Five times a day…

I remember so clearly my first experience in the city of Istanbul — the sound of the call to prayer coming from the beautiful Blue Mosque as the day was done. Of course, my travel companion and I were sitting in a rooftop bar sipping from a glass of hot apple tea, having just arrived in the city and experiencing jet-lag beyond belief.  But each and every day, five times a day, we were drawn by that sound — a sound simultaneously foreign and comforting to us .  We laughed at the time, saying that we thought perhaps we should initiate a call to prayer from the bell tower at our church, the Calvary Baptist Church.

Maybe that was not a joke after all.  At least, this many years later, it does not seem like a joke to me, because, it turns out that fixed hour prayer is, well, a Christian thing too.

If you continue to study the history of your Christian faith and of the earthly church, eventually you will encounter (more than once) the story of the of the practice of fixed prayer. And perhaps if, like me, your faith has been nurtured in that rich vein of church traditions built upon the history  of the protestant dissent movement that was the Great Reformation, well, you might dismiss fixed prayer without consideration, you know, as something the Catholics do, in those silly and now historically irrelevant monasteries. Funny how seriously the property lust of one English king 500 years ago can continue to influence our theological understanding of worship.

But if you keep studying, maybe just maybe, that knee-jerk-learned-prejudice might just fall away. You might encounter Sr. Joan Chittister and learn more and more about the ways of St. Benedict and all that it has to say to our post modern culture. You might meet Dr. Roberta Bondi and hear first person testimony about work.5424991.1.flat,550x550,075,f.icon-of-st-benedict-and-scholasticathe importance of fixed hour prayer in the face of a life filled with gender discrimination in the academy. Or you might meet Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (the monastic order of the Episcopal Church) or Brother Emmanuel of the ecumenical community at Taize…and you cannot help but begin to question those old prejudices.

And then, you find the work of Glenn Hinson.  Glenn Hinson, church historian and to some, a Baptist heretic (being part of the split in the Southern Baptist Convention that led to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), produced an amazing book,  Baptist Spirituality: A Call for Renewed Attentiveness to God (2013) in which he recounts the Baptist journey away from the contemplative formation practices of their Puritan forbears towards a type of conversionist spirituality based in the transactional nature of 19th and 20th century American business practice. He calls for a return to our contemplative roots and a spirituality rooted in attentiveness to God in our lives and not the numbers in our pews. While he proposes no specific spiritual practice,  he too has been influenced by the teachings of St. Benedict and more directly, by the work of Thomas Merton, with whom he studied.

It was Phyllis Tickle who provided me with the final push towards the idea of fixed prayer as a possible practice. Tickle’s writing usually disrupts my theology (particularly my ecclesiology) so drastically that I find it difficult to complete whatever book of hers I am reading, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up one of the volumes in her Divine Hours series, a collection of books that contain reworked versions of the Benedictine prayer book.  You may or may not know that Ms. Tickle is walking through a very serious illness right now and doing so as the beloved public person of faith that she has been for many of us. This news caused me to thumb through my collection of her works only to pick up my copy of her Divine Offices and begin to skim through the introduction.

Skimming turned to deep reading as I encountered ideas like these…that the practice of fixed prayer comes to us not from the Catholic Church and early monasticism but from our Jewish faith ancestors and the life of the Temple now destroyed and comes to us through the pages of the Bible which we dissenters hold do dear. And the other mind blowing concept for this Protestant? FIXED PRAYER IS A FORM OF WORSHIP. How often do we think of prayer and worship as separate activities? In truth they are not. In truth there are private and public iterations of both.

And so, my friends, here I am.  Each day for a month, I have followed Ms. Tickle’s breviary, Prayers for Summertime:  A Manual for Prayer (Divine Hours).  No monastery, no habit, just me, my book, and a cup of tea.  Not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but new to me and my lived faith. I am still failing at achieving the five-times-a-day pattern each and every day, but even with my human failing of irregularity, I feel the value of the practice.  Instead of meaning less to silently recite the Gloria Patri or the Lord’s Prayer, it means more.   The prayers begin to live in your bones, not just in the words.  I guess that is the true meaning of practice.

Onward…

Having spent most of my years as a communicator of some kind, words are important to me.  If you combine that life experience with a good ten years spent in a worship community in which the song that lead into prayer during worship went like this,

Our thoughts our prayers
And we are always praying
Our thoughts our prayers
Take charge of what you are saying
Seek a higher consciousness
A state of peacefulness
And know that God is always there.
And every thought becomes a prayer.

and you have, well me — someone who over and over again examines the use of words that many people assume have a well accepted and agreed upon common meaning.  For example, I understand that the word “family,” which we use so freely in our worship gatherings as a synonym for the kind of Christian community we hope to creation, does not mean the same thing to all people — it does not, to everyone mean that safe, desirable warm place that you either have and want to share or that, if you don’t have already, you desire more than anything else on earth.  For some it is a social unit that excludes, that hurts.  Family is a word with two very different meanings.

Another such word is the word calling.  You would think that, given my nature and my passions, I would find this word wonderful.  I have heard it used with the best of intentions and the greatest of faith, but haven’t we all heard it used in other ways?  And, I ask myself, even if your intention is good and clear when you use it, does the word not imply that you have something that the person sitting next to you does not — that you are somehow special and maybe even a little “better-than”?  Has this word and its professionalization not led us to some of the deep problems in our gatherings, where those with “the degree” and “the calling” are seen as better, more spiritual, even more holy than those without?  I don’t have answers for these questions but they are things that I continue to ponder.  And they are questions that have made it impossible for me to use the word “calling” without trepidation.

Yesterday, however, my friend Adrienne gave me new language that seems to fit the journey that I am beginning today.  Generally, I would not mention a person by name without their permission, but she did use this language on Facebook and she deserves credit.  Even if it is not original, she is the one who placed it in front of me as I’m about to step off on another part of my journey. journey Adrienne referred to her own path as following “that ministry which God has laid upon my heart.”  I follow Adrienne carefully because, she, like me, is following a path that is way outside the box of church life in 2015.  Her journey gives me strength and now, for a while, language that I can live with along the way.

You see, today I am flying off to San Francisco to begin a certification process in the ministry of listening.  Listening is the critical piece needed to help our understanding of the way in which words impact people’s lives — their words and ours.  It is, to me, the path to greater peace and faith.  And it is part of the infrastructure that I need to, like Adrienne,  follow the path of ministry that God has placed on my heart.  Maybe I will make it and maybe I won’t, but this is the next step on the this path.

During this last year of recovery and struggle and finding my way, I asked for one simple thing — that a feeling of possibility and movement might return to my life, that the ability to create and dream return.  A year ago, I would not have found comfort in a phrase that used the words “laid upon my heart,” but now I can.  You see, words can be rehabilitated in a life, too.

I am here to tell you that prayers are sometimes answered.  Who knows where this step will take me or what new language I will be asked to confront and dissect, but I do believe that my ability to hear many meanings to well accepted words will be of some help over these next weeks.

 

At the turning of the year…

Here we are.  New Year’s Eve (or soon to be, when the sun sinks from the sky), the year 2014 — a year that I will gratefully kiss on the cheek as it passes into the past.  If 2013 was the year of the unimaginable and unwanted, then 2014 will bear the label of the year of recovery and transition.  Only time (and the value of hindsight on next New Year’s eve) will reveal to us the defining characteristics of the year ahead.

This December 31st, though, I find myself as I often am…organizing, cleaning, cooking, and preparing…but more than anything, missing the many years when I was part of faith community that gathered on this night and prayed and sang our way through the turning of the year.  There were the burning bowl ceremonies and the occasional full-scale musical review (many of us who have watch_night_svcgone on to even marginal performing careers are mightily grateful that YouTube did NOT exist the year we wrote and presented that unknown New Year’s Eve classic, “It’s About Time”), and always, always the letters to God, carefully and thoughtfully written then filed away by the office staff and mailed to each of us in July as a kind of “God check-in”.

I find myself so in a place of yearning for a faith gathering on this night that, if it were not for the laryngitis which at the moment keeps me silent and at home (please, yes, I know the irony of me, silent, on any night but especially this one), I would be driving to Annapolis to participate in UMC Eastport’s New Year’s Eve Interfaith Service or hopping in the car to join the Watch Night gathering at the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria.  Watch Night services find their root in the practice of John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, who offered what he called “covenant renewal services” on New Year’s eve; the watch night service became an important statement of freedom in the African-American church after the Civil War.  Chances are I will not be able to do either this year, but I am making a promise to myself — next year, at the turning of the year, this will be different.

So, instead, I offer you all these words which I will be sharing with those close to me tonight (silently, but sharing nonetheless).  May beautiful words, crafted by Rev. Nancy C. Townley, give you reason to pause and reflect as we turn the page of another year and begin again to write a new tale on the page before us.

Lord of the opening way, we bring to you this night our past, with all that has happened in our lives, our hopes and our dreams, our successes and our failures, our gains and our losses.  We bring to you our present, lives filled with exhaustion, wonder, fear, concern.  We come to you with hearts open to receive your word for us, for the future.  We want to be a part of your new heaven and earth, to serve you by serving others.  Speak to us, heal us, teach us, lead us, for we ask these things in Jesus’ Name.  AMEN.

And, if you are so guided, maybe as midnight approaches, you will join me in this prayer of confession, because if we tell the truth, we all have much to confess each and every day:

Lord, you have asked us to feed and give drink to those who hunger, to clothe those who are naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit those who are sick and imprisoned.  When we look back on this year we might be able to say we did some of these things.  We remember the enthusiasm with which we started out this waning year, ready to do your work and witness to your love.  But you  know how things got in our way.  We allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by worries and fear.  We placed comfort of self before service to others.  We took the “easy way out” whenever we could.  And you wept for us.  Now we are on the brink of the new year.  We cannot change what we did not do, but we can make a covenant with you to be your witnesses in our words, thoughts and deeds to your people so that when you say, “Have you given food and drink to those you hunger and thirst, have you clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick and imprisoned?”  We can respond with a joyful “Yes! Lord, we have done these things with joy and love!”  Forgive us what we have not done.  Inspire us to do what you would have us do.  In Jesus’ Name, we pray.  Amen.

Last, but not least, I invite you to sit for a while with the prayer that John Wesley wrote for this night, for this time of turning, for this time of renewal:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We can ask no more of ourselves, we can ask no more of God.  May each of you have a wonderful New Year’s eve and may the year turn well for you and yours.

Thanksgivings for One and All

This is the day when many of us pause to remember the blessings in our lives.  It is a day when some find that remembrance impossible, because of fear or grief or illness.  It is therefore incumbent upon those of us who feel bathed in blessing most days of our lives to stop and remember for them, to remember for those who cannot see God’s love around them through the tears.

For all my friends, and for all of those in the world who need it this day, I share this prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: IMG_3159A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals:

Lord, just as your love knows no bounds and finds endless ways to reveal itself, so help us to express a gratitude too deep for words.  Help us to learn to reveal our thanksgiving in the countless ways there are to love others, to provide for those in need, to serve where service is rare.

May the peace of the Lord go with you; wherever he may send you;
May God guide you through the wilderness:  protect you from the storm;
May God bring you home rejoicing
At the wonders you have seen;
May God bring you home rejoicing,
Once again into our doors.  Amen.

And, in the words of the Psalmist:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good
for his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 136:1).

No matter where you find yourself on this Thanksgiving day, dancing with the joy of Thanksgiving or weeping tears of despair and hopelessness, remember that you are not, you are never, ever alone.  And for this truth, I give thanks.

 

Me and Karl Barth

I am not a systematic theologian…my friends and acquaintances who love all things systematic have heard me make this proclamation over and over again.  During the course of my seminary education, my Episcopal friends did, however, open my mind and my heart to the idea that the idea of theology as a way of speaking about God was not inherently evil — although they did not succeed at convincing me that Karl Barth was indeed my friend.    As usual, it took the work of an Old Testament scholar to do that.

For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying a class at VTS about the prophetic books of the Hebrew bible, in particular, the book of Ezekiel.  To begin each class, we have been invited to pray with Karl Barth.  That’s right, there is a published book of Karl Barth’s pastoral prayers — and I like them.  Okay, I don’t agree with all the theology therein and there certainly are a couple of prayers that are, shall we say, “of their context” and not really pray-able today, in my own context. karlbart Since today is, for me personally, a very prayer-worthy day, I thought that I would share one with you.  Yes, that’s right…me, quoting Karl Barth:

Lord our God, you see and hear us.
You know us, each and every one of us, better than we know ourselves.
You love us, even though we truly have not deserved it.
You have helped us, are helping us, and will continue to help us
when again and again we are about to ruin everything by wanted to be our own help.
You are the judge, but also the Savior of all poor, confused humanity.
We thank you for that.  We praise you for that.
And we look forward on that great day to being allowed to see
what we are already allowed to believe,
if you make us free to do so.

Make us free to do so!
Give us an honest, sincere, and active faith in you and in your truth!
Give it to many people, to all people!
Give it to all nations and all governments, to the rich and to the poor,
to the healthy and the sick, to the prisoners and all those who think they are free,
to the old and the young, to the happy and the sad,
to the melancholy and the carefree!
There is no one who does not need to believe,
and there is no one to whom it has not been promised that “even I might believe.”
Say it to them and to us, that you are their gracious God and Father,
and ours as well!

This we pray to you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen

[Prayer no. 43, “Because You Are”, published in Fifty Prayers:  Karl Barth, translated by David Carl Stassen, published by the Westminster John Knox Press in 1985)