake of the world, than dealing with the disease called affluenza. But with each bare, poor, and slow change we make—in the face of the powers of death—Jesus raises his fist in triumph.

1James Limburg, Hosea-Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 112.
2www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070709JJ.shtml
3www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-bases-around-the-world-119321
4Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 108.
5Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 46.


happy is the one with a rule

Happy+is+the+one

In chapter 3 of The Psalms for Today, Beth Tanner phrases the first psalm as describing “a way of life or ‘rule of life.’” (28)  This “orientation, or philosophy of life lived in God’s kingdom,” begins “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked” (NRSV), or as she translates it, “Happy is the one who does not walk among the counsel of the wicked ones.” (24)
 
One of the best-known rules, or rhythms, of life is the Rule of Benedict.  Dating back to the sixth century, it has endured as a flexible guide for those who would claim the designation “blessed,” or “happy.”
 
What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean to be happy?

“warfare to the last breath”

The+psalms+for+today,+beth+tanner
This Wednesday, our regular Bible study returns after the special Lenten Bible study.  We’re using Beth LaNeel Tanner’s book, The Psalms for Today, in looking at the psalter.  In chapter 1, we’re presented with a good question:  what are the psalms?  Throughout history, they’ve been recognized as scripture, songs, poetry, and prayers—and that doesn’t include the many other uses people have made of them.
 
As prayer, the psalms have always been a source of life for the church.  In the sixth-century Rule of Benedict, psalms are continually cited as topics for meditation.  In her comment on chapter 8 of the Rule, “The Divine Office at Night,” Joan Chittister relays a story from the desert monastics:
 
“Once upon a time the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’  Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God.  For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey.  Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest.  But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’”  (Emphasis is mine.) 
 
Warfare to the last breath!  Sometimes that may feel like what we experience when trying to make sense of even individual psalms, in which lofty praise and glorious joy butt up against desire for vengeance and bloody retribution.  We humans are a strange bunch.  Why wouldn’t that be reflected in our scriptural poetry?

the best of gifts

There’s a short story from the desert monastics from the 4th and 5th centuries that I really like. I can identify with it. These were people who went out into the desert (mainly Egypt, but also other places) to develop their spiritual practices. Many of them fled what they saw as the corruption of the city.

“Once upon a time the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’” (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 75.)

I don’t know that we have to believe that there literally are demons bent on keeping us from prayer, but when you—if you—try to enter into prayer, thinking of it as “warfare to the last breath” is a pretty good description! I think my experience is a fairly common one, which is: if you want to dredge up the most random thoughts and impulses…if there’s a song you’ve been trying to forget…if there’s a task that you just have to do and need to make a note of…then spend some time in prayer. All kinds of mental distractions will appear. We don’t need demons to keep us from prayer!

What’s so important about prayer, anyway? Why would demons, literal or figurative, want to keep us from it?

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comIn Luke 11, we see Jesus praying. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus praying again and again. Jesus is presented as a man of prayer. He understands where his strength and his life come from.

Luke 11:1-13 give us three themes to the request, “Lord, teach us to pray” -- The Lord’s Prayer,” a parable about a midnight visitor, and lessons to be learned about the parable.

The Lord’s Prayer is brief in Luke's version unlike Matthew's... It isn’t meant to be recited robotically without any thought to what the words say. Chapter 20 of the Rule of Benedict, has something to say about this:

“We must know that God regards our purity of heart…not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, prayer should always be brief.”

Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but sometimes it seems like prayer is a beauty contest. We can feel challenged to come up with the most eloquent language. Or sometimes it seems like an athletic competition, with the goal of going on and on and on. (It’s like the long distance runners.) When that stuff happens, we’re actually praying to ourselves, not to God. Our inner life isn’t strengthened by showing off, least of all, by showing off during prayer.

Some translations have a footnote in verse 2 that indicates an alternate, or a variant, reading. In this case, when Jesus prays, “Your kingdom come,” the alternative reading is, “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.”

I really like that. “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” What does it mean for the Spirit to cleanse us, to purify us? I certainly don’t have the final word on this, but I would think it has a lot to do with the well-known phrase that it substitutes for: “Your kingdom come.”

Being aware of God’s kingdom, longing for it to be realized in our lives—that has everything to do with desiring the Holy Spirit to come upon us and cleanse us.

Jesus continues his teaching on prayer with the parable about the midnight visitor. Here’s a guy who himself has received a late night visitor, and unfortunately, the pantry is running low. But he says, “Wait! I know what to do! I have a good buddy nearby! He won’t mind giving me something. You don’t have to go to bed hungry!” Of course, things don’t go quite according to plan.

Upon hearing the knock at the door, the friend whose food has been volunteered drowsily grumbles, “Go away! The whole family is in bed. Come back at a decent hour!” The knocking continues. Finally, amid some muttered expletives, the bread is delivered to the neighbor who it seems is determined to prevent any sleep from occurring! This lack of courteous behavior doesn’t go unnoticed by the scripture text.

The word in verse 8 translated as “persistence” (anaideia) comes from two words meaning “without shame” or “without respect.” So, Jesus could also be translated as saying, “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his audacity (or, “his shamelessness”) he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Does that mean that it is rude to persist in prayer? Does it display a lack of good manners? No, but we should still be shameless and act like it does!

In the third section, where Jesus expounds on the parable, he seems to be saying the same thing. He makes the point in verses 9 and 10: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

When Jesus speaks of asking, seeking, and knocking, he’s not saying to do this in a half-hearted way. He’s not suggesting that we be timid or nice. There’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Niceness exists at the surface; kindness plunges into the depths. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ga 5:22).

Jesus is talking about giving oneself over completely to this business of loving God with all of our being. When we maintain that as our focus, as our goal, we avoid the trap of viewing God as a vending machine. It helps to avoid seeing our Lord as Santa Jesus. It can be easy to take these scriptures, as well as others in the Bible, and use them to turn prayer into a business agreement. That mentality is one of the key parts of what’s known as “prosperity theology.” A less flattering description is “name it and claim it,” and even less flattering, “blab it and grab it”!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Jesus finishes up with scenarios that would definitely keep you out of the running for being named parent of the year: serving your child a snake sandwich instead of fish filet or scorpion soup instead of scrambled eggs! He says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v. 13). There’s a parallel with Matthew 7, which says “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (v. 11).

The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts. The Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit is God. Just as Jesus, Emmanuel, is God with us, so the Holy Spirit is God within us. There’s no contradiction with the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). There’s no contradiction because God is love.

The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit is all that is beautiful and courageous and inspiring. The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit is the fire within us that burns away the fear and hate that would keep us small.

The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit enables us, not to be nice, but to be kind. Like those disciples of long ago, we also have that need: “Lord, teach us to pray.” It is warfare to the last breath.