True and False Fasting

My inspiration for this Lent’s spiritual practice came from Twitter. There, among the streams of the sublime and the ridiculous, came this challenge from Lynne Hybels:

“Years ago a friend said that if I read Isaiah 58 for 30 days in a row, it would turn my life upside-down. I did. She was right. Try it.”

This seemed particularly appropriate for Lent, a time devoted to self-examination, penitence and fasting. Lenten fasting isn’t only about fasting from food, although that can be an important discipline. Fasting can be any intentional abstinence — from television, from gossiping, from social media. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Fasting reveals what controls us.” I have certainly found this to be true. It is not until you try to do without something that you realize the hold it has on you and what deeper needs it masks. I never thought of myself as particularly tethered to my phone until I decided to abstain from electronic communication on the Sabbath. Talk about Fear of Missing Out!

But fasting isn’t only about what we give up; it is about what we can gain. Throughout Scripture, fasting is a way to draw near to God, to hear his voice, to know his will. Isaiah 58 will be my perfect companion this Lent. It challenges me to see the kind of fasting God honors. It shows me the true path to God’s blessing. It brings me to the headwaters of holiness.

I’m going to read Isaiah 58 every day this Lent and see where it leads me. Will you join me?

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Saints in the Shadows

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In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

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Uphill, Both Ways

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A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of this little village. And now, I’m staring into the indifferent eyes of a cow, so exhausted (and perhaps a little delirious) that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just sit down and stay here forever. I could learn how to make delicious cheese from my new friend’s milk, although by the look she’s giving me, we clearly need to know each other better before that will happen. I could live a simple life that wouldn’t require me to walk one more step up and down these never-ending hills. Perhaps I could open up an inn to welcome the thousands of people, like me, who trek past these cow pastures in the beautiful green hills of Galicia in Spain, looking for God.

I am a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient path that has been trod by everyone from 12th century monks to social media millenials. For at least a thousand years, people have walked here, doing penance, seeking healing, hoping that every step will lead them to an encounter with the divine.

I am an unlikely pilgrim on this 80-mile trek. I am not a “Let’s go hiking!” kind of gal. I exercise juuuust enough to keep heart disease and general decrepitude at bay. My idea of a day in nature involves a cool drink, a good book and a nap in the shade. But after months of training, here I am, picking my way carefully up and down rocky slopes, dodging cow patties, skidding through slimy mudslides and peeing in the woods. Why?

I am here precisely because it is difficult, uncomfortable and simply something I would never do. I am here in the spirit of Romans 12:1:

“…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I serve God with my gifts and talents, but rarely in a sacrificial way. I give out of my abundance — of skill, of resources, of time — but always within my very comfortable comfort zone. I had always understood that verse from Romans to mean my whole life should be presented as a sacrifice. But I had come to wonder: what would it look like if I presented my actual body, the body that hates unnecessary exertion, inconvenience and discomfort, as a sacrifice to the God I claimed to love?

I had a romantic notion of what My Camino would would be like. (People talk about El Camino in highly personal terms, as if each one is different). I would write and pray and take beautiful photographs. I would meet other pilgrims and have surprising and deeply satisfying encounters with God. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, I would feel a noble exhaustion, a satisfied sense of sacrifice. “See,” I would say to God, “Look what I have done for you.”

This is not exactly what happened. As I found myself struggling with pain and exhaustion, I learned a few things along The Way:
1.  It really is possible to go uphill both ways.

When I set out, I thought I was prepared, both physically and spiritually, for the challenge. I thought I had within me all that was necessary to offer this sacrifice. But the uphills aggravated an old injury, which made the downhills painful and slow. I knew this was going to be difficult, but suddenly, I feared it would be impossible.

2. Sacrifice is impossible without grace.
I thought this was something I was offering to God out of my own strength and will. But my strength failed and my will only wanted to sit down by that cow pasture and become part of the scenery. It turns out I couldn’t offer this gift to God without first receiving His gift of grace to me. I was so eager to say to God, “Look what I have done for you,” that I had forgotten that He was the one who making every step possible.

3. The smallest moment of joy will sustain you.

One day, my husband and I were walking when we heard singing in the distance. As it grew nearer, we recognized the familiar words from a hymn: “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night …” As the singers approached, we joined in, making a hauntingly beautiful sound in a cool forest glade.

There were other moments like that, when I thought I was done for, when song, or prayer, or just seeing a familiar face at the next village’s watering hole lifted me out of myself. I was refreshed, refueled, renewed.

4. Sacrifice is the means for revelation

In his classic Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster puts this way:

“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

I thought this pilgrimage was all about what I wanted to offer to God. But it turns out, He had something in mind, too. Like a sauna that sweats out the impurities in your body, sacrifice can extract spiritual toxins from your soul. In my next post, I’ll explore just what God was up to on My Camino.

 

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Resurrection Monday

On the morninDSC_0079g after a lovely Easter dinner, I faced a kitchen full of dishes, pans, serving platters and glassware to put away. I put on some music and got to work. When I was done, I was delighted that the kitchen had been restored to order. I said with great triumph (to a cat that looked singularly unimpressed), “You’d never guess that anything had happened here.”

Household order aside, this is not what you want to be saying on the day after the Resurrection. Christ wasn’t raised from the dead so we could pack him away with the good china and Easter baskets until next year. Easter is about our resurrection life, too.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says that if Lent is when we weed the garden, Easter is when we plant and nurture.

“But you don’t want simply to turn the garden back into a neat bed of blank earth. Easter is the time to sow new seeds and to plant a few cuttings. If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off if you are to flourish as a Christian … then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training things up in your life that ought to be blossoming, filling the garden with color and perfume and in due course bearing fruit.”

We are invited to participate in the new creation that came into being on Easter Sunday. In the first creation God’s words manifested in visible, tangible things — stars, oceans, plants, animals, people. The creation that took place on that first Easter was largely invisible, though no less miraculous. What was created when Jesus emerged from his garden tomb was the hope that death was not the end. What came to being was the promise that the Holy Spirit would animate and give us power to live new and different lives, just as He did for the Apostles. Where once they were fearful, now they were bold. Once they were the students, they were now the teachers. They were now the healers, forgivers and welcomers to sinners. This was their resurrection life and it can be ours, too.

It’s Resurrection Monday. The world outside my window looks the same as it did last week. The news on CNN is, lamentably, more of the same. But In the spiritual realm, everything is new. God is calling me to join Him in His new creation, to take the daffodils from my Easter dinner table and plant them in the garden. He is inviting me to live and love in this world, to create beauty and do good, knowing that there is an unseen reality where love and justice reign, and where death is never the end.

It’s Resurrection Monday.  What will you plant? 

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Right Thing, Wrong Reason

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or How I Wound up Building a Shack

 

I’ve been a writer most of my life. When I was in elementary school, I wrote in a little red diary with a gold lock and key, then graduated to spiral bound notebooks full of poetry and teenage angst. I wrote in marble composition books, in leather-bound journals and on manual typewriters whose keys would stick and tire my hands.

Eventually, I became a corporate wordsmith-for-hire and I wrote what others wanted — their message, their schedule, their purposes.  And I wrote what I wanted less and less. The thing was, at the end of a long workday, I just didn’t have any more words left in me.

Last year I decided to do what I had long dreamed of: write in my own voice. And so, three months ago, I began a construction project. I dreamed of building something beautiful, something that would use my life and my gifts to draw people closer to God. I envisioned using my words to invite people into a warm and welcoming cottage where we could sit by the fire and share the joys and challenges of following Jesus.

I tackled it like any of the other product launches I’ve worked on over the years. I took care of the infrastructure (procuring domain names, setting up the website, etc.). I devised a marketing plan. I tried to make the best product I could and deliver it regularly. I set benchmarks to measure success — Likes, followers, retweets, subscribers, comments.

I found joy in writing what is in my heart. With every post, I kept a careful eye on those “success” benchmarks. What a joy to receive praise! Every positive comment makes me giddy. Every new subscriber buoys my spirits. Every new follower makes me feel like I matter. It’s been over a year since I left my last job, a year of discernment in which I often felt uneasy and adrift. The praise and Likes and Favorites quieted that unease and gave me direction. “I have a purpose. I have value. Yes, this is who I am now.”

Wait. What?

I have always looked to external measures and rewards to tell me who I am. I was the kid who looked forward to report card day. A gold star told me I was a good girl, worthy of love and attention. To this day, when I walk into a room, I quickly get the lay of the land: Am I the thinnest woman here? the best dressed? the smartest, wittiest, most organized, the holiest? (By the way, the answer to all of these is usually “no”. Still, that’s OK. I can exhale and get on with it, just knowing where I fit in the pack. I guess in that respect, I’m temperamentally more dog than cat).

Every A, every gold star, every comparison I ever made told me
who I was and what I was worth

And I was doing it again. Without realizing it, I had gone from wanting God to use me to using God to get those gold stars that would make me feel important and worthy. I was amazed at how easily the line is crossed between doing something for God’s glory and doing it for my own. It stopped me dead in my tracks. What do I do now?

I stopped writing and started reading. A book about Ignatian spirituality, Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, and one about Islam. Most importantly, I started my “Bible in a Year” reading program, (only a few weeks late!) because I knew that my words needed to be undergirded by and subject to The Word. And that is where I read this:

If God doesn’t build the house,
the builders only build shacks.
(Psalm 127, The Message)

I wanted to build a beautiful cottage and instead was well on my way to building a shack. No cozy chairs by a warm fire, just made for conversation. No, what I and my hunger for the world’s gold stars had built was just a bare bones, barely adequate shelter.

That Psalm reminded me that God must be the architect; I am just the construction worker. I bring him what I have: my words, my heart, my fingers on the keyboard. I ask Him to remind me, as many times as necessary, of who I am in Him and what I am worth to Him. I bring my repentance when I forget. I ask Him to be my divine “blind spot warning system” that lets me know when I need to make a quick course correction. And I work to expand the audience for the message he entrusts me with, remembering that all those Likes, Follows and Favorites belong ultimately to Him.

Mother Theresa said, “I do not pray for success. I ask for faithfulness.” Amen and amen.

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