Archive for December, 2009

An Interiority Conspiracy

Within our culture, hurriedness and distraction is normal, solitude and silence are not.  I find myself working harder and harder to create balance between my contemplative spiritual practices and the crush of life and ministry. Perhaps you can identify. The results are often less than satisfactory for me.

Why is this? Why is it that we fail to create space for interiority? Although it would be easy to blame the busyness and hurriedness of our lives, the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t think contemplatively because we just never get around to it. It’s just like nearly all of our life resolutions. We don’t keep them because we just don’t get around to it. Let me borrow an apt metaphor from Ronald Rolheiser that may help us understand the pull of our pathological busyness – that of a car wash.

After a recent storm, I pulled into a local car wash. After paying for the wash, I pulled up to the entrance where I was instructed to leave my motor running, put my car in neutral, take my hands off the steering wheel and keep my foot off the brake. The concept is simple: let the machine suck you through. Do you ever feel as if your typical day just sucks you through?

We tell ourselves we should do something but seldom do anything to make a change. As Mark Twain said, “It’s like the weather – everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it.” In the case of the weather, we can’t do anything. When it comes to developing ordinary and spiritual awareness, we can do something. But what? How do we get a handle on life so that it does not suck us through?

Consider this for your New Year’s resolution – a half-hour of silence once a day even twice a day if you can afford the time. Everyone who tries it agrees, it will transform your life. In a culture that conspires against interiority, I can’t think of better spiritual advice for the coming year.

An Ordinary Monasticism

Contemplative David Steindl-Rast suggests that leisure is not the realm of those who have time, but rather the virtue of those who give each moment the time it deserves. How powerful is that statement in the midst of the holiday rush? Even if we are conscious of our pathological busyness, I wonder if the business of Christmas leaves any time to actually live the Advent. Ron Rohlheiser proposes that we need a kind of monasticism in our lives.

All of life in a monastery is governed by the bell. Participants in the monastic life know that time is not their own. When the bell tolls they must drop what they are doing and move on to what’s next. Their lives are regulated by a bell to remind them that time is not their own and there is, as Solomon wrote, a time and season for everything in life.

There is parallel between the monastic life and our own lives. We, too, answer to the bell albeit in a different form. For most of us it’s the alarm clock and iPhone reminders that dictate our daily lives. Like monks we sleep, rise, exercise, eat and work not always when we want to but when it’s time.

Rohlheiser goes on to suggest that our monasticism, like those in cloister, has a spiritual payoff. “To be forced to work, to be tied down with duties, to have to get up early, to have little time to call your own, to be burdened with the responsibility of children…to go to bed exhausted after a working day is to be in touch with our humanity.”

Perhaps the crazy pace of this Advent season helps us give each instant of our lives the time it deserves not just the time we feel like giving it. What do you think?

Christmas Cynicism

The final week of Advent is upon us and with it the seemingly countless invitations to Christmas and Holiday parties. The last two weeks have been filled with many such events for me and my family. If I didn’t believe in Advent fatigue before now, I might just need to reconsider! It’s not the religious observances of the season that exhaust me but rather the other rituals that surround it. My family and my church are participating in the Advent Conspiracy (www.adventconspiracy.org) this year. Yesterday our church chose to be the church instead of going to church. We organized into teams and with the help of Christain Community Action (www.ccahelps.org) brought Christmas to needy families in our community. What a joy it was to worship fully by spending less on our wants so we could give to those with real needs.

If you are like many with whom I have relationship, you might wonder if our Christmas celebrations begin way to early, focus far too little on the real meaning of Christmas and potentially obliterate our Advent awareness rather than highlighting it. It’s easy to become cynical of Christmas if all you pay attention to is the excesses encouraged during the season. But we must not give into the urge to do away with the rituals of the season. Just because something is done badly does not mean it should be cancelled. What we need instead is to recover the tinsel, lights and social gatherings of Christmas and put them to use for the Kingdom. Have the parties! Trim the turkey and tree! Carol through the neighborhood! Go ahead and celebrate the birth of our Savior! Just be sure to share why you’re celebrating!

Christmas Dis-ease

It was Sigmund Freud who said that neurosis – the concept that one suffers more than one needs to – is the disease of the normal person. Neurosis, for Freud, is more of a dis-ease than a disease. Freud believed this dis-ease to come about as a result of repressed sexual desire. Eventually these repressed desires erupt, dominate and preoccupy our lives in negative ways. I suspect there is some truth in that.

The 20th century existential philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that we are all neurotic but our dis-ease is not from repressed sexuality but rather stems from our fear of death. He suggested that we all have a deep sense of our own mortality and repress it constantly either consciously or subconsciously. This constant repression robs us of the fullness of life because we are afraid of death. Perhaps there is a piece of this truth in this as well.

The latest research suggested that our restlessness is not primarily based in repressed sexuality or fear of death. The reason our lives are filled with dis-ease and discontentment is that we live in a culture that exalts the significance of the individual, while at the same time downplaying the significance of the Imago Dei within us. These two emphases – exaltation of individualism and the down-playing of our God-reflection – cannot go together without creating a restlessness inside of all of us.

In the words of Ronald Rohlheiser, “A fundamental dis-ease results when the truths that are revealed by God are taught in a world that postures independence of God.” God’s definition of humanity is built on the foundation that we are made in His image and created for connection with Him, each other and the physical world around us. Our culture bombards us with messages of our significance but often deprives us of the one thing that makes us so – God.

But how is all of this connected to Christmas? Why a post about Christmas neurosis? This all stems from an observation a friend of mine made while visiting north Dallas this past weekend. As we drove around enjoying the Christmas lights and decorations in Plano and Frisco, he was struck with how few of the lights and decorations connected Christmas with Christ. So I began to take notice in my own neighborhood. Sadly, it’s true. Christ seems to be slowly disappearing from Christmas. One more thing to cause dis-ease this Christmas season!

A Strange Concept to Consider during Advent

I’ve been spending quite a bit of my personal study time reading outside of my faith tradition. One of my favorite is Ronald Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology (RC) in San Antonio, TX. His books, Forgotten Among the Lilies, The Restless Heart and The Holy Longing are truly must reads. Today he turned my Advent focus to chastity (I know, a strange concept to tie to Advent and Christmas).

Evangelicals don’t often talk about the concept of chastity but when we do, it is generally defined in an overly-narrow and often false concept. Chastity equals sexual abstinence, or at least as far as most of our definitions go. It’s important to understand that chastity is not the same as celibacy. Rolheiser suggests that it is not even, first and foremost, a sexual concept – you can be chase but not celibate and celibate but not chaste. What then is chastity?

Rolheiser suggests that we are chaste when, “we stand before the world, others and God in a way which allows them to be fully themselves without letting our own impatience, selfishness, or unwillingness to remain in tension violate their reality and their natural unfolding.” Put another way, Rolheiser says, “chastity is the virtue that invites us to live in patience, to wait to respect what’s other, and to carry tension long enough so that the other can truly be other and gift can unfold precisely as gift.”

How powerful is that image for Advent? Israel has been waiting for countless generations. They’ve endured multiple captivities, years of God-silence and at the time of Christ’s birth, they are in Promised Land but not in possession of it. Into that tension is born the Christ child. God’s miraculous gift of presence then unfolds into the gift of the Messiah. In the words of author Nikos Kazantzakis, “God, it seems, is never in a hurry, while we are always in a hurry.” Never is this statement more true then during the Christmas season. May you and I allow Advent to unfold according to its own innate rhythms no matter how it tries our patience. A true celebration of Advent allows for no shortcuts.

Of Derrida and Giving

Advent season presents a challenge for us to consider. When confronted with the ultimate love gift of God in the sending of His Son, one wonders whether we have ever truly given anything. I would suggest that our gift-giving is not in the manner of God’s gift to us but rather given as an exchange (where we selfishly expect something in return). Sometimes we give to get a present in exchange, but more often the return expected is more subtle such as the sensation we get when buying the “perfect” gift or the satisfying feeling we experience because of the effusive thanks we receive. Could we say that a gift is purer when the one who receives doesn’t know who gave it? Would not an even purer gift not only be given anonymously but one where nothing was actually given (think of offering forgiveness to someone who wrongs you without knowing – you’ve offered a gift which is not a thing)? Even that type of giving is fraught with the temptations of pride and self-satisfaction.

The 20th century French philosopher Jacques Derrida claimed that the perfect gift would have to have a third criteria – the giver would not know that he or she had given it. A pure and loving gift would be one that we do not use in order to get a reward because the receiver does not know of the gift, nothing is actually given and the giver is not aware they have given anything. As impossible and ridiculous as this may sound, one could suggest that this is what encompasses true Christian giving. 21st century philosopher Peter Rollins says this about true Christian giving: “For a love that is born from God is a love that gives with the same reflex as that which causes a bird to sing or the heart to beat…an act of love could involve giving money to someone on the street with stopping to think, or talking to someone who is in pain without thought that we are doing anything special or different from any other daily activity”

May our lives this Advent season be full of acts of love of this kind that will be invisible to us.

Advent Conspiracy

My family is participating in the Advent Conspiracy (www.adventconspiracy.org). What is the Advent Conspiracy? It’s about putting Christ back in Christmas. Somewhere in the bustle of wrapping paper, packed malls and endless shopping lists, there is a Story we long to connect with. It’s a story of a loving Savior who came to Earth wrapped in nothing more than human skin who would one day redeem and restore the world one person at a time. And, despite our best intentions, somehow that story becomes nothing more than a footnote to our endless to-do lists during the Christmas season. In putting Christ’s story at the center of our family’s celebration we are committing to spending less, giving more and demonstrating love.

Let’s face it; we don’t need most things we get at Christmas. By changing our spending habits at Christmas and instead focusing on the gift we were designed to celebrate during Advent, we’re pushing back on the consumer-driven culture that is North Dallas that has somehow wrapped itself around the very heart of Christmas.

By saying “no” to over-spending and “yes” to a very ancient way of expressing love, we have the chance to connect with The [W]hole Story in ways we’ve always hoped.   What does this mean for my family? It means taking one less gift out from the “must-have” list and giving a relational gift to a needy family in our community. More on the concept of gift-giving in my next post.