Where the Abbey Meets the Sanctuary: A Call to Authentic Worship Among Clergy

It’s 3 am and my alarm is going off.  Well, it’s not my alarm; I guess it’s a monk’s alarm.  I am in the tiniest, lumpiest twin bed ever built.  Mary and baby Jesus scowl and throw what could be misconstrued as gang signs down at me from a painting above my bed.  I click the lamp on to illuminate a room no bigger than a closet, containing only a desk, a chair, a night table, a wardrobe, and this bed. I want to be charmed, but it’s too early.

Ten minutes, a teeth-brushing, and a dusting of makeup (I can’t help it; even non-judgmental, celibate monks don’t deserve to see under-eye circles that dark) later, I’m following the halo of light created by my dim flashlight down a crumbling concrete drive.  I wander across a wooden footbridge, wind through a cluster of weeping yaupons and oaks, duck under some low-hanging Spanish moss, and emerge in the dark shadow of a beautiful chapel, lit from within by only a few candles.

The entrance to the chapel contains a large book which, I will discover later, is open to a page containing a single quote from Thomas Merton:

“Let there always be quiet, dark churches
in which people can take refuge…
Houses of God, filled with His silent presence.
There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least
they can be still and breathe easily.”

I curse the clacking of my hard-soled shoes and tiptoe to the stall to which Brother Paul directs me.  I am surrounded by the monks, looking half-asleep and swaying ever so slightly in their own stalls (these are seats, separated by wooden panels, which fold up and down to let you stand and sit alternately during worship).

The monks begin to pray, to sing, to chant.  Sometimes an individual reads Scripture or a quote from Chrysostom or Benedict, but largely they chant the Psalms back and forth to one another, accompanied by an acoustic guitar played most often by Brother Theophilus.

I am, I’m afraid, utterly lost.  There are a number of open prayer, Psalm, and song books open in front of me, obviously set there in anticipation of a visitor such as myself, but I search in vain to find which one we’re praying, chanting, or singing from.  Brother Paul, serene and kind with a ring of white hair around his largely bald head, hands clasped calmly behind his back, glides over to me.  He turns a page in my book and points to the correct line.  I smile gratefully at him, but he has already turned back to return to his stall.

***

I left Mepkin Abbey with the strange idea that this is how worship should be: A group of people who have devoted their lives to the worship of God praying and singing together. I am blessed that they allow visitors and that Br Paul was willing to help me (for over the course of my stay I continued to need near-constant help).

But what I got out of that experience was this: If no visitors were there, worship would still happen.

It’s sort of like a tree falling in a forest: If no one is there to see the monks pray, do the monks still pray? Yes, because they have given their lives to the worship of God.  This morning, January 22nd, at 3:20 AM, the monks scurried from their beds through the cold night air and gathered in the chapel to pray, chant, and sing.
There may have been other worshipers there and there may not have been.
The monks continue in their worship all the same.

Sometimes I lament the great importance we put on the number of people in worship.
Sometimes I lament the great disparity in our worship between the percentage of words spoken directed at human beings and the percentage of words spoken that are directed at God.
We as clergy spend so much time greeting the congregation, making announcements, pronouncing forgiveness of sins, announcing hymns, and giving stage directions on when to stand, sit, turn and greet one another, etc.
And don’t even get me started on preaching: It could be argued that, in the sermon, the greatest chunk of the service (and the one to which most churchgoers ascribe the highest value) has nothing much to do with worshiping God, but only with one human being talking to other human beings about God.  …which is good, but is it worship?  Perhaps, but… perhaps not directly.

When people talk about the old Catholic churches where the cleric speaks in Latin and faces away from the congregation, they often do so disparagingly.  “That’s so terrible and uninviting,” they say.  Perhaps.  But perhaps it is authentic.  The priest is there to worship and serve the Lord.  Why should he trifle with the people? Oh,

well, because we as clergy are not just tasked with worshiping God but also with teaching people to worship God.  We teach people how to worship, guide people in worshiping, and invite people to participate more and more fully in worship.

I think the best way to do this, though, is not through more words: It’s not giving more directions and announcements and clearer transitions and written explanations.  Those can be helpful, but those are not the most effective way of either teaching people to worship, or worshiping!

The best way to teach, guide, and invite to worship is to model worship.

When Brother Paul came over to help me find my place, that was all the invitation I needed. I was there to worship God.  I was there to experience the worship of monks and to participate in it.  I watched them and I was captivated by their devotion, their authenticity, their earnestness, and their faithfulness.  Every morning, there they were, yawning but present.

The oldest monk is in his late 90s, and he powers along on his rolling walker– he made it to all but one service in the time I was there (did I mention they have 7 service daily?).  He stood for everything that called for standing.  He helped lead Eucharist mass.  He sang every song loudly and with his voice shaking but strong.

***

What if we, as clergy, could teach by example more than by verbage? What if we could show, by our own devotion, authenticity, earnestness, and faithfulness, what worship can and ought to look like?  What if we could find a way, by modeling our own passion for worship, that we’re glad our congregation showed up– however large or small the numbers may be– but that they’re not the reason we’re there? That we’re there to worship God.  That they’re welcome to join, and we’ll help them as much as we can, but ultimately it’s not about them, or us, but about God?

What if we could find a way to tell our congregations, golly, we’re glad you’re here; but even if you weren’t, we would be doing this anyway, because we have been ordained (or commissioned, as the case may be!) to this work, to the work of worshiping God– and that means worshiping God ourselves…..?

What if?

Advertisements

On Being a Loser

(Amazon.com)

A very wonderful colleague and friend named Claire here at my church in Charlotte recently lent me Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church.  It is a must-read, new clergy.  I can say without a doubt that it is absolutely brilliant, and I’m only on page 8.

It’s like reading a printout of those thoughts that pool at the base of your brain, those thoughts that you can never quite congeal in a digestible way but that you know are there…. Thoughts about your expectations for ministry, thoughts about your ability level and performance, thoughts about your capabilities, desires, and energy reserves.

Forgive me, new clergy, for outing you, but we are mostly a mix of anxiety, bewilderment, giddy excitement, and utter blankness.

This blankness is what concerns me the most.  The anxiety, bewilderment, and excitement make sense to me– we are in a foreign land.  Oh it’s a beautiful land, don’t hear me wrong; there is milk and honey aplenty.  But it’s foreign nonetheless.  I don’t believe the Israelites knew instantly how to cultivate the promised land, how to settle it in a prudent fashion, or how to establish their manner of living right off the bat.

But the blankness is something I’ve been struggling to find a Biblical basis for.

What do I mean by blankness?
I think I mean this wide-eyed, furrow-browed sense of wandering through the days that I share with some of my fellow new clergy.

We have a deep, abiding desire to be graded as we were in seminary, but this is not going to happen (and if it does, the most vocal graders will be those who are trying to fail you!).
So we are left holding empty internal report cards, unable to fit our performance into a category we can understand.

We have a deeper, abiding desire to succeed and do very, very well– not for our sake, but for the sake of God, the Church, our parishioners.  But there is always more to do, there is always something left undone– a longer visit with the widow in the hospital, a few more hours preparing that presentation to make it flow more smoothly, another phone call, email, or meeting with so very many people.
And we’re left with un-crossed-off to-do lists and the deep, resounding fear booming through our chests that there were about three dozen things we never even thought to put on the to-do list in the first place.

We have a yet even deeper, abiding desire to be in deep, meaningful communion with God, with friends, with discipleship partners.  But it is often very hard to find the time or the people to make these things happen, so we are left lulling ourselves to sleep with a quick prayer and the little voice rationalizing that “You need to sleep, God and your friends understand; maybe it’s even a form of worship, the fact that you’re taking care of God’s creation by letting your body sleep.”
And we wake up with deep chasms of guilt and great holes in our soul that leave us wondering if they can ever be repaired.

How can we fill God’s people when we’re not sure we can even fill ourselves?
How can we enrich God’s people when our own hearts and minds feel so funnily fuzzy and blank?

***

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on Matthew 10:39 in which Jesus utters that enigma that haunts both the living and the blank: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it.”

Barbara writes,

In Greek the word is psyche, meaning not only ‘life’ but also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live. (Leaving Church, xiii)

This, I think, is what the blankness is.  It’s lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart… not lying prostrate, because who has that kind of intentionality or energy?  Lying flat because you are exhausted, because your mind is blank, because you have no idea where to go next or how to get there, or even how to stand.

I and many of my new clergy friends spend much time belittling ourselves for the blankness that we feel.  We moan to one another in the most desperate of ways, “Why don’t I have the energy to read the Bible anymore?” “I just never know if I’m doing anything right,” and “I feel like a failure,” “Maybe I misheard my calling,” “Can this really be my life?”

What Barbara and Jesus seem to be saying is that this is all part of the process.  “Finding life, losing life, and finding life again.”

Jesus rejoices, in the Gospels, over those who lose their lives for His sake.  He says that this kind of loss of life is what leads to real life.

The dark night of the soul, the dirt from the basement floor shuffling up your nostrils and the inability to raise your head to see the angel of the Lord passing by… it’s not a bad thing.  It’s not wrong.  It in no way means that your calling has been revoked, or that you are not doing this thing called ministry right, or that God has turned, eyes rolling, away from you.

It means that you are right where you were meant to be.  Because Jesus is on the basement floor just as presently as He’s on the mountaintops, perhaps even more so.  Because she who loses herself for His sake will find herself in Him.  She who wanders blankly will find the holes filled– not patched, but filled- by His Spirit.  She who loses track of who she is, or who she thought she was supposed to be, Jesus says, will live.

Amen!

Devotion: In Which I (Embarrassingly) Use Bieber Fever as a Metaphor for Disicpleship

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6.24)

Well, that stinks.

I mean, we all get it that there are certain unhealthy things in this world to which we should not devote ourselves, things like wealth, fame, alcohol, and Republicanism (threw that one in as a joke… everybody calm down).

But there’s a lot of really wonderful stuff in this life– and in this job– that I would like to serve as a master, stuff that would benefit me, that would benefit the church, that could benefit the world, maybe even benefit God and God’s Kingdom.

I could serve work as a master, spending all day back-bent over my computer or zipping between hospitals, throwing myself in sum into this odd and wondrous calling, to the exclusion of all worldly callings, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve homemaking as a master, spending all my free time cleaning and cooking and making my life neat and orderly and lovely. I know that a clean home means a clean headspace for me, so I would have more freedom for meditation and prayer and study at home, and thereby would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve relationships as a master, spending all my cell phone minutes on calling my family and my old friends, doing the familiar give and take and relishing our shared memories, and in that shared time between beloved friends, would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve righteous indignation as a master, campaigning for the rights of animals, and women, and the poor, and the homeless, and the uninsured, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

And I could serve even prayer and meditation as a master, rising with the sun to fulfill my duty, to check “Pray” and “Read Scripture” off my ever-lengthening To-Do list, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

There are good things we want to serve as masters.  But serving the things of God is not the same as serving God.

If a wife loves only the sexual fulfillment she gets from her marriage, that’s not the same thing as loving her husband.  That’s just loving sex.

And just because I loved a certain professor’s teaching style in undergrad and took at least one class with him every semester, that didn’t mean I loved him.  I just loved his work.

I think it’s funny that we Christians have co-opted the word “Devotion” to mean reading the Bible/praying.  We do “devotions.” We call them our “morning devotions” or our “evening devotions” or our “daily devotions.”
They are numberable, they fit on 1-3 pages in a pocket-sized book (whose cover is undoubtedly a water-color sunrise or a still photo of a babbling brook), and they last no longer than 10-15 minutes.

What a bastardization of that word.  It’s almost sinful.

Devotion is that thing you feel when your chest feels like it’s going to pop open as if your sternum was a button held on with one last thread.  Devotion is that things that makes your head light and your eyes teary for no reason, and you can’t think of anything else, and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep and you can’t tear your mind’s eye from the object of your devotion.

Devotion is that thing 14-year-olds feel when they gaze upon their posters of One Direction and Justin Bieber.

Have you felt about God the way your youth feel about Justin Bieber lately? (Put that on a bracelet… It’s the new wwjd: HYFAGTWYYFAJBL?) They adore him.  They spend all their free time thinking about him.  They ponder his eyes, his hair.  They have memorized ever word he’s ever written.  They consider his humble beginnings and wonder at his future.  They gather together to discuss his daily activities and the places he’s been spotted that week. Sound familiar?  Sound like anything you do– or would like to do– RE: God?

Serving the things of God is not serving God.  This is a sermon for myself today.  Though my work is ministry, just doing work is not the same as serving God as my master.  “Doing” a “devotion” is not the same thing as being devoted. 

In a moment of boldness, let me quote and amend John Wesley:

“Do all the good you can [out of love for God]
by all the means you have [which you have been given by God and for which you are thankful to God]
in all the ways you can [which God will show you]
in all the places you can [where God will send you]
at all the times you can [even if it doesn’t fit into the 10-15 minutes you blocked out at 6 AM for your “Devotions”]
to all the people you can [whom God loves and calls just as much as He does you]
as long as ever you can [out of abiding devotion to God].”