PracticingLent

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.

PracticingLent

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.

PracticingLent

Practicing Lent: Service and Justice

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

Jason: Justice is a sexy word these days. Many congregations boast of their “social justice” programs. But I think it’s important to make clear that there is a difference between “justice” and “mercy.” Even Scripture draws a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament book of Micah we read, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The Christian community is called to do both of these; extending mercy and acting for justice. But they are not the same.

Before moving to Washington, DC I worked for a congregation that had an incredible feeding program for the urban poor in San Diego. On Sunday afternoons, this program could feed hundreds of people. And while this work was good and deeply Christian it was not justice, it was mercy. It was a noble and charitable act extended by privileged Christians to those with much less. It’s something we’re called to do. Even Jesus said that we are serving him when we serve others in this way. This is mercy. Not justice.

To seek justice is to seek change. Feeding the urban poor of our city, who while disadvantaged were far from starving, was a good practice but it was not changing the situation of those without a home, with nothing in the foreseeable future that might change their financial situation. Seeking justice changes the future of those without enough. We, as people following the way of Jesus, are called to do both.

Mike: The former assistant bishop of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, used to say that Episcopalians loved that quote from Micah, but we got it backwards. We often love justice and practice mercy. When you first moved to DC, I was a priest at St John’s Lafayette Square, a congregation that was engaging in justice work around housing the homeless. The work was slow. It involved tense meetings with city council members and organizing voter turnout to show political power.

Before I go on, I should point out that St. John’s is most famous for its role as the “Church of the Presidents.” Every US president since Madison has worshiped at the congregation, at least once or twice. People dress up for church. St. John’s can be a fancy place. The homeless are welcome at St. John’s, but we would ask someone who came regularly to try and shower before they came to church. When you are working with a population that faces mental illness and substance abuse, setting “ground rules” can be important. There is another Episcopal church just a couple of blocks away that is known as a “homeless church.” Most of the parishioners at the early service are housing insecure, and they have a big feeding ministry every Sunday morning. Sometimes people referred to Epiphany, the other church, as a more “justice oriented” church. I always had a hard time with that, St. John’s was working with the Interfaith organizations that were trying to get at the root of the problem and house the people that Epiphany served.

Jason: Every congregation–indeed, each individual–has a particular charism, a unique calling. Some are passionate about works of mercy, while others are just as passionate about working for justice. Both are deeply Christian and all Christians are called to do both; offering relief to those in need and changing the systems that create the need for relief. All at the same time. At the core of the practices of mercy and justice (what we are categorizing as “service”) is a call to relationship with the “other.” Since the most ancient of conversations between God and the Hebrew people there has been a unique distinction of God’s people: they were always called to consider the outsider, to offer basic human dignity to those that others may not. Who is our “other”? Make it personal, who is your “other”?

Mike: There’s a quote from Australian Aboriginal Organizers from the 1970s that I find really compelling. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I shy away from the service and mercy paradigm sometimes because it can be “paternalistic.” After “serving” the poor, I can walk away feeling like I have proved that I am a good person. But the boundaries between service and justice are permeable. Often, through long time mercy work, I have known people who built relationships with someone who might be called “other:” a social worker who befriended a client, a priest who ended up serving as the godmother for the children of an undocumented immigrant couple. Relationships that are formed in service, if we let them, can transform us. We can realize that without “the other” we are not whole. When we do so, I believe, we get closer to that reality that Jesus described as “The Reign of God,” and Dr. King described as “The Beloved Community.” To get there we’ll need both service and justice.