Drawn To Less Vacation

 Photo by  Esther Wiegardt  on  Unsplash

Summer vacations are wonderful. The idea of getting away from it all and unplugging from responsibilities and technology. To do what is desired in a place that is not home. The weather, the beach, the mountains, the food, the family, the friends - all are wonderful things. However, I am drawn to having less vacation. 

There is value in getting away and resting. The commandments to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy are biblically rooted and psychologically beneficial. However, there is a difference in sabbath and vacation. There is a difference from rest and "getting away".

Vacations give us permission to "vacate." Escapism is very popular and fun. Vacating or escaping is not evil or harmful. In small doses it can be the reprieve that is needed to give energy to fight another day. And therein is the seed of the problem of vacations - they give energy to keep fighting rather than providing the resources to stop the fight. 

Religious traditions of all sorts have the practice of pilgrimage. Some might say that life itself is a pilgrimage, but more often than that the word pilgrimage calls to mind going on a specific type of trip. The pilgrimage trip is different from a vacation for a number of reasons and one of those is that the pilgrimage is to help gain a different perspective of life. This perspective gaining is so that when we return to our lives, we better know which battles are worth fighting or perhaps how to fight differently. Vacations do not allow space for this sort of perspective taking because on vacation we are encouraged to "get away" from your life. Pilgrimage asks us to engage our lives differently. 

Vacations and pilgrimages both have rest built into them. Both are helpful, but for different reasons. Vacations can help us catch our breath in the ocean of life, pilgrimage can help us lean to trust in the buoyancy of God.

How Do We Treat The Demons?

Over the past couple of years I have found a new life by reading and studying the wisdom of the desert Abbas and Ammas. There are many stories and "words" in this wisdom and I am not the first to explore this vast landscape. Through my studies I have come to see there is at least one thing that distinguishes that desert Abba/Amma from the student. And it is in how they each relate the the demons. 

 The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti -  Kimbell Art   Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti - Kimbell Art

Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

 The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS  Museo Nacional del Prado  ©   By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS Museo Nacional del Prado©

By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

Demons was a word to describe the different temptations these early hermits encountered. The demons tempted them to eat, drink, fornicate, wander, etc. There were as many demons as there were people who were tempted to abandon their quest of Love for God and all. 

Beginners would do, perhaps as we all might do, seek for ways to banish the demon. It makes sense that if you see a demon that you would want to banish and destroy it. Beginners would soon discover that the demons were too powerful to defeat. 

The more seasoned monks turned from trying to defeat the demons to tolerate them. It was a fact of life that temptations would come and it was a matter of keeping their rule of life that one could tolerate the existence of the demon. This is a significant turn in the life of the monk as they moved from desiring the death and destruction of the temptation to learning to keep it at bay.

However, the Abbas/Ammas took the next step. They did not tolerate the temptations they learned that the temptations were the way to love. That to disengage with the temptation or to even work for its destruction meant that the monk never experienced the Grace of God. 

This three fold movement - destruction, tolerance, embracing - requires a deep dedication and devotion to love even the most vile and evil. This does not mean the Abbas/Ammas delighted and let the temptation/demons do as they pleased. Abbas/Ammas fought with the demons all the time. It was in the fighting with the demons that the teachers came to see what the demons have to teach each of us. 

There are temptations in your life. There are people and forces in your life you may even call demonic or evil. And to be sure, there is evil in the world. There is evil in the world that is to be confronted - slavery, hate, enslavement, war, etc. These early monks were talking less about social evils as much as they were talking about the evils that come into our hearts. The desert wisdom is not clear on what to do in the face of injustice, Jesus had much to say about that. The desert wisdom is much more directive on what to do in the face of the demon of the soul. Do we desire it dead? Tolerate it's existence? Or can we cohabitate with it?

Reviving a Church one Sunset at a Time

 Can you discern if this is a sunset or sunrise?   --  Photo by  Johannes Plenio  on  Unsplash

Can you discern if this is a sunset or sunrise?   --  Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Not long ago I found myself in a conversation about how to help local churches embrace the end of different ministries. You know. those ministries that have little vitality and are more of a burden than a blessing. Those things we keep doing to not hurt feelings, keep the tradition alive or other  reasons of nostalgia. I have learned in my context that there are things that people want the church to stop doing, but we do not know how to set the ministry down with dignity so we do never set it down.

Setting ministries down can be a difficult thing, but it is sometimes easier to do when there is a ritual to do so. How does a church ritualize setting a ministry down? One way is through the ritual of sunsets.

At the church I serve sunsets are somewhat common to talk about and all they are is the way we give permission to set a ministry down. Here is how some sunsets look:

  • Finance - when there is money for a project, set a sunset date on that money so that when that date comes and the project is not done it can be asked - is God really calling us to do this project?
  • Small groups - when the group is getting a bit stale, call for a sunset break for a few weeks or months. Then call everyone in the group back together and ask if God desires for the group to continue, continue in a new way, or disband for a new thing. 
  • Annual events - Call for a sunset year where you do not do the festival or fundraiser. Instead, call for a discerning conversation about the reasons God may be inviting a break or a re-imagining of the event.
  • Choirs - take a month off and ask people to pray if God is calling the church to have a choir for the coming year. At the end of the month, if it is clear God is calling for a choir, invite people to consider if God is calling them into the choir for the coming year or not. Those who are not called are free to step away.

I assume you see how the sunset ritual can be used in many different ministries of the church. I have discovered the ritual of sunsets highlight at least two things - liberation and discernment. 

The church is liberated, it is free, to set ministries down in order to do other things. Rest and sabbath is needed for all things - ministries included. People are also free to set away without guilt or shame and the church is free to pick the ministry back up in the future if God desires. How do you know God's desires for ministry? Discernment. 

The pastoral role then is less about drumming up resources for a ministry or being scapegoated when the ministry is set down for a time. The pastoral role is not about green or red lighting different ministries, but about creating the space for the church to listen to God's call in their individual and collective lives. 

Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

 Jesus is the leader, we are followers  -  Photo by  Kevar Whilby  on  Unsplash

Jesus is the leader, we are followers  -  Photo by Kevar Whilby on Unsplash

  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is power a temptation? Nouwen mentions one of the great mysteries of leadership when he says, "leadership, for a large part, means to be led." Christians are called to follow Jesus, not lead him. Christian leaders are those who show others how to follow properly. 

For the largest part of the Christian tradition, too many leaders fall for the temptation of power for noble reasons. Nouwen says, "We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power - provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human being - is a good thing." Then he is quick to point out that this is the same rationalization for the Crusades, enslaving native people, the inquisition, opulent buildings, etc. 

The most cutting critique of power Nouwen makes is that "power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love." It seems it is easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than love life. Jesus asks, 'Do you love me?' We ask, 'can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?'"

Rather than upward mobility, Nouwen echos other thinkers as he promotes downward mobility leadership. It is "leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love."