There are rituals, especially initiation rituals, that one undergoes only once, where the transformative power works partly by overstimulating the psyche and by heating the emotions to a new fever. But the rituals that are meant to sustain our daily lives do not work that way. In fact, they work the opposite way. They are not meant to be an experience of high energy and creativity, but are meant precisely to be predictable, repetitive, simple, straightforward, and brief … The rituals that sustain our daily lives do not work through novelty or by seeking to raise our psychic temperature. What they try to effect is not novelty, but rhythm; not the current, but the timeless; and not the emotional, but the archetypal.
-Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, p.236
I played competitive baseball from age eight to twenty-two. This period took me from little league all the way up through four years of NCAA college baseball. The experience of being part of many different teams meant that I received a lot of coaching. I was formed as a player by these coaches, and I became a better, more complete player through their guidance in practices. Following my college career I also coached jr. high baseball for a local school district for a number of years. This too, was a learning experience. Coaching is part of a formation process: we receive instruction and learn a way of doing something by doing it over and over and over again.
Coaches are also known for giving passionate, high energy speeches, in order to inspire their teams to perform. They stir the players’ emotions in order to produce better play from the team. And sometimes this works-for a short time. But what makes a team successful, what sustains growth as a player and as a team, is the faithful, ritual practice of the basic elements of the game. Sometimes we call these the “fundamentals” of the game (as Skip from Bull Durham said, “This is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball”, without “lollygagging” of course).
As a player I was formed most effectively, not by the impassioned speeches of the coach (they got us “fired up” for sure…for about an inning) but rather by the hundred ground balls I fielded every day. Or by long-tossing (throwing to build arm strength) and soft-tossing (hitting into a screen) each day. One particularly boring practice that a junior high coach made us do (and that I later taught my players to do) was to field soft ground balls without our gloves on. This practice taught us to focus on the small things that we often overlooked, like watching the ball all the way into our hands and coming up ready to throw properly. Following this practice, a round of infield/outfield practice often was much less mistake prone. Simple, boring rituals like this one helped sustain me as a player, when I was out in the field and had to make a play on a sharply hit ball. The routine of practicing the boring stuff created muscle memory and an ability to react almost instantly to what I experienced in the field, providing an advantage in the game.
As with sports, in the spiritual life we also need to focus on the boring practices and not just look for the high energy pep talk all the time. In the above quote, Ronald Rolheiser invites us to examine our misgivings (or even misunderstandings) about rituals. Ritual is often dismissed as boring, dead, unemotional, and therefore practically worthless. Give me more high energy/fun/exciting/entertaining stuff so I can get an emotional high! But that may be all it is-a high or an emotional experience, and likely one that will not last. So that’s where the “boring” practices come in. Meditating on a small piece of scripture for weeks at a time. Using a prayer book for morning/midday/evening prayer. Creating space for twenty minutes of silence/solitude during the day. These practices may not seem especially exciting. But these kind of rituals help sustain us in this every day life with God and with others, helping to form in us a rhythm through which we might notice, encounter, or experience God’s presence more naturally.
I am thankful for my baseball coaches, as they formed me both as a player and a leader. But I am also grateful for the other “coaches” who continue to form me spiritually: family members, pastors, seminary instructors, colleagues, and writers like Rolheiser and many others. It took a while, but I am appreciating the importance of the boring practices. This kind of coaching sustains me in the daily walk with Jesus, and at times is a true source of growth and grace.
I am in the process of reading Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. In a chapter on ecclesiology he quotes Alan Jones (Journey Into Christ):
In the waters of baptism we are reminded that we are not born in a vacuum, nor do we journey entirely alone (although loneliness is often part of the burden). Being reborn, being made alive, involves being born into a community. So there are strings attached to this adventure. Far from being the spiritual journey of the solitary individual in search of God, it drags a people, a church, a nation, the human race, along with it. (p.111)
There is much said about the shortcomings and faults of church communities (and a lot of it legit). But let’s look at this from the other side. How have you benefited from journeying with a church or community of faith?
35 James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”
38 Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, 40 but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John. 42 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45 for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”
(Common English Bible)
“do for us whatever we ask.”
This statement feels like the kind of request my young son makes sometimes. “Do this!” Children sometimes want to give the parent direction (we give them directions so often, it’s understandable). Disciples act like children sometimes-children who do not see the whole picture.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
What do I want Jesus to do for me? Jesus asked this question more than once in the gospels, but I usually do not personally turn it around and look at it as if Jesus was asking me directly. I’m often quick to judge James and John (what arrogance/selfishness!), but are my requests really that different? How often do I come to Jesus asking for him to “do something” about this or that? On the other hand I know there are times when I try to accomplish and solve the issue myself without asking Jesus for help. Jesus’ question seems to be pointing me toward balance in this area.
“But that’s not the way it will be with you.”
There is a temptation to create Jesus in one’s own image. When this is done Jesus looks suspiciously like the things I desire, or support, or am comfortable with. How easy it is for me to want Jesus to be what I want him to be. Am I living more like the dominant systems around me, or like the Jesus who challenges them?
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! 25 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 26 If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? 27 Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! 29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. 30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too. (Common English Bible)
“desire his kingdom”
Over the past week I’ve spent some time thinking about desire. The first session of a Sacred Rhythms group I’m facilitating focused on the topic of naming our desire for God. Ruth Haley Barton writes that our desire for God is the “deepest essence” of who we are (Sacred Rhythms Participants Guide, 13). One thing I’m understanding about desire so far is that it is difficult for me to name my desire. I’m left with questions today: What is my deep desire for God? Am I willing to reach out for more of God and God’s kingdom reality? Jesus, give me the ability to notice where your kingdom is breaking in today, and the deep desire to reach out and participate with you.
In this moment of pause what am I noticing? I am hungry-my body physically needs to be filled. I am tired, yet relaxed. I notice my heartbeat. I am in a public space and there are people sitting around me-I wonder what their stories are? Some are quiet and some are talking softly. I notice that it is easy for my mind to wander. Will I notice you, God, in my activities today?
I wanted to post a few links to some excellent resources for celebrating the season of Lent. The list below are some of my go-to sites for ideas, themes, and practices. If you are planning worship or creating space for a group to experience this part of the journey with Christ together, then I hope these resources can be helpful to you. Peace.
Lent: A Season of Returning, by Ruth Haley Barton. This reflection gives a wonderful overview to the meaning and purpose of the season of Lent. Her organization, Transforming Center, offers numerous great resources as well.
Nadia Bolz Weber from the House for All Sinners and Saints’ offers 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent.
Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook, always contains meaningful writing and beautiful artwork.
To highlight her new book, Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal, April Yamasaki is hosting a blog carnival. I have a copy of the book and will be posting a review soon. But I thought this was a really cool idea and wanted to participate in the carnival as well!
What sacred pauses have you experienced?What does it mean to share sacred pauses with family/friends/others?
I’m always on the look out for practices which help me create space for spiritual growth and connection with God. With a busy schedule that includes family, congregational life, seminary study, and a host of other things, I often value practices that can easily integrate into my daily rhythm. I have discovered that having a brief moment to intentionally pause and reflect can be very helpful, and even sacred.
A recent type of sacred practice was introduced to me by my wife. One day I started seeing 3x5in note cards popping up around the house. When I took a closer look I found that on each card she had written a quote from St. Teresa of Avila:
The cards were placed at common locations we spend time at each day (bathroom mirror, refrigerator door, etc). These are places we normally rush through or past in the course of getting ready in the morning or retiring for the evening. But having the card there allowed space to pause, pray and center myself. I think I’ll call this sacred pause the “Toothbrush Prayer.”
My wife said she was inspired to do this as a way to pause, find calm and reflect in the midst of everyday stresses and busyness (and also the fact she’s married to a Philly sports fan, if you ask me). Sometimes it is just difficult to slow down. This practice has helped us to do so, even if just for a short time, and I’m so glad she introduced it in our home.
This is a neat little sacred pause we have been experiencing. What daily spiritual practices do you find to be refreshing?
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
38 While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. 40 By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”
41 The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. 42 One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
(Common English Bible)
“worried and distracted”
I feel embarrassed and a bit discouraged at how often I play the part of “Martha” rather than “Mary.” Worried and distracted stand out to me and make me think about a posture that I too often have held in ministry. For me, the demands and activities of ministry life easily consume much time and energy. And because I like to do well and provide for others in ways they find beneficial, I spend a good amount of time worried and distracted.
I love the way Jesus asks this question (in the midst of his rabbinic answer-questions-with-a-question technique). It is a question that invites response but also participation and investment. Jesus encourages engagement with God’s Story, and trusts us to do this. Sure, we can be corrected when necessary. But I see here an encouragement to think deeply about the scripture and do the work of interpretation (which leads ultimately to action) in community. Sometimes I notice a negative reaction to the work of interpreting scripture. “Don’t interpret-just let the Word speak” or “Just keep it simple.” But if we refuse to take Jesus’ invitation and go deeper, what might we risk losing?
“who was on a journey”
Thinking right now of all the different journeys I am on. The journey of parenting. The journey of marriage. The journey with a congregation. The journey of seminary. The journey of cancer treatment & recovery. I sense an opportunity to notice where I can extend mercy, at any time, while on these journeys.
“chosen the better part”
I am noticing the invitation to choose. Jesus does not force me to do something or to live a particular way. “[Choosing] the better part” is upheld and encouraged by Christ, which feels good. Yet this also means I am responsible for my choices. This phrase feels like one that could stick with me throughout the day as I encounter people, choices, or situations where mercy or a listening posture would be welcome elements.