Friday, June 26, 2015

A Place of Refuge in a Troubled Sea

In our Oblate Chapter, St. Anthony of the Desert, it has long been our policy not to talk Church politics in our Chapter Meetings, and certainly not to talk national politics. The reason for this is simple. Our members may have a number of differing opinions, and they may be strongly held; discussing them would deflect us from our central purpose. We gather together for one reason only and that is to seek the Face of God.

An Oblate Chapter should be a refuge in the midst of a troubled sea. There are a number of “hot button” issues affecting The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion; and there are some recent decisions in the United States that create deep concern for Christian people. Airing them in a Chapter Meeting creates more heat than light. Our approach to the human situation is quite different from that of the world. At the heart of our Chapter Meetings are the Daily Offices and the singing of Psalms. We pray the psalms on a regular basis, not skipping any, because they address all of the issues that affect the human heart. Jesus himself prayed the psalms and when we pray the psalms today, we pray them with him, and with the Church universal.

Joan Chittister, O.S.B. reflects the mind of St. Benedict when she says:

“The Benedictine is not to pick and choose at random the psalms that will be said. The Benedictine is not to pick some psalms but not others. The Benedictine is to pray the entire psalter in an orderly way, regardless of mood, irrespective of impulses, despite personal preferences. Anything other than a regular recitation and total immersion in the psalms is, to Benedict’s way of thinking, spiritual sloth. Ours is to be a full spiritual palate. Readings may be shortened if situations warrant but the psalms never. We are to tap into every human situation that the psalms describe and learn to respond to them with an open soul, an unfettered heart, and out of the mind of God.” [i]

[i] Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict: Insights for the Ages, (New York: Crossroads, 1997), p. 89.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

For God Alone My Soul in Silence Waits ~ Psalm 62

All of our world militates against the sensibilities of this Psalm.  We are a people who prize noise and there is hardly any place in our life where noise does not intrude.  It is not unusual to find two or three television sets on in the same household.  Our automobiles have CD players, radios and television sets for videos for the younger set.  We leave our homes with their noise, climb into our autos with their noise.  Park and go to work in an elevator where we have to endure elevator Muzak and enter offices and businesses many of which air radio stations constantly throughout the day.  We can’t even make phone calls with listening to someone else’s choice of music while we wait interminably on hold.  We go home to more music, or out dinner and more music, and go home and watch television and reinforce the noise of the day.  Incessant noise buffers us from dealing with silence and our own thoughts, and buffers us from the encounter with God. 

      In C. s. Lewis’s, Screwtape Letters, Screwtape the senior devil writes to Wormwood the junior devil,  He says,

Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The Psalmist says:

1    For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
            from him comes my salvation.

2    He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
            my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken.

      The prophets say, “The Lord is in His holy temple, Let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Hab. 2:20). And again, “Be silent in the presence of the Lord God” (Zeph. 1:7).  The Psalmist in Psalm 46:11 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

      To find peace flee from all the noise of the world and enter a quiet place of prayer.  Be still and acknowledge in quiet that He who is the Lord is present with you.  There is a silent resting in His Presence that is beyond words, a place where you can lay down your burdens.  The following verses from Psalm 62 let us know that there was enough stress in the life of the psalmist to crush the ordinary man or woman, to topple him like a leaning fence.  His boundaries are hard pressed.  He cries out.

3    How long will you assail me to crush me,
      all of you together, *
            as if you were a leaning fence, a toppling wall?

4    They seek only to bring me down from my place of honor; *
            lies are their chief delight.

5    They bless with their lips, *
            but in their hearts they curse.

      God alone is our Hope in the midst of whatever assails us.  Wait patiently upon Him.  The Psalmist is secure in relationship with his Lord.  His God is his Rock, his Salvation, his Stronghold, his Safety, his Honor, his Strong Rock and he will not be shaken.  He is secure in his God.

6    For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
            truly, my hope is in him.

7    He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
            my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

8    In God is my safety and my honor; *
            God is my strong rock and my refuge.

9    Put your trust in him always, O people, *
            pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

      Give your burdens to Lord one by one.  Pour them out before the Lord.  Make firm your trust in the Lord.  And having done so, be still before the Lord, “For God alone my soul in silence waits; * truly my hope is in Him.”  There is no refuge in people.  Ultimately God alone is our Rock and our Salvation.

10 Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, *
            even those of low estate cannot be trusted.

11   On the scales they are lighter than a breath, *
            all of them together.

      There is no refuge in dishonest human manipulations.  They all will fail.  There is no refuge in materialism.  All things pass away, but God endures for ever.

12 Put no trust in extortion;
      in robbery take no empty pride; *
            though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

      It is not as though the Psalmist rests passively on God.  He is assured of a victory which he himself will have full participation.  A verse from Psalm 60:12 fits the psalmist’s mood, “With God we will do valiant deeds.”  There is a planting of his feet upon the Rock, a solid trust made firm in this soul resting in confident silence upon his God.  He, and those who assail him, will all be paid according to their deeds.  The repeated thought of verse 2 and 7, is joined with the power of God active on his behalf, “I shall not be shaken . . . I shall not be shaken.”

13 God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, *
            that power belongs to God.

14 Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, *
            for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Blessing of Morning Prayer

For most of my adult life I have prayed Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, adding my own informal intercessions and prayers at the appropriate places. The reason I have done so is summed up neatly in “The Blessing of Morning Prayer” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer. It is confirmed in work. The morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversations with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.

“Order and distribution of our time become more firm where they originate in prayer. Temptations which accompany the working day will be conquered on the basis of the morning breakthrough to God. Decisions, demanded by work, become easier and simpler where they are made not in the fear of men but only in the sight of God. “Whatever you task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men” (Colossians 3:23). Even mechanical work is done in a more patient way if it arises from the recognition of God and his command. The powers to work take hold, therefore, at the place where we have prayed to God. He wants to give us today the power which we need for our work.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, PSALMS: The Prayer Book of the Bible, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1970).

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Caregiver and Crusader Rabbit

Care giving has long been an important part of Benedictine life. Our own Monastery, St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas, USA, has over a century of labour, planted 40 schools, and five hospitals, and even now takes tender care in ministering to the elderly and infirm members of its community. St. Benedict viewed the Monastery with its Monks and Oblates as a family system. Its underlying themes are Obedience, Humility, and Charity [that is the Love of God incarnate in us]. Benedict says,

Let the Abbot always bear in mind that at the dread Judgment of God there will be an examination of these two matters: his teaching and the obedience of his disciples. And let the Abbot be sure that any lack of profit the master of the house may find in the sheep will be laid to the blame of the shepherd. On the other hand, if the shepherd has bestowed all his pastoral diligence on a restless, unruly flock and tried every remedy for their unhealthy behavior, then he will be acquitted at the Lord's Judgment and may say to the Lord with the Prophet: "I have not concealed Your justice within my heart; Your truth and Your salvation I have declared" (Ps. 40:11). "But they have despised and rejected me" (Is. 1:2; Ezekiel. 20:27). Then at last the sheep that have rebelled against his care will be punished by the overwhelming power of death. [From the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter Two: The Qualities of the Abbot].

In talking about care giving we must remember that we are all under authority, certainly God’s authority, and the various authorities that may over us. Some of us by nature are caregivers; it is in our blood, in the very fibre, muscle and bone of our being.  It is not just that there are those who need our care.  We ourselves need to care, to mend and heal, to rescue and restore. I suspect that trait in one degree or another is found in most people. 
Natural care givers often hold suspect those who have no apparent need to give care, and recognize as pathological those who instead of giving care, victimize those who either need care or give care.  That proclivity is not just pathological, it is wicked. What immediately surfaces is that even though we spend ourselves in caring, the responses are not always rewarding.
There is only One who is a bottomless well.  Through the Christ flows the water of the Spirit, the gift of the Father’s love.  All the rest of us lesser caregivers fall into one of two major categories; the Shallow Well that taps ground water, and the Well Spring that has tapped a source deeper than itself.
The caregiver that functions as a shallow well is soon drained of inner resources and is only slowly filled by fresh rain water seeping through the soil.  The shallow well, giving of its own fleshly strength and human power, gladly gives all it has but then sits depleted, empty and tired, very tired of caring.  Some shallow wells are slowly repleted, others once depleted sit as dry holes for times upon times; their caregiving days are over.
The care giver that functions as a well spring has tapped into the deeper artesian spring of God’s love and presence and even if depleted, is quickly filled.  Contrasting the earthly and heavenly well there is One who said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13,14).
There are some limits to caregiving that must be recognized.  Even Christ the Caregiver is limited by the freedom of will that is an intrinsic right of those for whom He cares.  He allows us to say “No!”  We ourselves are bound by the same reality in our offers to care for others.  On another level there is no comparison of His ability as a caregiver with our lesser ability.  It is not for nothing that He is called the Redeemer, and we the redeemed.  While it remains true that “Amor Vincit Omnia” [Love Conquers All], it often does so only by crucifixion. Christ’s caregiving becomes incarnate in our caregiving but subject to our humanity and limitations and the issues raised by freedom of will; but by the grace of God we are what we are and His grace in us is not in vain.  Caregivers give effective care only by virtue of their connection with the Christ in the power of the Spirit.
Being filled with this amazing water of the Holy Spirit requires both inflow and outflow.  Without the inflow that comes through worship, praise, prayer and reflection on God’s word the well soon dries up.  It is necessary to drink daily and drink deeply.  Without outflow, without giving care, the water becomes stagnant and the well itself becomes dank and drear.  The one who actively leans upon Him is like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  The one who drinks deeply of His Presence is like a deep well of water springing forth and giving life to those who need care.                 
There is a fine line between giving care and trying to fix the problems of others.  In our family we have discovered the Crusader Rabbit syndrome.  Crusader Rabbit, whose name is Sir Lapin, is a large, white, fluffy bunny who takes his sword, his shield and his lance, mounts his white stallion and charges down on a problem situation, or person, and attempts to fix things.  The problem is that fixing things is not our responsibility, but loving and giving care is.  Generally when Sir Lapin mounts his white horse and charges down, he is about to get knocked off his horse. This however does not take into account another dynamic, the egotist, the wolf in rabbit’s clothing, who gives care primarily for his own self-aggrandizement, or in some cases for profit. He comes charging down on his white horse and instead of getting knocked off his horse leaves destruction in his wake and moves on to the next victim.
A medical doctor might object at this point, knowing that the very intention of his profession is fixing physical things, and he is right up to a point. But to the extent that emotional and spiritual factors enter into a physical medical problem, the ability to “fix” is restricted. Secondary factors that arise from the issues of the soul can and will block the effectiveness of a doctor’s care giving. Even at that all healing comes from the Lord. “Honour physicians for their services, for the Lord created them; for their gift of healing comes from the Most High” [Sirach 38:1-2], and without the grace of God no healing takes place.
I think it is a good thing both to give care and to volunteer, unlike the shrunken soul who said that the best advice he ever received was to never volunteer.  Someone remarked that “As a child I was told not to speak unless spoken to and to wait until I was asked to do something.”  As a child I remember the dictum, "children should be seen and not heard", (and I might, add “and preferably not seen either!”). That kind of attitude was a vestige of those halcyon days when the governess presented the children to the parents after dinner for inspection, but for little else.  Today’s children should be respectful, but so should adults, even of children.  On a simple level even respectful children would bless their parents by volunteering to wash the dishes or walk the dog. Giving care should be a normal part of family life.

            Relationships and giving care in families can be complex; there are so many mixed motives and emotions in any family living arrangement. The family is what it is, and what has happened in the past, is past; what's done is done.  However there is in all of our current family living situations a matter for some serious and persistent prayer.  The question is not "What should I have done in the past in giving care?" but, "What should I do now?"  The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Reflections on the Trinity

Christianity is by nature Christocentric, but it is not Christocentric at the expense of a clear understanding of the Trinity.  We worship God in Trinity of Persons, at once transcendent, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit immanent in personal experience.  I know my God because he reveals Himself to me.  St. John puts it this way, “The anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything—and is true and is no lie, just as it has taught you- abide in him.”[1]  St. Athanasius makes the issues very clear and we do well to heed him:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly…

And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal…

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.[2]

What is at stake, according to St. Athanasius, is salvation itself.  Athanasius makes this very clear both at the beginning, and at the end of his statement on the Trinity. 

  • Making the Holy Spirit and the Son subordinate to the Father results in a Unitarian view of God that ultimately denies personal salvation from sin and the real presence of the Holy Spirit active in the Church today. 

  • Making the Holy Spirit and the Father subordinate to the Son results in a “Jesus Only” theology that misses the riches of our relationship with God our Father, and tears apart the nature of the Trinity. 

  • Making the Holy Spirit subordinate to the Father and the Son results in a powerless and inadequate theology of God and the Church, yet that is the effective theology of many in protestant evangelical traditions. 

Instead of the Trinity you end up with the Father, Son, and Holy Bible; or in some cases with the Father, Son, and Holy Mother.  The Church as I understand it is Biblical, Sacramental, and Growing in the Spirit, and needs a clear and balanced emphasis on the Holy Spirit for a full and healthy development.

By itself a creedal statement is dry, setting only the boundaries of faith, but saying nothing of the vitality and warmth of the experience of God.  It is not a new idea that there is a ceaseless motion of love in God, love of the Father for the Son and the Spirit, love of the Son for the Father and the Spirit, and love of the Spirit for the Father and the Son.  This ceaseless flow of love is superabundant and overflowing in creative generosity, spilling out into all creation in the self-revelation of the God Whom you and I adore, falling on our knees.  On a simple level I know that I am loved by my God, the Father who created me, the Son who redeemed me, and through the office of the Spirit calls me to Himself.  He says, “You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”[3]  In awe we cry, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him.”[4]

[1] ESV, I John 2:27
[2] Excerpts from The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 864-865
[3] Isaiah 43:4a
[4] Psalm 8:4