Monday, May 26, 2014

Aesthetic Monasticism
“Art Monks in the House”

I am formed by capitalism & technology to want to buy things I do not need. In the pursuit of this search, my time and money now come under the submission of desires that have been surreptitiously formed in me only partly by my doing. How has this taken place?

I take much of my daily trek through life for granted. I do not question its impact on my soul nor do I question its formative power over how I express my very life. Gifts, talents, and skills are given to all and we are stewards of these giftings if these gifts are brought under Christ and His Lordship. However, I do not get off that easy. I am like a frog in hot water. I am slowly becoming part of a soup of which I think I am outside. I do not question for my perception is one of distance and autonomy. My free will has extreme powers to separate myself from the pack and allows me the ability to pick and choose which forces from my very being. Oh really?????

Society’s materialism and the church’s complacency towards it.

In many ways the church in America has found itself not only in complicity to the formative power of capitalism but a willing participant. How so? The ideology of personal and corporate success as a sign of God’s blessing have a long and illustrious history of which this article is not going to address. Yet it is clear that for many of us, our relationship with God is centrality monitored and assessed based solely on the acquisition and embracement of our personal and corporate goals and dreams. Much of our prayer life, or books and articles written in evangelical circles are written as a templates and guides for personal and corporate affluence and self sufficiency. This is an implicit value hidden deeply in capitalism in America. The power to buy is intrinsically tied to the power to define oneself. I am what I purchase. You will know my inner self based on my outer accoutrements. My wine cellar, my hair cut, my perfumes, my car, my house…all these things tell you something very significant about who I am. If you want to know who I am take notice of the accouterments for they are indicators. Once again we must ask ourselves if this is how the Bible and the Kingdom describe what it means to be human and a follower of Jesus.

There is much Scripture and narrative in our story that would say that as a Christian we assess a person solely on the basis of his or her innate worth as a creation of God. God’s image is written into their very being thus nothing they could do or own will intrinsically change this person on any level. This is not to say that stewarding our gifts and living with gusto are not parts of being human. What we are clarifying here is that what a person owns or buys actually says very little about whom the are a deep level.

Suburban life offers many benefits on certain levels of comfort. We have large entertainment centers in our family rooms. We have stereophonic sounds systems in our bedrooms that rival a sound stage. Many of us have libraries and reading rooms that allow us to ponder the beauty and glory of words and stories. Our children have their own play stations, their own cell phones…I could go on and on.

It is clear that being middle class or better has its perks. Much like drugs or sex, the front end of that world unbridled obviously brings some pleasure. Do we, however, ponder the downside of what capitalism and the bourgeois world have done to the clarity and liveliness of our souls? Do we count the cost of having to earn so much money to even exist and do we embrace the shear madness that accompanies much of our financial struggles as we attempt to weather all this terrain on our own?

As we move forward into dialogue within our mutual communities, I hope our conversations would occasionally be directed to the realties of the fallen world as it impacts our “work” and our need and attempts to survive in this world. Have we unwittingly cocooned to the point where one or two bad moves and we are heading for the poor house? Have we allowed our very heart of hearts to be formed and informed around what we own and buy and trade?

There is an urban monastic movement taking place in the States. Numerous groups are purposely taking vows of poverty and using their abundance for Kingdom purposes. Once again, this is a dialogue and conversation, but I can tell you that since arriving back in Chicago I have seen the dark underbelly of capitalism and its impact on how Christians navigate their lives. Is it possible that some of us will be called to give up some of the privileges to into which we were born? How can we live faithfully in this host culture that seems to have run amuck regarding possessions and their place in our lives?

What might be some distinctives that would guide and direct our communities?

Are we the New Sub/Urban Monastic???

1)    Submission to the larger church
2)    Living with the poor and the outcast
3)    Living near community members
4)    Hospitality
5)    Nurturing a common community life
6)    Some form of a shared economy.
7)    Peacemaking
8)    Reconciliation
9)    Care for Creation
10)  Celibacy of Monogamous Marriage
11)  Formation of the new members along the lines of the old novitiate
12)  Contemplation

It is my prayer that more communities would arise that use their abundance for the sake of the poor and beauty. There are many on the margins of life that will only be reached and heard as we listen to their cries. Are we the New Friars of this age? Are we more like a Jesuit Community of Priests that sets up an order in a particular community? Let us do small things with great love rather than simply doing great things. Let our advocacy be for the voiceless and the weak not only outside our community but within it as well.

I end this blog with an experience that to this day marks my heart. Some years back, a group of us had store front church out of a bar in the near north side of Chicago. Dave and Angie Carlson were a part of this as well and we had a real impact on that community despite the fact that urban professionals are some of the hardest “people” groups to reach.

One Sunday morning I stopped by the 7/11 to get a coffee. Out front a disheveled gentleman was panhandling as is the case on many corners in Chi-town. He approached me and as usual I felt a degree of discomfort and wondered how I was going to either turn him away or reach into my pocket and wallet and decide just what he was worthy of receiving from me on this given day.

Upon looking into his face and connecting with his soul, these words came rolling out of my mouth.

“I am sure you prayed today that God would provide a meal or two for you and I can appreciate that. I have an offer for you. I can give you some money for a few meals and I am glad to do that. However, I am a part of a family right down the street. If you would like, you can come and join us and if you do, everything I have is yours. What do you say?”

It was as if time stood still. This panhandler was not a drunk or a wandering street person. You could tell this was a man who was down on his luck and needed some money today just to make it through the day. He could hardly respond as I could tell he heard what I had said. Finally after what seemed like minutes he responded. “I’ll just take the cash.”

I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my wallet and gave him what seemed like a reasonable and yet caring amount. But as I returned to take my coffee back to the store front church I kept hearing my own words run through my head and heart. “All I have is yours if you join our family” I realize that those were the words of the Savior on my tongue. I did not say that. I could not say that. In fact, upon sitting in the service that morning and pondering what I had said, I was convicted as I realized just how rhetorical my responses to the poor in my midst generally are. I talk a big talk but at the end of the day, I am selfish to the bone and everything I do and say is for my own aggrandizement. That day, however, I felt the Savoir move inside my own heart and tell me that this was Him calling me to Him. It is my poverty that my Savior is longing to heal. My sense of being above or being better than this man are a sham. I am moments away from being homeless on many levels. This day may we offer up our seeming abundance as baubles to the Kingdom and see the riches of His love towards us and those who are in our lives.

To the revolution!!!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

When Creaiton Places a Collect Call

When Creation Places a Collect Call

The Need to Fully Embrace Nature’s Welcoming Uncertainty

The Peace of Wild Things - By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

We are created beings. Despite our current preference for the “ideas of life” over its very real presence, there is a place between the earth and our bodies that is the terrain of our humanness. Daily, without fanfare, the sensuous reality of this creation offers itself up and over to us. We neglect its dazzling gestures at our own peril for its mystifying topography is the language of the somatic soul and thus the song of humans. The created order communes with us. Do we hear and respond to its rich and luxurious affluence of beauty?

As a Jesus follower, I grasp the oft felt groaning sighs of a world caught up in a moral drama. Antagonists and protagonists rise and fall & we humans dominate time as if it were our own. Is there a much more worthy cosmology in which to plant our fragile souls clothed in such permeable and sentient cloth? Might the created order, nay the very Creator Himself have not merely embedded an inner beauty in this realm we call life but one much more tangibly mundane, accessible, astonishingly ordinary and yet extravagant in its embracing glory?

As modernism’s massive under taking & narrative wanes in the West, it appears to be building steam in the East (i.e. China, Korea). Caught up in the ways of reason and logic, capitalism and consumption become the center of humankind’s endeavors and the relegated inferior position of the created order appears present & honored only in esoteric conversations & works by so-called radical ecologists or earth worshipping new agers.

Dave Abrams, an exquisite reporter of nature’s etymology sees this penchant for pushing the experiential world away from our daily lives as tragic and dangerous to the earth’s future. Whether we wish to step outside of or live above and beyond the daily realm of the created order, or take charge of its ways through some technological utopian dream, we still remain hidden from “the shadowed wonder and wildness of earthly existence.”

For Abrams, this overt disempowering posture is at its core much more primal and unacknowledged. Science and the promises of a bio engineer and his/her predictions of “mastery” over the forces of nature have planted in them a parallel dystopian nightmare as well.He wonders if this eschewing of nature’s true place in our lives is much more about our deeply felt knowing that indeed we are in relationship with a powerfully dangerously beautiful lover. The observable fact that those closest to us pass from this realm & are no longer here in our presence, is one sign that earthly reality is overwhelmingly confusing. Abrams profoundly articulates, “To exist as a body is to be constrained from being everything, and so exposed and susceptible to all that is not oneself- able to be tripped up at any moment by the inscrutability of a pattern one cannot fathom.” For believers, this mystery is sacramental. However, many of my brothers and sisters in the faith do not acknowledge this conundrum thusly. Nature is still a bag of candy, a flower shop with an 800 #. Or it is only a fallen space where powers and principalities prevail. Thus, the power and presence of the created order on & in our lives goes underground and unconsciously speaks from our shadowed pathologies.

Holding life at bay in some detached manner allows me to manipulate its offering as if variables in some equation. I call the earth’s bounty “resources” as if their manifestation as a tree or a hillside or a far off planet were merely evolutionary predictability or cosmic whim.  Might there be an intended shared experience our Creator set into the very fibers of our being? Is there a possible kinship with Creation that calls out of us a much more gracious and humbled enfolding? Is David Abrams (author of the Spell of the Sensuous & Becoming Animal) correct when he bemoans how long we have cut ourselves off from nature’s intention for a "participatory" life with our senses?”

Ancient cultures did not have the option of the deluded aloofness from nature we moderns have. For us, long periods of time may pass between a devastating flood like the one in New Orleans or Japan’s tsunami. Nature’s fury, as the phrase goes, is made manifest generally in areas more remote than our protected urban centers. So when something of such magnitude dares to jump the walls, break down the gates or storm the Bastille, as if were, we are befuddled and taken aback. How could we not have seen that coming? Who is to blame for such a catastrophe? Have we not conquered the puny presence of nature?

Dave Abrams comes from a new bread of anthropologists, ecologists and philosophers who ponder the relationship between humankind and the environment in which humans live out their lives. He contends we have taken refuge in the false hope of technology and science. I am not sure his personal perspective on spirituality but from his writings it would appear that at the least, he sees monotheism and its tendencies for a detached all powerful deity distressed at the mess humankind has made with creation as a less than imaginative way to engage this world. Religion’s history with science, truth seeking no matter the cost, and the fear of the frighteningly new, rarely brings to a people embedded in an ancient story a narrative of grace, openness, and mercy. So much of Abrams critique is indeed insightful on some level.

What is so moving in the works of Abrams is his venture into the created realm with descriptives that are poetic and magical. It is clear he deeply honors the created order (my words not his). Out of this place of deep respect and awe, Abrams prophetically calls out what has been lost in the Cartesian obsession with thought and knowing as an epistemology that only comes when one distances himself from nature. On the contrary, for Abrams, the real is only experienced as it is encountered in participation with the created order. There is no experience above or outside the realm in which our bodies abide. He says that his work is “foremost to the matter of becoming more deeply human.”

As I daily practice resurrection, I am discovering the resplendent beauty offered to me when I regard myself as a “part of” something bigger than myself. By acknowledging my smallness I am able to, like Abrams, to find myself in the rich immensity of the created order.  Let me end with a few lines from one of Abram’s works. 

This is from his diary following one of his daily hikes into the wilderness.

For how many hours have I been stumbling through the folded terrain? Pink spires leer down at my tiny form as I walk along the edges of gullies, slipping into and out of fractaled ravines….I’ve seen no trace of humankind, however, just a jackrabbit darting between the bushes, and what I think was a kestrel hovering against the cliffs.

I left the car by the side of the highway this morning, drawn out of the vehicle by fascination with what my eyes were seeing. I slung a strip of cloth dangling a bottle of water over my shoulder and wandered out into this impossible landscape. The longer I wandered the wider the scape seemed to grow. By noon I was thoroughly , blissfully lost in the sculpted immensity of this place- a small two legged insect making its way between the toes of giants…How hopelessly insignificant the human is-a speck lost and blundering through the limitless depth of the macrocosm, drinking from the voluminous air, dazzled by reflected rays and drawn upright by a hundred flesh toned cliffs and slopes…Such encounters with the outrageous scale of the larger Body we inhabit bring a shuddering humility, yet they can also release an unexpected intuition of safety, a sense of being held and sustained by powers far larger than anything we can comprehend. A safety that comes from being merely an anonymous part of What Is, from feeling oneself as a clutch of sodden soil and hollow bones with the same wind blowing through them that gusts the high ridges. From being in intimate alliance with the bedrock. It’s the weird security of realizing that one is part of something so damned huge…And so I‘m in the grasp of this strange, skin tingling sensation of my own insignificance as I climb the steep slope of a butte.

Let me close for now with my poetic mentor.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”  ― Wendell Berry