Friday, February 27, 2009

Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants by Dennis Okholm

One of the bright spots in present-day evangelicalism is that the long impoverishment of it’s tradition of spiritual formation seems to be coming to an end. Witness the proliferation of books in the last two decades on the spiritual disciplines. When Richard Foster came out with Celebration of Discipline in the early eighties it was a bit of a radical book. Today, it is a classic of discipleship quoted by everyone else. Dennis Okholm has made an excellent offering in this field with his book which successfully makes the broadest principles of Benedictine spirituality accessible to Protestant laypersons. He makes a good point that St. Benedict actually preceded the existence of the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today and thus the tradition is actually more universally Christian belonging to neither Catholics or Protestants alone. That aside, Okholm invites the reader to consider the practices of listening, poverty, obedience, humility, hospitality, stability, and balance which are practiced to this day by those with a religious vocation. As an example, Okholm points out that the vow of poverty does not mean a monk has no resources. He actually has all he needs to do live his life and do his work. He or she just owns it communally instead of individually. A protestant can practice the same by generously sharing his possessions with others and creatively networking to pool things that are only used occasionally. Hospitality for Benedictines meant taking in and ministering to the needs of a stranger as if he were Christ in disguise. Protestants may not have a retreat house like a monastery does, but they might have a spare bedroom. Just treating the many strangers that cross our path in a given day as if they were Jesus Himself would be a form practicing Benedictine hospitality. The book does a good job explaining how all of these practices are directly connected with scripture and how they enable us to be more available to Christ that we might become more fully transformed. I would recommend this book to be read first and then follow it up with Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Keeping Up With the "Competition"

As a minister I frequently receive magazines which I would have to classify as “trade publications.” These are not about how to pray better or understand theology, but how to be a successful or more successful pastor. I guess this is good. Jesus was successful wasn’t he? Success is naturally tied in to buying this product or that which will make your church building and services really pop! And after all, with so many churches competing for souls, you have got to make your operation really stand out. With a better building or mailout campaign you might even be able to smash the competition. Another big issue I keep reading about in these magazines is how as an institution Churches have got to start being on the cutting edge of change. Apparently we are losing ground in the culture because we are not relevant enough or are out of touch with generational values. Perhaps I’m missing the obvious but our society is in a constant state of flux and to try to keep up with these changes seems like a fool’s errand. By the time you get in lock-step (or goose step) with the changed culture, it has already changed and you’re passe’ again. I guess going out of your way to be out of step with culture (like the Amish and other groups) is hardly a virtue either. Consider the great loss of life recently when an Amish Airlines jet crashed at the end of the runway when the horses pulling it didn’t get enough speed up! But I digress. It just seems to me that those within and without the Church really don’t know that much about what they really want in life which is why there is the constant tyranny of the latest and greatest fad always running in the background. Jesus Christ and the Gospel are the same yesterday, today, and forever. Maybe those of us who are clergy should take note of this once again and not be afraid that our story, our product really, is very old. But the surprising thing is that after 2000 years, the Gospel alone still has more power to save than any of the new and improved enhancements and techniques we employ to jazz things up a bit. There is just something about Jesus that is always so relevant!

Friday, February 13, 2009

On Saibarites and Gyrovagues Pt.1

“Saibarites” and “Gyrovagues” are words used by St. Benedict of Nursia to describe two kinds of Christians that are still alive and with us 1400 years after he wrote his famous Rule. A Saibarite, according to Benedict, is someone who determines right and wrong, spiritual or unspiritual according to their own personal taste. If they happen to like something or agree with it, it must be true and spiritual and worthy of pursuit. If they find something disagreeable or offensive to their sensibilities, then it must be wrong or unspiritual and be dismissed immediately. This is not to say that sometimes the very reason we dislike something is because it really is wrong and unspiritual. Many years ago I had a friend in Bible college that made racial slurs about black people. I find bigotry in bad taste but also quite sinful according to the teachings of Christ. But there are some people who tend to think that anything in conflict with their personal point of view is wrong and dismiss it quite uncritically. What is wrong with this line of thinking is that as Christians our truth comes from outside of ourselves. Man is a fallen creature in need of rescue not only from the flames of hell but also his own stupidity. Our minds and capacity to discern truth apart from the assistance God’s Holy Spirit, the Bible, and the community of the faithful is almost nil. We alone with unaided human reason as our guide consistently make the wrong choice (consider your investment history or how many unhappy married people there are). King Solomon wisely noted that there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22) precisely because we need perspective outside of ourselves in order to discern the truth. Sometimes there’s an even darker motivation behind a Saibarite: pure, unmitigated, intellectual laziness. It is astounding how many of us suffer from an insatiable lack of curiosity about why things are the way they are. It’s like the bumper sticker I saw on a car recently that read “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”. Although I can appreciate the well meaning sentiment about loyalty to God’s Word, I have a nagging suspicion the reality is more like “don’t bother me with any hard questions, because I don’t want my faith or assumptions about life disturbed!” The prescription for the Saibarite is really quite simple: take time when you hear a point of view that you don’t readily agree with and explore the reasons others might hold it. You may come to the same conclusion anyway, but at least you will have an understanding and perhaps even a greater toleration of people different from yourself. In some cases you might even have your mind changed completely which I would contend is truly one of life’s little miracles.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict by Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Probably no man save Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul has done more to shape both Western Civilization and Western Spirituality than Benedict of Nursia. Benedict is the fountain head of the Benedictine order and developed his Rule which guided every aspect of monastic life at his monastery (Monte Cassino) but also became the blueprint for living which was adopted by many other religious orders at least in part. The genius, the very contribution of Benedict was a humane and ordered existence which sought to fuse worship, prayer, and the ordinary tasks of daily living into a whole where one was living every day to the glory of God and there was no separation of the sacred and secular spheres of life. Washing dishes, hoeing manure into the vegetable patch was as holy a task as was chanting the Psalms in Latin at the appointed times of worship. Even the western orientation of time/event can be traced back to the canonical hours which was a type of holy dayrunner where monks slept, ate, worshipped, read the scriptures, did their chores, and celebrated communion on a set daily and hourly schedule. That said, author Carmen Butcher has also made a wonderful contribution to this world with Man of Blessing. Unfortunately, the earliest biographies we have on Benedict are hagiographies or books about saints. They are wonderful devotional reading but frequently are a bit overdrawn for modern readers because of their emphasis on the saint’s other-worldliness and performance of miracles. They also tend to be quite formulaic as well which makes the reader wonder if the facts aren’t bent a wee bit to make the saint conform to a particular standard of sainthood. Butcher’s work sources many of the ancient and medieval sources for Benedict’s life and weaves other aspects of what we know from the period into the story. The result is a warmer, and frankly more believeable Life of Benedict that does emphasize spiritual example all along. This was a delightful book to page through and a potent reminder that what makes a true saint of God is not so much the miraculous, but the ordinary human life lived well.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Fuel Economy and National Freedom

A colleague and dear friend of mine and I, let’s call her DC to conceal her real identity, were having a spirited discussion about whether the government has any right to dictate the size and mpg of our personal family cars. Her contention is that America is a free country with free citizens and that includes the right to drive any car of any size that tickles our fancy. And that right, though not in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, is so sacrosanct it ought to be. If this were 1969 instead of 2009, I think I would be compelled to agree with her. But in the intervening years the United States has gone through two oil embargos, two wars over oil security, and two crestings of peak oil. The first crest occurred in the 1960’s when domestic oil supplies no longer could keep pace with demand thus requiring imported oil and the second was in 2005 when world demand was pressurizing the supply and price environment of oil because of the rising prosperity of countries such as China and India. As the world economy has collapsed since 2005 that pressure has been released somewhat but don’t worry it WILL be back. The developing nations desire for cars and industrial wealth has slowed but will never stop. So what’s my contention? I maintain that American oil consumption is an issue of freedom and national security that is so great, the government (which is all of us represented by our lawfully elected officials) has a compelling interest to impinge on some of our freedom in this area. First of all, at current rates of consumption we must import 70% of our oil to maintain our standard of living. This is not just our cars, but our industry, infrastructure, really our whole fabric of life. To have such a dependence is the worst kind of vulnerability. Not only can our way of life be taken away by OPEC without warning, but our dependence compels and drives our national policy to be one of compromise for the sake of oil. There are some countries and world leaders for whom we should be giving a collective national bird (and I’m not talking about the American Eagle!) but when you need their resources to live you really can’t take too strong of a stand on anything. I harbor no fantasies that America is ever going to be a clean, green autotopia filled with all-electric or hydrogen cars zipping the kids to ball practice with zero tailpipe emissions. At current prices and with the current economy most of us can’t afford them anyway. On the other hand I think the freedom to buy the biggest gas guzzling car you can afford to drive pushes us as a nation in the wrong direction. Given the reality that oil is a finite resource, just because a person can afford to burn more of it than others can is not a compelling reason to let them do so especially in light of our national security. Once upon a time, gas rationing and conservation, were imposed from above for the same reason and people felt patriotic for cooperating. While such draconian measures are not yet necessary, required fuel economy, lowered vehicle weights, and lower speed limits are hardly impositions against our freedom. In fact, these and thousand other steps we could take to conserve and disengage from oil might actually return America to a greater form of freedom we haven’t experienced in a while: true independence.