Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sleep

Most of what you'll read here is from my good friend Tom Sullivan.  He is doing good work for the people of Western North Carolina and more specifically for Asheville through his leadership and service in the Democratic Party in Buncombe County.

Tom was part of that "house church" group I wrote about a couple of months ago.  He and I also were housemates in those days in the late '80s when I was becoming an Episcopalian.  He loves me and I love him.  Our callings have varied -- Tom is an engineer -- but our hearts are often right in line with each other.

Tom wrote an interesting article that gets to the matter of our culture's struggles with work, sabbaths, Sundays and rest.  Here's the link and I've quoted most of it below:

Are we not Ubermen?
. . . In its obsession with turning everything on this planet into the Precious [think Hobbit] (other planets will come later), the Midas cult has turned its sights on sleep because “sleep is the enemy of capital.” Thus, sleep must be abolished. From caffeine-laced Red Bull to topical sprays to marshmallows, “perky jerky,” and military experiments with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), Newsweek  looks at how we are waging the war on sleep:
For those looking to sleep less without drugs or military tech, there’s the “Uberman” sleep schedule: 20 minute naps taken every four hours. That’s just two hours of sleep in every 24 hours. Uberman is based on the theory that while humans experience two types of sleep, we only need one of those to stay alive. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage in which we dream, and it also has been shown in lab tests to be critical to survival: Rodents deprived of REM sleep die after just five weeks. Then there is non-REM sleep, which itself is broken down into four separate stages. One of those is short wave sleep (or SWS). Scientists aren’t really sure what function SWS serves, and Uberman advocates argue that it may not be critical to survival at all.
We spend only 20 percent of our sleeping time in REM sleep, and, usually, we need to work our way up to it, going through non-REM sleep first. But according to the Polyphasic Society, a segmented-sleep advocacy group, that’s a waste. They say the Uberman and sleep schedules like it can force the brain to reconfigure its sleep cycle to avoid the non-REM sleep and jump straight into REM, saving a handful of precious, precious hours every day. The disadvantage? Physical stress, even to the point of lifting heavy objects, can cause Uberman sleepers to unexpectedly “black out.”
That's nice.

Before you think I'm screaming conspiracy theories or fashioning tin foil hats know this:  I believe it was and is meant for the whole planet when God commands those words that help to form a nation: "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy."  I believe that was and is for the whole planet that on the seventh day God rested -- read slept -- and as a creator was silent.

There is a holiness intended by God in our Sundays, our sabbaths, our silence, and our sleep.  It is a holiness meant for the whole world.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Silent Places - Silence Appreciation 101b

Silence and sabbaths and Sundays have a bunch in common, in particular their intention to holiness. Each in it's own way helps the practitioner find a moment or sense of being set apart.  The quintessential state of each of these practices is rest, just like God's on the seventh day of creation.
Sometimes we need to get away physically, geographically, actively in order for the moment to have its . . . moment.  There always has been and always will be some places better than others, just like there are times better than others.  Below is a list of places that are ready for you to find a moment of silence and in most cases an extended moment so that you can develop a practice of stillness, centeredness and rest.
This list is just below the tip of the iceberg.  There are many, many more options.  The tip is how we enter and on many occasions exit our worship on Sundays right here in Madison.  Episcopalians are known for the quiet way we begin our Sundays in the church.  Many or most of us kneel in silent prayer, settling, centering, and readying ourselves to join all those other acts and moments to which we are called in corporate worship.
Granted silent prayer is hard for those of us who are just happy to see our friends and almost too ready to catch-up with whatever news or questions we have.  For the most part though we are still the quiet ones -- didn't someone famously call us the "frozen chosen?" -- when we pray and especially when we enter with our hearts yearning for God's presence.
I suppose I could list Church of the Advent seeing as that we are a destination for so many and so many others who are often not with us on Sunday morning.  We'll spend more time on that consideration in a later installment.

Retreat Centers


Episcopal Convent of St. Helena - Augusta, Georgia


Green Bough House of Prayer - Scott, Georgia

478-668-4758, Rt. 1, Box 65A, Adrian, GA 31002
East of Dublin in Middle Georgia, this ecumenical retreat house offers scripture-centered silent and guided retreats as well as Centering Prayer workshops and sabbatical space.

Ingrid's Oasis - Stone Mountain, Georgia

404-296-7814  iwieshofer@agnesscott.edu
Offers a space and time to explore, reflect upon and deepen one's relationship with God. Personal silent retreats, quiet days for individuals or for small groups, and spiritual guidance by a certified spiritual director.

St. Mary's Sewanee Center for Spiritual Development- Sewanee, Tennessee

http://www.stmaryssewanee.org/   800-728-1659    stmaryscc@sewanee.edu
Near the University of the South and the School of Theology, this center offers many quality retreats throughout the year, with space for group retreats, individual guided retreats, and silent retreats, and Contemplative Outreach Centering Prayer workshops and retreats.

Monastery of the Holy Spirit - Conyers, Georgia

770-483-8705    http://www.trappist.net/   2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers, GA 30094-4044
Monday-Saturday 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Ignatius House Retreat Center

404-255-0503  http://www.ignatiushouse.org/  6700 Riverside Drive Northwest, Atlanta, GA 30328
We offer to all, group and individually directed retreats, spiritual direction, companionship and spiritual counseling. Our ministry is based on Ignatian Spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola;a journey in meditation, praying the scriptures and finding God in all things.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Silence Appreciation 101

Last week we "sat in on" an interview with Leonard Cohen.  His appreciation for the richness of silence was instructive.  But it is not easy to get to that point of appreciation.  The few who join me in Night Prayer on Sunday nights are still learning how to finish the 20 minutes we take to sit in silence.  We have worked our way up to it.  Even Remy handles it pretty well.

I can't say what happens during the silence.  I just know that the mix of well measured speech a la the NZ BCP, candle light and the ambience of our historic church make for a very rich silence.

Now that we are up to twenty minutes of silence each Sunday night it makes for some difficulty for the first time participant, unless they have already practiced this sort of prayer in other settings.  The outline below is a good start to your own practice.  Take a deep breath, relax into your exhalation begin your own practice of silence.

How to Practice Silence Every Day *
  1. Schedule your period of silence at a particular time every day.
  2. During that hour, turn off the phone, TV, radio, computer, and all other appliances and communication devices. Put down all books and other reading material.
  3. Light a candle to be a witness to your silence.
  4. Sit quietly and rest—or look carefully at a natural object—or engage in work that does not require you to hear, see, or express words. Gentle housekeeping or gardening are excellent activities of silence, or a long walk in nature.
  5. Listen to the silence, all the time enjoying this respite from thinking, reviewing, planning, and imagining. Stay in the present moment.
  6. Breathe deeply and mindfully, bringing in the silence and expelling mental “noise.”
  7. At the end of your silence, let your first word be an expression of gratitude or love; then put out the candle and go about your business.

* See more at: http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/splendid-spiritual-practice-silence/page/0/2#sthash.nulSGMWT.dpuf

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

“Rabbi” Cohen’s Sabbath

This article has a long path to get to our reading it here.  It is a  selection -- from The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer.  It is an interview with Leonard Cohen, legendary singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist perhaps best known for his song "Hallelujah," who has more recently had occasion to explore a more monastic life.  Cohen’s adoption of silence and stillness “speaks volumes” about the value for us of things like Sabbaths and Sundays.

"I'd come up here in order to write about [Leonard Cohen's] near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who'd been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

"Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life -- an art -- out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts. ...

"Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was 'the real deep entertainment' he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. 'Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.' ...

" 'What else would I be doing?' he asked. 'Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don't know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.' 

"Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn't diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

"Being in this remote place of stillness had nothing to do with piety or purity, he assured me; it was simply the most practical way he'd found of working through the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows. ...

"'Nothing touches it,' Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still. Then he remembered himself, perhaps, and gave me a crinkly, crooked smile. 'Except if you're courtin',' he added. 'If you're young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.' 

"Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

"Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I'd seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I'd sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully as in the example of this man who seemed to have everything, yet found his happiness, his freedom, in giving everything up. ...

"The idea has been around as long as humans have been, of course; the poets of East Asia, the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, regularly made stillness the center of their lives. But has the need for being in one place ever been as vital as it is right now? After a thirty-year study of time diaries, two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but we feel as if we're working more. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.

"With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we've lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off -- our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk. ...

"Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it's often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources -- it's a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one's senses." 


Thanks to Alex Newton for passing this along to me.  You can find this and other good essays and articles at delanceyplace.com. For the next 5 installments I’ll be sharing essays and insights from outside our immediate circles of Madison and the Episcopal Church. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Escaping Egypt



Some of you will be quick to question the title shown for the artwork above. What we’ve printed here is a cut from a watercolor painting given to Cindy and me when we left Clarkesville. It remains one of my favorite paintings and gifts from a parishioner. Most of how we relate to Jesus as a baby with Mary and Joseph AND Egypt is to tell the story by their going there, not their coming back. The most often used title for these depictions is “Flight to Egypt.”

Here’s the thing, in most of the visual pieces depicting this scene unless you know geography and astronomy well it is nearly impossible to tell which way they are going. Following that, it is also nearly impossible to understand all that is going on in Matthew’s gospel and Joseph’s dreaming without including that they didn't stay in Egypt.

 Very soon we will be hearing of the Magi and their travels and in that will be told of their return trip, too. They go “home by another way” so that they don’t have to encounter Herod again.   Jesus, Mary and Joseph go TO Egypt for pretty much the same reason. But the holy family can’t stay there. What the prophet Hosea said eight centuries before was understood as meaningful. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” And so they return and find a home in Nazareth.

There are lots of ways to go from this lesson. We could talk about “comfort zones” and risk-taking. We could talk about fear. We could talk about hope and expectation or about how marvelously God does what God does. Some might want to focus on the value of dreaming. Lots of ways to talk. Pick any one of these and you still have to talk about going somewhere next and doing something else.

Going or doing and not just waiting for an end to Herod’s despotism. The life and ministry and miracles and multiplications of food and healings and teaching and politics and sacrifice and resurrection of that baby carried in Mary’s arms on the back of that donkey all the way to Egypt and back are the going and doing next. No matter what, the return from Egypt and what happens afterwards is what made the flight to Egypt meaningful, even necessary.

The point of calling the return an escape is to note that we are prone to think and often in a false humility that God only wants us safe, only wants us happy, only wants us to be fulfilled. Sure God wants us safe, happy and fulfilled. God wants that for the whole world. In order for that to come true though, we have to leave. Based on our comforts and confidence our leaving may have to be more like an escape in order to do what God wants next.

 My own version of this has been at time to act like being a priest is the fulfillment of God’s call in my life. And then thinking that as long as I keep my nose clean and am engaging, polite and pastoral I am doing what I am supposed to do. But sometimes, maybe all the time my answering God’s call is meant to be more like Nazareth than Egypt, more like Bethany and Capernaum and Cana and Galilee and on and on. Lots of ways. Lots of ways. Sometimes we must escape Egypt.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sundays and Sabbaths . . . and Sin

Much of my theological musing is in a still on-going conversation with friends from an old cohort. Back when I was at Furman I was active in several campus ministry groups but attended a house church. For Sunday mornings to be what I had grown to believe they should I had to find some place to worship. None of the big churches near campus appealed to me and I wasn’t yet an Episcopalian so there were no nearby small churches that appealed either.
 That house church group was made of a great mix of students and hangers-on. We were serious about our spiritual lives and were in constant dialogue about predestination, free will, works righteousness, cheap grace, moral certainty, the incarnation, social justice, and on and on. Out of that group that started largely as cast off Southern Baptists came three Episcopal clergy, one Presbyterian, one PCA Presbyterian, three or four Southern Baptist ministers and some who are still in leadership in another non-denominational house church world.
 One of those who became an Episcopal priest – who could do the BEST Bob Dylan imitation ever! -- has since found his way to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. He and I are friends on FaceBook and will often share comments on different topics, mostly religious. Recently he posted an article about the impossibility of “moral progress.” In short saying that its not that humans can’t change their behavior for the good but that sin as a condition of the human experience is never abated by what humans do.
 “Sin as a condition”
 A world of ideas and questions opened up again for me when I saw that phrase. It just so happened that Paul’s letter to the Romans was in the lectionary for the lesser feast of Karl Barth that same day. Paul was lamenting the omnipresence of sin in his life such that he did what he didn’t want and didn’t do what he wanted. Finally crying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”(Rom. 7:24)
 We can talk more about sin as a condition later but I want to tie it to the ideas about Sabbaths and Sundays that I’ve been sharing for the last several weeks. If we accept that sin is a condition then what do we do? I think Sabbaths AND Sundays are part of an answer. Since both are meant to provide moments for focus and clarity in our relationship with God we could highlight the rest and refreshment that come from removing life’s busyness and obstructions and regularly setting aside a time and place to be in God’s presence.
 That is what Sundays and Sabbaths have in common: the intent of being more fully present with God. Going to church on Sunday doesn’t make someone LESS sinful, even if they are easily distracted. Making a Sabbath out of some “free” time will also not save you from your sin. The best anyone can hope for through Sabbath or Sunday is some sort of “focus and clarity” in one’s relationship with God. God’s mercy is what deals with our condition. Like Paul says later in Romans, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:39)
 We are not divided by our varied practices as much as we are joined. Whether in Sabbath or on Sunday we all yearn for that moment of clarity and focus, of hope, of trust, of thanksgiving, of praise, of refreshment and of rest because God’s presence is the best antidote for sin.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sabbath Disconnect, Part 3

I’ve read all that I wrote last week several times since then and this last section has just now struck me and sent a chill up my spine.
“It took an exodus of a whole nation to establish the Sabbath God commanded. All I’m asking is that we talk about how to connect to those of us whose lives have no Sabbaths other than the ones they find away from us on Sunday morning.”
Simply, could it be that by worshipping as we do, busying ourselves as we do, filling our spare time with fitness and leisure activities as we do, and – the kicker – valuing progress and growth as we do we are more like Pharaoh and the Egyptians than Moses and the Israelites? 

Pharaoh was the one who demanded 7 days of labor. Egypt was the place away from which Israel had to escape in order to find the Sabbath God expected. It was in a wilderness, through a period of paradigmatic change, with the commandments -- including the one calling Israel to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy -- that the people became possessors of the land God had promised. 

Maybe there is something we can learn from those of us who are away most Sunday mornings. If their experience is anything like the one had by Moses and the Israelites then they know the value of the wilderness, and change, and Sabbath. Maybe they know something about how the bread of anxiety gets replaced by the manna God provides. Maybe they understand that without real rest away from anything-that-needs-the-preposition-“up”-in-its-name, life is captive to a system of always measuring, always dressing, always showing, always catching

Maybe they just are ahead of us, not away from us. 

Sabbaths are moments to end our achieving for a rest in the confident trusting of God’s promises. Without our Sabbaths we are prone to confuse enthusiasm for holiness and quantity for quality. Sundays are moments to know that God’s promises – of a new land or a new life – are being fulfilled and without them we would miss the holy rehearsal of being raised “up.” 

I need to say that I am not upset. I am happy to make our Sunday mornings as much as possible little Easter sunrise services. I need to say that I am not disappointed in anyone. I am thrilled when the house is full or I see you at the store. I need to say that I am not worried. I am confident in our ability to leverage the opportunities God continues to present us. 

I hope I haven’t scared anyone, or offended anyone, or made anyone to feel unfairly scrutinized. I hope I have named an important distinction that need not separate Sunday from Sabbath but may be a new way to see them connected to each other. And I hope I have recognized the huge potential bound up in and expressed through the spiritual lives of all our members on Sunday and in Sabbath.