upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Prayer for Easter 4A

Holy are you and blessed is your name, Creator of heaven and earth. You have blessed the world with abundant life. You bring life out of death. You shepherd your wayward people and call us home. We praise and give thanks to you. As we worship this day, remind us that all we have comes from you. Instill in us a deep and honest desire to live in communion with one another and with all of your creation. And fill us with your Holy Spirit, that we might go into the world one body bound by one gospel and serving the one God. We pray in the name of Jesus the risen Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

"Of Gods and Men" Movie Review

"Of Gods and Men" is a movie loosely based on the book "The Monks of Tibhirine," which tells the true story of eight French Cistercian Trappist monks who were kidnapped in Algeria in 1996. Six of them were killed in mysterious circumstances.

Living in harmony with the surrounding Muslim community, the monks face a difficult decision whether to leave or stay when violence is brought to their region by a fundamentalist group.

"Of Gods and Men" is a poignant tale about the power of faith, its limits, humanity, power, violence, and corruption told primarily through the images and sounds of liturgy and rhythm. As the story moves through these rhythms of monastic and communal life, violence comes closer and closer to the brothers and their village. Throughout Algeria, gruesome acts of violence spread, including beheadings and massacres. Stories of violence elsewhere are made real when the terrorists show up at the monastery door seeking help for their wounded. Once the guns cross the threshold of the monastery, violence never truly leaves. Life shared in harmony with neighbors and in community is disrupted by both the military, which seeks to maintain its power, and the terrorists, which seek to gain power. Life shared with neighbors begins to be overtaken by conversation about violence, by acts of violence on family members, and by intimidation of villagers in the monastery's medical clinic. Within the monastic community, peace and harmony are disrupted as well. In deciding whether to leave the village to fend for itself or whether to stay and risk death, each brother embarks upon a journey of self discovery about the role of faith, sacrifice, commitment, peace, and love. A community built upon an ethic of peace must decide whether peace might entail a violent end for the brothers' own lives.

A complicated political backdrop of colonization and Muslim-Christian relationships frame the movie, but it moves quickly from the political to the human, which is what gives this movie its emotional and spiritual power. It is not concerned with making a political point; it is concerned with plumbing the depths of humanity.

How strong is faith? What does it mean to be a neighbor? When is suffering efficacious? Necessary? What does it mean to be human? What is peace? And, how far should one go to bear compassion in the world?

These are the questions this film poses. These are important questions for all of us to ask.

A slow and deliberate film, "Of Gods and Men" is the most faithful representation of contemplative life and what I would call "real faith" that I have seen on the big screen. Whether it's the faith of the villagers or of the brothers, the film shows the power of faith to hold communities together and how the depths of faith can terrify. I highly recommend this movie. It is beautiful and tragic and deeply moving. From the muezzins at the mosque to the chanting and singing of the monks, the sounds of this movie will stay with you.

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Easter - Year A

Blessed Christ, like those on the road to Emmaus, we often do not recognize you in the journey of our lives. Open our eyes to you embodied before us. Help us to taste you in the bread we eat and in the cup from which we drink. As we walk through this world, assure us that you meet us in unexpected places, listening to our stories and offering us bread for nourishment. Open to us your wisdom, as you did to our ancestors long ago, that we might be a people of peace and grace, an example of your Resurrection in a hurting and wounded world. We pray in your holy name, Blessed Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Passionate about a Project: Living Sabbath

For the past few years, I have been obsessed with the idea of Sabbath. It is a foreign concept to most Christians, although it shouldn't be. In Luke, in Jesus' first public act, he takes a scroll from Isaiah and proclaims the "Year of the Lord," otherwise known as the "Jubilee" or the "Sabbath Year." Christians are missing a great deal of our religious underpinnings by not knowing more of the principles of Sabbath and by not practicing Sabbath-keeping as a core part of our religious observance. And so, I began to search far and wide for resources that would introduce my congregation to Sabbath as well as to other spiritual practices that tie liturgy with life in the larger world - resources that would initiate people into rhythms of life that embody what following Christ really means in the everyday world. What did I find? Not much.

There have been inroads made in recent years, primarily through the new monastic movement and its leaders/communities, by Paraclete Press, and by a few very cool folks and organizations (Sojourners, etc) to drag the Christian narrative back to life in ways that challenge economics, our ideas of neighborliness, and our commitment to peace. I am very grateful for these offerings. Yet, I believed that I had a dream for something that wasn't being done. Why, I finally wondered, was I waiting for someone else to do it? Thus began my journey.

This has led to a two point ministry obsession: Create a Christian community based on the principle of Sabbath and create actual space that lives out the Sabbath principle.

What is this?

Sabbath, contrary to most Christians' understanding, is not a day off from work that Jews take each week (although observant Jews don't work on Sabbath). Sabbath is a measure of justice in the Bible that is known through a weekly observance of the cessation of work, observances of rest for the land, and periodic return of hereditary land and forgiveness of debts. It is a holistic approach to community building that holds at its core the centrality of God's generative and redeeming power. Sabbath is the most frequently invoked idea in the Old Testament, and as I said above, it is the central ethic in the witness and ministry of Jesus Christ. In the two renditions of the Ten Commandments, there are two different but complementary reasons for keeping Sabbath: 1) Rest on the seventh day because God rested from creating on that day, and 2) Rest on the seventh day to remember that God brought you out of the land of Egypt (that is, remember that you are no longer a slave and your lives should be lived in freedom not enslaved to labor or any other false idol). At its most basic, the weekly observance of Sabbath has two commandments - be joyful and don't work. Sabbath years enhance and intensify to weekly Sabbath.

A community that holds these ideals before them would be a powerful and alternative witness in our world. Of course, these are core values within the Jewish tradition, but they would look and feel different within a Christian community. Traditional monastic communities highly value these principles. And, emerging from new monastic communities are fresh ways of approaching Sabbath. However, I found that before I could invite people into community based on Sabbath, I had to educate them.

I began what has been a year and a half project to create a video curriculum to introduce people to Sabbath-keeping. It has been a rich time filled with wonderful conversations with Dorothy Bass, Amy-Jill Levine, Brian McLaren, Jack Sasson, Walter Brueggemann, Ellen Davis, Norman Wirzba, Majora Carter, Ched Myers, Phyllis Tickle, Douglas Meeks, Lauren Winner, and I have two upcoming interviews with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Bill McKibben (if timing can be worked out). It is a seven part series with videos about 20 minutes each. I will begin focus groups in July. Currently, this series is attached to my dissertation, but I hope to find a distributer so that people in congregations can have access to these fantastic people and what they say about Sabbath. If you are in the greater Seattle area and would like to be part of the focus groups, please let me know.

The second part of this project is to take a motel along Seattle's Aurora Avenue, an area known for prostitution and drug trafficking, and turn it from a place of exploitation to a place of Resurrection and Sabbath. I dream of having one of the many abandoned lots along Aurora turned into an organic garden and bird sanctuary. This is putting flesh on the Sabbath principle. Sabbath is not an idea; it is a lived reality in which no one has too much and no one has too little. It is known communally by care for one another. It is the reality of living in God's presence.

If you know a commercial realtor, an artist, a gardener, a person gifted in prayer, an architect, a construction worker or carpenter, or people who might be interested in this, please let me know. I am trying to pull together a group of people who can transform this obsession turned dream into reality right along Aurora and in the abandoned places of cities near Seattle.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Journey into the Heart of God...One Breath at a Time

With every breath we have a choice. With every breath I have a choice. Breathe in. Breathe out. With each breath something enters and something leaves. It is part of my life quest to learn to breathe in God's breath and to expel everything else. Since all of creation is born of God and since God loves, embraces, and infuses all of creation, one might think breathing God would not be a difficult thing to do. What a silly assumption that would be.

In the first steps of faithful living we invite God into our lives. We seek to put God at the center of our lives. But a deeper faith challenges us to live in God, for us to move more deeply into God. This is a never-ending journey. We can always move further into God. In a deeply faithful life, there are no such things as laurels upon which to rest or pride on which to rely or even a separate self to preserve. The mystic, the contemplative, the lover of God learns how to die to self in order to fully become self, to be emptied in order to be filled, to die in order to be raised. This is the paradox of faith. Such a life requires measured, meaningful, thoughtful, and intentional breath. In it, there is no room for anything other than God because there is nothing other than God - at least nothing real. God is the ultimate reality.

To live in such a way demands that we relinquish certain holds the world has on us. Yet, I admit that many of those holds are hard to break. They are like lint that won't shake off, like that piece of toilet paper trailing from the bottom of the shoe, like a piece of spinach that just won't dislodge from between those two teeth! From our early years, we are taught that the strong survive and thrive, that competition bears the best fruit, that comfort, money, and success (to one degree or another) are the standards of a life well lived. That, of course, doesn't mean that all of us strive to be millionaires or that we are all driven by unchecked greed or that we don't love neighbor. But, for the person who seeks to move ever more deeply into the heart of God, even the weakest forms of these self-seeking tendencies need to be faced and relinquished. That is my struggle. Sometimes I would prefer to play a video game than quiet my heart and sit in communion with God. I sometimes prefer to be distracted by a movie than experience silence. Sometimes I just don't want to breathe in God. I'd rather not think about my breathing at all. Sometimes.

The hardest part of seeking to live inside of God's own heart - at least for me - is to love as God loves. Wastefully. Fully. When I feel that I've failed, it's when I've not been able to fully love. Judgment, anger, impatience. These three form the triumvirate challenge of my spiritual life. Impatience and judgment run a close race for leader of the pack. When I leave work thinking badly about the day, usually I know that I did not fully surrender to God - that I did not listen deeply enough because I was distracted, that I did not spend enough time with someone because I was impatient, that I did not allow a process to emerge in its own way because I was so certain of how it should be. When these things happen, I have been an obstacle to God rather than God's faithful servant. And, I am reminded how important that silence I resist really is and how important breathing in God's breath really is. When the day ends in joy, I can look back and name the moments when God used me - this broken vessel - in a way that helped another person. There was real humanity in that day, whether in tears or laughter or honest sharing. That's a holy and wonderful day.

We live in a world of pain, hurt, fear, despair, war, environmental crisis, violence, and isolation. We live busy lives that are full of appointments, children, pets, houses, gardens, friends, work, sports, events, volunteerism, passions, and laughter. All around us and from within us there are voices competing to express themselves and to be heard. But, for us to be attentive to them - really attentive - we must also take breaks from them so that we might move further into God. Otherwise, the world and its cacophony threaten to overwhelm us.

Tonight when I breathe in, I choose to breathe in God's holy breath, the breath which Jesus breathed into his disciples when he said, "Peace be with you." I choose to breathe out that room I didn't get cleaned, the tasks I didn't complete, and the impatience that pulls me out of the 'now'. Tonight when I breathe in, I pray "Christ have mercy." I breathe out everything else.

Saint Catherine of Siena said, "We must live in simplicity, with neither pretensions nor mannerism nor servile fear. We must walk in the light of a living faith that shines in more than mere words- and always so, in adversity as well as in prosperity, in times of persecution as well as in times of consolation" (Letter to Blessed Raymond of Capua).

She also said,
"Eternal Trinity, you are a deep ocean, in which the more I seek, the more I find; and the more I find, the more I seek. You satisfy my soul, yet leave it hungry, for in your depths my satisfied soul desires you still more and yearns to see you, the Light, in your own light.

I tasted and in my mind's eye, with the aid of your light, I saw the abyss of yourself, eternal Trinity, and the beauty of your creation. Therefore, clothing myself in you, I saw myself as your image, filled with your power, Eternal Father, and with the wisdom which is your Son, Your Holy Spirit gave me a will that I might love" (Dialogue on Divine Providence).
Thank you, St. Catherine, for your prayer. I'll just breathe it in, too!

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