Monastic Value of the Month: Shared Economics

This January I’m reflecting on the principle of shared economics (for those of you who are just joining us, check out my post on why I’m doing this Monastic Value of the Month Club). As Common Prayer says, shared economics means choosing to pursue “a vision of an economy different than the empire’s economy.” As the Church, we are called to “bear each other’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ.” A striking characteristic of the early Church was that there were no poor people in it. Those who were rich gave all they could to the community, even selling their greatest assets, so those who were poor could be cared for, uplifted, embraced.

What would that even be like in our own time? What would it be like to have a church that truly took care of people’s economic burdens and gave all it could to eliminate poverty? What if people could come to the Church and find a haven from the dog-eat-dog world of the American empire? What if we could lay down our addictions to work and shopping and entertainment because we were part of a community that would care for all our true needs?

The Church would be a lot more popular, I’m pretty sure, if those things were what we were known for.

Unfortunately, we pretty much suck at sharing these days. Although there are definitely parts of the Church that care for the poor and fight the systems that perpetuate poverty, most Christian individuals and communities have very little imagination when it comes to economic matters. We don’t know how to truly care for others. We don’t trust them enough. We’d rather hold the poor at arm’s length and show them charity than get involved in their lives and truly take up their burdens.

I am very much guilty of this. I know that compared to many, I’m rich. On the other hand, when I budget my money and my time, I tend to think of myself and my family first. My burdens, such as they are, feel heavy enough without picking up someone else’s. And the thought of surrendering more resources to the Church and trusting God to take care of me via my fellow Christians? I don’t know, it feels so risky.

The more I reflect on this, the more I conclude that the key word here is shared. In our individualistic society which praises self-sufficiency so much, it feels crazy to carry another person’s burdens. We don’t trust that it will be reciprocated. We fear burnout or bankruptcy. We need the support of community, a culture of shared burdens, to set us free from our programming. That’s one advantage the Church already has: we already share a part of our lives, and together we can grow to share more.

So let’s join together, young and old. Let’s dream dreams and see visions of a world in which poverty does not exist, a Church where people who are hungry can be fed and people who carry around too much stuff can lay it down. Let us pray and work for a world in which we can all feel safe laying our burdens down.

What dreams do you dream about shared economics? What would a Church and/or world without poverty be like, and what can we do today to help create it?

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Strengthen Your Brothers: The Fine Tradition of Epic Fail

Epic FailSeriously, why do Christians have this reputation for wanting to be perfect? For needing everything to be squeaky clean and unblemished?

I’m not saying it’s an undeserved reputation, either. So often I myself succumb to the temptation to make my life look better than it is, to pretend I’ve got it all figured out.

Why do we Christians do this?

I think it’s because we’ve been screwing it up from the very beginning.

I mean, really, read the New Testament. Particularly the Gospel of Mark. The first followers of Jesus were generally terrible at following him, even the apostles. They misunderstood his parables and his instructions. They doubted him constantly and abandoned him at the first sign of trouble. They itched for him to give them earthly power and justify the violence they wanted to commit.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Gospels are especially critical toward Peter, sharing all the gory details of how and why he let his Lord and Teacher down.  We all know the story of how he rashly promised he would never betray Jesus, but would follow him even to the point of death, followed by three outright denials that he had ever heard of him before the day had even begun.

What a great person to name as the Rock you’ll build your future Church on, right? I mean, what was Jesus thinking?

I was reading the Gospel of Luke today, the part where Jesus tells Peter he knows all about this future betrayal. And here’s the part that blows my mind, the part I never noticed before: not only has Jesus forgiven Peter ahead of time, he’s already thinking of how the betrayal can be redeemed. In other words, he’s already thinking of how Peter’s stupid, callous, thoughtless action can be the source of future glory.

Read for yourself what he says in Luke’s Gospel: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Did you catch that? Jesus knows Simon/Peter is going to experience intense temptation, and he knows Peter will give in, but the whole time, Jesus will be rooting for him. In fact, he’s already prayed for him ahead of time that he won’t be completely overcome, that he’ll still have it in him to turn around and follow Jesus again. And when he does, he can use it to strengthen other disciples when they, too, struggle and fail.

This is such an important quality for a leader. No wonder Jesus desires it for Peter. Peter’s humble repentance for his failure will make him capable of more compassion toward other flawed people. Not only that, it will give him practical experience of how to turn around when he’s tempted to wallow in failure, and he’ll be more able to help others turn around too.

I used to hate reading the Bible because it had so many screwed up people in it. I asked myself how these people could possibly be held up as moral examples.

And then, one day, the light bulb went on: the people in the Bible aren’t moral examples, except for Jesus. Everyone in the Bible except for Jesus made mistakes, sometimes huge mistakes, even if they were very close to God (hello, King David). Not only did God love them through all their inherent flaws and stupid mistakes, God also hatched a plan to save them from the horrible cycle of sin and guilt. The plan to redeem us, make us new, turn our ashes to new beautiful life, has been unfolding since we humans entered this crazy world.

Are we perfect? Never. At least, not in this lifetime. But through it all, God blesses us and constantly roots for us to turn back in the right direction. And when we do that, God will help us use the memory of our worst mistakes to strengthen our brothers and sisters.

What Is Worship? (Why I Go to Church, Part 3)

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the Why I Go to Church series.

Not long ago, the question came up in my church community: What is the difference between worshiping Jesus and following Jesus? When our community gets together on Sundays, is what we’re doing worship?

To my surprise, a lot of people immediately said no. They had a lot of negative connotations with the word worship. To them, to call our services worship meant Jesus wasn’t present in our lives except on Sundays.

Now, personally, I love worship and I have no issue with calling it that. So this discussion got me thinking: what is worship to me, and why do I love it so much?

Although I’m a very analytical person at times, for me, worship is an emotional and on some levels mystical experience. Consequently, anything I try to say about it will necessarily be incomplete. But since that’s never stopped me before, I will share some reasons why I love worship and don’t want to part with the word.

The word worship comes from the Old English weorthscipe, meaning “respect” or “worthiness.” Starting my week with a formal worship service reaffirms that God is the center of my life, the most important part, worthy of my love and devotion. And believe me, I need lots of reminding of this. When I put my own desires in the center of my life instead, I give myself implicit permission to hurt other people if my desires aren’t met, and that’s where all the problems start.

Now a little about specific elements of the worship service. I love Catholic worship and other highly liturgical services in particular because they present all my favorite elements all the time. A balanced meal, so to speak.

Things get started with congregational singing. Now, I like singing in my own, in the shower or at karaoke, but there’s really nothing like singing with an entire room of other people.  I mean, not to get too literal about Heaven, but apparently praising God loudly is most of what we’ll be doing there. It feels so good to just sing out your love at the top of your voice in a crowd of others doing the same.

Then, of course, there’s liturgical prayer! First, we declare that we are a community in Christ. Nothing but Jesus brings us together. Despite all of our differences, we are all part of the same Body, which is just as much of a miracle as anything else, if you think about it.

Then we confess our sins as a community. I know a lot of people think this must be horrible, and to be honest it’s not always easy, but with the world as messed up as it is in so many ways, how can we neglect to acknowledge our part in that through the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do, and also voice our desire to change? And as with any apology, when I work up the courage to offer it, and even more when it’s accepted, I feel a great weight lifted and I’m all the more ready to celebrate…

… which is exactly what happens as we raise our voices again to glorify God! This is worship in a nutshell: saying out loud how much God is worth to us and recounting the many blessings we’ve received through Jesus.

Then there is reading out loud from the Word. This is another thing I love about services with more traditional liturgical structures: you get some Old Testament, you get a Psalm, you get some New Testament, and you get some Gospel, every time. This gives you so much valuable food for thought in terms of how they are all connected. And hearing the Word spoken right here and now is such a different experience from just reading it to yourself. The best readers amplify God through their reading, telling it to you like a riveting story, both beautiful and important.

And then there’s the preaching on the Gospel and how we can apply it to our lives. That is amazing because professional preachers know so much more than me! Some of them are scholars and have great knowledge of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, bringing it alive in new ways. Some of them are truly wise and experienced in serving in radical and humble ways. Some of them are just great at communicating the Gospel and reminding us why it’s such good news. The best are all three! But even taking into account preachers’ imperfections, as long as they are speaking the Gospel, it’s Good News to my ears.

Then, typically, there is a profession of faith of some kind, often in the form of a Creed. Now, often we don’t do this at my current church, although sometimes we do. I think some people in the community are uncomfortable with it in the same way they may be uncomfortable with the word worship: to them it conjures up images of something forced and confining and exclusive and joyless. I respect that, although for me, Creeds are very joyful, a way of expressing unity with other parts of the universal Church, and honestly not all that different from when we affirm our core beliefs in other parts of the service or in songs.

Then there are the communal prayers for the Church and the world. We pray the big prayers: for the Church to actually be Good News to people, for our Church leaders (and our world leaders) to be responsible peacemakers, for God’s presence in the overwhelming issues of the moment and the human response to them. And we also pray the smaller prayers, like for members of our community who are suffering, and for us to carry out the specific mission God gave us.

Then there is Communion or the Eucharist, which of course deserves way more space than I can possibly give it here. To me, this is the most beautiful, most joyful, and most real part of worship. That we get to literally taste and see that God is good! That we get to metabolize God into our bodies, mysteriously! That we get to all be mystically connected in this sacrament! I will never get over what a miracle this is any way you look at it.

And of course, in the middle of the Communion rite we say the Our Father (or the Lord’s prayer, if you prefer) – the oldest and best prayer, from Jesus’s own mouth! And then we get to share the peace, which ironically sometimes makes me quite anxious, since I am an introvert who loves people. However, in my current community I know almost everyone and we’re all very comfortable hugging each other.

As we conclude, the pastor prays for all of us to grow closer to each other and God through communion and worship. Then we are sent out in peace to proclaim the Gospel and bring God’s kingdom nearer. And then, more singing!

Truly, worship is worth it. I can’t think of a better way to start the week.

Ernie and the Feast of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Last year, on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, I left our church building late. The next day, the building would be alive with people who brought their animals in for a blessing, cats and dogs and mice and snakes crowding the pews with their humans. Tonight, however, had been the Transitus service, commemorating the passage of St. Francis from his earthly life into the arms of God.

I wasn’t planning on coming the next day; I was scheduled to take the GRE instead. Ironic, to skip church so you can take a standardized test and apply to graduate school for the purpose of being a Bible scholar. Some of the other parishioners who knew about tomorrow’s appointment were shocked that I’d come to the evening’s service instead of studying. But I felt like I’d already put in my effort on this, and now it was up to God. So why not spend the evening listening to Scripture, remembering a beloved saint, and revisiting why I was doing this in the first place?

No one offered me a ride home that night, so I slunk out the side entrance of the church, intending to slip home in the shadows. But I’d forgotten my eye-catching attire, the hand-sewn quasi-Franciscan robe I’d inherited from someone in our community who had passed away. I could never walk down the street wearing such a thing without comment, and tonight was no exception.

“Hey!” said a voice from the darkness. “You’re dressed up like a monk, aren’t you?”

I turned around to see a man maybe in his late fifties or early sixties sitting in a folding chair with his meager possessions in front of our church building (a not uncommon sight which doesn’t endear us to some of our neighbors). He was smiling, seemed friendly, and suddenly I was inclined to talk to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m dressed like St. Francis because we’re celebrating his feast day tomorrow.”

“I knew it,” he said triumphantly. “This church of yours is a good place. Your pastor gave me one of these Catholic Bibles. Now I know the Bible backward and forward, but this has books I’ve never read before, and I can’t wait to get down to studying them.”

“So you like reading the Bible?”

I was just being polite, but his face lit up at the question. He started telling me what he read in the Bible that brought him joy – leaping from page to page of the great Story with ease, shining light on connections between Law and Gospel.

I found myself nodding and echoing things he said, all but saying “Amen.” This strange man, with his days worth of stubble, sitting in his folding chair surrounded by all his worldly possessions, was speaking encouragement to my soul.

At one point he paused and appeared to size me up. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? You don’t think I’m crazy?”

I shook my head. “I think you make more sense than almost anyone else I know.”

He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Ernie. Nice to meet you.”

From there, Ernie told me some of his own story. He said he’d been caring for his elderly mom for years back east and had decided to leave her in the care of other relatives so he could travel and do other work for awhile. But when he’d gotten here, there was little work, and his savings had rapidly dwindled until he could no longer afford to get back home, then until he had no place to live.

He said he couldn’t ask money from his mother, since she lived on a fixed income, and anyway he was sure he would soon figure out how to get a ticket back. He said he was trying to make his way further north, where he was sure more work could be found.

He told me this without a trace of self-pity and didn’t ask anything from me. Finally, he fished a picture out of one of his suitcases and showed it to me beaming. “That’s my mom, right there. My best friend.”

“You look like her,” I said. “Same smile.”

I realized I’d been standing there for at least an hour listening to him talk. I’d forgotten about the text the next day. I’d forgotten about everything but the Story God told and this man’s story of his life.

“You’re probably thinking you should head home,” he said, noticing the look on my face. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Rachel.”

“You too, Ernie,” I said. “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you around.” And I walked off into the night, his words still buzzing in my ears, words that tumbled over each other with his passion about the Bible.

I took the test the next day, locked for five hours in a gray room with noise-canceling headphones. I rocked it (well, at least the parts important to my future). I would have liked to have told Ernie, told him about my dream of studying the Bible, but I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he found a way to get where the work was, or even to get back home.

And I didn’t go to graduate school after all – not this year, anyway. I got accepted to my dream school, but didn’t get the financial aid I wanted, and I wasn’t sure whether I could make it work in the big picture of my life. After I deferred my admission I felt mostly numb, but a few weeks after that I cried for days straight, mourning my dream.

But now, when I think about that night I talked to Ernie, I feel more encouraged than ever about my future. I can do what I love – study Scripture and bring it into people’s lives – whether I end up in school or not. Ernie did, armed with almost nothing in this world but his Bible and his mind. He spoke truth to me from a humble folding chair in the shadows of the street, and I’ll never forget it.

Humble Pie Never Tasted So Sweet

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church

(Photo credit: Snap Man)

You may be wondering how my visit to my mom went – my first visit in over six years. I must admit, as that train rocked restlessly I tried to distract myself from thoughts of the past, tears shed on previous visits, harsh words that had passed both ways between us over the years. I was full of anticipation and anxiety as I stepped off the train into the hot California morning.

And there she was, waiting just outside, screaming like I was a rock star. We hugged and kissed and I thought how different she looked after all these years apart – and I realized that, whether this visit lived up to my fears or exceeded my dreams, I’d be glad I had come, just for the privilege of being here, next to her in space.

As it happened, the visit was pretty great. I credit good timing, grace, and of course, your prayers. Thank you so much to all those who prayed. I’m so glad I asked; I could really feel the difference.

Over the three-day weekend, the two of us walked around town in the sunshine. We ate omelets with hash browns and English muffins at Mom’s favorite sun-soaked brunch place, real Tex-Mex like I hadn’t had in years, cut up fruit with lime juice and chili on the bus (probably against the rules). I stole sips of her iced mochas. We walked to the library and hung out outside it with a statue of John Steinbeck and the library mascot, a small tortoise. I read to her from The Message as her bedtime approached.

Most beautiful of all, we worshiped side by side in a big church packed with families. We sang songs I remembered from when I was a child, and it made me think of how Mom all but dragged me to church that first time, how patiently she’d answered my frantic, searching questions about religion as a child, her responses amounting to, Well, there are a lot of things we don’t know, honey. Be patient. God will reveal it to you. Without her guiding me toward baptism and my first taste of holy bread and wine, who knows if I’d believe today?

And then, before we ate bread and wine from the same table for the first time in seven years, we sat holding hands, waiting for the Scripture to be read to us. The lector’s voice rang out, speaking words from the book of Wisdom:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

It was one of those times when the Word stood out to me in neon lights. This is for you. I knew I had almost been too proud to set aside my schedule, sacrifice the time and money I’d spent on the gift of this moment. I could have missed it all.

And then we made our way to the Table together for the first time in over seven years. I often thought of Mom when I received communion at home, knowing it brought me closer to her in a mystical way, but it was another thing to be right here beside her.

Mom had her problems when I was a kid. And I couldn’t kid myself: she has her problems now. We might never have your typical parent-child relationship. But I was grateful all the same for the relationship we had, for the ability to share what we did. I was so glad I’d humbled myself enough to admit I’d been wrong not to visit her all this time.

Yes, I’d been so wrong I could taste it. But bread and wine had never tasted sweeter.

Why I Go to Church (Part 1)

Ugly church

(Photo credit: °Florian)

As many of you no doubt have gleaned, I am not a morning person. Coffee does no good; it gives me crushing headaches which, ironically, are only cured by sleep. Consequently, if I make it out of bed at all before ten, I tend to be a sad, sad sight.

So why was I up, and chipper at that, last Sunday morning at seven-thirty?

Why, to walk down the country road that leads from my partner’s parents’ house to a certain church about a mile away. Their earliest service is at eight-fifteen, and goodness knows I wanted to get church in as early in the day as possible, before my partner’s family’s household could whisk me away and treat me to breakfast, which is what they do on Sunday mornings instead of this insanity.

Also worth mentioning is that the church building in question is very ugly, large and brown-gray and thoroughly modern, with all the charm of the big box store. My partner’s family members seldom drive by this building without remarking on what a hulking eyesore it is (and since it’s on their way to town, they drive past it often). They have repeatedly asked me why I would go there and not somewhere else, gently trying to steer me toward the Lutheran and Pentecostal churches that are also in the neighborhood, but not such a visual blight on it.

Why do I insist on going to the ugly church? The practical answer is that I know where it is and not even I could get lost on the way, not even at seven-thirty in the morning. But the real answer is that, honestly, I am not too picky about church gatherings. If there’s a group of people worshiping Jesus, reading the Bible, celebrating communion, and singing as a group (with or without hand-waving), I’m totally there.

I’m pretty much driven to church by hunger, a craving for this particular type of spiritual food, this common table. Not having eaten for a week means I don’t much care if the food isn’t served just the way I like it; I’ll eat it and be thankful.

I loved the church service that morning, despite its many differences from the Catholic worship services I normally attend. The songs were different: “Blessed Assurance” rather than “You Are Mine,” “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing” rather than “Anthem.” There was no altar, and the focal point of the room was not a crucifix, but a Powerpoint display showing song lyrics and Scripture quotes. Probably the biggest difference was that Communion came before the sermon, quietly, served to you in your seat, with the words “in remembrance” projected nice and big on the screen.

At Mass, of course, Communion is the high point of the service because of our belief that, mysteriously, Jesus is really there, a Presence we can eat and drink and metabolize, becoming connected to him and to other members of his Body through the sacrament. Don’t ask me how it works, but I feel it, something happening in me that I don’t feel if I miss Communion for a week. I felt it there in that ugly boxy room. I ate the wafer and drank the grape juice and it fed my soul just the same.

So when people ask me why I’d go to this church, so different from my own, so seemingly unappealing from the outside, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Because that’s where the action is. Because I’m hungry, and as long as I get fed (and inspired to feed others throughout the week), I don’t much care where.

Plus, any followers of Jesus are, in a mystical but still very real way, my family. So asking, “Why would you go to a church that’s so ugly?” is like asking, “Why would you want to hang out with your mother? She wears such unflattering sweatpants.” Not that my mother does; this is entirely hypothetical, but the point is, who cares. Unless you’re a callous preteen, you’re not going to avoid your own mother over sweatpants, horrendously tacky though they may be. You love her, you want to spend time with her, end of story.

Church, when it works, is basically Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes you’re sitting around that big table with people you’d never be friends with otherwise. People who are your political opposites and love to argue about it. People who don’t respect you or get what you’re trying to do with your life. People who just plain drive you nuts. A big mess of broken people, choosing to overlook everyone’s blatant deficiencies, bad taste, bad decisions, ugliness, so they can share a feast that declares they are family.

So thank God I can drag my sorry self to that ugly church at what feels to me like the crack of dawn. Thank God they feed me – and for free. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be there. Me and the little church and the big Church, we’re all echoes of each other, ugly as sin but brilliant with hope.