Advent: A Practical Guide

Advent is one of the shortest seasons in the church year, a time of hope, preparation, and waiting. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. But in the ancient church Advent was a time for slowing down. This season, could you take a break from the bustle, the consumerism, the pre-Christmas insanity? Could this season be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

I would argue that this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. The season helps people to wait. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. The words of the prophets, even the words of Jesus’ mother Mary in the Magnificat, long for a country and a world where justice reigns and powerful rulers are put down from their thrones. These stories help us to know that God is there with us in our longing for a different reality. This year, I think, we could use reassurance, some camaraderie of hope and longing with the saints.

What follows are a few potential practical ways to engage this short season of waiting and hope.

Try a prayer practice

Many people think of Lent as a time for a new prayer practice, but I would argue Advent can work even better. Lent is a long haul. Advent is less than a month. If you are looking for a suggestion, here are just two:

The Daily Office

The services of morning and evening prayer in the Anglican tradition are a simplification and combination of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification hopes to bring the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities of monks and nuns, and into the daily lives of common people. The Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture. For a longer explanation of the offices, check out this set of posts, a conversation about the offices with my friend Jason Evans, a recent convert to the Episcopal Church.

You can access the daily office through Mission St. Clare. They pre-load all the readings for you. They even have a great app for IOS and Android.

Contemplative Prayer

All the words of Morning or Evening prayer can seem like a lot in a season of slowing down. So, why not try silence as a gateway to prayer? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating, has re-introduced the ancient practice of centering prayer. Centering prayer is deceptively simple. You sit in silence for 20 minutes. When you find yourself engaging a thought process, you use a “sacred word” (a simple word, associated with God, that doesn’t lead to images and further thoughts). The sacred word helps you gently let go of your thoughts. Centering Prayer helps us to rest in God.

At Holy Communion we’ll be practicing Centering Prayer for three weeks in Advent on Wednesday evenings at 6pm. We’ll follow the pprayer with a simple soup supper. If you live near St. Louis, you’re welcome to join us. If you don’t, consider finding a group for practice through Contemplative Outreach. 

Here is Thomas Keating’s two-page guide to Centering Prayer.

Sitting in silence can seem difficult, at least at first. Listen to Amanda Olsted talk about her journey:

Shop with purpose

We can always try to buy less, to live more minimally, but this time of year consumption is unavoidable. There are folks we love who might be hurt if we don’t buy them a gift. So what if we shopped more intentionally? What if we paid attention not to the quantity of gifts, but the quality of life of the people producing the goods, food, and services we purchase this season?

For example: my husband and I are planning to get most of our family members shirts from Bravely, a social enterprise that was conceived by women survivors of sexual exploitation and addiction. Women employed at Bravely are participants in the Magdalene St. Louis residential program—a community where women live and recover together.

You can shop at bravely by clicking here.

Bravely

Eat differently

Advent was traditionally a season of fasting. In our time it can be anything but a fast! Cookies, candy canes, eggnog, and peppermint lattes abound. In the midst of all the temptations, could you choose to engage differently?

A fast is different from a diet. Fasting is not about body image. Fasting is knowing that you could eat something, and choosing to abstain. Fasting helps us remember that this is a season with a direction. We look forward to the Feast of Christmas by making the simple decision to eat less before the feast.

Maybe your fast could involve abstaining from meat, alcohol, or sweets. Or maybe you choose just to have one cookie a day, instead of indulging every time someone shows up with a plate. However you practice fasting, it will help you be intentional about food in a season of over-indulgence, and help you to look forward to the feast to come.

Let Go of Worry

In her book “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,” The Episcopal Priest and teacher Cynthia Borgeault points out that Contemplative Prayer helps us to let go. In the prayer, we try and let go of our busy thoughts. We try to let go of the noise that crowds our world. What we do in our prayer practice can also affect how we live our life. How can we let go of worry? How can we turn down the news, the rush, the busy? Are there ways you can practice intentional disengagement? Could you make space for quiet, for waiting, for hope?

Advent is an invitation

This year, perhaps more than most, we could use a little creative spiritual disengagement. By unplugging from the rapid cycle of news, work, and consumption, Advent invites us to encounter this time differently. Advent is a season to acknowledge the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” This season encourages us to rest in the hope that another world is on the way. If we are ready, we might help midwife God’s new creation in the smallest and subtlest ways. To be ready we need to slow down. We need to practice silence, patience, and hope.

“Spirituality” A sermon for Pentecost

Pentecost, today, we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, the coming of the tongues of flame, what we used to talk about as the “Holy Ghost.” This day begs a series of questions: “what do we mean, as Christians when we talk about “Spirituality?” What (or who) is this “Holy Spirit?” and finally, “Why bother with Christian Spirituality? What is at stake?”

I confess, I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the popular phrase: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” I understand why people want a distinction. Religion in the eyes of the twenty-first century can seem old-fashioned at best, and often religion can be downright regressive.

While I sympathize with the sentiment, for me, the jig is up. (If you can’t tell by my outfit, I’m pretty pro-religion). But here is my caveat: while I can understand WHY people use the label “spiritual but not religious,” I can’t really tell you what they mean.

It seems to me that “spirituality” is something you might be able to buy at a specialty bookstore, you know the kind that smell like patchouli and feature a number of wind chimes? There you can pick up your copy of the Zohar, along with some prayer beads, a locally made beeswax candle, and then you can go home, light incense, and chant “OM” to your hearts content. Is that what we mean by “spirituality?”

The confusion for me comes because to call all of this “spirituality” is to divorce the practices from their originating traditions. You can say holy words. You can sit in the lotus position. You can click beads through your fingers. But by doing so, I don’t think you’re getting “less religious,” if anything you’re piling the religion on thick. And as I said, I think religion is a good thing. Go ahead. Any practice that helps you slow down, hold silence, anything that helps you get to a contemplative space is good in our busy world.

For Christians, spirituality can involve chanting, prayer beads, silence, meditation, even prayer postures. Spirituality can involve a rule of life, a simple set of practices that give shape to your faith. Such a rule can be simple: pray daily; worship weekly; give generously; serve joyfully; learn constantly; make pilgrimage yearly. Such a rule can be as complex as the book handed down by St. Benedict to his followers. No matter how structured your spirituality, a word of caution to spirituality enthusiasts: these practices can take lifetime to develop.

There is an old Zen story about a young convert who comes up to his master after experiencing what he believes is enlightenment. The old teacher listens patiently and then says: “If you meet Buddha on the Road, kill him.”

Like most Zen stories (and like many of Jesus’ parables) this tale is meant to trip up the hearers. Think about what the master says. “Kill the Buddha.” Any Buddha you meet on the road is not the fullness of the Buddha. Any supposed enlightenment you experience so quickly is not the fullness of enlightenment. Beware the early epiphanies. If you experience them, keep going. Don’t get stuck.

There is another deep truth in this Zen story: it is good to have friends and guides. Spiritual directors are not just for clergy people. Gatherings in homes to read the Bible and to pray make good groundwork for the journey. The journey of faith is long, and like any long journey, the walk is easier with companions.

We’ve talked a bit about what practiced Spirituality can look like. But for Christians “Spirituality” isn’t a nebulous concept. Spirituality is specific. It refers to a person of the Trinity, of the Godhead, God’s Spirit, living with us. That very wind which blew over the waters of creation, the wisdom which brings depth to God’s followers, the Spirit of truth and justice which was upon Jesus as he proclaimed good news to the poor. Spirituality is specific, it’s about God’s spirit.

Let’s turn to this morning’s scripture for a moment. In the Gospel Jesus speaks to his disciple’s at the last supper. Philip’s anxiety is echoed around the table. The disciples are nervous about Jesus telling them he’s leaving. So he promises them “an Advocate.” God will send the Spirit. The Spirit abides within you.

Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but God has not left us. God’s Spirit dwells with us, here, now. You know this Spirit, Jesus tells his followers. Christian Spirituality is about access. Through practicing our faith, we access God’s Spirit, always present to us. Across the spectrum of Christianity those practices may look very different. Holy Rollers may find themselves on the floor. Catholics might sit in silence with rosary beads. Protestants might find inspiration in Scripture. Here at Holy Communion, we gather round a table week by week. All these practices help us to become available to the Spirit which dwells with us, remains with us, abides with us.

So, what’s at stake? Why bother with all of this Spirituality mumbo jumbo? Let me venture an answer to this question based on recent experience. A group of 13 of us returned Thursday from a trip to El Salvador.

There is a story about El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero that I believe gets at the stakes of spirituality. Romero was famed for his faithful practice. When you visit his little house, you can see the rosary beads that he wore out by praying so often. It was rumored that the Archbishop spent an hour in prayer each day. The story goes that someone asked Romero: “with all that is going on, with the death threats, and the political organizing, and the preaching, with all that busyness bishop, how do you find time to pray for an hour a day?” Unblinking Romero answered him: “on the busy days, on the anxious days, I need two hours.”

The story from Acts reminds us of the prophet Joel’s words about God’s Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The day of Pentecost, for us, is a day of celebration. Holy Communion set a series of goals last year, and we’ve met or exceeded all of our goals. We are learning to dream dreams. We are learning to make a prophetic witness in the world.

In Joel’s eyes Spirituality is not a navel-gazing activity. Spirituality is prophetic. When practice our faith, we are sent out, out into the world with a vision for justice, with prophecy. Spirituality is about accessing God’s vision, that another world is possible. The stakes are high. Too many in our world go hungry. Too many live in fear of gun violence. Too many in our world lack access to basic human rights because of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or other status. We are too divided.

On this day of Pentecost we celebrate that God poured out the Spirit on every race and language and people and nation. We celebrate the indiscriminate love of God, the wide dreams of God, the sweet Spirit in this place. We pray that we might listen to the Spirit still guiding us today so that we might leave this world a little more welcoming, a little more open to diversity, that we might leave this world a more loving community.

Happy Pentecost. May the Spirit of God, who abides with you, lead you to deeper faith and prophetic work for justice.

Amen

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.