Spiritual Dynamite

“The Church’s responsibility is not so much to make itself accessible to the world, but rather to transform the world. It is the mustard seed, the leaven, the tiny ark of Noah. In Augustine’s terms, it is the City of God making its way within the City of Man.”
~ “Moving Beyond a Beige Catholicism,” Talk, Bishop Robert Barron


Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day where the Church reminds herself that God is God, and we are not. It’s a day to remember that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Finally, it’s an invitation to shed all presumptions and abstractions of love and be bold to tangibly express the love of God by loving one’s neighbor. Jesus makes for us the now-famous connection, that to love the other is, in turn, loving him. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Called to love like Jesus, his words act as touchstones to our purpose as Christians. In his teaching, Jesus reminds us that our very essence is, in fact, God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit has animated us into His image, calling it good. In His essence we find our existence, so that, in looking around, we’re surprised to find our family in the whole of the human race. What a revolution! Jesus shows that when we feed hungry mouths within the family of God, we nurture the One who fasted for 40 days. When we house the unhoused, we welcome the holy family who had no room at the inn. When we give drink to parched mouths and lips, we offer water to the Crucified One who said, “I thirst.” This teaching is radical, and when the Church embraces it, it’s like dynamite exploding.

“Someone who operated very much in [this Spirit] was St. Teresa of Kolkata. Much of Mother Teresa’s day was taken up with prayer, meditation, Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and the rosary. Still, the rest of her time…was spent in the grittiest work among the poorest of the poor, practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, blowing up the dynamite of the Church. Father Paul Murray, the Irish Dominican spiritual writer and sometime advisor to Mother Teresa, relates the following story. One day in deep conversation with Mother, he was searching out the sources of her spirituality and mission. At the end of their long talk, she asked him to spread his hand out on the table and touching his fingers one by one as she spoke the words, she said, “You did it to me.” (“You Did it to Me,” Bishop Barron, The Word on Fire Bible, pg. 151).

Mother Teresa’s witness does two things for me. I’m reminded that practicing my faith leads to a greater capacity to love, not in the obscure and abstract, but tangible love in thought, word, and deed. It also reminds me of St. James’ famous line, “faith without works is dead.” As we finish another liturgical year, where are you with Christ’s revolutinary teaching? Where do you think St. Julian’s parish is with his teaching? Are you/we “showing forth God’s praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to God’s service?” In this unprecedented year, may we all be challenged yet again to tangibly love our neighbors because in doing so, we serve Our Lord.

~Christ the King Sunday, 2020

Dew Drops

Every other night I read J. a book entitled Dew Drops. It’s a picture book with a flower on one page and the flower’s name on the other. No matter that the bloom depicted is a rose, tiger lily, or tulip, each has a dewdrop somewhere on its pedal, stem, or leaf. With every page turn, a new flower awaits, and a hidden dewdrop is discovered. While J. is too little to read the names of the flowers, one day, he will. He might even wonder where words come from and discover that words are symbols, and symbols point to something that is at once present and transcendent. Learning that a rose is a rose is a rose may one day lead to wondering where that rose came from, which ultimately makes one contemplate life itself.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking the Pharisees to look at a picture. It was a picture of the emperor. The emperor was a symbol of power and empire. The emperor was also a symbol of death and taxes. The power of the emperor and his kingdom would one day kill Jesus in a state-sanctioned execution. The irony is found in what cannot be captured in a picture or on the face of a coin. Even though Jesus would be executed by the powers of this world, he would be raised by forces that transcend it. He would be visibly raised by the invisible God. He would render God his very self; thus, rendering life to all – including the Caesars, sinners, and saints of this world.

It is perfectly acceptable to give the government its due in our own day in age. It is simply unfortunate if we do not also contemplate more than what the pictures reveal. This week, look beyond the image. Look beyond the symbols and discover mystery rendering herself to you. 

Stillness

Psalm 23 was balm in an otherwise chafed week. As I read its words again for the first time, I found myself dropping all pretense allowing its words to massage my soul ineffably. In particular, I found comfort in its second verse:

[The Lord] makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.


Where do you find stillness these days?

Where do you find quiet?

Like the Psalmist, do you believe God leads you into stillness?

Like a caring Father who knows our needs better than we, does God make you lie down in order to find rest?

We find ourselves climbing a mountain with Isaiah and companioning with the church’s early female saints in today’s readings. We were called out of our complacency by Christ, and Christ serving as a judge pointed to outer darkness as a threat to our souls. Complacency and apathy are not the only dangers to our souls these days. Another may be refusing the Lord as Shepherd, the Lord who leads, the Lord who not only made the heavens and the earth, but makes us lie down in green pastures. It is this Lord who pats us on our backs to settle us. It is this Lord who whispers, “Get some rest.” “Go to sleep.” “It’s okay.” “Everything’s going to be alright.”

This fatherly sentiment is something the great hymnist Isaac Watts discovered in the 23rd Psalm. Today I’ll leave you with his paraphrase of this arresting Psalm.

My Shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is his Name;
in pastures fresh he makes me feed beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake his ways,
and leads me, for his mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death, thy presence is my stay;
one word of thy supporting breath drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes, doth still my table spread;
my cup with blessings overflows, thy oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
Oh, may thy house become abode and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
~The Hymnal 1982, p. 664


Where do you find [childlike] stillness these days?

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

While outside, J. does not like being in his stroller. Walking and pointing out things are more his style. Yesterday afternoon’s walk took on this new game. He rebuked the stroller, reached for my hand, and pointed down the street. J. wanted to walk. He wanted to walk and see the Halloween decorations a few houses down, and that is what we did.
It’s a small miracle when my child takes me by the hand and leads me. Just like he was reluctant to take a ride in his stroller, I was unwilling to follow his lead, but am forever grateful for choosing his way instead of my own. Yesterday J. reminded me of innocence, surprise, and delight. J. showed me joy, invited me to play, and to see – to see. When was the last time joyful innocence caught you by the hand and pulled you along to surprise?

Parking Destiny

The kingdom of heaven is like a parking lot.
A church parking lot
where spaces are gotten, but mostly free.
Cars, trucks, vans (and even motorcycles) have their place.

Most days the parking lot patiently waits.
At times for a patron.
Always for a visitor.
Occasionally, a school bus, delivery truck, or mail carrier making use of its asphalt turns ‘round. The twist leaves tire marks like an icon of repentance.

The kingdom of heaven is like a well-worn parking lot,
its tacit function not altogether obvious.
Think parking? It shows you a pilgrim.
Found a spot? Next time, it’s claimed.
One’s sweltering plight? Find relief through its sultry saints.

Parking fortune,
and destiny,
and lot, remembered
and forgotten at once.

Deschooling

Since our oldest first started attending elementary school, our family was used to a Monday through Friday drop-off at 7:30 A.M. with a 2:30 P.M. pick-up. At once, the school served as both an opportunity for education and childcare. For us, childcare officially ended at 2:30, but the education continued. After an early afternoon break, the rest of the afternoon and evening was set aside for homework, study, and reading. Like mom and dad had a full-time job, so the logic went, for our oldest, education was his current vocation. This ideology changed somewhat when we decided to homeschool, and when I first discovered the concept of deschooling.

Home School Mom defines deschooling as “the adjustment period a child goes through when leaving school and beginning homeschooling. To fully benefit from homeschooling, a child has to let go of the private or public school culture as the norm. Together, these norms are called deschooling, and it is a crucial part of beginning homeschooling after time spent in a classroom.” I soon discovered parents had to deschool and let go of norms as well.

Time and schedule were the first things on our deschooling list. When, exactly, were we going to homeschool? At first, our default went to the norms held in brick and mortar schools. We soon discovered our old conceptions of time and schedule did not work, so we started asking questions around time. “What is the best time of day for our oldest to learn?” “Where was he comfortable learning (table, desk, couch, outside/inside)?” “What were his default learning styles?” What were our natural teaching abilities?” “Do we want to learn together?” “Do we want to teach one another?” With these questions and others like it, we soon discovered a natural teaching/leaning cycle in the morning with lighter activities in the early afternoon. We also learned that if we only have one hour of substantial learning time one day while doing four hours the next, there is no harm. Finally, we got rid of the Monday through Friday mentality; instead, teaching around work and life schedules. Sometimes we take the weekend off. Sometimes not. Sometimes homeschooling happens several days in a row. Sometimes there’s a needed break in the middle. We all had to learn that every hour of direct one-to-one instruction far exceeded the time in a classroom full of other learners. For example, if we need to spend a whole hour on something difficult, we do so. If we solve a problem in 10 minutes, we move on, pushing the learning hour to its limits.

The concept of deschooling also gave us the freedom to experience learning in all aspects of family life. We’re now cooking more together, visiting exciting places during the week, checking out more books from the library, discussing the candidates for President, watching documentaries, playing board games, and getting curious about the world – together. We listen to music while we study, play chess, and memorize Shakespeare. We pray Noonday Prayer out of The Book of Common Prayer. Learnings mostly occur at our home, but they also happen in car rides, family walks and trips to the swimming pool.

Homeschool has permitted all of us to take charge of where, how, and what we learn. It gives us a sense of awe and joy for the world around us while nodding to humility as we realize that we are standing on the shoulders of all the saints and sinners who came before us. My wife and I no longer check homework because the work is done at home, in the car, around the dinner table, and on walks. We no longer rely on the brick and mortar school to provide an education as well as childcare. We’re caring for one another in new, different, and more profound ways. The choice to homeschool has brought us closer, and for that, I am grateful.

To read more about deschooling and to find many books on the subject click here

This is an ongoing blog about the ups and downs of homeschooling. For my previous posts on the subject click here and here.

Mind Mapping

As I mentioned in my first post on homeschooling, our family has chosen the three principals of prayerwork, and study taken from St. Benedict’s Rule of Life to guide each day. These three principals provide balance and purpose. Like the North Star, they order the day. Their guidance helps to answer questions like, What is a balanced life? What does purposeful living look like? How do we pray? Why do we work and study? These are weighty questions to tackle for a 4th grader. These are profound questions for anyone. Creating a mind map began this process of inquiry.

A mind map is simply a tool to get the creative juices flowing. (Back when I was in elementary school it might have been called brainstorming). We were interested in creating a routine that was at once, orderly and flexible. We already had our guiding principles (prayer, work, and study). Now, we just needed to flesh out what those meant at the time of the mind map, and with the understanding that reality will help form new ways of living into this Rule.

Under the Rule of Prayer, we agreed upon three practices: prayer at meals and at bedtime, reading the Bible, and celebrating The Lord’s Supper. Currently, prayer is sporadic, as is Bible reading, while celebrating Holy Eucharist has been with my oldest son and me. These are new practices for our family underneath the same roof. I’m starting to realize how I relied on other contexts (church and Sunday School) to reinforce prayer practices. Now the full burden is on me. Prayer begins in the family. Church and Sunday School strengthen practices in a Christian home. I hope to report our family’s progress in prayer at a later date.

Using the mind map, we translated Work as simple household chores: cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash, washing the dishes, setting the table, etc. Thus far, our oldest now wakes up, eats breakfast, makes the bed, brushes teeth, and gets dressed for the day. As the year passes, I hope to add taking out the trash/recycling and setting the table, among other things.

The last principle under our Rule is Study. As parents, this means lesson planning and seeking out teaching opportunities within life’s daily routine. It is giving our oldest the freedom to study and learn where he wants (kitchen table, his room, on the porch, couch, outside, etc.). We’re also learning how to navigate formal learning time with downtime, and develop boundaries around screen time versus leisurely reading. For a 4th grader, 1 to 4.5 hours of instruction/learning/exploring four days a week is recommended. Our family is staying within this rubric based on everyone’s schedule. In our four weeks of homeschooling, not one week has looked the same. Our routine is flexible enough not to worry about tight scheduling. It’s also let us experiment with having a day or two off in the middle of the week because we all worked hard over the weekend (homeschooling is not a Monday – Friday gig).

Starting with the mind map has helped us focus. It also begins to show us the tensions of chaos and order, or love and law. My next post will explore the topic of deschooling. 

On and Off the Court

Matthew 15: 21-28

It’s been said, “There’s a thousand different entryways into the life of the Church.” For some, it was having the privilege of baptism at an early age – being born into the Church through a parent or grandparent by the providence of God. For others, it was a harder road of conversion. Maybe you came to Christ later in your life, finally acquiescing to the Spirit’s call, and saying ‘yes’ to discipleship. Still others may have found themselves coming to the Lord through the classical expressions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The truth of the Gospel came to you from unexpected quarters – music, a novel, a play, or philosophy. Perhaps a swim in the ocean, a walk in the woods, or an attempt to climb a mountain allowed for transcendent beauty to ravish your senses taking you out of yourself and into something beyond. Still, an entryway into the life of the church could have been the greatest action of all time; that is, love – the kindness of a stranger, an act of unconditional care, the touch of a beloved. All of these are one of a thousand ways in which God reaches in and reaches out to us beckoning us into the good life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us yet another way into the life and into relationship with God. It may be categorized as wrestling – wrestling and persevering with God. Like Jacob who wrestled with an Angel of the Lord, finally pinning him down, and demanding a blessing, today’s Canaanite woman begs for mercy, does not receive it immediately, but intellectually spars with Jesus in one of the greatest one-liners in the Bible, and in her perseverance finally receives not only mercy and blessing – but an increase in faith. Jesus, acting like a good coach doesn’t (initially) give her what she wants. He allows her to persevere in prayer which gives her the confidence she needs. Jesus, acting like a good coach calls her a derogatory name she’s heard all her life knowing she doesn’t really believe the name-calling. Jesus wasn’t tired. He wasn’t grumpy, and he certainly wasn’t prejudice. Jesus knew that she knew where mercy came from. Jesus knew that she knew where dignity was planted. Jesus knew that she knew the faith, and like an original coach with unorthodox methods, he drew these out of her; perhaps even surprising them both in the process.

I’m currently watching the sports documentary, The Last Dance on Netflix. It’s about the lead up to the 1997-98 NBA playoffs with the iconic Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. MJ’s second-hand man was Scotty Pippen back then. Next in line was the controversial figure, Dennis Rodman. The coach was Phil Jackson. Phil certainly had an unorthodox style of coaching, and this is clearly seen in the way he coached Dennis Rodman. Dennis was always in the news for being a bad boy. He liked to party. He liked women. He liked to gamble. Overall, he liked to live life on the edge. From time-to-time, and in public cries for help, Dennis would disappear. His team, coach, and organization didn’t know where he went and because of his battle with anxiety and depression they often worried about him. Dennis would allow his bad boy persona in the media to get the best of him during these times of despair. He was liked one day, and judged and hated the next. On the other hand, and for Dennis, basketball was very simple. It was ordered. It had rules and boundaries – something he never was really fond of outside the court. Phil Jackson understood the tension within Dennis. Phil knew Dennis knew that he was something far more greater than any reporter could ever write about him – on the court, as well as off it. Phil took him under his wing, and worked with Dennis’ dignity as a way of making him a better basketball player. He wouldn’t allow Dennis to believe what others said or thought about him.

This coaching posture is exactly what I see Jesus doing in relationship with the Canaanite woman. He saw her for what she was even though he names for her what other people (falsely) said she was. He challenged her. He gave her test. And she passed. With flying colors. Her perseverance in prayer paid off. Her daughter was healed, her faith was increased, and her relationship with God deepened.

Who are those coaches in your own life who wouldn’t let you get away with what others said you were? Who are those voices who have told you with their words as well as their actions that you are a beloved child of God, and don’t you forget it? Who were those voices who didn’t say such things, but allowed you the space to figure that out on your own? How, perhaps, have you challenged God to remember you, and to remember your needs as well as your wishes? Is your relationship with God mature enough that you’re willing to wrestle, to wonder, to persevere, and to get clear on things with faith as a backdrop?

This week, reread this story with Jesus as that coach asking yourself, “What deeper things is God calling me into – on the court, as well as off?”

A Pivot in Priorities

Each morning I read a section of St. Benedict of Nursia’s Rule he established for his monastic community 1,500 years ago. I follow his writing with commentary by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (A link to her book can be found here). In this morning’s selection, Chittister says,

The spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our priorities and our lives.

Her phrase “complete reordering” struck me in the context of COVID-19. With this pandemic, the world will undoubtedly go through a complete reordering – spiritual and otherwise: Valleys are being raised, and mountains made low (Isa. 40:4). At the same time, wheat is being torn away from the chaff (Matt. 3:12).

Pre-COVID, my wife and I were doing what many people our age do: working hard in our jobs and raising children. She’s one of two pharmacists whose specialty pharmacy serves those diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. Her clinic also provides preventative care for those most vulnerable to this virus. After a long day of work, she’s usually greeted by our 9-year-old and 18-month-old clinging to her side until bedtime. Dinner’s prepared, books read, then lights out.

My job as a minister had me working conventional and unconventional hours each week as I made myself available to the people I serve more on their time than my own. When I arrived home after a long day, I would see my kids for a few hours before bedtime. If I had a meeting at night, it was up to my wife to put the kids to bed.

All this busyness changed with the pandemic. Suddenly pharmacy schedules were staggered (5 days in the pharmacy/5 days working from home). Church services, as well as meetings, were all moved online. No separation from children as school became virtual, and preschools closed—a work/life balance – nonexistent.

However, what did exist amid all this bustling chaos was my ability to listen. Thinking about Chittister above, I suddenly began to question what I valued, where my priorities lay, and how I spent my time. Put differently, I was invited into a reordering of my life.

St. Benedict’s Rule is grounded on three principles: prayer, work, and study. Suddenly, I was praying more and invited the parish I serve to do the same, not-to-mention, my own family. I started to view work as an ongoing extension of prayer. If I’m stuck in the house, I would say, perhaps housework and the raising of my boys could be a more intentional way of living and praying. As far as studying went, I picked up those books I had meant to read, and I read them. As a family, we went on more walks together. Some days we sat at the kitchen table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was a new rhythm, and I was starting to like it.

Out of this new song, my wife and I started to talk about school. Our 9-year-old was clear that he did not like virtual learning and wasn’t getting anything out of it. I tended to agree as I watched him struggle in those first few months of the pandemic. As a family, we finally discerned that we would be homeschooling him this year. Within Georgia, the pandemic is not under control, but we decided that we could control what was under our roof as a family. We could honor and live into the truth that spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our priorities and our lives.

In a family meeting, we began our own intentional Rule centered around the Benedictine principals of prayer, work, and study. We did a “mind mapping” exercise together, categorizing what each of these realities looked like within our context. Then we began.

Through this blog, I hope to record some of my thoughts, experiences, givings, and misgivings about the homeschooling experience. I’m excited about living in this new adventure as I genuinely believe it to be a reordering of vision, values, and priorities for my family and me.
Please pray for us, our community, state, and nation as old things pass away while all things are becoming new (2 Cor. 5:17).

To read the mind mapping blog click here.
To read about the experience of deschooling click here.

The Church as Ark

Matthew 14:22-33

Since the pandemic began I have found comfort in the image of St. Peter keeping his eye on Jesus, for in doing so he’s able to walk out and greet Our Lord. When Peter allowed his focus to shift to the winds of anxiety and waves of despair he began to sink. I also find comfort in his frailty for there have been many times when my own misery desired tempestuous company. Throughout these many months I’ve also been humbled by my own limitations, and have dug deep within my soul to give mercy to others who may not be able to acknowledge their own.   

For these past four months, I’ve also watched as institutions and their leaders have given way to a spirit of fear allowing their foundations to fall like houses of cards while truth revealed them for what they really were. I’ve observed power struggles between institutional and ideological tribes that seek validation for their very existence, when all they are really doing is crying out for their dignity to be acknowledged. How tempting it is to be distracted by the unnecessary and seduced by slogans. How tempting it is to ignore the peace that is right in front of us whose very eyes search our own.

Within Biblical imagination, the boat represents the Church. Like Noah’s Ark, it is a place of comfort, safety, and order stowing away the values and necessities of life for a time. Once the time for remembering eternal virtues is formally over, the doors of the ark open, and the gangway is placed allowing for the disembarking to occur. During COVID-19 I’m finding comfort in the Church as ark. There is order and discipline within the Church’s prayers and practices, along with providing safety to others in Her works of mercy. While Her disciples are found around dinner tables instead of altars these days, the Church’s corporal and spiritual works of mercy are being administered (physically) in neighborhoods and (virtually) online.

As we continue to weather the storms in our lives, how do you maintain your gaze upon Jesus? What mountaintops do you climb in order to pray to the true Son of God? How has the Church provided comfort, safety, and order to you and your family? In many respects, COVID-19 has opened our eyes to many things – good and bad. Today’s Gospel compels us to keep a steady eye not on the wind and the waves, but on the one who has true power over them. Come to Him today. Come to Jesus.

Lord, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.