Aleppo and the Absence of God

I woke this morning to news that pro-Assad forces were leading an assault on the city of Aleppo in Syria, in the hope of wresting control away from rebel forces who have held part of the city for nearly four years. There were reports of civilians, including children, being murdered in the streets and widespread brutality and carnage. NPR reported that there may be as many as 100,000 people still in the devastated city. And across social media, citizens who remained in Aleppo filmed farewells, unsure if they would ever make it out of the city alive. The UN has been unable to act to evacuate survivors because of Russian dissent, and the unwillingness of Western governments to commit troops to the effort, though it seems that a few hours ago, (as of this writing) a tentative cease fire was reached, and a plan for the evacuation of civilians from the remaining rebel-held areas was called for. I am praying that those people remaining will be safely evacuated, and that most of those farewell videos won’t be necessary.

As I watched video from Aleppo, and listened to the reporting on the ground, I was struck suddenly with an image of Jericho, that story in Joshua of the Israelite’s “victory” and the subsequent slaughter of all the city’s inhabitants. It seems to me that the narrative in Joshua, and the description of the toppled city walls, must have looked something similar to present day Aleppo in the minds of the authors. From Joshua:

“On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city…” … As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”

I heard this story told as one of triumph when I was a child. I was instructed to look at the miraculous victory God had provided for the Israelites. I don’t remember reflecting too much on the divinely sanctioned genocide that follows the tumbling of the walls, but such is the way these stories are told. But, this is the story that suddenly jumped into my mind as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning. I imagined the fear of the citizens of Jericho; that their families outside the walls might never see them again, that they may not make it through the day. I thought of the shock and terror a parent must feel at the sight of their murdered child. Suddenly, this story felt monumentally different, because I was now confronted with the real horror of the story in the images from Aleppo. But, there is no message about a benevolent God taking sides in Aleppo. There is no meaning to be plucked from the very real apocalypse being faced by the Syrian people. There is only abundant and continuous violence.

At a staff meeting this morning at the congregation where I work, we reflected on the Christmas story, and on the name Immanuel; God is with us. We were asked to consider what these words mean for us. God is with us. All I could think about was Aleppo, and the Syrian people. I thought, “I have no idea what meaning these words have for me in a world where that level of violence can take place”. I considered all the answers that I was supposed to give. God is with us when we care for our neighbor. Or, God is with us when we forgive someone. Or even, God is with us in the midst of tragedy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those. They felt wholly inadequate. They felt like lies. I’m not attempting to get into some kind of “problem of evil” conversation. For me the problem of evil belongs to humanity, not to God. What I was troubled by was the language of God is with us, when the world just simply doesn’t seem to allow for that.

I’ve mentioned before that in the season of Advent there is a tacit admission that the world is not right as it is. If it were, we wouldn’t await the arrival of a savior with such fervor and anticipation. A savior simply wouldn’t be necessary. Our world is hurting, and as such we await the coming of Christ, trusting in the hope of a future world of possibility. But that waiting isn’t necessarily going to be joyful. Not only that, but as we wait for Immanuel, for God is with us, we may actually feel instead the utter absence of God. The abandonment of God. The Bible is loaded with language for this feeling of lack. The Psalmist cries out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”. And in Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”. Even Christ on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. There is a fear among Christians to admit that often in our lives we are feeling abandoned by God, and that we experience a world that routinely reflects the seeming absence of meaning of any kind.

This is the absence I felt as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning, the modern-day Jericho. I cannot imagine the absence the people of Syria are collectively feeling as the fighting continues, and more and more people are killed or displaced. Not only that, but so many refugees face rejection and persecution in those places that are meant to provide sanctuary. The U.S. has been locked in a political battle for years about whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the country, based on some irrational fear that we will inadvertently smuggle in terrorists along with them. Are the Syrians supposed to express some kind of feeling that God is with them in the midst of all this suffering? Are we, from a distance, truly comfortable professing that God is present despite the reality on the ground? What might happen if we allowed ourselves during this season of Advent to experience that feeling of absence, of abandonment. What if we forgo our need to avoid the troubling theological implications of suffering, oppression, and injustice? What if, rather than quickly reminding everyone that things will be OK once Christ appears, we put on ash and sackcloth and cry out “Where are you God?!”.

We are living in a frightening world, and in some ways this season of Advent is perfectly timed. The world is broken, as it has always been, and we need saving. We await the coming of Christ, not as some magical repairman, but as a vision for the future world of possibility that we hope for. We remind ourselves that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30). This is our hope, but our hope must not suppress our true feelings of absence and abandonment, but must spring from them. This absence may also remind us that the world’s brokenness does not mend with our inaction and our silence. We can lament God’s distance while bringing ourselves ever nearer to our neighbor, and the victims of violence and oppression. We can cry out “How long, O Lord?”, while creating safe spaces and sanctuary for those who have been displaced here and now. Let us offer comfort and safety, to the best of our ability, if it seems that God is not, and in this way, we may get a glimpse of the hope we are waiting so desperately for.

Stay Awake

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. – Matthew 24:36-44 NRSV

The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent always catches me off guard. It’s dark and a little bit scary. There’s a reminder of the horror of the flood, people being taken away, and God is compared with a thief. And here I thought we were just getting ready for tiny, smiling, baby Jesus and buying gifts for our family. We get none of that as Advent begins. We get a warning. Stay Awake.

These two words stuck out to me, as I am sure they did for many, on Sunday morning as my pastor read them. It was these two words that caught her attention as well. It’s a command that many of us are attuned to at this moment in our history. For a lot of us our world is quickly becoming a scarier place, and for many others our fears and concerns are being confirmed rapid fire in the words and actions of people. We are hyperaware of the fear and the danger swirling around us, and so many of us are primed for a fight. Stay awake we hear and we tighten our fists and prepare to stand up and defend those in our midst who are targeted by hatred and violence. We hear Stay Awake and we think about Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Standing Rock, Immigrants and Refugees, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. Stay Awake because oppression shows up while the rest of us are sleeping.

This is a reminder we need, particularly those of us who hold a significant amount of privilege. Our friends in communities of color, and the LGBTQ community, do not have the luxury of falling asleep. They are awake to the violence and oppression they face on a daily basis. But those of us who might not be directly targeted by policies of a certain President Elect, or by the hatred and violence perpetrated in his name, may be tempted to take a break from the outrage and the fear and do something else for the time being. This is a dangerous mistake. This is the kind of silence that contributes to violence and oppression. Stay Awake, Jesus commands. Do not fall asleep while Muslims in this country are threatened with a registry. Do not fall asleep while immigrants in this country are threatened with deportation and arrest. Do not fall asleep as white supremacists bend the ear of the President Elect. As Christians, called to serve and stand with the vulnerable and the targeted among us, we cannot fall asleep. We must stay awake.

This means that we must also Stay Awake in the small details of our own daily lives. It is so simple to become distracted by the noise on the news or to lean heavily on the efforts of large organizing bodies. While the ACLU, water protectors at Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter are doing incredible and critical work which we should support and participate in, it is vitally important that we begin our work in our homes and places of employment and education. Advent is about repentance which requires a turning away from the ways in which we have fallen asleep to our call as followers of Christ. Often the first signs of this turn up in our most intimate relationships; with our partners or spouses, parents or siblings, friends, and even with ourselves. Do we lash out in anger at home while decrying anger in public? Are we becoming lost in the swell of consumerism around Christmas, but neglecting to find gratitude in simplicity and relationships? Are we abandoning our spiritual practice? These things may seem small or trivial in the grander scale of staying awake, but they are incredibly important.

I often joke that I have inherited the family legacy of a quick temper. Unfortunately, in action, it’s not very funny at all. This isn’t the righteous anger of justice, this is the petty anger of inconvenience. I know that it takes extra work on my part to avoid spikes of anger in certain environments or when I do particular things, and if I neglect that work and let my anger drive me I become empty of any ability to feel compassion and empathy. I’m not able to hear the legitimate concerns or fears of another person when I am in the midst of one of my temper tantrums. Blinded by rage is a very accurate description of the effects of anger. But I am reminded by Jesus to Stay Awake. I cannot afford to be blind. I cannot afford to be asleep. I need to be awake to the small daily interactions that require my care and my attention, so that when I am called upon to stand against oppression and injustice I can do so from a place of health.

At the Stand Up For Racial Justice general meeting a few weeks ago the crowd of nearly 800 people were asked to talk to a neighbor about what or where it is that they go to recharge, to rest and recuperate. I was so grateful for this reminder that in the work of standing against oppression it is important that we act out of a place of health. Movements need people, and people simply cannot act when they are emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or physically exhausted. We need to stay awake to our own needs as well. As followers of Christ we are routinely called into difficult and uncomfortable spaces, whether they be in our own relationships, or in the larger pursuit of justice that looks like Jesus. Sometimes praying for our enemies isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, and we find that we first need to take some time to pray for ourselves. This self-focused work is just as important as the other-focused work we hope to do. They are simply different sides of the same coin.

For me this inner work is centered around the Liturgy of the Hours and Centering Prayer. I have become uniquely attuned to the ways in which I am affected when I neglect my practice. I begin to feel scattered and reactive. My temper flairs quicker and more intensely, and I become much more concerned with myself than with the needs of others. Thomas Keating says about Centering (Contemplative) Prayer:

“Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists”. *

I have found this wisdom to be true in my own life, experiencing the results even when I fail to understand the process. What I know is that my spiritual practice, the care of my soul, is foundational to my ability to give myself to any endeavor; be it my marriage, a friendship, my work, or the pursuit of justice. This sense of the divine in all things is coupled with a greater sense of humility, born of the realization that all of creation is connected in a beautiful and complicated way. This is why I have been so grateful for the discipline of daily prayer. It has awakened me, and helped me to Stay Awake, to the truth of our interconnectedness, to our collective belovedness, and to my own identity as beloved. For Benedict, it was the discipline of ora et labora, prayer and work. The two are interconnected and each serves to build the other up.

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday in Advent paints a terrifying picture of loss and impending doom. In our day, when so many are seeing doom on the horizon, we must heed the command of Jesus and stay awake. It will be so easy for us to be swallowed by our fear and our anger, and to turn from the important work ahead. Apathy becomes a tempting idea when hope seems lost and power seems absolute. But as followers of Jesus we must stay awake. We must build ourselves up for the work ahead, and we must care for and about those small daily tasks and interactions that empower us to do the work of justice. Our world cannot bear the burden of our slumber. It needs for us to stay awake.

  • Keating, Thomas. Open Mind Open Heart. New York, NY.: Continuum, 1991. Print.


It has been a very difficult week, and I don’t think I have any new words for how people are feeling. For myself I’m feeling grief, anger, and sadness. I’m feeling guilty and ashamed. And I’m feeling betrayed. Betrayed by my own ignorance, and by the Church, at least its expression here in the United States.

What was clear to me when the final announcement was made that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States, was what a small world I was living in. I went into the evening confident that there was no way in hell the country would elect someone as dangerous and divisive as the current President elect. Even as he gained more and more states I felt confident that the map would begin tilting in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Any minute now. My wife and I watched well into the night and were eventually left stunned and dumbfounded. It felt like a nightmare. It still feels like a nightmare. But, it is now clear to me that I have almost no idea what the rest of the world looks like outside of my own safe little echo chamber. I don’t understand the hurt and the pain of huge swaths of our country. I don’t understand an expression of Christianity that sided with a person like Trump who extols the virtues of power, aggression, and self-obsession. I do not understand.

This week, article after article has encouraged those of us who reject sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and hatred in all its expressions, to get organized and let the incoming administration and the world know that we will not sit silently while hatred and fear become the law of the land. Yesterday, that call was made more urgent by the news of Steve Bannon’s appointment as Chief Strategist in the Trump cabinet. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, is a white nationalist who peddles in xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and hate. If there was any hope that President Trump might tone down his alt-right agenda, it must certainly have flown the coop by now. I am echoing the call of many, and asking that we make our voices heard. That we not be conquered by despair and apathy. I am asking that those of us who try to follow Jesus make it known that policies of hatred and bigotry are not consistent with our vision of the Kingdom. I am asking that we stand in solidarity with those who are targeted by these policies, even when (especially when) that requires us to place ourselves, mind and body, between victims of oppression and the oppressor.

But, I am asking us to do something else as well. Something that struck me as I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. One of my professors mentioned that Bonhoeffer has been a comfort to her in the last week, and it inspired me to return to his writing. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, dated 14 August 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:

“In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing to change this, nor can the demigods and lunatics who know nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris. Of course, one can cultivate human relationships all too consciously in an attempt to mean something to other people…it may lead to an unrealistic cult of the human. I mean, in contrast to that, that people are more important than anything else in life. That certainly doesn’t mean undervaluing the world of things and practical efficiency. But what is the finest book, or picture, or house, or estate, to me, compared to my wife, my parents, or my friend? One can, of course, speak like that only if one has found others in one’s life. For many today man is just a part of the world of things, because the experience of the human simply eludes them. We must be very glad that this experience has been amply bestowed on us in our lives…” *

Here is wisdom for us today, written over 70 years ago by a man imprisoned by a totalitarian government hell bent on the destruction of the other. We must be about the business of people, before we can be about the business of politics and religion. It seems that often, even our own families can be torn apart by the destructiveness of partisanship, politics, and doctrine. It sounds so trite, but the most important work we can do in the service of equality and justice, is at home and in our neighborhoods. It is the work of affirming the dignity and belovedness of all people, starting with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and the members of our worshipping communities. One of the things that struck me as my wife and I watched the election results, and as it became clear what message was being sent to women in this country by a Trump Presidency, was the realization that I still had so much work to do dismantling my own unconscious sexism. This realization was spurred by the love I have for my wife, for my mother and my sisters, and for all the incredible women in my life. These fundamental relationships require so much care and focus, and are often our starting points for healthy relationships with others. If our relationships at home are a mess, that often shows up in other ways and can interfere with the ways we encounter the world. The fostering of relationships is the beginning of justice, and is central to the call of Christ as we encounter him in the Gospels. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” **.

This means that for those of us seeking to stand in solidarity with the victims of hateful ideologies we must also begin the more fundamental work of building relationships with those we want to stand with. If we speak a powerful truth but are unable to realize that truth in the expression of our own lives, I think we may be nothing but clanging symbols. Can I still believe that racism is bad if I don’t know any people of color? Of course I can, but my call to destroy the systemic walls that separate us ring a little hollow if I haven’t even begun to destroy the walls in my own life. We must be about the business of human relationships, and stop seeing groups of people as one of many items in the “world of things”.

I would place politics and religion firmly within Bonhoeffer’s “world of things”, at least as it applies to the way we encounter people. This entire election we have talked about voting blocs as if they were not made up of individuals with their own stories and contexts. I have conveniently focused my own outrage on the right, or Evangelicals without actually engaging the people around me who might claim those identities. As we organize efforts to combat the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia it will be important for us to find the balance between denouncing dangerous ideas and holding those who encourage them accountable, and engaging productively and proactively with those in our own lives who think differently than we do. This will require a healthy dose of humility and patience, and if I’m honest, I don’t know if I have that capacity yet. I certainly wouldn’t expect it from anyone else either. I’m only suggesting that we will need to find ways to be about the business of human relationships if we want to see the kind of lasting and powerful change that looks like the work of Jesus.

Again, this is why I love the invitation of Benedictine Spirituality. At its heart the Rule of St Benedict is about how people live and work together. What has struck me this week as I encounter the Rule is how many chances a disobedient monk is given in the monastery. When a monk is disobedient he may be instructed to eat alone, or work separately from the rest of the community. And yet, the monk remains under the care of the Abbot. In chapter 21 Benedict says:

“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for the wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matt 9:12). Therefore, he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

I am less concerned with who we may assign the role of excommunicated brother in our own contexts, than I am with the Rule’s demand that we engage with those who we might otherwise dismiss. I’m not suggesting that it is the job of the oppressed to reason with the oppressor, but I am suggesting that those of us who can must be about the business of human relationships across the dividing lines in our contexts. It is the only way that a better world will be made possible.

I’m with Bonhoeffer here. I believe that human relationships are by far the most important thing in life. I think that so many of our divisions are curated without either side knowing one another. We fear the other because we don’t know the other. That doesn’t mean that all people are gentle and lovely once you get to know them. It doesn’t mean that hatred and fear are not governing principles for some people. It just means that much of these dark and frightening ideologies are grounded in the fear of the unknown. It means that to truly love someone, they must be known to us in a way that honors their authentic self-expression rather than our characterization of them. This election revealed to me how sheltered I am from the experiences of people unlike myself in this country. It has challenged me to work intentionally on the relationships I already have; seeking to always provide a safe space for expression and conversation, dignity and respect. It has also challenged me to engage with people outside of my existing circle. Not to observe them like some kind of anthropologist, but to build relationships that can traverse ideology, class, and experience. So that I can curate a practice of empathy and compassion. That is the foundation out of which justice flows; love rather than fear. If we continue the practice of dismissing people and dehumanizing them, despair wins and we keep fighting the same battles over and over again. I refuse to let despair win. Not anymore. If we’re going to fix this, we are going to need to do it together.

*Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Letters and Papers From Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

Psalm 120

I am grieving. I am afraid. I am sorry.


In my distress I cry to the Lord,
   that he may answer me:
 ‘Deliver me, O Lord,
   from lying lips,
   from a deceitful tongue.’

 What shall be given to you?
   And what more shall be done to you,
   you deceitful tongue?
 A warrior’s sharp arrows,
   with glowing coals of the broom tree!

 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
   that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I had my dwelling
   among those who hate peace.
 I am for peace;
   but when I speak,
   they are for war.


A light shines in the darkness…


I’ve been reflecting lately on the importance of community in the health of the individual. Finding myself in a time of transition between a number of communities I have been confronted with the loss of community, or at least the perceived loss of community, and with the uncomfortable task of trying to establish new connections in new communities. At the same time, I have tried to remind myself of the vitally important connections that remain even when the structure of community as I have experienced it fades away. It’s exhausting. I long for that community structure that offered so much reprieve from all the other stressors in my life. The comfortable one that I knew and loved. I can feel its absence like a lost loved one. I suppose in essence I am mourning. It was this sense of mourning that really got me thinking about community as an aspect of spiritual health.

Benedictine spirituality is founded on the principle of community. The Rule was written to offer guidance to monasteries in the 5th & 6th centuries, and Benedict’s first chapter is explicit that the monk that lives with other monks in a monastery is to be preferred to the lonely, itinerant monk. The subsequent 72 chapters illustrate the ways in which monks are to live in community. The monks are instructed to eat together, to work together, and to pray together. They are to be obedient to each other and to the abbot, and to seek to outdo the other in mercy, humility, and service. It is in these acts of community that the monks are brought into ever closer communion with God, illustrating the immanence of God in midst of community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” *.

This is why most of us go to church. Because we have experienced the closeness of God most intimately in the gathering of people around ritual, music, and fellowship. I know for myself, the worshipping community, at its best, has been the place where I find comfort, support, and challenge. It’s been a place where I can safely allow my vulnerabilities to be seen and still find acceptance and love. At its worst, it’s been a place where vulnerability is seen as inconvenient or inappropriate. Where competition and divisiveness are allowed to interrupt the stated purpose for gathering in the first place.

It is this diversity of possible experiences that can make the loss of community so anxiety producing. We are not guaranteed a community that will support us. We are not promised the same level of trust and mercy that we may have encountered in previous communities. It’s like breaking up with a person you were in love with, and then comparing all subsequent suitors to that one who made you feel so safe and cared for. It’s a difficult process that many of us have to face. We lose and leave communities for so many reasons. Maybe we move, or get a new job. Maybe we are called to a new community, or perhaps the community is simply unable to gather anymore. For whatever reason, this loss is something we all face. And for many of us, this loss is the first time we may realize how vitally important our communities are to our spiritual and mental health.

I wonder if so many of us ignore the importance of community because of how radically connected we are every second of every day. At any moment we are able to communicate with many thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat. We often find some level of value in the number of “friends” we can accumulate on our various social media platforms. Now, there are plenty of good arguments for the veracity and effectiveness of online communities, but I wonder if those online communities that truly create a sense of belonging and support are the minority, rather than majority experience. For myself, I often think that my “online community” offers the appearance of community, just enough for me to neglect the more intensive work of building lasting community relationships face to face. This may postpone that feeling of loss, but eventually I find myself realizing that my Twitter followers and Facebook friends cannot offer the kind of belonging I need to experience that closeness that drew me to community in the first place.

In the midst of thisexperience of loss, and this entrance into new community, I have been especially grateful for those relationships that are the foundation of my belonging. My primary community is that experience of belonging and acceptance with my wife. When it seems that all other connections fall away, or are unable to fit within the busyness of daily life, I am fortunate to have the nurturing and loving belonging in the community of marriage. This is where all of my experiences of community have their beginning. I am grateful also for those other relationships that are able to survive and continue in the face of transition, busyness, and time apart. Without these experiences of belonging, the loss of a particular community would be simply too heavy to bear.

This desire for community, and spiritual community in particular, is built in to the faith tradition I claim as my own. In the person of Jesus, God revealed God’s relational essence. Jesus is simply not interested in claiming a position of above and beyond, but rather claims a position of among and within. Jesus reveals God to the people by intimately connecting in community. It is the foundational structure of the Jesus movement. This structure is confirmed again and again by those traditions that react to a Christianity that loses touch with this primary value by refocusing again on the community. Monasticism, Anabaptists and Quakers, emergence Christianity, and New Monasticism. There is a sense that this return to community is healing in and of itself, and this seems to me to be absolutely true.

It is this belief that has challenged me to push through the awkwardness of establishing new relationships and new communities. I know the healing that can come from a safe and accepting community, and I acknowledge that, for myself, I simply cannot be without it. I am hopeful that I will find belonging in a lasting and loving community, and I continue to pray that we all might find this belonging. Find that community affirms and supports you. That challenges you, and asks you to challenge yourself. Do not settle for accumulating followers, and don’t let the loss of one community prevent you from seeking another. We all need belonging, we need community. Thanks be to God.



Practicing Silence

It happens like clockwork. Thursday rolls around and that checklist in my head starts to flash red. So many tasks to be completed, so many things to write, and read. So many people to visit and call. Class to attend, work to be done. Each week, right about now, I start to breathe a little quicker, my eyes begin to dart and my heart rate kicks up a notch. For some people it’s the start of the week that causes the most stress, for me it’s the end. On Monday, I usually feel organized and prepared. By Thursday, the wheels have come off and I’m playing a dangerous game of organizational triage. It’s so dang predictable.

This is when I need to remind myself that there is a peace to be found in the chaos, and its name is silence. I don’t mean simply turning off Spotify while I write a paper or clean the house. I mean silence inside and out. Silence that fills my entire being, body and soul. This is my antidote.

Silence is part of nearly all spiritual practice, because the ancients and mystics of all faith backgrounds understood that peace is found in the silence. St. Benedict had very strict feelings about silence in the monastery, saying, “Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk” *. Benedict reminds us that a flood of words most often leads to problems. Gossip, slander, complaining. Thus, when we refrain from speaking we build up sturdy walls against such dangerous floods. This is true also for interior silence. When we allow our minds to spin wildly around the business and negativity of our weeks and our days, our work and our relationships, we find that we are unable to know inner peace. We simply spin out of control. This is what happens to me on Thursdays around 10 A.M.

Joan Chittister speaks of silence in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, saying:

“Monastic spirituality says it is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to consciousness. Monastic spirituality says it is the cry of our own passions that mute the cry of others. Monastic spirituality says people who cannot live comfortably with silence can never live comfortably with noise.

But silence is a frightening thing. Silence leaves us at the mercy of the noise within us. We hear the fears that need to be faced. We hear, then, the angers that need to be cooled. We hear the emptiness that needs to be filled. We hear the cries for humility and reconciliation and centeredness. We hear ambition and arrogance and attitudes of uncaring awash in the shallows of the soul. Silence demands answers. Silence invites us into depth. Silence heals what hoarding and running will not touch.” (Chittister **)

This is the healing I need, and I am fully aware of the ways in which I hoard and run in my own life. Running for me often looks like procrastination. It offers moments of relief in a world too full of tasks and relationships for me to manage. I feel so overwhelmed that I just turn on Netflix for an episode…or two…or a season. But eventually the world snaps back into focus and I have less time maneuver it than I did before. This is where I start to say “I have no time for silence”, which is a complete cop-out, but an effective one nonetheless. However, all the practitioners of silent or centering prayer that I have read; Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, they suggest something in the area of 40 minutes a day. 20 in the morning, 20 in the evening. If I have time to watch one episode of Ancient Aliens, I can manage 40 minutes of silence a day.

This is not simply a spiritual notion, as the science of silence has started to back up the claims of the desert fathers and mothers, the yogis and mystics. An article on Huffington Post discussed the number of ways that noise and distraction harms our physical and mental health. Studies have shown that noise pollution can raise blood pressure and risk of heart attack, and create a greater sense of stress. A 2013 study, focusing on the effects of noise on mice, found that silence might actually lead to the creation of brain cells in the hippocampus. This Psychology Today article links to a number of studies that illustrate the benefits of silent meditation, with results like decreased pain, decreased anxiety and stress, and an increased sense of compassion and empathy. The mystics have had it right all along.

We live in a world that values production and hard work. We see people who work themselves to death, and we celebrate their dedication and come to believe that this is what success looks like. But this is a dangerous way to live. When we don’t take the time to settle our bodies and minds we soon find that we lose whatever sense of control we were aiming for in the first place.

Ultimately, silence is a settling into the experience of God, into the Ground of All Being. It heals us because this presence is itself healing. Thomas Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart, says:

“The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. We do not resist them or suppress them. We accept them as they are and go beyond them, not by effort, but by letting them all go by. We open our awareness to the Ultimate Mystery whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing – closer that consciousness itself. The Ultimate Mystery is the ground in which our being is rooted, the Source from whom our life emerges at every moment.” (Keating ***)

This freedom to settle into the experience of Mystery and silence is one that offers us peace and healing in a world that demands certainty and offers cacophony. It is a way for us to care for ourselves, and to claim our identity as Beloved, and to extend that love out into the world. Whether we enter silence as a way of being good to our own bodies and minds, or as a way of resting in the presence of the Mysterious God, it is clear that it is a wise thing to do. So, now I’ll shut up, get up from this desk, and start taking my own advice. Peace.

*The Rule of St Benedict

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily”

***Thomas Keating “Open Mind, Open Heart”

On Being Ordinary

A while back I came across a blog called “Glory to God for All Things”, written by Fr. Stephen Freeman. One particular post stood out to me, titled Simply Living. In it Fr Freeman reflects on 55 Maxims written by a Fr Thomas Hopko. These 55 maxims or rules seemed to me to be so simple, so practical, and so wise that I printed them out and hung them on the wall above my desk. I look at them each day and try to really focus on one or two during my morning prayers. Some of my favorites; (1) Live a day, and part of a day at a time, (2) Pray as you can, not as you want, (3) Be merciful with yourself, and with others. But, there is one maxim that continues to catch my attention over and over again. Be an ordinary person.

My initial reaction to this was dubious. I’ve been told my whole life to be all that I can be, to never settle, and that I can be anything and anyone I want to be. We live in a culture that values those who distinguish themselves. We praise the achievers and the winners. There is a whole mythology in the U.S. about those people who refused to be ordinary, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and made something of themselves. We don’t often praise the ordinary folks.

This eagerness in our culture to be the best, the wealthiest, the most in shape, the most creative, has a shadow side. When we find our value in our ability to distinguish ourselves from everyone else, we often begin to feel as though we simply are not good enough when we are unable to distinguish ourselves in the ways we expect. If success is being extraordinary, then the ordinary folks must be the ones who fail. This myth has created an epidemic of perfectionism.

As a perfectionist myself, I can attest to the overwhelming power of feeling not good enough, not worthy enough, not attractive enough, not smart enough, and a plethora of other lies. Brene Brown, the well-known shame and vulnerability researcher, has done a lot of work on perfectionism as well. In fact, her first book was called The Gifts of Imperfection. On her website’s blog she defines perfectionism as “…a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.’” *. This definition rings so true for my own experience. One of the things I have found with the help of my therapist, is that in my head lives a critic as odious as any small handed politician, who sits on my shoulders and whispers in my ear “Not good enough”. I have found that this critic of mine involves himself in every facet of my life, even criticizing the way I pray, or how I practice self-care. If I make a mistake at work, he tells me I’m bad at my job and everyone knows it. If I forget to call a friend or family member back, he’s sure to make it known that I am a bad friend, brother, son, or husband. If I don’t know something, or say something stupid, forget someone’s name, or fail to make it to the gym, this critic of mine will beat me down until I feel absolutely worthless.

This is where the wisdom of this maxim rings true; Be an ordinary person. For me it doesn’t mean don’t try or settle for mediocre. It is a reminder that I am ordinary in the way we all are. I am imperfect. I am not superhuman. I would not expect of another person the kind of perfection I expect for myself. Brene Brown gets at this by saying “Perfectionism is defeating and self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect” *. It simply doesn’t exist.

To be ordinary seems to me to be linked to the Benedictine value of humility. In The Rule Benedict asks the reader to consider Jacob’s ladder from Genesis, “…we must set up that ladder on which Jacob saw angels descending and ascending. Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility” **. Benedict then lays out the twelve steps of humility including finding contentment in the face of suffering, controlling one’s tongue and speaking modestly and gently. Obedience and accountability to the community, and manifesting “humility in his bearing, no less than in his heart, so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else” **. This identity of humility is what being an ordinary person looks like. It’s leaning into our imperfections, not so we can batter ourselves with shame, but so we can learn to be compassionate to ourselves and to others. Joan Chittister says it beautifully:

“Humility is simply a basic awareness of my relationship to the world and my connectedness to all its circumstances. It is the acceptance of relationships with others, not only for who they are but also for who I am. I do not interact with others to get something out of it; I make my way with all the others in my life because each of them has something important to call out of me, to support in me, to bring to fruit a vision of God in my life.” ***

As I have reflected on what it means to be ordinary, I have tried to discern what a practice of ordinary might look like. How can I embrace this identity in my daily life? For me, it begins with learning to be merciful to myself. When my critic rears his ugly head, I try to consider what I would say to my ten-year-old self. Would I ever let anyone talk to a child the way I let my critic talk to me? I’ve even been known to speak directly to my critic. I have found that anthropomorphizing my own critic gives me more freedom to shut him down. It becomes something I can observe, and something I can attack. I’m certain many people have observed me arguing out loud with my critic while stopped at a red light, or walking the dog. (This is where my critic wants me to feel embarrassed about arguing with him in public. I have two words for him.) I remind my critic that I am not perfect, that there is no such thing. I remind myself that I am loved, and that there is nothing in this world or the next that can separate me from that love. Once I can see this reality for myself, I can begin to see it clearly for those around me. I can affirm their belovedness and worthiness, in spite of and because of their imperfections. When I forget this, and when my critic sneaks in, I often repeat Matthew 17:5 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”. I keep repeating it until I can’t hear that stupid critic anymore. It’s the first rule of the internet; Do not feed the trolls.

To be ordinary is to simply be. Not as a way of resignation, but as a way of embracing that identity of Beloved and worthiness for ourselves and for others. To be ordinary means that we learn to practice an appreciation for the ways we have fallen, and for the ways we have gotten back up. It says to the other “I accept you as wholly and completely yourself, flaws and all”. It says to ourselves “I am worthy of love and of acceptance”. It tells that critic of ours to piss off, because we are enough.  You are enough. Let us embrace our imperfections, our very humanity. Let us remember that we are loved not because we are perfect, or because of our achievements, we are loved simply because we are. Claim it, and know it, and let us be ordinary.



**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

***Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.


Terence Crutcher


In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet onto the road of peace. – Benedictus

This morning as I read the Psalms and the Benedictus, I kept replaying in my mind the awful video footage of Terence Crutcher being shot and killed by a Tulsa police officer. No weapon, arms held in the air, and still he was killed.

Defend me, O God, and plead my cause
against a godless nation.
From a deceitful and cunning people
Rescue me, O God.

In the video of the killing, taken from a helicopter above the scene, an officer is heard saying, “That looks like a bad dude too. He might be on something.” Think about that for a moment. From a helicopter many, many feet above the ground, Terence Crutcher is deemed a danger. A man with his hands up, who’s only crime was that his car stalled on the highway.

Since you, O God, are my stronghold,
why have you rejected me?
Why do I go mourning
oppressed by the foe?

How many more of these videos do we need to watch before we as a country say enough? Inevitably, the purposeful denigration of Terence Crutcher’s character will begin, as we try to justify what has been a regular part of life for African Americans in this country, and what white Americans have only recently been forced to witness. This can not continue.

O send forth your light and your truth;
let these be my guide.
Let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.

This senseless death is magnified by the fact that Ahmad Kahn Rahami, the man accused of setting off a pressure cooker bomb in New York City, was taken into custody, alive. Rahami was armed and dangerous, and engaged in a shootout with police officers. And yet, law enforcement was able to take him alive. They took him alive, because they wanted him alive. They had a vested interest in his survival; hoping to question him about possible ties to terrorist organizations. If a wanted and dangerous man can shoot at police officers and still be taken alive, why in the world did Terence Crutcher have to die? In what way was he a greater threat than Rahami? It seems to me that what made Crutcher a danger in the eyes of the officers was the fact that he was a black man.

And I will come to your altar, O God,
the God of my joy.
My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp,
O God, my God.

White Christians in this nation have a responsibility to stand against the oppression and violence that are killing the African American community. Our voices need to be heard crying out, demanding justice, and an end to violence. We need to remember that we follow a Christ who was himself, a victim of state violence. We follow a Christ who forfeited his life, and refused to ignore or forget about, those people whom the world had declared unfit for dignity and acceptance. We are not called to do less, or to decide that the world is simply broken and we have no power to change it. We are called “To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Our silence is unjust. Our inaction is unjust. Justice is not borne of silence, nor is silence merciful. We can have compassion for the African American community and law enforcement while still demanding that justice be done.

Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise God still,
my savior and my God.*

Talk about this today and tomorrow and the next day. Have this conversation with your family, friends, and worshipping community. Pray for the victims of state violence and for their families. For Terence Crutcher, Tyre King, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, and the ever growing list of names. Find out how to support those organizations in your community that are seeking to end police violence. Our voices are powerful and they are needed. Enough is enough. Be heard.


*Psalm 43

The Stability of Prayer

I don’t like change. There, I said it. I am a big fan of routine, of things staying the same. It’s comforting to me. It makes me feel like I have some kind of handle on life. If I know what’s coming I can prepare accordingly. I know what to look out for. I know what might make me anxious, and what might distract me. I do not like change. Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks have been rife with change, transition, and disruption. All of it has been positive, but change can be difficult, and a lot of change at once can be downright terrifying.

Last week I started classes at United Theological Seminary. I have been looking forward to seminary for years, and being able to sit in my first class felt like a real accomplishment. It’s one of those few moments where I’ve really let myself feel proud of all the work I’ve done. That being said, graduate school is no small task. A few days in and my head is already swimming with syllabi, assigned readings, and upcoming papers and assignments. I’m writing out lists and putting dates in my calendar in hopes of keeping myself organized. I’m doing my very best to switch back into school mode and stay focused.

Adding to this challenge is the fact that I begin a new job at a new congregation this month. I am leaving the congregation that has been my worshiping community for about six years. This one hurts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly excited for my new role, and I took the job because I know it will be a better fit and a step forward, but when I imagine Sunday morning without the people I have grown to love so much, it makes me very sad. I have a sense that this transition will be the most difficult to adapt to in the coming weeks.

When life transitions or changes, it can be difficult to find stability in the chaos. It has certainly been difficult for me. But this, I believe, is where daily spiritual practice earns its medal. The Benedictines take vows of stability, conversion, and obedience when they enter the monastery. Oblates do the same, and endeavor to carry these vows into their daily lives. For me, so much of this work is done in the discipline of prayer.

When I first began visiting St. John’s Abbey, it was the practice of praying with the brothers that truly drew me in. It was clear that the Daily Office was the central focus of their time together. Regardless of the many distractions and ever changing tasks and duties, the brothers met at the same time every morning, afternoon, and evening to recite the Psalms and pray for their community and the world. It seemed to me that it was this daily routine that ensured the stability of monastic life. Joan Chittister, in her book, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, writes:

“It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer even remember why we set out to do them in the first place.

But regularity in prayer cures all that. Regularity harnesses us to our place in the universe. Morning and evening, season by season, year after year we watch the sun rise and set, death and resurrection daily come and go, beginnings and endings follow one another without terror and without woe. We come to realize that we are simply small parts of a continuing creation, and we take hope and comfort and perspective from that.” (Chittister *)

This is what the practice of daily prayer has offered me. It has given me a constant in the midst of a world that changes, often suddenly and violently. It has helped me to let go of my need to control the changes in my life. It reminds me each day why I do the things I do. My daily practice is my stability, and it centers me each morning, and each evening. In the morning I ask for guidance; O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. In the evening I offer praise and thanksgiving. I pray the Psalms, that so beautifully convey the range of human experience and spirituality. I pray for the Church, the world, and all of creation so as to exercise a discipline of empathy. As I pray, I am aware of the people all over the world who pray these same words, recite the same Psalms and hymns, plugging me into an immense community of prayer.

So often the Daily Office provides the wisdom I need to hear, at the moment I need to hear it. This morning the canticle was taken from Isaiah, and spoke so eloquently to this time of transition.

My home is pulled up and removed like a shepherd’s tent. Like a weaver you have rolled up my life, you cut it from the loom.

 It is you who have kept my life from the pit of nothingness. (Isaiah 38:12 & 17)

It is this routine, this daily practice, that creates in me a sense of stability. It provides for me a refuge in the midst of transition, and challenge, and chaos. It is a reminder to let go and settle into the Church’s steady stream of prayer and devotion, to be comforted by its rhythm and its goodness. I have found that when I maintain this practice I find peace and centeredness even in those times where I think there can be none. I think this must be what grace filled stability looks like, and I am so very thankful for it.


  • Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled From the Daily” Harper Collins 1991.

Echoes in the Abbey Church

“We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another”          – Thomas Merton

I became an Oblate candidate at St. John’s Abbey in January of this year. An Oblate is someone who is “living in the world according to the Spirit of Saint Benedict”*. It’s like cosplay for the monastically inclined. I don’t have a tonsure. I don’t wear a habit. I’m not celibate. I’m just trying to engage the world prayerfully, with humility and simplicity. This is easier said than done, which is why the support of the monastic community is so important.

As an Oblate I am connected to St. John’s Abbey through prayer and community. This connection offers support and direction, and also physical space as a destination for retreat. Retreat really is the perfect word here, because as the days pass, and tasks and responsibilities pile up, I find myself tempted to just fade into the wilderness. The Abbey is a place where I can turn off my phone, set down my checklist, and embrace some silence. It’s healing. It resets me, and ensures that one day I won’t simply wander into the Superior National Forest, leaving my wife to wonder where the hell I went. This is a good thing.

In June I was at the Abbey for the annual Oblate Retreat. Oblates and candidates gather from around the state and country to pray together, to eat together, and discuss Benedictine spirituality. Check-in wasn’t until the afternoon, but I decided to take advantage of every minute I had. I got up at 5 A.M. and began driving in hopes of making it in time for morning prayer. I wanted to start the weekend off on the right foot. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the brothers, spend some time in contemplative prayer. That’s what I needed, and that is what I intended to get.

At first the drive was nice. Clear roads, coffee, and Otis Redding; just as God intended. I was making good time and even felt confident enough to stop for a refill on my coffee cup. As I approached Hwy 15 traffic slowed. Brake lights. Brake lights. Then traffic stood still and the detour signs appeared. I had forgotten about the construction on 94. Morning prayer was approaching and I wasn’t even moving. There was no way I was going to make it on time.

After following the detour I pulled into the Abbey parking lot at 7:04-four minutes late. Frustrated, I tried to fight down my feelings of rage at being late. All that waking up early for nothing. I had already begun down my well-worn path of all or nothing. The morning hadn’t gone exactly as I intended it, so I was ready to just throw the whole weekend away. Screw it! Just get back in the car, drive home, and spend the weekend watching season after season of The Office. Luckily, I had just enough determination to open the door to the Abbey Church and walk in.

Just walking into the Abbey Church, I could feel some of tension begin to fade. The gray stone reflected the colors from the immense stained glass window at the back of the sanctuary. The brothers had already begun. The Liturgy of the Hours is prayed from the choir stalls at the front of the sanctuary, but not wanting to disturb I took a seat in the very back pew. I strained to listen as the brothers, oblates, and guests, prayed the Psalms and chanted the Benedictus, but all I could hear was the muffled echoes of their voices. The words were lost in the vast space of the sanctuary. That twinge of anger started to surface again. I took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes. I decided to just settle into the space, and let the muffled sound of prayer work as white noise. I’m going to get some peace dammit!

I took a few deep breaths, but found myself still fighting against a torrent of negativity. All I wanted was to get here in time to start the weekend right. Couldn’t even get that. Now I can’t hear a single word. Could’ve slept in. Could’ve had more coffee. As I wrestled, a brother stood and walked to the lectern and began to read. His voice continued to echo and I was still unable to make out any words he spoke. He read slowly and deliberately. I closed my eyes again. I’m not going to be able to hear any…

And then…I heard them. Six words broke through the echo. I heard them as clearly as if the brother had been sitting right next to me.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God.”

Each word had been enunciated so carefully and their tenor hung in my mind. The brother continued to read, his voice once again echoing off the walls, muddying his words.

Seek first the Kingdom of God. I’ve encountered these words from the Gospel of Matthew countless times. This simple line follows Jesus’ admonition not to worry. Don’t worry about your clothes, your food, your body. Before that Jesus reminds us that we cannot serve two masters. Seek first the Kingdom of God (The NRSV translates it as strive first for the kingdom of God) feels dismissive. It’s a vague answer to very specific concerns. I worry about all of the things Jesus says not to worry about, and Jesus telling me to chill out because God’s going to handle it all is not comforting or reassuring to me at all. This has always been one of those verses that made me think “Does Jesus actually mean this?”.

But, on this day, sitting in the back pew of the Abbey Church, these words struck a different chord for me. The first thing they did was knock me out of my sad little pity party. Why was I at the Abbey in the first place? Was I there to get my quick fix of peace and relaxation? Or was I there to participate in community and spiritual practice? Whose kingdom was I there looking for?

The second thing that struck me was the implication of priority and identity in these few words. This is not a command to accomplish the kingdom of God. It doesn’t even offer very clear directions for how one might accomplish this kingdom. It says seek. It reminds me that as someone who considers themselves a Christian my call is to seek, search, strive, and imagine what might be. Seeking does not necessarily imply finding, but it does imply persistence. It is this persistence and this search that helps me to create meaning in the face of often overwhelming meaninglessness. I think it is important too, that Jesus does not say seek only he says seek first. It’s as if he’s saying “Let this seeking define the rest of your experience. Let it be the lens through which you see the world. It doesn’t mean that somehow now everything will be sunshine and roses, or that all of a sudden you’ll understand everything, but it does mean you’ll have a place to begin looking.” And it is this always beginning that I think is the work of the Christian, of the seeker, and the skeptic. Always seeking so we might arrive once again at the beginning and start the whole damn thing over.

As I sat in the pew I ruminated on these words. I let them swirl around my mind until they echoed like the voices in the sanctuary. I sat with them all weekend and found myself repeating them silently to myself when I encountered other oblates, candidates, and brothers. I repeated them as I waited for the bells to ring for the daily office. They were my prayer before meals, and the words I said before I fell asleep. When I left the Abbey on Sunday afternoon, I brought these words home with me. I kept them close as I talked with my wife, as I returned to work, and as I engaged in daily practice. These words are with me now as I write. My hope is that this small corner of the internet can be a place where I can explore what the hell these words mean, because I honestly have no clue yet. I know that the kingdom of God refuses to be static, and that the moment I think I’ve got a handle on it is the very moment I’ve lost it. I hope that there will be others to help me wrestle and discern. I hope that the act of seeking itself will encourage and challenge me to seek even more. And I hope that it might encourage others to do the same.