Let Us Eat the Phlegm

in her book, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Benedicta Ward translates the following story of our Christian desert teachers:

At a meeting of the brothers in Scetis, they were eating dates. One of them, who was ill from excessive fasting, brought up some phlegm in a fit of coughing, and unintentionally it fell on another of the brothers. The brother was tempted by an evil thought and felt driven to say, ‘Be quiet, and do not spit on me.’ So to tame himself and restrain his own angry thought he picked up what had been spat and put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Then he began to say to himself. ‘If you say to your brother what will sadden him, you will have to eat what nauseates you.’

In case you missed it, one brother coughed up phlegm onto a different brother who grew angry from being spat on. The spat upon brother chose to fight the internal battle of anger rather than say anything to the sick brother and possibly hurt him.

So he eat the phlegm.

My beloved denomination is sick. Many of us are spewing up all sorts of phlegm onto one another. We are become angry that someone would say something repulsive; that someone might act against the “code of conduct” and even the Book of Discipline - that someone might spread their “disgusting” theology. Too many of us become angry and choose to correct, embarrass or even reprimand another (always in the name of love).

I desire the heart (and stomach) to eat phlegm. I desire to address my inner conflict and anger knowing that is where the enemies last stand will be. Or in the spirit of another desert saying:

If anyone speaks to you on a controversial matter, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say, “Yes.” If he speaks ill, say, “I don’t know anything about that.” Don’t argue with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.’

The world will be at peace not when we stop fighting, but when humanity is at peace with ourselves. For that internal peace will guide our actions toward one another. We do not have a denomination in conflict so much as the people that make up the Church are not at peace with our own selves. How do we overcome the internal anger and conflict within? Eat the phlegm.

Satisfying Our Dissatisfaction

listening to Peter Rollins talk about different philosophical ideas always makes me long to be as smart as he is. The other day I heard a lecture he gave and he was talking about being so many of us are dissatisfied. He spoke of two postures of how we address our dissatisfaction - Conservative and Revolutionary.

The conservative is dissatisfied with how life is and believes the way to satisfaction is somewhere in the past. Be it a certain decade or a time in the persons life, it sounds like the conservative is not so much a person as it is a tactic to satisfy our dissatisfaction. I act conservative sometimes when I think of how much “better” and “simpler” life was when I was in high school. Of course, there is no way for us to go back in time and so being conservative means we are trying to bring the past into the present in order to satisfy our dissatisfaction.

The revolutionary is also dissatisfied but this posture is one that believes satisfaction is not in the past but in the future. We act like the revolutionary when we believe that life will be better when we get “over there”. Be it with a different house, job, government, afterlife, or whatever, the revolutionary tries to bring the future to the present. Of course, Rollins points out, that most revolutionaries that succeed in their task are often among the first to be killed by this new reality.

Rollins’ point is not that conservative or revolutionary is better over the other, but that they are two sides of the same coin. They both believe that life is about satisfying our dissatisfaction, they just disagree on the tactics.

Rollins says there is a different posture, a different coin if you will, that both the conservative and revolutionary are suspect of - the Rebel. The rebel is not seeking to satisfy dissatisfaction but to be satisfied with dissatisfaction.

The rebel shows us that being dissatisfied is a feature and not a bug to the human condition. Dissatisfaction gives us energy and that energy, if ever satisfied, would be hellish. It may be difficult to imagine, but if your sports team won every game they played and it was a forgone conclusion they were going to win, then sports would be boring. You would loose the energy to participate in the game because you know you will win.

The rebel does not play the impossible game of trying to satisfy dissatisfaction but plays a new game all together and learns to be satisfied with dissatisfaction.

Photo by  Robert Anasch  on  Unsplash

While the religious leaders of his day wanted Jesus to look to the past to satisfy their dissatisfaction, the zealots desired Jesus to bring the future kingdom to the present. Jesus resisted the conservative and the revolutionary postures toward the dissatisfaction in the world.

Jesus was a rebel who showed us the way to address our dissatisfaction - by being satisfied with it.

Starting the Spiritual Life

The more that I engage with the sayings of the desert wisdom the more I come to see how little I really know about the Christian spiritual life. For instance, I struggle with anger and I try really hard to say the right things. I do not want to offend my neighbor and I do not want to say things that do harm. Of course I fail at this, but I still feel that the “ideal Christian” would never say anything hurtful. And then I read this:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour. And thus I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God. - The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Pambo thought, right up to the point of his death, that self-sufficiency and not being a drain on anyone (by avoiding bread he did not make) was virtuous. He thought that never saying anything he was sorry for was a saintly. And then, right at the point of his death, he saw that this “ideal” way of living was in fact not the way of God at all. Receiving hospitality and seeking reconciliation are the very beginning steps of one in the service of God.

annie-spratt-9VpI3gQ1iUo-unsplash.jpg

It is faithful to seek reconciliation. It is not faithful to keep so quite as to never offend or to think all that you say is without flaw. It is faithful to receive the work of others. The deficient one is someone who has never asked for help.

I am reminded once again that American values are not Christian values. The pious self-sufficient individual might think they are at the pinnacle of heaven, but Pambo says they have not even begun to walk the mountain.

The Boxing Preacher

Preachers have different goals to their preaching styles and content. Some talk about changing our heads and thus preach intellectually engaging sermons. Others talk about changing our hands and give us actionable steps to go out into the world and do something. Still others speak of preaching to the heart so that over time the heart is converted to Christ and love for neighbor expands beyond our small identities. Still others argue for a combination of these three goals.

In this way, preaching is like boxing. Using different moves, statements and arguments, the preacher is attempting to spar with the congregation. Not in a combative way, but in a way that builds stamina and endurance for the struggles of life.

And so, many preachers are looking for the one line, the one idea the one point for a sermon that can “land”. Something so poignant, clever, beautiful or compelling that it hits people and knocks them off their feet. Some preachers might even try to preach to hit you in the face so hard that it knocks you out! The preacher is trying to land blows on a congregation that is sparing with her.

However, in our attempts to "“knock people out” or “hit em in the head” with such powerful sermons, we are overlooking that Jesus is more of a body puncher than one who goes for the face.

Going for the knock out blow is quick and exciting, and going for the body is slow and less flashy. The preacher who “hits” people in the stomach with the sermon, may never knock anyone out. But after we are hit in the body a few times our breathing changes.

Rather than preach to the head, hands or heart, what would it look like for the preacher to preach to the breath.

What would it look like for sermons not to change our minds or even our hearts, but the very way we breathe? The very way we take in and let go of the breath/spirit in our lungs?