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The Spiritual Practice of Boredom

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OK, so I don’t think you’ll find anything written by Thomas Merton or Richard Foster; but in support of spiritual practices being relevant to cultural context, I think we might need to consider the spiritual discipline of boredom.

I remember being bored as a child… but I’d be super curious to hear from anyone under 35 to see if they remember being bored as a child.  I was raised back east and have spent most of my adult years in the Midwest.  Both regions have now given boredom the status of sin, I think.  Long, long ago – when I was around eight years old – most businesses in my city of origin were closed on Sundays.  After church we’d go home and eat lunch and then it would seem as if the afternoon stretched on into infinity.  There was nothing to do.  Sometimes I played with a neighborhood friend.  But, if she wasn’t around or available, I would have to figure out a way to entertain myself.  And so, I got pretty good at playing jacks, I was awesome at walking up stairs on stilts (a trick I was careful to keep hidden from my mother).  And I “cooked” strange and exotic dishes by mixing all kinds of curious substances found in nature.  (Don’t worry; I never actually ate any of them; but the textures they created were fascinating.)

Today, for the most part, children don’t need to worry about boredom.  We keep them as busy as we keep ourselves.  The only downtime it seems they get are hours spent in cars, vans or buses en route to contests, games, tournaments, etc.

I read an article a few years back about the brain and multi-tasking.  Ironically, the skills we need to multi-task can only be developed during times of intense focus.  In other words, to effectively speed up, we have to have purposeful times of slowing down.  I think we religious folk call that Sabbath.  Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying we need to go back to those days when all the businesses were closed on Sundays… which, if you’re Jewish or Muslim would be pretty annoying I imagine.  But it seems we ought to be able to grant ourselves – and our children – some down time without necessarily legislating it.  I still find that I do my best creative thinking on “days off.”

I wonder about our future as a culture.  We’ve programmed our children to avoid boredom at all costs.  I think it’s “threat level” is right up there with ISIS and Ebola.  If we had images of the brains of eight year old’s from the past four decades, I wonder if we could see differences over time as we’ve gradually cultivated a culture that avoids, even sabotages any potential down time.

Jews and Christians share that epic story of Elijah on Mt. Horeb; that story in which God speaks not through the fire, wind or earthquake, but in the silence.  Hmm… We could find a lot to ruminate over in that story.  But time is a wasting and I’d better get back to work.

What’s for Lunch?

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I love to eat! If you know me, this is no big surprise. I facilitate spiritual formation with a group of seminary students. Last Sunday evening we all met for dinner. We closed out the restaurant. It was a wonderful time to eat and laugh and share our lives with one another.
In any culture and in any time, food and fellowship seem to always go together. Relationships are built around meals. I don’t know of any culture that doesn’t celebrate a wedding by following it up with a meal. From the time I was a child, I can remember my maternal grandmother’s family having annual family reunions. The food was amazing and there was always plenty of it. When Britt and I were in seminary, our choice between beginning our ministry in Ohio or Pennsylvania was partly influenced by one District Superintendent who took us to dinner. I don’t even remember his name anymore. But what I do remember is that, when our class scheduled prevented us from attending dinner with the rest of the group, he chose to remain in Dayton for an extra day for the sole purpose of taking Britt and I out to dinner. I remember him saying that he did not want to miss an opportunity to break bread with us.
When I lived in Gary, the local synagogue celebrated a community Seder every year. I always looked forward to that meal. There was the Rabbi and Temple members, of course. But there were also pastors, imams, local business owners, local community leaders, your friends and your neighbors; racial and ethnic variety. It was true and authentic diversity.
I imagine we don’t do enough eating together anymore. An interesting survey I saw a while back indicated that Christian families are less likely to eat dinner together than non church goers. That’s kind of discouraging. It’s tough to be angry with someone while you’re eating a good meal together. The world might be a little kinder, a little gentler, if we took more time to eat with one another.
During Lent this year at Trinity, I’m doing a sermon and study series called Table Talk. Along with sermons and online devotions, we’re going to gather for lunch right after church every Sunday. It’ll be soup and bread; simple, but warm comfort food. We’re going to look at stories from the bible, talk about them, and get to know one another a little better. I’m looking forward to it. If anyone out there is interested, come by and join us for lunch at 404 North 6th Street in Lafayette.

Who you are

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Who tells you who you are?
As an adult, I enjoy running and am passionate about exercise. As a teen I should have probably been on the track team… but I wasn’t. I wasn’t because I let other people define who I was. I was very short (OK, I still am) and thin and didn’t look like an athlete so, as far back as I can remember, I was discouraged from participating in sports. (If my family had lived near a gymnastics studio this whole story might have taken a different turn.) I remember the first person who shattered that image for me. I was at a church camp and a group of volunteer counselors were being shown the ropes course. The camp director invited me to try it out and commented that I looked like a good athlete. What? A possibility I’d never considered before. Now, I’m not deluding myself. At my height, I would have never been Olympic track material. But, I imagine I could have done fine on my high school track team. Fortunately, I don’t think my absence from youthful sporting events was significant enough to have changed my life.
So, who tells you who you are? How have you allowed others to define you? I’ve met people whose lives are a sorrowful litany of “coulda, shoulda, woulda”s. Dreams and passions they never pursued because it didn’t fit with how others had defined them. It didn’t fit the expectation of others. You need look no further than the popularity of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” to realize how many people have been suppressed and oppressed by allowing others to define them.
We do it to ourselves and we do it to others.
I remember a church that had a single mother with three teenage sons. The oldest had gotten himself into a lot of trouble; big, serious trouble. And I remember church folk talking about the younger two boys. They assumed their fate would be the same. “That’s just the way things go,” they said… And they did.
In the church, when we baptize people, they are defined in a very particular way: as God’s beloved sons and daughters. That seems to me to be about the best – and most liberating – label we could ever put on someone.
Who tells you who you are? God does. And as Henri Nouwen says, “in God’s eyes… all we are is pure gift.”

Mars Hill and Calvary Hill

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Just recently we’ve read of the collapse of the Mars Hill network of congregations out west. I never really paid that much attention to Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll… although I did once purchase a book on small groups that was written by a Mars Hill staff member.
What I find puzzling in this whole thing is that – at least as I’ve been able to gather by online news articles – his careless speech and domineering leadership are nothing new. They’ve been going on for years. But, it seems that someone blew the whistle via social media… no big surprise there. We’re reminded over and over in our modern culture that what enters cyberspace never leaves and will come back to bite you in time.
But back to what puzzles me… Why didn’t anyone object years ago? I worry that we have entered an age when we no longer evaluate and think for ourselves. By that I mean that someone could behave outrageously but, until someone somewhere posts it and names it as being unacceptable (according to the standards of the one who’s posted it, I assume), we just all go on our merry way as if life is fine. Whatever happened to people evaluating for themselves what is unacceptable or immoral according to the standards by which we, supposedly, live? In my case as a Christian, the standards of scripture and my theological tradition.
That’s what puzzles me. But here’s what concerns me. In this age of social media that never forgets, what impact does this situation have on our understanding of things like forgiveness, repentance, redemption? Now, don’t get me wrong, I have always contended that “forgive and forget” is not always applicable… for example, if a battered wife “forgets” wouldn’t she just return to the relationship or risk another abusive relationship? Sometimes it’s important to remember. But, apparently social media neither forgets nor forgives. The entirety of our Christian faith is founded on forgiveness. That’s what it means to be justified by grace through faith in Christ. If we don’t have that, we’ve got nothing. I don’t know Mark Driscoll so I have no idea if his recent apologies are sincere or not and I have no idea if he will ever attempt to enter ministry again… or if he should even try. But here’s what I do know: if he does try again, it will all still be out there and it will come back to bite him once again.

Sorrow

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The suicide of Robin Williams comes on the heels of my return to urban ministry… a context that heightens awareness of and exposure to those with mental illness. Or, at least those with uncontrolled and improperly-medicated mental illness.
I remember being in a meeting in a suburban church I served and having someone mention the estimate on the percentage of the population that experiences mental illness. It’s roughly 25%. Someone in the group was incredulous and remarked aloud that that number seemed excessive. I remember wondering how many of us sitting in the room at that very moment were medicated but unwilling to speak up.
In the Christian sub-culture I’m afraid we still have a long way to go in our understanding of and response to mental illness. In the Christian culture of my upbringing I recall many a conversation among friends, fellow-church members and relatives regarding suicide. The often given response was that it was an unpardonable sin, thereby implying that anyone who took their own life would be condemned to eternal damnation. (Never mind that Jesus himself states in Mark’s gospel that there is only one unpardonable sin: blaspheming the Holy Spirit.) My mom, who’d experienced severe depression following the sudden death of her father-in-law, brother-in-law and a miscarriage, was often in the room when those conversations took place. She never spoke up either… who could have blamed her. Such conversations often referenced sorrowful Old Testament characters like King Saul who, according to the Deuteronomist, was troubled by “an evil spirit from God.” For ancient persons, God (or the gods) were directly responsible for all such behaviors and attitudes. Their understanding of brain chemistry had a ways to go.
Today, thanks to modern science and medicine, we know better. But I’m not so sure we are communicating any better. I’m afraid many Christians are still made to feel that depression is incompatible with Christian faith, as if the lack of “the joy of the Lord” indicates a lack of God’s presence.
Williams’ death has caused the media to rise up with compassion and information. But media attention is swift and short-lived. It can be, and should be, the job of the Church to make sure such understanding, compassion and mercy is not a “flash in a celebrity pan” but the enduring good news of the grace of Christ.

In Honor of My Dog

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Just last weekend, we euthanized our dear Doberman of 15 years, Eirene. If I could only use one adjective to describe Eirene, I would choose the word “gentle.” In Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus pronounces a blessing on the gentle. He says, “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). I know most of our English bibles says “Blessed are the meek,” but, trust me, “gentle” is a much better translation of the Greek word.
I often joke that I wish I was more like my dogs. Although lacking in theological sophistication, they (sincere confession here) are sometimes more “Christ-like” in their behavior than their human master… (that would be me). And Eirene’s ability to remain gentle and calm under any and all circumstances (OK, squirrels were an exception) was astonishing.
Last summer, while living in Indy, the two of us were walking and stopped to visit with a neighbor and her bulldog. The neighbor’s cat began to approach Eirene. I was a little uneasy. I told the neighbor, “she’s never met a cat up close; I don’t know what she’ll do.” But Eirene stood perfectly still while the cat came to her, stretched upward and touched her nose to Eirene’s nose. Satisfied that they were adequately acquainted, the cat went on its way.
As a pastor, I am often in situations where someone new “checks me out” (OK, they never try to press their nose to mine… that would be weird and socially unacceptable) and I am rarely as relaxed as Eirene. Sometimes it is awkward, sometimes I wonder what they think of me or wonder about questions they ask me. Sometimes I am cautious and “draw back” from the conversation. But not Eirene. Throughout her life, she was relaxed in everyone’s presence and allowed everyone to introduce themselves in their own way, at their own pace and on their own terms. Now you see why I say, I try to be more like my dog.
This past week’s world events hardly paid any tribute to Eirene’s life. It has been anything but a gentle week in the world. It has been brutal and aggressive. It took confidence and trust for Eirene to stand so still when that strange unknown cat got right up in her face. Gentleness borne out of confidence and trust appear to be qualities we human creatures are severely lacking. But what a blessing it would be to our world, to God’s Kingdom, if we could put more gentleness into practice.

Deserted Place, Open Space

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In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place,
and there he prayed.                            
Mark 1.35

It was exactly one week ago that Britt and I moved out of our home in Indianapolis. We’ve spent this past week hanging out in Cincinnati and tomorrow we will leave for our new home and ministry in Lafayette.

 

I have welcomed this past week tremendously because it’s been a needed time for rest. The scripture above is one of my favorite. On a first read, it looks like it is nothing but segue material. Jesus had a rock star day of healing people in Peter’s hometown. And now, he’s moving on to the next town to do it all again. These couple of transitional verses go by so quickly, they don’t even merit their own heading in most bible translations…

 

which really isn’t all that surprising because we’ve become a culture that doesn’t pay much attention to transitions and segues and “down time.” Professionally speaking, “down time” can be judged as “wasted time;” but I’m going to assume that Jesus wasn’t in to wasting time. If you read Mark 1:36-38, you’ll discover that Jesus’ disciples go and hunt him down. (Apparently they also considered “down time” to be “wasted time.”) They tell Jesus what he needs to do next. But Jesus doesn’t give in to their pressure. He announces that they’re moving on to the next town. Jesus’ time spent in prayer defines his itinerary and his tasks.

 

This past week has been for me a time of “deserted place;” quiet, open space for me to catch my breath a little, to pray, to reflect. Cincinnati is hardly a deserted place, technically speaking. But it has served to be my own version of a “deserted place” and I don’t think my time here has been wasted.

 

Morton Kelsey writes in The Other Side of Silence: “Silence can be a mini-experience of death and resurrection. It is a temporary cessation of our doing and planning and desires… Action, planning and desiring are all suspended, entrusted to [God] in silence, while the thoughts and emotions and realities that surround them are properly prioritized.” [p. 128] I hope that, in the silence of this past week, I’ve embraced the opportunity for God to put my thoughts, my plans and my desires in proper order…

And I have given thanks to have had this deserted place and open space.