Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bridging the Gap

I still remember my first and only preaching class from undergrad, it was a very big deal. The top three guys got to preach in Chapel, and being that it was a class that only allowed male students, it was very much a young buck show. I probably should have gotten an F in that class. I'm not much of a traditional preacher, and at the time I wasn't very good at public speaking, I actually burst into tears on my first go at it. There were guys that were polished preachers at that point, and I felt like I didn't belong in the same major as them, hell, even the same school.

Looking back, it's clearly a group of big fish sharing a small pond, and some of the guys that "won" are not involved in ministry at all now.

Delivering a sacred communication is an essential part of ministry, and I've had a lot of opportunities to give messages, so, I at least don't cry anymore. But it's still remarkable to me that the best lecture style talks are available online, and people state that they pick a church for the teaching. I'm also distressed that Church attendance is culturally mandated and oriented around a concert/lecture.

That is probably part of another post I should write, but I will never forget the main criteria of those sermons and that class. We were supposed to take the passage of the Bible, clearly explain and interpret it, and then "bridge the gap" from the Bible's world to our present day world, and then give application.

As a Chaplain, delivering sacred communication is the exception rather than the rule to my typical experiences and activities of ministry. I have to bridge an entirely different gap that professors never told me about.

Most of what I do involves shutting up and listening, and constantly fighting the inner urge to steam roll people with bible passages and "profound" thoughts. Platitudes do not ease suffering, nor are they heard by those who are in the midst of trials.

In the midst of the chaos of occasional crises and breakdowns, I also traffic with a lot of people from a lot of different faiths, and that's where pluralism gets awesome/interesting/weird/frustrating. I don't have a problem affirming the humanity of all people of all faiths, and from my own tradition, I believe that they are formed in the image of God, deserve dignity, respect and love, are sinners just like me, and spiritual beings with a spiritual need for kindness, redemption, and refreshment, particularly in the midst of suffering. One of the most powerful lessons of pastoral care comes from Ignatius Loyola, the ministry of consolation.

The main problem I have is that there are a lot of people who bypass the more sensible portions of their religious preference and default to superstition. And in the world of superstition, the man carrying the sacred text, a mere prop of identification for the superstitious, is looked on like a witch doctor, doing incantations and being present almost as a mascot. Half the work of an average chaplain is in restraining one's self from slapping these people.

There is a spectrum, with "witch doctor" on one end and "pleasant well-wisher" on the other. The work of pastoral care is not only caring about other people and being patiently present, but self-identifying yourself in the middle of the spectrum, and avoiding the many pigeon holes along the path. Bridging the gap of relevance to the real world, from peoples often ill-informed perception of "clergy".

And I guess it's interesting, that many people's sacred communication proficiency in the church leads them squarely into those pigeon holes.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Trust And Crisis

Trust is a peculiar thing. It's simultaneous the source of strength and greatest test to a relationship of any sort. It is not unique in it's simultaneous necessity and deceptively limited stature. Trust can be like a punctured innertube; one needs it to survive the ocean, and yet even at it's fullest capacity, it will run out before it's purpose is complete. Simply put, we cannot trust enough, and are far to untrustworthy for our own good.

Trust is the best/only/worst metaphor for our encounter of the sublime. Descartes rightly began with self-referential existentialism because nothing else is trustworthy enough to conclude in the absolute. And as we break through modernism into a liminal post-modernity, in many ways it is the end of trust as an absolute. Many things were once stylized as institutions, pillars of solid rock that could weather any storm of doubt. Sadly, these pillars are now mere sand and salt in the desert of the real.

Trust, ironically, is the answer the modernisms fact-anomaly. Relativism and perspective are no long ideologies to be fought against; this is no longer a culture war. If it is a culture war, both sides are untenably defenseless. It is rather, an amorphous culture habitat, and domination must be replaced by adaptation and synchronization. All that remains in the face of uncertainty is the banner of trust.

Both in faith and love, this holds up. As a younger man, somewhat disturbed by the divorce epidemic, I feared marriage; I asked a mentor of mine once, "How can you trust someone enough to marry them?" And the answer was not what I expected, and confirmed my fears. "You can't," he said. "All you can do is choose to trust, knowing that the person you marry will break your heart, and you will break yours. They will break your trust, and then you will need to forgive them, and restore that trust."

In faith, we trust in the sublime, and believe that as surely as we will break God's trust, his covenant love, He will be gracious, and forgive us. This is a scary hope have. Especially when you think about how hard it is to forgive someone that you love. Grace is hard for us, in either direction is must flow. I think that this experience, and meditation on the death and resurrection of Christ reveals a disturbing element of faith. While God's ways and God's grace are higher/greater/unfathomable than our sense of it, there is a shadow from His light in our earthly dwelling. Grace is a bloody, deathly, and altogether ghastly affair, even for the God of the Universe. God is wounded by us. God is disappointed in us. And his Grace is ridiculous in not only it's vastness, but the sum total of pain that God is willing to endure on our account, let alone on our behalf.

And the only possible response to all this is Awe. God is far greater than anything there could ever be. Images and senses and ideas are so plentyful and yet so impotent to reveal the vastness of what greatness truly is the essence of a God who forgives. Awe, shock, and aspiration. This is my starting point today. Perhaps that is what trust was intended to encompass.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

First Line of a Novel

The squalid smokey room seemed strangely out of focus as the starlight through the window faded from view. The new days dawn brought unspoken potential and impending doom into Tony's sleepless eyes.


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Bible Jim & The Doctrine of Hell

If you ever go to a festival, sporting event, large gathering of people or any public spectacle, you are sure to chance seeing him. If you went to a state college, he might have just showed up on your campus. If you talk about spiritual matters with other humans, I'm certain he is an archetype in the back of conversational mind.

Bible Jim, the soap-box preaching, sign-holding, megaphone brandishing westboro-esque figure is loathe to believers and non-believers alike as a symbol of all that is wrong in the spiritual landscape of America. He sounds bigotted and scary, and he seems more concerned with the doctrine of hell than the gospel. And I am reminded that some people believe that the doctrine of hell is actually a part of the gospel, and that fear, intimidation and threat of suffering are as valid tool as any to convert the heathen masses.

He is imperial christianity personified, which is really just medieval christianity with wheels and spikes. This version of faith, religion, etc, has little to do with the real Jesus. Jesus rightly reserved the doctrine of hell for his believers, his true followers were the ones who received this teaching. Jesus never threatened the sinner with condemnation. He did however, asure the saint of justice to be fulfilled. Hell is our confidence that God does not waver in his justice when he dispenses grace, and that blessing on earth is not in line with the superstition of St. Nicholas.

Whether you take it literally or analogously, the doctrine of hell is a fire under the ass of the Christian, in order to motivate urgent love to those around us. The conscience and the nature of reality, the sense of fairplay, as CS Lewis called it, that all humans have, and of course the Holy Spirit, these will convict a person into desiring change. The goodness that they see in Christ, the sense of goodness, rightness and newness, and the brokenhearted posture of receiving forgiveness will motivate us to follow God.

I'm no Rob Bell, and Hell is in the Bible to stay, but understanding it, teaching it, and appropriating it correctly will help us avoid needlessly offending both God and Man, with whom it is possible for us to find favor, just as Jesus did. It was Jesus' grace, forgiveness and revolutionary teachings about equality, his rebellious nature towards antiquated etablishments, these things are what upset people. Jesus opposed anyone who used the scriptures to bully the lowly.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Marriage reflection after Easter

I am a novice and I am not breaking new ground. But I wrote this to a friend a little while ago and after a fantastic adventure last week to Costa Rica with Cristin and some friends, I reflected on it again and how much I love her:

Marriage is simultaneously more wonderful, challenging and confusing than I could have ever imagined. I think there are a myriad of differences between my marriage and any relationship I've been in. Cristin demands the real me. I was hiding in a lot of ways from true intimacy with another person and she won't let me hide. With my previous relationships, it was just not a deep relationship. I didn't give my whole self. I didn't let a girl see my wounds and how I'm broken. Which is hard because those aren't attractive things but Cristin sees that and doesn't always receive it well. Its not that she is he most accepting or gracious person, she is as much a work in progress as i am, though probably further along. But she has such acute sense of the authentic and the real, and even if it is unappealing how I am weak, she deserves to see it and make her own choice.

I hate to say it because of how bad it is looking back, but really with other serious relationships I was not real. I was just kind of guessing that I might love her, guessing that I might be in love and that I might marry her and that that was how it goes. But with Cristin I just knew. The moment I saw her. It took her a couple weeks. But she had the same realization. Ultimately I think it is a matter of choice. But there's just no mistaking that she is the perfect person to both challenge me and heal me, or destroy me. And we spend our days realizing that heaven or hell is our choice. Even with all my hangups and fears and competing desires, I choose happiness and joy when I choose her, even when my fear and anxiety, my false being within dissuades me.

And so I take my greatest step forward into my true self when I love her authentically in the way God has called me. This is the start of the kingdom in our midst and the power of two who are gathered in His name. And it is hard. But it is great.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Baseline

Broken streets a three way race of meanings intertwine
Angry remnants and forgotten people line the shattered byways

Eggshell dreams barred in by shadows
Darkness is unbridled here 

My light I bushel passing by In anonymity 
A steel cage on wicked wheels for quiet passage makes

I carry David's sling with me inside my mobile coffin
Cobwebbed with days a single stone yerning for a passage

To splash into this untouched pool of nightmares and disappointment 
Ripples of change by presence made held captive to unimagination

Refusal to see all that god has done and is doing 

Like a crippling weight I cling to that drags me down to the depths

Friday, July 27, 2012

Football Season

I've written posts about football before, but every year when training camp starts I watch this video. It's by far my favorite sports-related poem. Casey At The Bat is also good.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

From Swamp to Desert

Wandering is the romantic metaphor of my generation, and for me, a personal connection as well. All of my favorite movies feature people who go on journeys with uncertain destinations, and are wanderers. But if there's one thing that the old testament teaches us it's that wandering, waiting on God, these things are not romantic or ideal. The Israelites essentially walked around and had funerals for 40 years. A quick reading of the book of Lamentations (ironically my favorite old testament book) reveals a dark and awful picture of what one may dwell in whilst waiting for God.

I used to live in a swamp. Now I live in a desert. I am wandering and wondering. I have no idea what God will do in my life. I forget easily the many things He has done, and promised. Even some of the things I have tattooed on my own body, and I ignore the messages my flesh proclaims in favor of the lies that I have believed.

Wandering is not fun if you are stuck in the same place while you're doing it. And in the desert, the barrenness of the landscape can drive one further into hopelessness than probably any other landscape is capable of. One of the allures of wandering is the cross country journey. I have bucket list items that include making the trek along the PCT as well as the Camino de Santiago.

I was just reading about the southern California portion of the PCT: "...from a hiker's point of view, one thing is true of almost all of Southern California: For 700 miles, there is too much sun and too little water." - Karen Berger. This is an apt metaphor for my life now.

There is a scarcity and desperation I feel, and the anxiety of it can be crippling if I give into it. "When you spend enough time around the chemistry of desperation, you come to recognize the smell. One desperate element is combustible. More than one desperate element is lethal." - Daryl Zero

Psalm 1:1-3
Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Oh, for a season to pass. This summer in the desert is not what I hoped or expected, but it is good to wait on the Lord, to turn inward and reveal the many wrongs in my own heart, and offer those up to Christ to be made right, To learn again at Christ's feet what it means to Do Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with God. In the moment I write this, I can be thankful. It's an important moment to remember in the desert.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kavanah & Yoga

Intentionality is a good modern expression for Kavanah. Pro-active is another good word that goes hand in hand. I was thinking about both this afternoon.

Lately I've been getting more into Yoga practice, and Yoga is a lot of fun. If you've never tried it I highly recommend at least once, and watch some videos on youtube to get an idea. There are some weird things associated with Yoga, and having seen the yogi's in India and how they basically pimp a two religions which can be very dark. I don't give every practice my wholehearted endorsement. We need to redeem it if we want to practice it as sons and daughters of God. But there are some things that Yoga definitely has right that we are missing out on if we don't at least get curious.

The first one is energy. My fiance, Cristin, is very tuned into energy, and can get a sense of positive or negative energy when she walks into a room. Whether you believe in that or not, it deeply effects her moods and as a part of discernment, her feelings are very reliable. Energy is what is required to fulfill our intentions. If we sent our intentions we must seek out the right frame of mind, the right energy to achieve it. If we want to align our intentions with God, we need to create space in our lives for God to work, and step into good energy so that we don't get burned out. Christ said his burden is light, because of the energy that comes with serving a good God. Any workout is going to enhance your energy, but Yoga has specific intentional things to do that. How else can we intentionally increase and make positive God energy for ourselves and others throughout our days? This is where Yichud and Kavanah become intensely practical.

The meditation piece of Yoga needs some work. The Ohms are not my thing. For a Christian we need not empty our minds, but fill it (Phil. 4:8) There is something else similar to Ohm that I like a lot more and that is Shanti. The wisdom of God is first peaceable. Shanti means peace. The reason I practice Yoga is not to be some unflappable inner peace guru. I already have a pretty good inner peace going on. The reason I like it or it helps me is because it reminds me that Peace begins within and must go outward. Blessed are the peacemakers. I have it all set aside to do a study on peace in the Bible, but I know one thing, worrying about inner peace comes from a posture of feeling threatened. Making peace outwardly comes from a posture of feeling the injustice of others. And this is what I want more than anything. To embrace the Micah 6:8 principles of life, this is my desire. I am not there yet. I often have no idea how to advocate for others, but I'm in a place now to begin to learn. And Kavanah is a key to this effort.




Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Yichud & Kavanah

Another two month hiatus from blogging, no promises, but I really need to be writing more. I've had something more specific to direct my writing to (ie my long-distance relationship) And so I begin this process with hopes that I will write more regularly, and hopefully more interestingly. At least until I have a job. Also, I need to get back into something I used to do all the time, which is write movie reviews. Those are available here.

Mentioned briefly in Shaping of Things to Come by Frost & Hirsch, these two principles in the title of this post are really co-essential, and they jumped out at me from the page (not just because they were italicized). Kavanah means "to pay attention, to direct mind and heart in order to maximize levels of intentionality in our actions." Yichud referes specifically to the Shema, and the oneness, or unity of God, and points to the principle of us unifying our lives under this God who is charactierized as being "one".

Many people have said it, but Rob Bell said in one of his books or Nouma videos that if anything is important to God, then Everything is important to God, because he's big enough to care about all that. To unify our lives is not to sort life into categories, Important and Trivial, Sacred and Secular, Humans and Sparrows. God cares about it all.

I have wrestled with the idea of Sunday morning church events, and how we call that worship, and there's a temple-centric, time and place oriented approach to God, and the worship of God. I have concluded that really just reinforces my cognitive dissonance between what God says and what I do. I am really bad at the principles described above. The worship center is not a large acoustically tuned room with a sounds system. The worship center is staring back at you in the mirror.

To be God's image, as we were created is a 24-7 thing, and as we approach life with Kavanah and Yichud, we don't become ascetics, or get untold health and wealth. We don't just walk on water and we don't just sink. Jesus promised life to the full. That's everything life on earth, beautiful and fallen, includes; triumph and heartache, boredom and anxiousness and complete engagement and intensity.

My only real purpose in writing this is to realize in part how seriously AND joyfully God has created this world, and how there is no change in my demeanor that is required. Only in my beliefs, in identifying the lies I believe, and in my actions, to correct those decietful practices, to do justice and treat all others with the dignity not of their actions, but of their image, which is also God's image.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

On Hasty Decisions

Empty spaces filled
With words unsaid;
Anger, fear and dread,
Life's mess is spilled

Leaving longing's love
for pastures green,
Going sight unseen:
A selfish shove

Where does hope now grow?
In calling still,
Holy Spirit's fill,
Continue: Go!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sub Merge

"Be Quiet" & "Stay in your seats" are my two most repeated phrases on a daily basis. I'm a substitute teacher in Louisiana Public Schools. Teacher is probably not the best term for my job. The schools are horrible, by and large. They just suck. There is a toxic environment which is tolerated, and often causes the interactions between teachers and students to be more like a prison than a school. The no-child-left-behind style testing leaves little room for creativity or flexibility in curriculum, and the culture tolerates places that reject the freedom of education in favor of the mandatory schooling.

While I have met many respected teachers, I am constantly an outsider, and at odds with students. Even the "good" classes attempt to break every rule under my watch, and there is no interest in learning. I am paid less than a barista, babysitter, or grocery stocker, and my hours are less consistent.

But I believe there is a purpose for my presence here in schools. I believe that if I can make a connection with one student, or improve one persons outlook, then it is worth the trouble. If I can make it through an entire class period without having to shout, that is a victory, and if I can model respect in these twisted cross-cultural settings, it may be less of a purgatory for one day. God's love was intended for the lowest common denominator of humanity. In him there is no division like the divisions of race and class and cool, that mankind has created; the divisions that mark the students in these schools. If Jesus can heal lepers, maybe I can influence these lost men and women in some small way: To give hope rather than stealing it away, and to bring peace into utter chaos. This is my daily prayer.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

a poem.

A Maiden Fair

By Matthew O’Brien

For Cristin Mahaffey

~

I heard some Angels sing a song

About a maiden fair,

And what it was that made her good:

A heart exceedingly rare,

She loved and loved and never quit;

She always told the truth,

If you met her in Bible times,

You’d swear that she was Ruth,

But the world gave her heart troubles,

She cried many heavy nights,

She locked herself in darkness

And tried to shut out light,

She wandered over all the earth

With nowhere she could stay,

She hacked herself to pieces,

And gave herself away,

As the Angels sang and sang,

I started, thus, to cry,

This Maiden’s tale of sadness could

Be lived by you or I,

But when they started up again,

My broken heart did leap,

They sang of Love redeeming;

Forgiveness mountains steep,

The Maiden’s sin was paid for,

God’s own Son did affect,

He gave her, then, a new heart,

His image to reflect,

Then He set her in the sky,

A diamond in the night,

And everyone she shined upon

Saw better by her light,

She started feeling lonely,

Way up there all alone,

She asked God for another star

With whom to make a home,

So God came down to see her, and said,

“I’ve just the thing in mind,

I’ve humbled and restored him;

He’s really just your kind,”

“He’s also very different,

He might not shine as bright,

You’ll know him when you see him;

You’ll find he fits just right.”

At this my heart was pounding,

For I knew I’d seen this star,

She danced across my deepest dreams,

Enchanting from afar,

And now I write this silly verse,

To you, My Darling Sweet,

For now in truth, I do believe,

Two stars can, happy, meet.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pluralism

Aa a chaplain I have gotten extremely used to conversing about pluralism, as it is the environment in which I minister. It is, I believe, the environment in which we all minister. The Churches refusal to acknowledge this leads to a divisive conservatism that alienates and destroys credibility. The beauty of Pluralism is that it allows, even demands interfaith dialogue. Conservatives seem to be so obsessed with portraying the superiority of their religion, that they neglect the open seat at the table of ideas, and their opportunity for authentic discussion and consideration of others.

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book The Shaping of Things to Come make specific note that there seem to be two theories of how to encounter any culture, and in our western world, it is a culture of pluralism. One can attempt to create walls, and further barriers to God, in hopes of keeping the culture out, or one can venture into the culture and create wells, centers of life that people cannot help but stay away from. By necessity, we must be people of the well, joining a diverse and global community, living a faith that is not agreeable to people, but doing it in such a way that communicates love and respect despite our differences. Pluralism is not affirming other people's faith, it is affirming their right to believe. And without that, the church as it is today would not be possible.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Zen

A while ago, someone pointed out to me that there is a quality to my discourse, even to my faith that seems more like Zen than Christianity. I think that is worth noting, because, as I examine thought patterns such as the tao, I believe there is truth that is there, though I believe there are also lies that must be discerned.

Zen, especially as I have begun to practice yoga has a great deal of appeal to me. Being an Enneagram 9, my highest value is being at peace, both within and without. "Holding center in the midst of chaos" is one of my favorite phrases from my favorite yoga routine. I think there is a similarity in the cathartic nature of meditation and the open-handed mentality, and releasing things to God that my faith calls for.

However, the emphasis and end state of these ways of thinking are not compatible. Zen seeks nothingness, emptiness being it's own goal. Christ calls us to be renewed, to die (shivasana) that we might be raised, and to fill our minds with the goodness and love of God. The peace of Christ allows us not only to be at peace within ourselves, but to go forth into the world as peacemakers.

This is the difference between the peaces. Peace of mind retreats inward, Peace of Christ launches out into the lives of others, not passively letting them go, "dropping weight", but embracing them in love, bearing their burdens, and making peace. I believe this is in part what God is calling me to do, but it is always a struggle to step out of myself. So much of this lines up with my enneagram results. It has been truly challenging to grow through and I continue today to step into awareness, and embrace others in peace.