Category: Dialog

"Why are you surprised when the weak turn out to be weak?"

The reflection below came as a gift  to me in the course of my week in Minneapolis. The week’s gathering was hosted at the St. Jane House, a fabulous urban retreat center and a ministry of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis. The House takes as its motto a short quote from St Francis de Sales (1567-1622): “Be who you are, and be that well.” In conversation with Brian, who keeps the house, I expressed appreciation for de Sales. He loaned me some books for the rest of my stay, including the book in which the following appears,“Set your heart free,” freely adapted into modern English by John Kirvan and published in 1997.

Lift Up Your Heart – But Gently!

Why are you surprised

when the weak turn out to be weak,
and the frail, frail?
When you turn out to be sinful?

When you fall 
be gentle with your frail, weak heart.
Lift up your heat gently,
accept your failure
without wallowing in your weakness.
Admit your guilt in God’s sight.
Then with good heart, 
with courage and confidence in his mercy,
start over again.

It is tempting to condemn 
yourself with harsh words and even harsher feelings. 
But it does no good to lash out at yourself.
Seek instead to rebuild your soul calmly, 
reasonably, and compassionately.

Speak to your heart in understanding words: 
“Rise up my heart there’s still another time. 
Put your trust in God’s mercy, 
so that you will stand stronger in the future. 
Do not be discouraged, 
God will help and guide you.”

Pray with the Psalmist: 
“Why are you sad my soul, 
and why do you disquiet me?
 Hope in God: for I will still give praise to Him; 
the salvation of my countenance, and my God.” (185-187)


Just World Heresy

So here was my conundrum, coming into this Sunday.  The “Get behind me, Satan” story is only half of a story–the other half is Peter figuring out that Jesus is the Messiah, and to my mind, you actually need both for it to make sense.  Also, I felt like most of the national conversation had […]

Peter’s Super Power

In case you haven’t seen it elsewhere on this here Series of Tubes, I will be moving to Ithaca, New York in a few weeks to become the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. I am really excited and happy about this–St. John’s is amazing and I’m so thrilled to be able to work with […]

The Bow Is Turned Around: Freed for Conversation and Conversion

Guest post! This is the closing homily from this year’s Province V young adult retreat, for which I had the privilege of serving on the design team with an incredible group of folks. One of those folks, the Rev. Beth Scriven, preached this beautiful word at our closing Eucharist.

Spiritual ninjas.

We haven’t talked a lot about that overarching theme this weekend, but it’s been present on my mind. Early in the planning process I remember Jonathan saying something about how if you’re a ninja, you have to have more than one move, right? And that’s sort of what the life of faith calls for, and even the idea of fierce conversations – every conversation can’t be identical. You need different moves for different situations.

So as we’ve gone through this weekend, there have been a number of moments when those different ninja moves have come up for me, from Courtney’s “hiding from feedback” move to the variety of kinds of fierce conversations that Jesus has in the different scriptures we’ve read, to one of my favorite memories from when my nephew W was really little.

When he was about 18 months old, we put on some music we could sort of ignore while he played and we did the adult thing of sort of half-talking to each other and half-playing with him. Until we tried to figure out why he was suddenly turning himself in circles, around and around, and realized it was the song from the musical Cotton Patch Gospel where Jesus is teaching things like “if someone asks you for your shirt, give him your coat as well” – and the chorus playing was “Turn it around, turn it around. Surprise ‘em a little, start shifting the ground. To get right side up, turn upside down. Now is the time to turn it around.” We weren’t listening, but he was. Turn it around. Turn it around.

Yesterday in our discussion of prayer as a fierce conversation with God and last night during our wrap up session, I heard people name the ways that fierce conversations and our practicing for them felt like confession, like repentance, like turning around and, by the grace of forgiveness, starting anew. And it reminded me of little W, turning around and around – and of the God of humankind’s early years, turning around and around as well.

“Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth… I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth… When I see the bow in the clouds, I will remember the covenant I have made with all flesh on earth.”

We are so accustomed to the rainbow as a sign of God’s promise that it is easy to forget that it is so named because it is God’s bow, and the purpose of a bow is to be a weapon. But God has turned that bow away from the earth. If it were to fire now the arrow would simply fly up into the heavens. The bow set in the clouds, turned away from the earth, reminds God – reminds God! – that while a fresh start can help, God has promised not to start fresh in quite that way again.

So God finds new ways to pursue justice and mercy, righteousness and peace, new ways to start fresh without destroying all flesh. Every time God sees that the wickedness of humankind is great, and is grieved in the Divine Heart, as I have to believe God must be fairly often, God sees also the the bow has been set in the clouds. The bow has been turned around.

And from this point on, God turns largely to conversations. Through patriarchs and matriarchs, God continues to make and keep the covenant of love and relationship. Through judges and prophets, God continues to renew the covenant. Through the very Word of God becoming flesh and living and conversing among us, God renews the covenant of love.

Again and again, the bow is turned around. Again and again, we are invited, we are urged, we are tempted – just as Jesus was – to become chained to the way the world is. The world requires that you feed yourself, protect yourself, secure your own position, because you cannot help the world if you don’t play by the world’s rules.

And again and again and yet again, Jesus turns that reality around. Yes, nourishment is important, but I will find it from God. Yes, I am God’s Son, but I don’t have to prove it on your terms just because you asked for it. Yes, I love these peoples of this world God has made and loves, but real love is of God and casts out fear. Their redemption is in God and not in the power of this world.

Again and again and again, the world forges weapons and chains and terror; but again and again and again, even in the midst of God’s grief, the bow is turned away from the earth, the swords are beaten into ploughshares, the chains are broken, and justice and peace are brought together by this love so fierce and unyielding that it can afford to find and meet us where we are (and if you have not yet spent time with this window here entitled “Our Human Struggle” I encourage you not to miss this incredible visual summary of the gospel of love).

Again and again, we are changed by the conversation. Gradually, then suddenly, we are shaped by justice, by love, by compassion. We are converted, as we will hear at the Eucharist, from the patterns of this passing world, and freed to become part of how God now loves and liberates our struggling, painful world.

As that perfect love casts out our fear, we are freed to have the real conversation – one ninja move at a time. As loving conversation changes our hearts, we are brought back home to rest in love.

Again, and again, and again, God is faithful.
Again, and again, and again, we are changed.
And this is the sign of the covenant between God and all flesh: a bow that has been turned around, a broken light that has been made beautiful in its brokenness.

My prayer for each one of us as we go out from here is that we might see and remember that we too have been made beautiful in our brokenness and equipped to renew and pursue loving relationships, one fierce conversation at a time.

The Rev. Beth Scriven is in her third year at Rockwell House Episcopal Campus Ministry, a ministry of the Diocese of Missouri serving the campuses of Washington University and St. Louis University.

Remembering Baptism, Learning to Die: a homily for Ash Wednesday

I was honored and humbled to be asked to preach this year’s noonday Ash Wednesday service at Luther Memorial Church, our next door neighbor. While, wonderfully, we were joined by other sisters and brothers in Christ, the ecumenical moment was coordinated by Geneva Campus Church, St. Paul’s Catholic Church, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center, Luther Campus Ministry, and Luther Memorial, who extended characteristic warmth and hospitality. I thank God for the gift of so many genuine friendships collected by the occasion. These are the readings for the day.
Happy Valentine’s Day.

I wrote you a poem.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Remember you’re dust
And you’ll return to dust, too.

You’re welcome. I count myself as standing just now in the great, proud tradition of Anglican poets.

Today’s readings give Christians somewhat conflicting instructions for how to proceed on Ash Wednesday: the Old Testament says to sound the alarm, blow the trumpet. The gospel says to go to your room and lock the door. In a strange kind of compromise, you ended up here. Lutherans, Catholics, Christian Reformed, and even, Lord have mercy, Episcopalians. And, make no mistake, this is God’s mercy. It is a gift to be gathered together as we set out on this Lenten journey. For those of you who don’t identify with one of the four organizing faith communities today, your presence is all the more gift for that – you show us in a special way the generous heart of Christ. Jesus prayed for gatherings like this one. I thank God for you.

Today we begin the season of Lent. Here, on day one, we stand forty days, give or take, from the earliest, most ancient holy days of the Christian church: days that remember the death and resurrection of Jesus – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When we say that Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also saying that Christians are baptized into these ancient days and, therefore, into God’s time. So Lent is the season by which Christians remember our baptism and rediscover our place in God’s story.

Contrary to prevailing narratives, or at least what I was taught as a kid, Lent (or Christianity, for that matter) is not about self-improvement or becoming better people. Lent is about learning how to die. That makes the preacher’s task on a university campus difficult because many of you are students and, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are beginning to establish personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.

Your personal and professional development matters; your education is full of loving gifts from a loving God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of these gifts matter as much as, or apart from, the identity God first gives you through the waters of baptism. So Lent is not about disparaging your other vocations; it is about lifting up this first one, sometimes digging it out from the bottom of the pile or retrieving it from out of the dustbin, so that you can see all the others by its light. Lent is remembering that, no matter what else life holds, you are never less or more than the child dearly loved by the living God whose Son’s life, death, and resurrection make it possible for you to lose your life in love without fear, for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people.

Now, if (like me) you were baptized a longtime ago, you might not remember the words. But at your baptism, the Christian community invited the Holy Spirit to hover over the waters, and it was like a reenactment of the Spirit hovering over the waters back in the very beginning, the book of Genesis, at creation. It was the same, but different. This time, the Spirit and the waters announced God’s new creation. Then the water found you and a voice spoke these words over you, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And later, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And these words count more than all the awards you will ever accumulate and all of the failures you can possibly manage.

The question that drives Lent is what trusting God’s love for us and our neighbors above everything else, even our best accomplishments, goodness, and deserving, can mean. So Lent is about learning to die.

A dear friend of mine, Evelyn, spent the last of her eighty-plus years in an assisted living center. Though she would occasionally lament that the view through her window never seemed to change much, she was, on the whole, an infectiously positive woman. “I am thankful!” she would say every time I’d visit. She was thankful for her family, which included her church family, and all that her eighty-plus years on this earth had meant. More than anything, she was thankful for God. One day, though, Evelyn carried a sadness into our visit. I asked her about it. “I am thankful,” she said, “and I have had to give up so much. I am thankful for my family, but I don’t see my family as much as I’d like to. I am thankful for my memory, but I can’t remember as much as I want to.” Then she pointed to a ball of yarn and two needles. “My eyes are dim and my fingers hurt. I can’t knit. And I loved to knit.” She pointed around the room at her handiwork. It was true, knitting everywhere. “Tell me,” she said. “Why would God take that from me? I think I am ready to die; I am not afraid to die. But why would God take that from me?”

Baptism reminds us that, just as Jesus was stripped at his earthly end, we too will be stripped. Sooner or later, there will be a day when strength and memory fail, when even the assurance that we have made a difference in the world might not make a difference to us. At that moment, will we have lost our worth before God? Through the waters of baptism, the Spirit cries, “No! God forbid!” And neither have those whom you do not recognize as worthy of love lost their worth before God by our negligence and self-interest: those with dementia and mental challenges, those we exploit for personal gain in this country and across the globe, the obviously unsuccessful, the prisoner, the outcast. Stand with these and you will discover the gift of God’s love without condition, the Spirit’s breath and mercy. In this light, as it proclaims God’s love before all else, baptism is the gift of dying before your death.

So a world-renowned author went to a spiritual friend and said she was having a hard time deciding what to give up for Lent. She had no obvious vices, and was loathe to take on what she considered spiritual busywork. You know, giving up things like chocolate and sodas. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, “What if you gave up reading?”

There was likewise once a wealthy man who stood before Jesus and said that he, too, had no obvious vices. After a thoughtful silence, Jesus asked, “What if you gave up your wealth?”

I wonder, if Jesus wanted to tug this Lent on an equivalent thread of trust in your life, questioning that which you have come to rely on as a primary basis of your identity, a sign of your goodness and deserving, your love-ability, of a worth that has taken the place of your baptism, what question would Jesus ask you? Would you be willing to pull on that thread this Lent, if it could mean the emergence of a renewed trust in God?

Lent is about losing everything we thought made us the wonderful people we are until there is nothing left but God’s love for us and the call to trust God’s love and mercy to the end. Such a trust will involve turning from some actions toward new ones, because we will be given the gift of seeing how many of our actions toward each other are different ways of protecting ourselves from the need to trust God. This is one reason why you cannot do Lent by yourself, because trust of God and love of others belong to the same equation. You can measure the one by the other. Trust in God goes with generosity and vulnerability toward the outcast and stranger. So Christians learn trust together and discover that trusting God turns us into God’s gifts for each other and gives glory to God. Like Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, Lent will call us to walk with God together, because the Christian life is not about impressing God by our moral performance, being good, but by trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.

Amen.

Monday Musings: Colbert Theology for the Church

“Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Karl Barth”Don’t be afraid.” Jesus I finally found some (not even remotely close to) actual research-based backing for my heretofore mostly ignorant instinct that most churches would be well ser…

As One with Authority: A Closer Look at How Jesus Spoke

Sunday sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, and St. Francis House, at UW-Madison. Here are the appointed readings.

I’m not much for dictionary definitions, but when I asked Google, it told me that authority was “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” This matches, more or less, my free associations with the word. I think of things like the toll booth authority and TSA, please remove your belt and shoes. In the exception that proves the rule, this one time, waiting in the security line at an airport, the lead TSA agent called out, “Keep your shoes and belt on! Your government trusts you. I don’t trust you, but your government trusts you.” These aren’t the standard instructions. I suppose they were in a hurry. I was surprised, though, to discover honest to goodness tears in my eyes at the assurance of my government’s trust. Authority. The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.

I am a Texan, and Texans, of course, don’t like to have our obedience enforced. I suspect Texans are not unique in this. [As a kid, it was drilled into me that, as a former Republic, Texas had the legal right to fly its flag at the same height as the national flag.] So, near where my parents used to live, about an hour outside of Austin, the state put in this toll road that promised to greatly reduce travel times in the area. The only problem was that Texans, especially South Texans, don’t drive on toll roads. Because, authority. It’s complicated. So the state kept bumping up the speed limit, every other year or so, 5 mph at a time, to incentivize travelers and tempt them into trusting their government. Last time I checked, the limit was up to 85 miles an hour, and still no takers. The road is mostly empty. As it turns out, power of the government kind is hard to trust.

My first job was at a True Value hardware store, in high school. Authority in that context was my boss. He was kind to customers and cranky to employees, probably operating under the not unreasonable assumption that his high school workers (including me) weren’t the most thorough workers. The first time I was charged with sweeping the aisles and the floor at the end of a day, a co-worker warned me that it would not be unlike our employer to put a small pile of sand in a corner. A trap. Be thorough, he said. That’s right, the boss would make the mess worse just to keep us honest. It wasn’t a question of being comprehensive. It wasn’t a question of cleanliness. It was a question of not being caught. My boss thought we would apply ourselves better to the work if we feared him and doubted the adequacy of our abilities.

Authority.

When we are told today that Jesus talks with authority I suspect that most of us aren’t surprised. It figures. We might have predicted that “God is great” turns out to mean God is the biggest boss with the biggest hammer. Polish your shoes, brush your teeth, or cover your tracks and run for cover. Adam and Eve knew the drill. In the absence of perfection, hide. Most of us have spent a fair bit of our lives hiding from one thing or another. Because maybe we deserve what we’ve got coming. Maybe we don’t. Doesn’t much matter when you don’t have the hammer. And it’s a problem for us, that we assume God is this way because, as pastor Greg Boyd puts it, “Your love and passion for God will never outrun the beauty of your picture of God.”

How we think about God affects how we relate to God and each other in the church. When we project accusation-based authority onto God, the projection eventually falls onto us, such that we start to fear each other and loathe ourselves. For example, I’ve always loved living in close neighborhoods and, as a priest in these neighborhoods, I’ve loved running into friends and parishioners at the grocery store. Only, most of the exchanges haven’t matched the idyllic repartees I imagined in my head. A typical encounter might go something like this, “Hey! My friend, how are you doing? It’s me. Your priest in a t-shirt.” “Uh. Say, Father Jonathan, um, fancy seeing you here, um, you know I woulda liked to have been there Sunday, but I was sick, or not sick but, you know the Sunday before, my kid was, um, I mean, work is busy, and weekends, well, you know how it goes, I’ll be there this Sunday. I PROMISE.” “Um. Okay. Sounds like life’s been crazy, maybe don’t promise. See you Sunday – or not. Anyway, it’s good to see you.” “Yeah, well, I’ll maybe see you Sunday.”

We don’t trust authority. My parents always said broccoli was good for me, but I always knew they were in the pocket of Big Broccoli. Somehow. Other motivating forces had to be at work. Nobody knows me. Nobody would actually want to know me. How could anybody in this world be genuinely for me?

He spoke as one with authority.

But then, over against all this world has taught me about authority, in his book Discipleship, J. Heinrich Arnold – leader of the Bruderhof communities from 1962 to 1982 – writes this:

When we speak about the authority of leaders in the church, it should be very clear that we never mean authority over people. Jesus gave his disciples authority, but he gave them authority over spirits – not people. In the same way, those of us appointed to lead in the church are given authority, but not over people. It is all too easy to forget this. We must seek for humility again and again.

At first, that quote struck me as strange. But then, I looked again at our gospel. Sure enough, the authority has to do with casting out spirits. We 21st century folks may not know what do with authority that has to do with casting out spirits, but not knowing what to do with it is different from having permission to replace it with our own definition. What I want to notice is this: where today’s dominant authority is authority of accusation, Jesus comes with the authority of liberation. Where the authorities we’re familiar with can lock you up, Jesus’ authority promises to open up. Jesus’ authority sets the prisoner free. Which, yes, means Jesus’ authority can be an unwelcome visitor to certain other kinds of wannabe authorities. It’s like a vineyard master coming home and putting the stand-ins on notice.

It’s the tension of this story in which Jesus heals a man on the sabbath in the synagogue. He breaks a law but makes a person whole. He breaks the law but fulfills it. You could even say he heals it.

Witness four chapters after today’s story, where Jesus comes to the country of the Gerasenes. He meets a man who lives in the tombs, covered in shackles and chains. The man has broken out of the chains so many times, the pieces now cling to him like appendages. Remnants of the so-called authorities. But the new authority does not lock up, does not apply new chains to bind him up. Jesus’ authority unbinds, unlocks, raises to new life, so he casts the spirits into the pigs and they run off a cliff. And the people – watch this – the people, the same ones who had put the chains on the man, content to let him cut himself on the stones of the tombs while they traded their pigs for money, they weren’t afraid then. But now, the man put in his right mine, the local pig economy drowned, now they’re afraid. Get out, they tell Jesus. 

Because he spoke as one with authority.

The Good News is bad news if you’re a pig farmer making profits on the imprisonment of others. But if you’ve ever longed to be told that you don’t have to hide anymore, this authority is for you. If you’ve ever prayed that the dead end just might not be, that your brokenness might be only the beginning, that the delight of the One who matters is mercy, then this authority is for you. 

And, alternatively, if you’ve ever found yourself among the controlling, the conniving, or those simply not convinced that the old powers’ best days are behind them, he offers forgiveness. In addition to casting out spirits, Jesus gives authority to forgive to his disciples in the upper room: freedom to become agents of the authority that builds up the body in his very same love and opens paths of redemption and flourishing for God’s children.

Homestretch now. St. Paul is the poster child for those who have accepted the forgiveness of the new authority because they discovered full on their need of it. Today, in the epistle, he says that, where the old authority hinged on knowing the most, knowledge, the new authority rests on love. You used to be able to hold on to your position if you could prove that no one knew more than you. But Paul suggests that to be right and not in right relationship is unimportant for citizens of Christ’s kingdom because he died for us! Because, on the cross, we learn that authority is not power over so much as love poured out. Authority is not power over, is not running the show, is not having the bullhorn, but is seeking and finding opportunities to love and so to live generously toward God and each other, in thanksgiving for our Savior.

May God show us what it is to live under the authority of the One whose love for us is forever. May God give us all we need to love God and our neighbors as those set free from fear.

Amen.

Six Months Sans Smartphone: Alive and Well and Getting Better with God’s Help


It has now been about six months since I sold back my smartphone. Six months later, I no longer have phantom pains; I no longer reach for a device that isn’t there. (Not that phantom pains were unreasonable to expect: the average smartphone user checks her phone 80 times a day, or 30,000 times a year. I can’t think of anything beyond breathing to which I had been so regularly committed.) Now, it is not uncommon for me to lose track of my phone for days at a time, to have no idea where it is, so worthless is its utility.

Six months later, I have discovered growing edges and necessary next steps, like leaving the laptop at work so that I do not simply replace addiction to one device with addiction to a larger one. Rebekah and I even had a blasphemous conversation the other day about the possibility of discontinuing the internet at home, altogether. Stay tuned. As it turns out, leaving the laptop at work is also a good first step toward leaving one’s work at work. Who knew? I remember telling a colleague at lunch one day how I had unexpectedly discovered that I cared as much or more about my progress learning the guitar as I did about my community’s flourishing. It felt scandalous. My colleague kindly reminded me that, for creatures made to glorify God and enjoy God forever, the true scandal is that prioritizing lives of holy enjoyment would feel like a scandal. And then he confessed the same scandal in his life.

My friend and I are not, of course, alone. In his classic Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper reflects at length about how our world thinks about work. “In his well-known study on capitalism, Max Weber quotes the saying, that ‘one does not work to live; one lives to work,’ which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even have some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.” Sometimes I distract myself from work. Most times, I distract myself into work. From my life and the lives of those around me. In his wonderful book Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams calls such distractions from what really is the life of fantasy for which regular prayer and long silences are good medicine. 

Since selling back my smartphone, I have discovered the peace of waiting for someone who is late with folded hands and without anxiety. I am learning that I do not need to forgive myself for not trading my presence for more potential productivity – what could have been, or should have been – a hard lesson learned in a vocation in which nothing is ever finished and I imagine that I could have always done more. I am reading more books. I am writing letters to friends, with fountain pens and beautiful inks. I am discovering practices that help me grow my ability to receive the gift God, in a given moment, is giving, rather than seeking to control my environment for the gift I wish I had been given instead. I am making more room for possibilities I do not script or predict.

Where I used to go around filling my days with, well, filler, and then wondering where the time went, I now find myself with the opposite dilemma: more than enough time, such that I find it increasingly imperative to spend more time each day in God’s presence, calling to mind the values I pray will animate me: Joy, Listening, Generosity, Trust, and Prayer. 

Josef Pieper again writes that 
The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

St. Thomas Aquinas named the same struggle more simply and positively: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.”

Rhythms of prayer dispose me to receive the giftedness of life and the Christ whom my baptismal covenant would remind me is there, in each person, to be sought and served. To not know, therefore, to be open, to embrace the uncertainty, is an important part of allowing the present to be God’s gift.

I need God’s help to remember that I am ever walking in God’s sight. Prayer is good help. Hymns are helpful, too; prayers I can sing to my children and that they can sing back to me! What a gift. The rhythm of daily prayer, for me, is like the breaks that are built into the really good roller coasters. Up and down a hill, maybe two or three of them, and then the click, click, click, because it is relatively easy, all things considered, to go off the rails, get caught up in the speed of things, even to become disoriented and forget what the thing was about in the first place. So about the time I want to put it all on my back or, alternatively, pat myself on the back, click, click, click. Sit with the scripture. Click, click, click. Soak in the story. Click, click, click. Sit in the silence. Rest in the presence. Call to mind the things God has shown me about God’s love and its depths. Be surprised one more time by God at work in this world and the corresponding truth that it isn’t all up to me. Remember that Karl Barth called laughter the closest thing to the grace of God. Click, click, click. Receive all these things as gifts. Go back to the work, foolish enough to believe the work can be offered as prayer, sure of the fact I will forget how to pray, blessed by the truth that the rhythm of prayer will find me at about the time I forget where glory goes: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” Just when things threaten to go too fast, my head get too big, my heart grow too anxious, it will find me. Click, click, click. And I’ll return to the grace that it is my privilege to proclaim.

Relieved of the burden of being salvation to the world I return to, with any luck, I will have been opened again to receive the strange, unexpected gifts it is, in God’s ocean-deep love, God’s joy to give.

From my favorite hymn:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind. 
And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. 
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word 
and our lives would be thanksgiving, for the goodness of the Lord.

Selling the Smartphone and Rhythms of Prayer (A Talk for Clergy Retreat)

I was asked to briefly share the story of my selling back my smartphone, especially as the decision connected to my prayer life, at the most recent clergy retreat of the Diocese of Milwaukee. The first half of this post, after the preface, also appears here, where it was originally published. The second half of this post will also appear in a future post, as a proper stand-alone sequel to the first. This entry puts it all in one place, with the introductory preface, which I hope adds context for the talk.

I have been asked to talk about prayer. And my smartphone. Spoiler: I don’t have a smartphone. Because it was disrupting my prayer and my ability to be present to God and those around me. So where others (at this retreat) have been asked to talk about running or cycling presumably because they are good at running or cycling, I have been asked to make a public confession. It doesn’t seem fair, but here we are. And I’m glad to share my story. In fact, I’m honored to be asked. But even my confession comes with a confession, because – get this – my initial reflection on selling back my smartphone got picked up by the Slow Church blog curated by John Pattison and Christopher Smith and went as viral as pastoral confessions about mobile devices are ever likely to go. My attempt to disconnect connected, which is strange, and feels like a kind of failure. A little bit like reading Wendell Berry’s famous letter about not having a computer via twitter. Ah well.

I thought I’d start by simply sharing that first reflection, the blog post I wrote upon selling the phone. We’ll take a break, and then I’ll share the six month later update. 

But first we should pray. Because talking about rhythms of prayer isn’t the same as entering them. Let us pray.

Lord, it is fitting to rejoice in your beauty and to gaze upon your handiwork. While others may call this a waste of time, we recognize that unless we sit in adoration of you, we will forget whom we serve and for what purpose. Remind us why worship is always our first response to you. Amen.(1)

Part IWhy I Sold Back My Smartphone (& Why I Blame David Fitch), the blog post I wrote last July:

Last week, I walked into my local Verizon store and said I’d like to upgrade my phone. “Sure,” he said. “What do you have?” An iPhone 5s. “Great. And what do you want?” A basic phone, I explained. The cheapest you have. The sales guy gladly steered me toward the basic phones, but then something like this went down, when he tried to sell me a $150 basic phone:


To his credit, the sales guy subsequently backed off and happily sold me a $50 flip phone. “It’s got no wifi,” he shrugged.

Exactly.

Before I go on, a couple of notes:

1) I am not brave or courageous for selling back my iPhone. What I was was addicted to a piece of technology that suggested itself as the way to make every aspect of my life easier and more efficient, even if I – or it – didn’t know yet how it could do that. Because, you know, “there’s (always) an app for that.” Did you know there is even an app for monitoring your iPhone use, ostensibly so that you can pare said use back to reasonable levels? Yeah, that went about as well as you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the mere presence of a smartphone in a room is enough to inspire distraction. Many times, at lunch with a friend, if said friend got up to use the restroom, the phone instantly came out. Because it never really left. I was not in control.

2) I am not prescribing my action for others, and I don’t judge smartphone users. Plenty of people I know manage to use their phones without using them to fill in the cracks of spare time between everything else. I was not one of them. One day last week I woke up and imagined myself continuing to fill in the beautiful cracks of between-things spare time with a must-be-productive-in-every-moment sense of iPhone urgency, combined with the device’s lackluster record of coming through on the productivity promise, lived out over the next fifty years, and I had something like a panic attack. I had a clear sense of wanting another life for myself.

3) I am very, very aware of the insane amount of privilege involved in the decision. First, I had an iPhone to sell. Then, I developed (thank God) the audacity to resent a device many people could never afford. And I could sell it. And I could purchase some of the capabilities I’d be losing without an iPhone, like a guitar tuner, to compensate for what I’d be missing. And yet, as I have come to understand privilege, the goal is not to deny or “take off” privilege (as if one could!), but to leverage what privilege one has for others. Surely, leveraging privilege for others requires being present to others, and I believe I am better able to make that space without the phone. That said, I take seriously critiques of how I used my privilege in this discernment.

Relatedly, part of the discernment around the trade-in involved an app by app inventory for how I could change my phone habits without thoughtlessly shifting the burden of my decision to others. For example, surrendering my bank management app might have made me feel lighter at Rebekah’s expense, if I had seen selling the phone as disconnecting from all of the responsibilities I had previously invested in the phone. One of those responsibilities is to stay connected to the news of the world around me and to stay active. I fully intend to keep a social media presence. Just not at the expense of a physical presence to my physical neighbors.

4) My new phone stinks. I regret nothing, and it stinks. I won’t glamorize T9 texting. It took me five minutes the other day to confirm a lunch date with a colleague: “Okay. See you then!” Auto-replies are my friend. But I made the switch so that I would talk more and text less. To that end, it works and it’s great.

My new phone’s name is Fitch. I named it after David Fitch, whose recent book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission has come like balm to my soul at a needed time. To grossly generalize, the book introduces a) the disciplines of sacramental practice to evangelicals, on the one hand, and b) a robust theology of submission to the lordship of Jesus in sacramental/liturgical traditions like mine, on the other. Even if that characterization is not exactly right, the space of intersection Fitch explores between historically evangelical and liturgical emphases is rich and full of life.

I named the phone Fitch because I want to remember, on those days when not having Google Maps makes me late to a meeting, why I made this decision. To be faithfully present to God’s presence.

In a world crunched by antagonisms and ideologies (for which my iPhone was sometimes a homing device!), Christians – says Fitch – are called to open space, to make space, to be present to God’s presence in our midst, with one another and others, and to proclaim that “Jesus is Lord and at work renewing all things – making a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).”

Christians are called to make space. To live with. To proclaim. To be present.

Surely, selling back a smartphone doesn’t make a person present. But it’s a start. Admittedly, it’s a start I hope gets better. I’m improving, but I confess I spent my first couple of days without a smartphone instinctively reaching for its ghost. Still, it is a start, and one I hope will both a) ask more of me over time and b) prepare me to be up for the ask. I want to make space, to live with, to proclaim, to be present. All with God’s help.

I was sitting in a book group with David Fitch and Rebekah at last week’s Gathering of the Ekklesia Project. We were just about to start. Suddenly, Fitch’s smartphone went off. Startled, he turned it off and threw it down, with some visible (theatrical) disgust. “So much for presence,” he said.
Questions for reflection:

Where/when does being present come most easily to you?
Where/when is it most difficult for you to be present?
What patterns of presence do you notice in yourself?
Where is your desire to be present at odds with the reality?
Where has an investment in presence opened up new life for you?
Why I Sold Back My Smartphone: an Update

Part II: Selling the Smartphone: A 6 Month Update 

It has now been about six months since I sold back my smartphone. Six months later, I no longer have phantom pains; I no longer reach for a device that isn’t there. (Not that phantom pains were unreasonable to expect: the average smartphone user checks her phone 80 times a day, or 30,000 times a year. I can’t think of anything beyond breathing to which I had been so regularly committed.) Now, it is not uncommon for me to lose track of my phone for days at a time, to have no idea where it is, so worthless is its utility.

Six months later, I have discovered growing edges and necessary next steps, like leaving the laptop at work so that I do not simply replace addiction to one device with addiction to a larger one. Rebekah and I even had a blasphemous conversation the other day about the possibility of discontinuing the internet at home, altogether. Stay tuned. As it turns out, leaving the laptop at work is also a good first step toward leaving one’s work at work. Who knew? I remember telling a colleague at lunch one day how I had unexpectedly discovered that I cared as much or more about my progress learning the guitar as I did about my community’s flourishing. It felt scandalous. My colleague kindly reminded me that, for creatures made to glorify God and enjoy God forever, the true scandal is that prioritizing lives of holy enjoyment would feel like a scandal. And then he confessed the same scandal in his life.

My friend and I are not, of course, alone. In his classic Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper reflects at length about how our world thinks about work. “In his well-known study on capitalism, Max Weber quotes the saying, that ‘one does not work to live; one lives to work,’ which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even have some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.” Sometimes I distract myself from work. Most times, I distract myself into work. From my life and the lives of those around me. In his wonderful book Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams calls such distractions from what really is the life of fantasy for which regular prayer and long silences are good medicine. 

Since selling back my smartphone, I have discovered the peace of waiting for someone who is late with folded hands and without anxiety. I am learning that I do not need to forgive myself for not trading my presence for more potential productivity – what could have been, or should have been – a hard lesson learned in a vocation in which nothing is ever finished and I imagine that I could have always done more. I am reading more books. I am writing letters to friends, with fountain pens and beautiful inks. I am discovering practices that help me grow my ability to receive the gift God, in a given moment, is giving, rather than seeking to control my environment for the gift I wish I had been given instead. I am making more room for possibilities I do not script or predict.

Where I used to go around filling my days with, well, filler, and then wondering where the time went, I now find myself with the opposite dilemma: more than enough time, such that I find it increasingly imperative to spend more time each day in God’s presence, calling to mind the values I pray will animate me: Joy, Listening, Generosity, Trust, and Prayer. 

Josef Pieper again writes that 
The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

St. Thomas named the same struggle more simply and positively: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.”

Rhythms of prayer dispose me to receive the giftedness of life and the Christ whom my baptismal covenant would remind me is there, in each one, to be sought and served. To not know, therefore, to be open, to embrace the uncertainty, is an important part of allowing the present to be God’s gift.

I need God’s help to remember that I am ever walking in God’s sight. Prayer is good help. Hymns are helpful, too; prayers I can sing to my children and that they can sing back to me! What a gift. The rhythm of daily prayer, for me, is like the breaks that are built into the really good roller coasters. Up and down a hill, maybe two or three of them, and then the click, click, click, because it is relatively easy, all things considered, to go off the rails, get caught up in the speed of things, even to become disoriented and forget what the thing was about in the first place. So about the time I want to put it all on my back or, alternatively, pat myself on the back, click, click, click. Sit with the scripture. Click, click, click. Soak in the story. Click, click, click. Sit in the silence. Rest in the presence. Call to mind the things God has shown me about God’s love and its depths. Be surprised one more time by God at work in this world and the corresponding truth that it isn’t all up to me. Remember that Karl Barth called laughter the closest thing to the grace of God. Click, click, click. Receive all these things as gifts. Go back to the work, foolish enough to believe the work can be offered as prayer, sure of the fact I will forget how to pray, blessed by the truth that the rhythm of prayer will find me at about the time I forget: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” Just when things threaten to go too fast, my head get too big, my heart grow too anxious, it will find me. Click, click, click. And I’ll return to the grace that it is my privilege to proclaim.

Relieved of the burden of being salvation to the world I return to, with any luck, I will have been opened again to receive the strange, unexpected gifts it is, in God’s ocean-deep love, God’s joy to give.

From my favorite hymn. 469, not 470. Give it up for Calvin Hampton:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind. 
And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. 
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word 
and our lives would be thanksgiving, for the goodness of the Lord.


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(1) From www.commonprayer.net, morning prayer for January 23.