Wilderness Repentance

As part of my sabbatical I’m reading through Mark’s gospel as we camp and visit the National Parks of the northern Rockies. Part of this is pragmatic; Mark’s gospel takes center stage beginning in Advent for our Sunday gospel readings.

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Beyond the planning though, Mark’s gospel has long been my favorite. You can read it through in less than a couple of hours, and the disciples—who eventually become the pillars of the faith—bumble around like the Keystone Kops. They clearly embody their humanness.

Facing Death in the Desert

All of my reading on desert and wilderness spirituality speaks of the necessity of dying to self. No one wants to do this, of course. No one wants to see the image they have of themselves—their identity and all they hold close—to be destroyed.

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And yet, if they want to grow, if they want to become the people God wants intends for them to be, death is on the docket.

This quote from Kerry Walters puts it well. He’s been looking at the ideas of Simone Weil and Catherine of Genoa as they ponder the need for death. He writes of Catherine’s thoughts, “When the soul lands in the purgatorial desert, the painful process of dealienation begins. In the desert, the self progressively loses its destructive attachment to [according to Catherine] ‘the things of the intellect, will or memory, and in no manner tends more to one thing than to another. Quite still and in a state of siege, the me within finds itself gradually stripped of all those things that in spiritual or bodily form gave it some comfort.’ … Weil and Catherine, as well as may other chroniclers of the desert journey, remind us that recreation is frightfully agonizing—not because the God of the desert enjoys inflicting pain, or even because there’s intrinsic value in suffering, but because the pretender self’s alienation is so engrained. Entrenched habits are stubborn, addictions recalcitrant. Once a foothold is established, the grow cement-hard. Purgative death in the desert is violent because nothing less can crack the casing of a soul enmired in entropy.” (Soul Wilderness, pg. 81)

I know it’s not what I want to experience, and yet I also know that unless I die to the false self—the one that relishes in praise from others—I will never truly grow. I don’t want it, but I know it’s the only way that leads to true life.

When the Wilderness Hits Close to Home

My allergies have been kicking up at the monastery after having a fairly easy spring back in Boston. I brought enough Claritin to last my first two weeks, but I found that the incense used during some of the services really set me off. I needed stronger backup to my daily med.
But the closest pharmacy is an hour plus away. Rather than be miserable my last day and a half, I decided to drive out to get something.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

While at the store—and back on the grid—I called to check in with Melissa and the kids, and my phone also automatically downloaded email. Since I had to make so many reservations for my sabbatical, I needed to have an email address ready, so I pulled out one I hadn’t used very much in recent years. Back when I was setting up St. Mark’s weekly email when I first arrived, I used this esoteric address as a test. But I forgot to unsubscribe it before I left. While quickly scrolling through a few emails, I saw one about a funeral.

Online Resources for Prayer

During my sermon on Sunday I mentioned I’d put together online and app resources for praying.  Here’s the list of things I’ve found (and some I’ve personally used) to make the most of your time and technology.

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Pray As You Go — A daily audio prayer with scripture site. Recommended for those beginning with prayer.

Mission of St. Clare App  — The Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer based on their popular website.

Common Prayer App— Put out by the New Monastic movement, a wonderful, rich and easy to use resource

Daily Office App — An app to purchase, but finally a great resource for the BCP  Daily Office.

Meditation Time App— Different sounds and calming images to help you not worry about the time when you pray or spend time in silence meditating on scripture or God.

Prune— A meditative game that allows you to “Cultivate what matters. Cut away the rest.”

When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.

Fred Rogers

A Rabbi, a Priest and the Son of an Imam Walk into a Mosque

That's it—no joke

I began my seminary studies on September 4, 2001.  One week later the World Trade Center Towers fell.

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Since I attended classes in New Haven, CT many of my more experienced colleagues went down to serve as chaplains. Melissa taught classes at a high school at a nearby town not many people had heard of at that time—Sandy Hook, CT—and many students had relatives or family members that had been in New York that day.

I remember a general sense of gathering together and facing this together as a nation at that time.  Gatherings for prayer took place frequently.  Signs of support appeared in yards.  And then one day, I drove behind an SUV which had a duct-tape message on the back window.

Nuke ’em!

Photo Credit: Photosightfaces via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Photosightfaces via Compfight cc

Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.

Marianne Williamson

The Fast God Desires

An Ash Wednesday Sermon

A Lenten Sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12.

The Almighty One in the book of the Prophet Isaiah asks: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”    These are hard words on a day when we gather together to have ashes placed on our foreheads in an act of our own humility.  We gather midweek at church to begin a holy Lent, with maybe some hope of getting a little extra credit, and already God is begging the question, “Why are you here?”

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The Lord continues: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  What God says to us, the ones assembled on this holy day, is that we shouldn’t worry about extra credit or appearing to be holier than the ones not here with us.  That if we truly want to understand the desires of God, we should fast from those things in us that cast down the lowly and harm the poor.  We should look more closely at our own lives and the sin that makes us turn a blind eye to the ones in need.  We should question those in power who create systems of injustice that perpetuate the status of the poor and the ones living in poverty.

And in one fell swoop the Word of the Lord shifts Ash Wednesday from being about us to being about others.  Humility isn’t really humility if we do things we hope will show others how humble we are.  “Beware of practicing your piety before other in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

According to measures put together by the USDA some 767,000 people in Massachusetts faced what is known as “food insecurity” during 2013, including more than 87,000 right here in Worcester County. “Food insecurity refers to a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.  Food insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.”  Nationwide there are more than 48 million people living in food insecure households, with 15.3 million of those being children.

We have a collection of prayers that we use at meal times in our house that we purchased from Forward Movement.  The prayers can be propped up so they can be said by all.  One of my favorites is this: “Lord, feed the hungry.  And for those of us who have plenty, may we hunger for you.  Amen.”  I love its brevity and clarity to be sure, but I’m also taken by its clarion call to do something more.  I know that I am the Lord’s hands and feet, and that the answer to my prayer—the feeding of the hungry—can happen through me if I truly hunger for God.  It can happen if I recognize the plenty I already have.  If I choose the right kind of fast.

Four years ago some of us read together Chris Seay’s book A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor.  It’s a daily devotion for Lent that reflects on how for many of us our lives are shaped by food, what we’re in the mood for, whether we need to cut back on carbs, or how we turn to food for comfort.  Most of the poor in our world do not have this luxury.  Chris invites us to make food choices reflecting the poor during the 40 days of Lent.  Perhaps eating food similar to the family of a child we sponsor through a relief organization, or making do on the amount families get through SNAP and other programs.  He encourages his readers both fast and, one day a week, to feast with joy in order to recognize the abundance of God’s kingdom, and allowing for the rhythm of Lent with Sundays always marked as a feast day as we remember Jesus’ resurrection.

With all this in mind, I’ve personally decided to forgo lunch and any snacks from breakfast until dinner during Lent, and intentionally making those meals generally simpler—oatmeal and fruit in the morning, and soups and bread in the evening.  I’m doing this to remember the food insecure among us—the parents who choose not to eat so they can give more of the little food they have to their children—and to live into that prayer that I may hunger for God.  This sort of thing is not easy for me—many of you know I love to cook and eat food in general—and I’m not telling you this to make myself look good or somehow holier because I don’t think that at all really.  I just want to hunger for God; to take on the fast that God desires.  To share bread and shelter and clothes with those who might need it.  To give away the money I won’t be spending on lunches to an organization feeding the ones truly in need.  To not only pray for change to happen but to become more involved and work toward that change myself, all the while relying on God for sustenance.    

And my prayer for you is that whatever you may be feeling called to give up or take on this Lent, that you do it for no other reason than wanting to draw closer to God.  That your devotion or fasting or alms-giving would show your desire to hunger after God and to walk more closely with Jesus in the days ahead.  When we do these things, Isaiah tells us, “Then the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”  May it be so for each of us these 40 days.  May we have all our needs satisfied by the Almighty.  Amen.

3 Snatches of Light in the Darkness

Darkness permeates are time both atmospherically—the sun sets earlier each night for a couple more weeks—and ideologically. Terror attacks, racial profiling, xenophobia have flooded the news cycles recently. Rather than talk about this darkness (yet again) I wanted to share messages of the light with my congregation this week. This sermon comes is based on Luke 1:67-80.

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When I was a kid we used to play the game of who could be the quietest the longest.  As every parent can guess, my mom would be the one to suggest the game on long road trips or even short jaunts to the store as we drove in our station wagon.  My sister or a friend in the car would make goofy faces at one another to try to make each other utter some sound first.  My tactic was to look out the window until someone else caved.  We’d last a long time, at least two or three minutes, and would play a couple of rounds more.  All told there might have been 5 minutes of silence—it was golden for some in the car, I suspect.

A good nine months of silence was endured by Zechariah.  He happened to be a priest and, as Luke tells us, he happened to be the one selected by lot to make the offering of incense in the sanctuary of the Lord one day. As he went in to the sanctuary by himself, the rest of the assembly gathered outside waiting for him.  In the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared.  “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the angel proclaimed, “for your prayers have been heard!” The angel went on to say, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Hope in the Dark Night

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Photo Credit: Thad Ligon via Compfight cc

I’ve learned that all of us face dark times. I wish that weren’t the case; why wish anyone to have to experience difficulties in life? In my role as a priest, I hear the stories and sometimes have the honor of walking with people through their dark nights. These words are for them and for the others who fear they have been abandoned by God.

A sermon based on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”  These words of Job tear at our souls.  Here he is desolate and alone, fearing he has been forgotten by God.  We hear these words echoed in the cry from the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Both are in what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.”  And neither of them wants to be there in that seemingly God-forsaken place.  Afraid and alone and overwhelmed.