Practicing Lent: Submission/Obedience

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: On Pentecost Sunday, I will be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Many have asked me if confirmation is a means to some end. “Is it necessary for your job?” “Are you planning on becoming a priest?” Neither of these were my motivation.

I remember reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline years ago and thinking to myself, “I’ve never practiced the spiritual discipline of submission.” I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life but I have never been called to submit to the wisdom and authority of the community–to trust the Spirit at work through a collection of God’s people … or if I was called to such a practice, I wasn’t paying attention. I decided to go through the confirmation process because I needed a physical example, a symbolic ritual to root me to the practice of spiritual obedience.

Mike: Lent is the traditional time of preparation for new converts for baptism, confirmation, and reception into the tradition. In the service, you make promises in front of a bishop. Episcopalians make a big show of a lot of liturgy, and that image of making promises to a Bishop is a pretty powerful one. The Bishop represents the unity of the church. She (or he) is the representative of the whole community of the faithful. When you make the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, you choose to take on an element of discipline.

For those of us who are ordained, this can take a whole other tack. When I was approved to go to seminary, I was ecstatic. I really wanted to study at Yale’s Divinity School. My bishop told me no. I was going to HIS seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Obedience can be a tough pill to swallow. I spent my first year at seminary resenting his decision, but knowing that if I wanted to be a priest, I didn’t have a choice.

A year into seminary, I started to discover some pretty amazing friendships. I realized that Washington opened some great opportunities for experiences that weren’t available to me in New Haven, Connecticut (where Yale is located). I was chosen to be a seminarian, and later a priest at a church right by the White House. I helped with a huge young adult ministry and a Latino congregation. Through a friend from Virginia Seminary, I met my husband. My life today would be completely different if I hadn’t obeyed my bishop. I discovered that obedience wasn’t so much about the content of the decision, but in my reaction to the decision. It wasn’t about where I went to seminary so much as who I was as a person when I got there.

There is a certain gift in giving some of your power over, a freedom. You can focus less on making the right choice, and more on trying to grow as a person. Today, I am very grateful for my time at my unchosen seminary. I’m such a big Virginia Seminary supporter that I have somehow been elected Vice President of the Alumni Society. (And I got to nominate my former Bishop to run for the executive board, which made both of us laugh). Obedience for me opened up some incredible doors, but it wasn’t easy to take at first.

Jason: I feel the need to step back for a second and look at this practice from another angle.

It would be quite easy for someone like me–a white, hetero male–to talk about practices such as obedience, or humility, or nonviolence–for example–and fail to take into consideration that for others these practices may sound or feel more like subjugation, humiliation, or annihilation. I’m self-aware enough to see that part of my privilege is being able to choose submission. I can’t answer for others, but for myself this is part of why I feel the need to practice submission–part of being a Christian, for me, means a willingness to let go of authority I didn’t earn but received due to societal sin.

That said, choosing spiritual submission is not the same as being subject to oppression. Oppression presumes someone is less valuable. The opposite would be self-aggrandizement, which presumes that the one’s worth supersedes all others. The practice of spiritual submission begins with the conviction that each of us is born with priceless worth. It ends with the conviction that the purpose for that priceless worth is found in service to the whole. The practice of obedience comes down to a willing response to offer your God-given gifts to the needs of your faith community without your personal benefit as contingency.

Mike: I’m grateful for your clarification here. While I don’t share your “hetero” identity,  it is important to acknowledge that we both speak from a position of incredible privilege. One of the best paradigms for talking about submission is the reading from last night, Maundy Thursday. Jesus, at the last supper washes the disciples feet.

I had the opportunity once to hear Andy Stanley, the Evangelical pastor from Georgia, preach on this lesson. It was at the morning service we held at St. John’s for President Obama’s second inauguration. St. John’s has held a service for almost every presidential inauguration since the early years of the United States. The preacher looked out over the crowd, a congregation that included the President, the Vice-President, most of the President’s cabinet, even Oprah was there. He asked them: “What do you do when you discover you are the most powerful person in the room?” You could hear a pin drop. I could tell, a lot of them were trying to decide who the most powerful person in the room was.

I think Andy Stanley hit the nail right on the head. Jesus says to his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet for “servants are not greater than their masters.” We follow, we obey, we submit ourselves as Christians to a teacher who lead by serving. Submission is the way of getting ourselves out of the way, getting our egos out of the way, and remembering our place. Sometimes that practice has gone awry in Christian history. People have wielded spiritual power for self-serving purposes. But practiced well, obedience/submission can be life giving, for ourselves, for the church, and for the world.


Practicing Lent: Fasting

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: How many people have you heard say something like, “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent?” Most faith traditions practice a time of fasting. Yet, there is a lot more to fasting that simply abstaining from something for a period of time–it’s more than a 40 day diet plan! Maybe the simplest explanation is to say that the intent of fasting is to a create a space for you and God. For most of us here in the western world, that means considering what things we can take out of life in order to create a window of time for us to consider God and our deep need for nurturing that relationship.


Mike: I gave up meat one Lent, and stuck with being a vegetarian for three years. For me the practice came from living at a seminary and eating all of my meals in a dining hall. Virginia Seminary served a lot of meat, and I didn’t have any control of the quality or the source. I’d moved to Virginia from California where I had bought into “local, free range” ideals for meat. My decision to stop eating meat meant that I had to be more intentional about my diet. I had to think about how to get the nutrients I needed, and what I didn’t need, which was helpful with my health, especially since a dining hall is an easy place to just eat whatever is in front of you. But fasting was more than just the food. I found exactly what you are talking about, with fasting, but for me wasn’t about time, but about space. By deciding to go against the grain of most people’s eating, a space opened up to be intentional, to consciously think about the decisions I was making about food.


Jason: Fasting isn’t simply a spiritual practice, it has physical benefits for many of us as well. For some, though, taking foods out of their diet isn’t a healthy practice. We certainly wouldn’t encourage harming your body. There are other ways to create that space that are not dietary. For example, during this season of Lent, I decided to curb my digital practices. I turned off all the notifications I get on my smartphone and even deleted some apps off my phone in order to focus my attention and remove distractions. Like many other fasts, my hope is that during this season I pick up a practice that I keep throughout the year.


Mike: I would agree. I have a number of friends who have to be incredibly careful about decisions around food. Eating disorders are far more common than any of us realize. One thing I discovered about fasting from meat, was that the practice of saying “no” really fortified me in ways I didn’t expect. Saying no to meat meant having to navigate some social awkwardness. I would have to explain to people that I was a vegetarian, and I wouldn’t eat something they cooked, which was hard to do sometimes. What amazed me was that fasting this way helped me be ready to say “no” to all sorts of other things in social situations. I got better at saying “no” to a meeting that would take me away from time with my family and friends. I got better at saying, “no, I don’t check my email 5 times a day.” I was amazed how the practice of fasting in one area of my life helped me to be strong enough to say “no” in other areas of my life. Fasting helped me prioritize, and make sure I was keeping room for the things I wanted to say “yes” to, like prayer, reflection, and time with friends and family.
Jason: Not all fasts are about removing things from your life. Sometimes, the best “fast” is adding something. Exercise. Nature Walks. Journaling. Acts of justice or mercy. What I have found is that whatever action you can commit to that triggers the acknowledgment of the Holy and creates that space is what you need to find on a regular basis.


Do we need the poor with us to be Christian?

The sermon this morning, drawing on the Gospel of John asks two questions: “how do we pay attention to Jesus?” and “Do we have the poor with us?” Our reading from John really builds us up for the week to come. Jesus and the disciples are about to make the grand entry into Jerusalem, with branches swaying. We’ll reenact that triumphal entry next week as we start Holy Week with Palm Sunday. Jesus and the disciples this week are on the road to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.

Before they arrive, they stop in at their friend Lazarus’ home in Bethany. They have a meal with his sisters. You might remember them from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke chapter 10 Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister Mary to quit dawdling at the teacher’s feet, and to help her in the kitchen. Martha, ever industrious, doesn’t appear in our story this morning. She was probably too busy preparing food, doing dishes. Mary, on the other hand, is paying attention to Jesus’ feet, and she does something shocking. She anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Thousands of dollars worth of this smelly stuff, by today’s standard. We can understand why Judas says what he does (even if John doubts his true motives).

Jesus comes to Mary’s defense, again. Like he told Martha before, when she asked him to hurry Mary to the kitchen. Jesus stands on Mary’s side. “Leave her alone.” I found myself wondering about Mary this week. Everyone else seems to know what is best for this woman. Martha, Judas, they want Jesus to tell her she’s wrong.

I wondered this week what this Mary was like. Now Mary was a apparently a very common name in Jesus’ time. I won’t blame you if you mix up your Marys from time to time. This is not Mary the Mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene. This is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. This Mary is, a little different, you could say. She’s distracted, in the perspective of others. You might also say that this Mary seems to pay attention to Jesus better than others, even though we barely hear her speak. In chapter 11 of John’s Gospel her sister Martha debates Jesus. Mary’s only words simply repeats her sister “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” I found myself wondering this week whether today, if we met Mary, we might describe her as on the autism spectrum, or as having a learning disability. There’s no way to know, the diagnosis didn’t exist at the time, but the idea explains her interactions with Jesus, why she seems to understand him with her actions better than others understand him with words.

Words are powerful, and Jesus words to Judas catch my attention: “You always have the poor with you.” Three years ago this week, I was standing in “Freedom Park,” an audacious name for a little hunk of concrete in Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Washington DC’s City Hall. A group of homeless service advocates brought many of their regular clients to the park to display artwork. The homeless had painted 500 cardboard homes and had hung them up on clotheslines. The art represented the hope that the city government could house 500 of the city’s chronically homeless that year. It was one of the most beautiful protests I had ever participated in, and the campaign would pay off in the end.

In the midst of the action my friend Eric, who himself is homeless, walked up to me. Eric wanted to bend my ear for a moment. He said to me, “Reverend, you know there is a passage in scripture where Jesus says, ‘you will always have the poor with you.’” “Yes,” I responded, “in fact I’m preaching about that passage on Sunday.” (This lesson comes up every three years just before Holy Week). “Good,“ he said, “I caught you in time. Preachers get that passage wrong.” I was obviously intrigued. Eric went on, “people use this passage to say that you can’t ever do away with poverty. They say Jesus said there would always be poor people, but that is wrong. That’s not what he meant. This isn’t prophesy from Jesus that we’ll never be able to end poverty. We could end poverty if we really wanted to.”

I liked Eric’s interpretation of scripture. It squared with the reading I had been doing around this text. I think Eric is right; I don’t think Jesus meant that we could never end poverty. So what does Jesus mean, “you will always have the poor with you?”

I had a post card up on my wall in my office back in Washington. It got lost in the move, and I’m still a little sad. The card featured a quote from a Roman Catholic archbishop from Brazil: Dom Helder Camara. Known as the the bishop of the slums, Camara famously said, “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Having the poor with you, always, means asking the hard questions about how the structures of our society impoverish some, while allowing others to flourish.

In our story today from John, I wonder if selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would have been the easy answer. Acts of mercy make us feel good, and then they are over. Feeding someone at a soup kitchen, handing someone change for the bus, bringing food to a food pantry, these acts of mercy make us feel good and then we get to go home. “Having the poor with us always,” is more difficult. “Always” is a strong word, “always” is a word that defines loyalty, defines identity. “You will have the poor with you always” is not easy, because it means that we have to have an ongoing relationship with the poor. Jesus words make life messy.

Jesus words this morning can be seen as an invitation to ask: Do we have the poor with us always? Do we have the poor with us when we make laws about gun violence, which disproportionately affects poor communities? Do we have the poor with us when we make decisions to send our military into harm’s way, a military whose combat troops come disproportionately from the poor families in our country? Do we have the poor with us when we make decisions about public schools and about healthcare? Do we have the poor with us when we think about sensible immigration reform that would protect the rights of the 12 million people who work in this country without the protections of a visa? Do we have the poor with us always?

The question brings me back to Mary, and my theory that Mary was a little different. Whether I am on to something, wondering whether Mary was on the spectrum, or not, there is something about this Mary. She understands Jesus. When others are distracted by work and ideas, she spends time washing his feet. She is present to Jesus. When Judas and Martha don’t get it, Jesus explains. She has taken the better part. She helps prepare him for his burial. Mary understands what is ahead for Jesus. Mary is there, present, when others are distracted by words and work.

Distraction words and work seem to go together, at least according to Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Dutch priest, a Roman Catholic, a Jesuit. He spent the bulk of his career teaching spirituality at Harvard and Yale. He was a sought after speaker and teacher. His books were best sellers, but he often felt that he was missing something in life. He retired early from his prestigious career, and chased God’s call among the poor of Latin America. He moved to Peru. But it didn’t stick. It turned out that the idea of “serving the the poor” didn’t work out the way that Henri planned.

Henri returned to North America, and on a bit of a whim, he accepted an invitation to spend some time at the L’arche community in Toronto. L’arche is an international ecumenical Christian Community. The name means “rainbow” in French. The community was founded on a single principle: People with and without intellectual and physical disabilities live and work together at L’arche in Christian community. Members with disabilities are called “core members” because they are at the heart of the community. The able bodied members are called “assistants.” Henri came to visit, and stayed for the rest of his life.

Henri was assigned to assist Adam, a young man with extreme physical and intellectual disabilities. Adam couldn’t move his own body. He couldn’t speak. The priest’s task was to get Adam up in the morning, bathed, shaved, dressed, fed, and off to his daily program. The task seemed daunting to Nouwen. But gradually, he felt more confident. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, had told Nouwen, “L’Arche is not built around the word but around the body. We are so privileged to be entrusted with the body of another.” So Nouwen, the great writer, whose life had been shaped by words, now had to focus on another person’s body fragile body. In the awkward work, he found grace.

Nouwen wrote that these hours helping Adam get ready for the day became his quiet hours, his prayer time. “Adam kept ‘telling’ me in such a quiet way, ‘Just be with me and trust that this is where you have to be…nowhere else.” Eventually, this priest who searched the world for a calling, found his vocation with a severely disabled young man. He writes, “Adam was longer a stranger to me. He was becoming a friend and a trustworthy companion, explaining to me by his very presence what I should have known all along: that what I most desire in life—love, friendship, community, and a deep sense of belonging—I was finding with him.” Adam taught the theologian to be present in the moment, and to receive the gift of God’s presence.

Henri Nouwen’s relationship with Adam makes me think about Jesus and Mary, this Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. I wonder if whatever made Mary different made her special to Jesus. Mary is able to be present to Jesus in a way that baffles the more normal characters. She scandalizes Judas and Martha by the way she pays attention to Jesus. What can we learn from Mary, from Adam, about paying attention?

I wonder whether this sort of relationship is what Jesus had in mind when he tells the disciples, “you have the poor with you always.” Is Jesus inviting them, inviting us, to pay attention? Is he inviting us to invest in deeply messy relationships? Could our salvation depend on how we pay attention to the lost, the least, and the left out? Could our identity as followers of Jesus depend on how we attend to the intellectually and physically disabled? Do we need the poor with us in order to be Christian?

The Gospel this morning asks us hard questions, important questions. They are questions we will carry on the road with us next week, as we walk with Jesus through Holy Week, as we seek to be present to Jesus.