Reflection: 12-09

This month’s reflection comes at time between Christmas and New Years. Well, at least in the US. My wife made a very good point several years back about New Year’s resolutions. ‘Don’t make them’, she said. ‘The reason they never work (or hardly ever) is because we’re still in the middle of winter, the time of reflection. We need to make our resolutions in the Spring, the time of New Beginnings.’ And since then we have done just that. The book for this reflection, however, has really started my resolution juices flowing! It’s Finding Our Way Again by Brian McLaren. The subtitle is The Return of the Ancient Practices. We are going to be reading through this book in our men’s group. We were debating between this one and Richard Fosters’ book, Celebration of Discipline. We chose this one for a couple of reasons. First, it has ‘Spiritual Exercises’ – questions and reflections and prayers – at the end of each chapter. Second, the chapters are somewhat small and easy to read and prepare in the coming week. Lastly, it was cheap! We found them at a local Christian bookstore for roughly $4 each!

I have read McLaren’s stuff before and highly recommend his books. They really make one think, especially what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st century. At least that’s what they have done for me and some of my friends. And this book is no exception. The book is divided into three parts – Way, Practices, and Ancient – and is full of good things. The first chapter sets up for what follows quite well. It is something that resonated within me. McLaren was interviewing Dr Peter Senge and during the course of the interview, Dr Senge asked this question, ‘Why are books on Buddhism so popular, and not book on Christianity?’ To which McLaren, being a good interviewer, fielded the question back to Dr Senge. He answered, ‘I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief.’ McLaren, agreeing with Dr Senge, wrote, ‘[We] must rediscover our faith as a way of life, not simply as a system of belief.’ The book then sets out to introduce to the reader some suggestions on how to do just that. [As an aside, this book is the introduction to The Ancient Practices Series. I don’t know if they will follow the same format or not but I feel that they won’t given that this is generally the way McLaren writes. I’m not familiar with the other writers.] There is something going on in this book. You can feel it while you are reading. It’s an almost assumed that what is being suggested works. That is, there is this sense that if one doesn’t follow what’s suggested people will become (or, as in a lot of cases, already have become) ‘shallow’ and ‘a presence that neither you nor others will enjoy, and you and they will spend more and more time and energy trying to be anywhere else’. He then relates as to how this works out in our lives. As we become more stagnant, dormant people our bodies get fatter while our souls ‘go wispy and anorexic’. This is because we have lost our way of living. We now just zoom from one appointment to another without any depth to us. We’re like zombies; the living dead. I think this is true of so many people within the church today. We are so careful to make sure we believe the ‘right’ stuff – trinity, resurrection, etc. – that we have lost our way of living those things. We have lost our way of living. Christianity is no longer ‘the Way’ but just a series of dogmas that one must believe. ‘Spiritual practices’, McLaren states, ‘are pretty earthy, and they’re not strictly about spirituality as it is often defined; they’re about humanity. Which brings us to the second reason they’re important – aliveness’. McLaren contends that by doing spiritual practices one becomes alive and the more one does them the more one becomes more alive.

McLaren breaks down the spiritual practices as: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving. For this reflection, I want to focus on just a few of these. I’ll start with fixed-hour prayer.

As I have stated previously, prayer is one of those things that I feel so inadequate about. I feel like everyone does it ‘better’ than I (but, really, whose keeping a score card other than me?). But what I have noticed about liturgical practices is that I am changing very slowly. Too slowly for my taste! I would much rather have all of this stuff ‘down’ as the saying goes. I feel that I have been a follower of Christ for such a long time now that this stuff should be old hat. But, it’s not. Not by a long shot. But I have taken great encouragement and comfort from the Morning Office. So much so that I have extended an invitation to all of the parishioners at St John’s to join me in the Cloister Chapel. So far, I have only had a few people join me – and only one consistently. Furthermore, one of the men that just started coming to our men’s group (who could possibly be a very good candidate for an anamchara) is going to be joining me for doing the daily office. We have decided to do the morning, afternoon, evening, and Compline offices. I have even suggested to him that we have set times so that we can know that we are doing them together even though we will be separated for most of the offices.

On a personal level, the comfort I receive from the Morning Office is almost beyond words. It is a great comfort knowing that my voice is joining in the long history – past, present, and future history – of the faith in saying these prayers. There is this great sense of connectedness, of being part of something much greater than I am and being able to recognize that. Of course, the same could be said for a lot of different things but this has a deeper impact for me. In the same way that I am part of a community of IT (Information Technology) professionals who are wanting to make that community the normative way of doing, of being, IT pros, the Morning Office connects me to an ancient / future community. There is great comfort and strength in that knowledge. Before I started doing liturgy in any real sense, I thought of those who did like the people Jesus warned about in the Gospels – the ones who just say the same repetitious prayer over and over again. I believed that they didn’t (and moreover couldn’t) have any depth or meaning. I now cherish them. They have become deep for me. They are also a good gauge as well. If I feel that I’m just saying words without meaning them, then I know it is I who have to re-center. It is I who have gone off track somewhere. It let’s me know right-quick and in a hurry that I need to look deep into myself once more. To take that inventory that McLaren refers to at one point in his book. I may need to face some thing(s) that need attention; that need to be dealt with. In other words, those ancient (or not so ancient) prayers should make me feel connected with others of the household of faith. If I don’t feel that connection, the problem is with me – not the prayers.

Although the Daily Office has made a huge impact on my life, I still don’t practice it like I should. Oh, I try all the time to incorporate Midday and Evening and Compline, but I fail. Miserably. I am so weak. I feel the impact of Jesus’ words so clearly, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. Indeed.

Another discipline that I am really struggling with – and one that I think is a major source of good – is fasting. I have fasted before but never for very long. And I am terrible at it too! But I think that there is considerable strength in recognizing my weakness. I make a good start at it – but around lunch time, I usually cave in for a bag of chips or candy bar. I have tried marking Wednesday as my day to fast. That actually went very well. For a few weeks, even. But then I ‘fell off the wagon’ and ate lunch. And then, I reasoned, since I failed there I might as well eat dinner too! And while I am really yearning to go back to a Wednesday fast, I am keen on the idea I got from reading about a Celtic saint (Columbanus I think). It was part of his rule that the monks at the monastery only eat once a day, in the evening, and it would only consist of a serving of portage or vegetables or beans or bread with some water. While this is a major undertaking, and I don’t plan on making it a forever type of thing, I am wanting to do it for Lent. Please keep me in your prayers regarding this.

And speaking of Lent, the last discipline that I want to write about it that of the sacred seasons. I am really very new to this whole Church Calendar thing and I don’t really know a lot about it. In fact, I wonder why it doesn’t revolve around our American calendar. That is, the new ‘year’ starts with Advent. So why didn’t the Church leadership change when it starts to go along with societies yearly calendar? I mean, they were changing a lot of other things at the time. Why not that too?

Anyway, the idea of the sacred seasons have slowly been making an impact on me as well. However, I get confused about this discipline and I will need to do some more ‘work’ on it. As it stands now, I have to rely on my LC prayer book (and others) to help me keep track on all of the colors, feasts days, saints, etc. Plus, to top that off, the saints depend on who you’re studying. I just got a great book for Christmas from a co-worker titled Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Sellner. It’s such a fun and educational read!

I have a confession to make here. This was an extremely difficult reflection. Not because of the content but because my mind has been elsewhere of late. I am really wrestling with something that you, Fr Andy, said once in one of our chats. We were discussing universalism and I was stating that I had a hard time with it given the fact that people may choose not to be with God. And you stated that you believed that the love of God would prevail. That it was the greatest, most powerful thing ever. If I may paraphrase, ‘If someone rejects the Love of God, that would mean that they were more powerful than that Love. I can’t believe that.’ Lately, that statement has been coming up more and more in my thinking. McLaren hints at it in his book and I think that is why I have been thinking of it so much. I have then been following a blog that is doing a study of a book about Christian Universalism titled The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. I went and looked at the book at Amazon and ordered it. It shipped today (31 December). While reading the reviews of that book, I ran across another book titled The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott. I have downloaded some of the free chapter’s he has on his website and may purchase that book as well. I’m sorry to have strayed from the required reading. If I need to, I’ll go back to the list. If not, next month’s reflection will be on this idea of God’s Love being the greatest thing in all of creation.

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