Eucharist

I was thinking about the Eucharist today. Did you know "eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks?" That's pretty cool. The central ritual of Christian practice over the millennia is to say "thanks."

It has probably been said a thousand times before and more eloquently than I am capable of, but this stands in stark contrast with the global system of capitalism which dictates the rhythm of our lives.

Capitalism's primary animating value is scarcity. This logic, that there isn't enough, pulls every other human value into its matrix of scarcity. Time, money, natural resources, love, companionship, beauty—all these and more are stripped of their ultimate value and defined instead by fear, anxiety, and the will to power. How ironic that capitalism generates so much waste, a surplus so tremendous that no one in an earlier age could possibly imagine it, while so many go hungry. Capitalism's excess and the gap between rich and poor reifies its own myth of scarcity.

Eucharist, on the other hand, is a symbol not just of gratitude for the fundamental fact that everything that is worthwhile in life is an unmerited gift, but it is an expression of abundance. Through this ritual Christians gesture toward the meal saying, "We exist there, in the wheat and grapes, in the broken body of Christ given for us," and we respond "Thanks," content that this will be more than enough—enough to share.

Merely Religion

I find it odd that certain Christian spiritualities preach a so-called “way of Jesus” that is supposed to be available to us outside of the context of religion. This “way” is almost always presented in contrast to “organized religion,” or “the Church,” or “institutionalized Christianity,” or simply “worship.” A Christianity lacking institution would be preferable—Christianity which is not instantiated but which is instead an airy "way of being."

Richard Rohr puts it this way in a meme I see shared often:

We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation.”

There has been tension between the "religion of Jesus" and the "religion about Jesus" for about two millennia, give or take a few decades. Frankly, I think the religion of Jesus—informed as it was by second temple Judaism, the Pharisaic movement, and various charismatic movements (Essenes, etc)—is essentially inaccessible to us in the form proponents of the “way” would have us believe. As readers of the book, we get glimpses of the way Jesus lived, the way he called us to live, but only parabolically—in a thrown-to-the-side kind of way. Our access to the way of Jesus is glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, never grasped. Our spiritualities make attempts to gain focus, to polish the glass, but clear understanding is always experienced as a gift, as apokálypsis, as an uncovering, as revelation. To claim that these ways of seeking understanding are somehow irreligious is simply marketing jargon.

The religion about Jesus and the functional edifice of the capital 'C' Church is a technology for carrying (some would say defending) the message of the gospel and the story of Jesus' life. Rohr's "mere religion" is the vehicle through which the message of and about Christ has been carried through the millennia. Without it, the way of Jesus would not be available to us.

I take an Augustinian view of a church within the Church. People who hear the call toward discipleship and transformation comprise this spiritual body and press the wider Church to conform to the fullness of the gospel. We may argue for a way which seeks belonging and believing, or discipleship and transformation, or fear and faithing, but one way or the other we argue for a religion. Christianity must be instantiated. It must be represented, as God was in Jesus, by something with actual being which claims existence for itself. This is merely religion.

Thought and Prayer

Today there have been a lot people turning their ire at the "thoughts and prayers" platitudes that follow an American mass shooting event. It's the go-to phrase for politicians, who are forced to say something after a public event. Annoying.

But a lot of other people say "thoughts and prayers" too. Look, it's a formulation. The words, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families," don't really mean anything regarding the way they were originally arranged. For politicians it's like saying, "I acknowledge this event happened and will now engage in the appropriate way of saying so." For others "thoughts and prayers" means, "This event makes me sad," or, "Oh shit," or, "I wish this wouldn't have happened."

"Thoughts and prayers," as a phrase, does a bunch of heavy lifting we don't necessarily want to do in public. This is especially true when we're limited to 140 characters.

I don't get the ire. Living in a country as violent as the United States and railing against the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is like living next to a coal plant and shouting at the sky about air quality.

Anyway, quiet, contemplative, even conversational prayer is fine. Even good. Posting about it on social media doesn’t effect your reach, though. God don’t care about “likes” and RTs.

Lord, have mercy.

Exhaustion

I'm exhausted. It's always interesting to think you know the meaning of a word until you inhabit it, until you see how much further into the thing you can go.

I accidentally walked into a church service in a hip coffee shop on Sunday. I say that like I wandered onto a mine field. That's how I mean it. I was instantly exhausted then, back when I thought I knew the meaning of the word.

I was instantly exhausted, instantly uncomfortable, instantly bothered. I have my reasons. I've been against this type of twee Christian self-love-fest gathering for a long time now. I wasn't always. But as my picture of God grew, so did my unrest with coffeehouse worship. Not because you can't worship wherever you want, but because so often it's a celebration of how different your edgy church is.

Places like this talk a lot about "magnifying the Lord." This urge to "magnify God," as if God isn't already Being itself, fits right in with urban reclaimed stained-wood tables holding lattes made from single-origin beans nestled inside of home-kilned mugs. It's predictable, and not in a good way. It's person-magnification. It's a shallow aesthetic meant to replace the work of worship. For me, what I walked in on was not worship. Not of God, anyway. People clapped at the end; that's how you know you're doing church wrong.

So I went to sit outside, where I felt God was more likely to be. I've had that sense of God for as long as I can remember. God as wild, and untamed, and damn-well magnified enough already. I sat outside, and I let all the pain and exhaustion of my current world rest on top of my rejection of some self-congratulating thing which seemed about as far from the Divine life as anything else I could think of. And I cried a little, and I thought of Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese." And I knew God was there, in the poem and in my remembering it. And I was okay.

Downward Facing Dammit

This morning, I yelled at an apple. I fed the dog, did yoga for half an hour, and then I yelled at an apple.

More specifically, I yelled at the sticker attached to the apple, but I can’t imagine the apple’s feelings weren’t hurt. It was right there.

I can’t say why I got so upset that the sticker wouldn’t come off, but it’s even more pathetic since I had so recently finished putting my body through a calming mindfulness practice. That's a life lived as a human for you, I guess.

If nothing else, my little outburst reminded me that any religious/mindfulness practice is just that—practice. It’s an effort to ground yourself in the present, to reconnect the mind and body. They need reconnecting because your normal state (if you’re like me) is apple abuser. The effort is one to be made again and again, the centering attempted in the face of one soul-destroying piece of fruit after another.

I’ve written about ritual and mindful awareness here before, but failing at the practice is a different part of the process. Failing is the reason the practice exists. No one needs connection if they never become disconnected. Maybe there’s more than fifteen minutes between the connecting and failing, but sometimes there just isn’t. Resting in the failure, then, can become its own ritual, its own physical interplay between the grumpy children we are and the slightly-less-grumpy children we want to be. That’s hard, though, and there's a wide gap between failing like you normally do and working through the failure via ritual. It’s the difference between "namaste" and "namaste, dammit."

Let’s Get Physical

Rowan Williams contributed a great section to a recent article on ritual practice in daily life.[^1] He describes his time of sitting prayer, preceded by a walking meditation, as “a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts.” Unfortunately, it’s a messier reality given that the vehicle doesn’t always take you where you want to go and doesn’t always move when you want to go there. Williams gets this, too:

"So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again."

What we're left with, then, are broken brains and bodies that listen to our broken brains. But as Williams points out, this isn't cause for despair; rather, it's a chance to reorient and try again. When the focus shifts from actively seeking to improve ourselves to noticing what needs improvement in a kind and mindful way, something fundamentally different happens. The practice becomes more than the original effort to have some kind of awakening or breakthrough. The practice becomes attempting the practice.

Getting the body involved in where we want the mind to be gives us an out when our minds start to dump on the present. The bodily practice brings it back. This is the failure ritual, and doing it enough helps eliminate the failure distinction altogether. Getting out of sync and realigning becomes the wider ritual at play. The morning yoga isn’t the practice or the ritual; the morning yoga followed by emotionally damaging some produce followed by a breathing prayer is.

[^1]: The rest of the article is great, too. Read it after you read this one.

Quiet Please, Christ Child Sleeping

Christmas celebrations are often full of sound. It would be good for us to make room for silence, to hear the voice of Love. – Pope Francis, via Twitter

The pope has a point on this one. When I read this quote a few days ago, I immediately started thinking about the sounds of the season, about how much we let Christmas and the holidays in general be dominated by sound. It makes sense really; so many, especially those of us raised in Christian tradition, are moved by the carols, spoken prayers, and scripture we’ve come to associate only with this one special time of year. So what I’m about to say isn’t that any of this is bad. Sound is fine; actually, it’s an amazing part of being a human with functioning hearing. But it isn’t what’s holy about Christmas, at least not to me.

I realize that there’s a lot of stuff, like, biblical stuff, that someone could point to and say, “That part of the coming of Christ is all about sound, and it seems pretty holy to me.” And I’m not going to argue with you. There are angels who scare a bunch of shepherds with what must have been an astounding, though nonsensical, announcement. There’s the annunciation that kicked it all off. There’s even a squalling baby who’s pretty integral to the plot. But for me, there are two critical pieces to the coming of Christ – Christ coming in the first place, and how we react to that arrival. The distinction is important, because I see that first part as the one which contains all the elements of sound, of language and praise and pronouncement. But the second part, where we are confronted with holiness incarnate and must experience it in relationship, is a silent moment draped in awe and the fullness of being.

It isn’t quiet where I’m writing this; it’s a bustling coffee shop, the week after Christmas, people rejoining to recount their holiday trips, stopping in before continuing to shop and spend gift cards, employees falling back into the groove after an all-too-short break. But I’ve made an effort to find my peace, my joy in Christmas, in the quiet spaces. And for those of us who celebrate the mystery that is Emmanuel, God with us, we are still in the season. Epiphany approaches, and in it we have maybe the strongest example of the contemplative act that is seeking to rest in the presence of the Christ. The wise men seek the Christ, not to speak to a newborn or sing to wake him, but to stand in awe in the full yet silent light of God.

The path of the wise men toward their star isn’t one which requires language, hosannas, or even explanation. It is an intentional walk to meet the face of God, to look into the mysterious Love that is a child born to bring grace. Their walk to the manger is a prayer all its own, and we can mimic the act and its meaning. We can seek the Christ in our own silent meditation, in a walking prayer, in the contemplative moments silence affords. I think it’s what Thomas Merton meant when he prayed, “My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than talking.” The holiness of Christmas is standing silently beside a baby, marveling at the love and creativity wrapped up in its being, and knowing all is well. Merry Epiphany.

Definitely Lost, Maybe a Mystic

The BBC recently covered a New York state retiree, Phillip Patterson, who wrote out the entirety of the King James 1611 Bible by hand. 788,000 words, penned with care and purpose. It’s an astounding story, especially given that Mr. Patterson doesn’t consider himself that religious. Still, when you watch the video (and you should watch the video), it’s hard to picture him as anything but religious, at least in the sense of one being open to the greater mystery of life and meaning. This is where the language of religion, and the word “religion” in particular, fails to do much good -- but that’s another post.

Patterson says “I wondered what was in the Bible. And I knew I didn’t have the… intellectual bandwidth to read it and retain it.” He’s a man searching for knowledge and understanding of a text that speaks so much to the nature of what it means to be in this world. It’s especially interesting that he labored over a text which he feels “is not accepting of [his] lifestyle” as a bisexual man with AIDS. It’s impossible for me to see his work as anything but a sacred pursuit of divine knowledge. When you hear him say, “I would sometimes be sitting and writing, and all of the sudden, it’s like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are. I’m not a slave to what’s written in that book. It’s like everything else in life. Do you believe everything everybody tells you?”, you know - Phillip Patterson, the not-so-religious man who happened to write out the Bible, is a mystic.

As I revisit this man’s story over and over, I am continually struck by the instant kinship I feel with him. He, too, is a seeker, a wanderer in the Cloud of Unknowing. Patterson is working towards knowing by not knowing, by opening himself up to possibility through an experience with the unfamiliar. I feel keenly that the mystic pursuit is a path by which those of us who find ourselves wrapped in lost-ness can emerge into some of the richest parts of our religious traditions. I suppose it’s easy for any person to feel like they don’t fit the movement of their times (the zeitgeist doesn’t have handles, man), and this wanting for place, for name, for identity, can become suffocating. Though when you look at someone like Patterson, or to writings of the past from the likes of Julian of Norwich or Pseudo-Dionysius, you begin to realize that being lost doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Rather, it can be the very circumstance needed to encounter that which is true, divine, and lovely.

It leaves me lamenting the passing of the mystic as a vocation. The work of pursuing mystery, residing in thought and contemplation in a non-academic, non-analytic way, is both critical and something I feel drawn toward. In some ways, the vocation still exists; I could pack my stuff, head to a monastery, and hermit it up. But for those of us who naturally lean toward relationship and practicality, we are left wondering how to encounter meaning in the felt aimlessness of our journey.

The quick answer for many is “religion.” But, as we saw with Phillip Patterson, those structures and beliefs represented by the word “religion” aren’t for everyone, and they’re not always for me, either. This is where mindfulness practice provides solace. Using physical action to become present, to encourage myself to inhabit my space as wholly as possible at any one moment despite all the confusion and fear that rises from the feelings of not belonging, is to participate in the idea of the modern mystic. It’s what Patterson was doing all along. Still, even the practice must be handled with grace and patience, as being present is difficult; the awareness of how un-present we tend to be is actually hilarious.

I’m lost, and the possible solution involves holding my beliefs with care and examining them, noticing their faults, their quirks, and their value. Mindful awareness, the act of resting in what is, can lead to uncovering and dusting off the beliefs I hold – about religion, about myself, about everything – and thereby allow me to put my tension and my hope in conversation. In those moments, I can begin to notice how “small my beliefs really are” and how much potential resides in the looking, in the lost places, in the act of noticing my breath even when I can’t get a grasp on anything else. I, too, can become a mystic by resting in the notion that knowing can come from not knowing, and that truly, "not all those who wander are lost"

To Lengthen

Lent2, Year C, Luke 13:31-35, St. Paul UMC Denver, CO February 24 2013

"I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you." - Augustine of Hippo (should have said "about 1700 years ago")

Lent! Wooooo...

So, what is this weird word “Lent?” It was just Christmas and no one’s, like, confused about what that means. Or, maybe people disagree what it’s about but everyone knows the basic idea behind it.

It’s presents, right?

But, I mean, people are, like, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays,” or whatever and they kinda know what that means. And it’s cold out but people try a little harder to be warm. Maybe they give away some money or some of their stuff. Maybe they tolerate their family or relax with friends. Eat too much. That kind of stuff.

But no one’s like, “Happy Lent!” or “Blessed Lent to you, Logan. Hope your Lent is super penitential! Good luck giving up soda or swearing or whatever!” It just isn’t that exciting or relatable you know? Lent! woooooo....

But all the word “Lent” really means is “to lengthen.” It’s almost spring and the days are getting longer. That’s it. The light is slowly stretching its rosy fingers into evening. Soon buds will appear on the trees. Flowers will burst onto the scene. Spring is coming and the earth smells fresh and it’s exciting and—well, it’s pretty sexy, right? Happy Lent, everybody!

But all of that isn’t really part of the official Christian observation of Lent. Jesus was in the desert just last week. Out in the desert! The wilderness! And the devil was there with him, you know.

Actually, I don’t know what that means, exactly. Like, does it matter if there’s a scaly guy with long fingernails, creepin’ on Jesus? Or maybe, like, a really good looking person in a dark grey flannel suit, perfectly tailored. Out there in the desert, you know? In the first century.

Or—I dunno—maybe Jesus is wrestling with his own demons. The sky just opened up, after all, and the Holy Spirit falls on him and calls him “Beloved” with a capital “B.” And I have to think that Jesus thought of the song from Isaiah that Mary sang when she found out HE was coming and there was nothing she could do about it. Imagine Mary singing that song to Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord. Surely all generations will call me blessed. God has brought down the powerful, lifted up the poor, filled the hungry, sent the rich empty away.”

And then a few years later... the Holy Spirit is alighting upon Jesus in front of all of these people and he’s gotta get outta there, because maybe he’s got this song stuck in his head that his mom has been singing to him since he was a just little guy. And the Spirit is calling him Beloved. And how to do you fulfill something this big? This is an amazing song about God’s relationship with God’s people. It’s a ridiculous song about hope where no hope seems to be found. And not only that it’s handed down to you by your mother.

Well, I dunno about you but I might run out into the desert. If I’m supposed to bring down the high, and raise up the poor and fill the hungry -- Jesus, I might thinking about raising an army. Get my people together, you know. Perform some miracles. March on Washington—or, sorry, Jerusalem. Sorry. I got carried away.

But, anyway, Jesus is out in the desert for 40 days, not eating, not drinking, being tempted by the devil or his demons or whatever, and that’s why people give up chocolate for Lent.

Or maybe not.

You know how time kind of compresses sometimes? Or maybe it stretches out?

Ice

My mom and I were traveling to see family for Christmas. I was driving, and we were flying across southern Minnesota. It had snowed a couple of days before, but the day we were driving was nice. Maybe a little overcast, but driving conditions were good. Except, the thing you have to know about that area of the country is it’s flat. I mean flat. Flat flat. And there’s nothing to stop the wind. Nothing. It’s flat, okay? So this wind blows snow over the road all day and night and there’s nothing to stop it. And where the snow blows over the road a lot for extended periods of time you get ice.

Anyway, I’ve got the cruise control set at 75 miles per hour. My mom and I are talking and carrying on, helping the time go by. And we drive under one of the many, many overpasses that help cars over Interstate 90. “These overpasses are dangerous” -- I’m sure my mom told me when she was teaching me to drive -- because they not only block wind, but also channel wind around them. And when there’s snow blowing around an overpass there’s also ice. So you go under the overpass, get a break from the wind for a second, fly out the other side and get hit by the wind again ... while you’re driving over a patch of ice. And then your car skids out of control.

Not, like, a great feeling at 75 miles per hour. Suddenly everything is happening all at once. I tap the break, turn against the skid, the car skids the opposite direction, I turn against the skid, the car skids the opposite direction, I turn against the skid again and the car skids back again -- toward the ditch. We’re skidding toward the ditch and I kind of look over at my mom and think, “Mom is being super calm about this, that’s nice. I hope we don’t go into the ditch at fifty miles per hour or whatever and flip the car. That would really ruin Christmas.” And while I’m thinking this I notice the fresh snow on the shoulder of the road, and I think, “That snow will probably give us some traction. Do I try to straighten this out and drive into the ditch? Or maybe try to stop entirely.” Anyway, as soon as we hit that snow I turn into the skid one last time and the traction we gain on the snow helps us stop. I remember feeling like a pretty cool guy later on when I was explaining what happened to my uncles.

The point is, it felt like minutes -- and not just a few moments -- passing as we were careening toward the ditch. My entire being, focus, and desire were dedicated to one thing -- stopping us from landing in that ditch. Time stretched out in those moments. Time lengthened.

This is a rare thing. Not just for time to seem to lengthen, but to focus your entire being on one task. To feel utterly clear about your intentions, interactions, and attention. And I think the desert is a perfect image for getting real with ourselves and seeing where our focus really lies. Stark. Bare. Clean.

Narratives

Everything in today’s reading is happening all at once too. “Just then,” beings our passage. The chapter begins with “at that very time.” Right now. This moment. We’re following Jesus at a frenetic pace.

He’s making his way toward Jerusalem and he’s being bombarded by questions, requests, people, crowds, challenges. You can feel the tension. One thing happens after another, and to us, as outsiders, time itself seems to be compressing around Jesus. Actually time is so compressed that Luke jumps ahead at this point so that Jesus can talk about Jerusalem a little bit, and the way this story is going to end.

Jesus knows that the seat of power in Jerusalem is predisposed to reject his ministry. Jesus looked ahead in the desert. Quietly, he took stock of his life. He was tempted to take a short path, but he chose a longer one. The one he is on now. Jesus knows that Jerusalem refuses to listen to messengers who proclaim the justice and the reign of God. The city and its rulers refuse to hear the message of Jubilee that Jessie talked about just a few weeks ago. In this scene from Luke, Jerusalem is occupied territory -- occupied by kingdoms and economies that are antithetical to God’s grace. And as an occupied territory, it has and will continue to kill the prophets that call it back to its true, beloved, grace filled identity.

We are called, aren’t we, to a similar grace filled identity? Are we in a position to hear Jesus’ message about it? Do we have time for it?

In the desert Jesus rejects the temptation to complete his work all at once. Rejecting this temptation, he saw what was before him and chose the longer path. Jesus stands in a place where time has lengthened. Einstein knew this, that time is relative. That depending on your position, your stance, your outlook, that time might seem to go quicker or slower. No, I’m sorry. Time might actually go more quickly or slowly. And your position, stance, and outlook also has a great deal to do with the way you see the world, your priorities and God’s priorities for your life.

In today’s reading, Jesus rejects the temptation to fly toward Jerusalem at the Pharisees’ urging. He rejects also the notion that he ought to demonstrate himself before the corporate power of Herod, a representative of Rome, as if that would somehow hasten the culmination of his ministry. Christ rejects the story the world seeks to tell in order to live out his own story, his single minded obedience to grace, to God, his neighbor, and himself. This is the story of Lent and Easter. Of lengthening time toward the divine command to love God, and our neighbor as ourself.

The story the world bombards us with grasps at power, and dominance, and shortcuts to so-called success. It prioritizes these things so that we might dedicate our whole selves to them. With no time for our neighbor, we are compressed in time and space with people who look like us, believe like us, live like us. We’re divided from our neighbor and God by money, power, imaginary borders, and a story that constantly tells us we lack time for the neighbor. But Christ seeks to redeem us from our obedience to this narrative and to deliver us to a narrative of his own.

When we find ourselves driven by a single purpose we may find time lengthening before us. That purpose is love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love for the beloved and for the enemy. Love through service and love through sacrifice. Love with faith that we may try and fail to do good and that we may try again when we fail.

This Lent, you may give up chocolate or meat, swearing or soda. You may take up a practice of prayer or service, exercise or rest. But whatever you do or don’t do let it be informed by Christ’s story of compassion, mercy, and sacrifice. This Lent, make time in the noise and distraction of the dominate story to remember the single command to which we are called -- to live in grace, and to love God, the self, and the neighbor. By focusing yourself upon this task alone may time lengthen for you and may you lengthen toward the divine. However you choose to observe Lent, may it be in a practice of lengthening time for the story of Christ in your life and in our world.

Amen.