16 March 2013

The evangelical magazine Christianity Today asked three people, "What classic spiritual discipline needs the most renewal among American Christians?" Dallas Willard, whom I admire, said "Silence," which is a very good answer. "Fasting" was another suggestion with which I sympathize; on the other hand, "Listening to Jesus" through isolated Bible verses in private prayer without any structures of hermeneutical or ecclesial accountability seems to me to feed directly into our main problems as American Christians (and it's also not a classic spiritual discipline, but I'll leave that aside).

What I cannot believe is that nobody said Self-Denial. Can there be anything we need more? When I suggest tiny acts of self-denial to Christian groups (leave the heater in your car off for 5 minutes, let one subway train pass you by before you get on, set aside a bite of your meal), the stunned, uncomprehending reactions are so striking that I kind of wish I had a photographer to capture them, so that we could make a conceptual art piece out of it one day.

Or how about the discipline of going to church every single Sunday with people dissimilar to you in age, wealth, politics, and education to attend services that are not designed to be to your taste? (There's not a name for that one, but I'd argue it's classic, all right.)

09 March 2013

I'm working on a new Kindle project, excerpts from the letters of St. Francis de Sales. He is always recommending sweetness and peace and gentle adherence to the will of our Lord and quietly doing our duty while avoiding transports of fervor and all that kind of stuff, and then someone asks him if it is OK for Christians to sue each other:

How long will you pretend to other victories over the world and the affection for what you may have in it but those which our Lord won over it, and to the imitation of which He in so many ways exhorts you? How did He do, that Lord of all the world? It is true He was the lawful Lord of all the world: and did He ever go to law to have only whereon to lay His head? They did Him a thousand wrongs: what suits did He ever make about them?

28 February 2013

I was very interested by an article called Finding the Sermon in a Storyboard online at The Living Church. (It looks as if it's going to be about a technique, but it really isn't; it's about trying to grow as a preacher.)  The author, Patrick Twomey, talks about moving from preaching from a manuscript to preaching from a storyboard, and I've been going through a somewhat similar process as an experiment for the past months.

I am a manuscript preacher first and foremost, but I don't at all share his sense of being unable to take flight with a written text, and I don't see anything that leads me to believe that my sermons are lacking in immediacy (rather the opposite; in fact people are often surprised to hear that I had a text in front of me.)  However, I've nevertheless come to feel that I should experiment with the potential of speaking without a manuscript, based on experiences sort of like what he describes in listening to Thomas Merton teach:

19 February 2013

"I think the Incarnation is one of the greatest and most beautiful pieces of Divine humor. God knows how much we like to look at ourselves. And so He chose to look like us, so we might recognize ourselves in Him, and follow Him home. And by the time we got there... well, we were home, and it was too late to go back."
--Dorsey McConnell

15 February 2013

Silence, especially loving silence, is always non-dual, and that is much of its secret power. It stays with mystery, holds tensions, absorbs contradictions, and smiles at paradoxes—leaving them unresolved, and happily so. (Richard Rohr)
I saw this quote on someone's Tumblr today, and it made me think about thinking, at least in religious contexts. Earlier this year I was in a conversation with someone from an evangelical background who, when we talked about contemplative prayer, objected strongly to Thomas Keating's maxim that "silence is God's first language"; it seemed to me (from our brief interchange) that this person conceived of silence as simply not-speaking, the absence of communicating ideas, rather than as the pregnant, stretching, holy depth beyond words that Rohr describes and I think Keating is pointing to. The person said they viewed times of silence as valuable, but essentially a means of shutting out distractions to prepare ourselves for the real (more cognitive) prayer to come.

05 February 2013

I'm absolutely smitten with this poem, which I encountered while reading James K. A. Smith's new book Imagining the Kingdom this weekend.

Staying Power
By Jeanne Murray Walker
In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside and question the metal sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable — all right, there  
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t

there that makes the notion flare like
a forest fire until I have to spend the afternoon
spraying it with the hose to put it out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I whisper God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn’t exist—
can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered-up
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

10 January 2013

I've been reading Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers by Simon Vibert, and was just copy-pasting my Kindle highlights today to try and organize them for some takeaways. While doing so, I was struck by a quote in the book's closing section on the interplay of Word, Spirit, and the person of the preacher. I googled part of the text quoted, and was even more struck. I don' t think we say "unction" that much anymore; we probably say "anointing," but still. Check this out:

30 December 2012

On Twitter today I saw someone reference this New York Times article about church plants. In glancing at the headline, "Building Congregations Around Art Galleries and Cafes as Spirituality Wanes," I automatically read everything but the last verb as a noun phrase referring to a Christian-culture practice which was very cool in, I don't know, 2004-2009ish, but which now seems to me obviously to be waning. In other words, I assumed the story was"Building-Congregations-Around-Art-Galleries-and-Cafes-as-Spirituality" Wanes. Not all that well phrased, but yes, timely cultural analysis.

But as I began to read the article I realized, no, the New York Times is just hearing about all this now.  They think spirituality is what's on the way out, and that in response, as 2013 arrives, there is a new trend beginning of Christian communities creating ministry contexts that don't look like 1950s "church." Um, wow.

19 November 2012

This is an excellent excerpt from Francis Spufford's forthcoming (in the USA at least) Unapologetic about the contemporary resonance of the word "sin."  I am so socialized theologically that it doesn't sound like this to me, but I think he is 100% right about how the average person hears it, and he puts the matter very amusingly as well.

13 November 2012

I was shopping today at the North Shore Mall, and finished up a bit after noon. I grabbed some lunch at a chain restaurant where a TEC clergy friend and I used to meet up regularly, and spent some of lunchtime emailing with another TEC clergy friend. By the time I was done it was 1pm, which meant that the noon Mass at the mall's basement Carmelite chapel was over and they'd be doing Eucharistic adoration, so I stopped in for a half hour or so. I was sitting in the pew, wondering yet again about their rather odd monstrance (it appears to picture Jesus thrusting Jesus into the air?) while intermittently thinking wryly both about Article 25 (it amuses me that you can find a way to hyperlink Article 25 -- ok, ok: XXV) and about yet a third TEC clergy friend, who, when I told him I could anonymously go to Eucharistic adoration in a mall near my house, moaned in envious delight. Article XXV or no Article XXV, for some of us it comes down to "That's fine, sweetie. Whatever. Just try and take your eyes off the monstrance."

30 October 2012

She and I come out different places in some lived conclusions, I expect, but I was struck by this piece from Sarah Coakley in which she tries to offer alternatives to the imbalanced and impoverished way we're talking about human sexuality (both in the churches and in the media).  She calls for thought about desire at a deeper level, asking that we "re-imagine theologically the whole project of our human sorting, taming and purifying of desires within the crucible of divine desire. Such is the ascetical long haul set before us, in which faithfulness plays the indispensable role endemic to the demands of the primary love for God." [italics mine] She has some great stuff from Gregory of Nyssa in there, too. The paragraph that made me stop and think especially was this one:
[A] realistic reflection on long and faithful marriages (now almost in the minority) will surely reveal periods of enforced "celibacy" even within marriages: during periods of delicate pregnancy, parturition, illness, physical separation, or impotence, which are simply the lot of the marital "long haul." And if this is so, then the generally-assumed disjunction between celibacy and marriage will turn out not to be as profound as it seems. Rather, the reflective, faithful celibate and the reflective, faithful married person may have more in common than the unreflective or faithless celibate, or the carelessly happy, or indeed unhappily careless, married person.
There is truth to this. It's not so much "do you have frustrations?" but "is there a bigger desire, a bigger goal, in light of which you accept and even benefit from the frustrations of whatever long haul God has put you in?"  Which will always be many, and of various kinds.

16 October 2012

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a fan of Martin Thornton. A blogger at Akenside Press, who is doing a master's thesis on him, posted this indispensable chart synthesizing Thornton's work on what constitutes "The English School" within catholic spirituality/historical theology. Who do you read, if you're an Anglican? What is "the genuine root-stock of our theological breeding"? Here it is in easily digestible form, with influences out to the side. 

I am amused that my gut reaction to nearly the whole center column is "Oooh, I love her/him!" Except perhaps Macquarrie. I know Thornton is all about Macquarrie, and I was (comically; I was a late-teen) given Macquarrie by the priest who instructed me for Baptism, but I'm not positive I'd put him in that tree... though I'm not sure who else to suggest for 20th c. Or perhaps it's too early to know?