Learning to Shut. Up. from a Benedictine Monk

It was 5:50 AM on Friday morning when I started my drive from Evanston towards the south side of Chicago. I wanted to start on the right foot, so I clicked OFF my car stereo that was blaring a Rihanna club dance-mix as started the engine. I drove all forty minutes in complete silence. It’s what a monk would do, right? *CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK* The first sound of my blinker was deafening as I made my first turn from Sherman Ave. onto Clark Street. Had I really gone that long without any music rumbling through my car speakers? Maybe the better question was: had I really gone that long without sound period? That’s what I would try to figure out over the next three days at the Monastery of the Holy Cross.

As a part of the graduation requirement at Garrett-Evangelical, each student must participate in a cross-cultural experience in which they steep themselves in a cultural environment unfamiliar to their own. Many folks base that cultural shift on terms of ethnic differences, such as a white student who has spent their entire life in a traditional, suburban United Methodist community to devote time at, for example, Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly African-American charismatic congregation on the in the trenches of urban Chicago. Other students attend Jewish Shabbat Services, Eastern-Orthodox Masses, or join hands at a worship gathering at the Baha’i Temple which, lucky for us, is not only the oldest Baha’i Temple in the world, but it exists a mere mile from our campus. However, when my academic adviser sat me down about six months ago to discuss my options, he had other plans in mind for my experience. “Michael,” he said frankly, “you need some quiet in your life.”

“Umm, thanks?” I was not sure how to respond.

“You thrive in a culture of chaos,” he continued to say. “Your ministry setting in the city (Urban Village Church) has you zooming on trains, hopping buses for appointments, and always on the go-go-go with e-mail responses, Facebook updates, and other forms of online communication with your web savvy congregation.”

He had a point.

“I think for your cross-cultural experience you need to experience a culture that revolves around silence and contemplation. You need to search within the depths of your soul and begin to become familiar with your inner divine. God’s Spirit is a might wind, you know that to be true Michael, but She can also come as a still, soft voice.”

Damn. It was the first word I exhaled in response to his accurate accusation. The reality of my adviser’s words had swelled so deeply in a place of doubt and wonder that I had nothing better to say. Eventually, but reluctantly, I agreed to see his charge through.

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an icon of St. Benedict of Nursia

Arriving at Monastery of the Holy Cross and enduring the excruciating 40 minutes of silence, I knew I could accomplish anything. Bring it on. I whispered the words to myself as I climbed the steep stairs into the sanctuary for my first 6:30 AM Mass. The smell of incense permeated the air, mixed with the stench of old cold wood that oddly quieted my anxious soul. Only two people were were in attendance as I entered (in a space that easily could have filled 500 or more), but no lack of numbers would delay the monks from entering on time. A loud clang from a sharp bell signaled the start of the monastic march as 12 hooded men chanted throughout their somber entrance. Ky-ri-e E-lei-son, Ky-ri-e E-lei-son. Over and over again, their words translated from Greek to English, Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy. It was exactly the prayer I needed to hear. Lord, have mercy… that I can get through these next few painful day days.

The first line from the Daily Office almost had me falling out of my seat. Spawning directly from Psalm 51, the Monks chanted in unison:

O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth will proclaim your praise.

What? What did they just say? I came to this place to SHUT my mouth, not keep it open and give forth any kind of praise! Why the hell did I come all the way down here if the first thing we’re going to evoke God to do for us is to open up our traps? I can do that anywhere!

To be honest, those first words truly questioned my whole decision. Why did I travel away from my wife for the weekend to spend it with a motley crew of hypocrites. As the service ended, Brother Ezekiel, one of the 12 monks and my contact at the monastery, came over to greet me as I made my way into the sanctuary’s narthex. At just above a whisper he directed me to the guest house where I would be living and sleeping the next few days. Following the grand tour, Brother Ezekiel asked if I had any questions about the guest house amenities.

“No, Brother, but I do have a question about Mass this morning. I’m… I’m just so confused about the reading of Psalm 51 at the beginning of the first service. How does a monk, who has taken a vow of silence, give praise to God with their mouth?”

He smiled briefly, and with a deep breath he responded: “Just because we as monks have taken a vow of silence, does not negate the fact we all have voices. The prayer asks God that if we are called forth to speak to some degree, that each sound uttered might be words that glorify God’s name.”

With that he handed me the key, wished me Christ’s peace (Pax Christi), and walked out of the room leaving me standing in awe.

Over the next 72 hours I would spend much of my time silently pondering those two sentences Brother Ezekiel so graciously shared with me. I had come to the Monastery of the Holy Cross for a chance to purge the existence of sound, noise, and distraction from my cultural milieu, only to realize what I needed was a reconfiguration of how my I use my voice. It is so easy to open our lips and not only curse and criticize our neighbors, but to miss an opportunity to celebrate God’s goodness. Maybe it is less about shutting up completely and more about being precise with words of encouragement in every opportunity we have to communicate.

The final guideline of the Cross-Cultural requirement at our seminary asks that each proposed experience might “incorporate into ministry a broadened view of what it means to be human and Christian.” I learned a lot about what it means to be a human within the confined walls of the monastery these past three days, but I can’t help to imagine the possibilities as Christians we might have to embody Brother Ezekiel’s calm reminder to convey God’s love in every breathe we take. Although I may not have the radio off in my car every time I hop in the driver’s seat (Rihanna’s club beats withstanding), my view of what it means to be human and Christian certainly has been stretched through the God glorifying voices of these south side monks.

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Recessional Confessional: The Morning Hillsong Got it Right

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Guide My Feet, While I’m on this race. (Yes, my Lord)

Guide My Feet, While I’m on this race.

Guide My Feet, while I’m on this race. (Yes, my Lord)

For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

 “Guide My Feet” is a hymn that’s been humming through my life over the past year. I’ve sang it on spiritual retreats, surrounded around a friend that’s been in-and-out of hospital rooms for various diagnosis, and community organizing gatherings as we’ve rallied for justice for the state of Illinois, during services with the congregation at Urban Village Church, and a host of other appropriate locations for various reasons.

It’s not just a hymn, though. This hymn has been sort-of a tool strapped to my utility belt, bound to my side as I go about this journey of faith — like an ancient warrior would carry a sword, a tailor would have on him/her measuring tape, or a used car salesman has the tune of that lowest possible number he can negotiate that Honda down for the intrigued but frugal customer.

These people know their tools. They know them without looking at them. When called into action the tool is so visible and functional to who the person is that no one even questions their ability to use it or accomplish a desired outcome. This hymn has brought me into deep interaction with God and has been the lens through which I’ve seen God in the voices I’ve sung this song behind, in-front of, side by side, clasped hand-to-hand with, and crowded together in holy response.

This hymn was my tool.

Sunday, after a tiring week of festivities for the wedding of my dear friends, I got up and drove our rented Mini-Van up Centenary Blvd., around the graveyard, past the frozen daiquiri shack, and up Texas St. to First United Methodist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana to FAITHLink (FUMC’s energetic contemporary worship service) where I had spent over four years during my undergraduate career helping to lead music. Nostalgia on overload, I heard the similar sounds and smelled the similar smells of Southern Maid donuts and styrofoam cups of coffee that had so long engulfed my nostrils every Sunday morning.

Sneaking in the back, I watched as the punctual details of the well-designed contemporary service flowed organically. The music, however, was a bit polarizing — like jumping in a shower too quick and jolting from the ice-cold water that tricked your senses. It had been three years since I’d been fully immersed in a worship service of this charismatic of quality. Had I become Salvation is Here soft? Had my Chris Tomlin tolerance fallen to far to the wayside? Had I become so uncomfortable with pop contemporary Christian worship that I was no longer able to worship? 

Following Mark’s sermon, Missy walked up to her seat at the synthesizer/piano and began singing the bridge of an unfamiliar tune.

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders

Let me walk upon the waters,

wherever you would call me.

 

Take me deeper than my feet would ever wander

and my faith will be made stronger,

in the presence of my Savior.

I thought to myself, What an awesome hymn the band has re-purposed for a contemporary song. The lyrics (not to mention Missy’s incredible voice) swelled my heart as I started singing aloud as opposed to my silent introspection earlier in the service. Filled with hopeful theology, the words call us have to step out in faith of God; to reach to the margins of our societal realms. It’s a song rooted in biblical calling and asks of God to be a guide in telling our stories–which finds its foundation in Jesus’ story–to the ends of the earth. Could this be the lyrical musings of Charles Wesley? Fanny Cosby? Ira D. Sanky? Ruth Duck?

The final slide with credits read, “Oceans,” written by Hillsong. 

Hillsong? Say what? There’s no way! How could these Aussie worship mega-stars pump out lyrics to a song that was so theologically on-point, singable, and had such a rich text that I would almost automatically label it as a eighteenth-century hymn?

It was then I knew that I had tightened my contemporary Christian music sleeping mask so tight that I had let the genre of music override the Spirit’s movement in that delicate closing moment of the service. In fact, I had let it affect my whole mood and posture of prayer the entire morning.

Recessional Confessional: I left that morning convicted. Convicted less by any particular moment or message in the service, but by my inability to be open to the Spirit who moved her unconditional hands of grace through, yes, a poppy contemporary Christian song. 

So whether it’s Hillsong or Hildegard, Bell or Barth, Gungor or Gregory of Nysssa let us be aware of the Spirit that works in, with, and through us a tool for God’s glorification. The Spirit who knows us not just in a style of worship or type of instrument, but who knows as intimate beings of God’s unmatched love. The Spirit who knows us not just in a huge stage of thousands of charismatic worshippers or in the silence of solitary cell, but who knows us in the depths of our deepest oceans of shame as beloved children of possibility and potential. Hillsong got it right. Their song calls not on the power of their lyrics to get them through the mess of the journey of faith, but on the Spirit’s leading, discomfort, and ultimate faithfulness. May our tools to God not just be the lyrics we sing but in the actions God calls us to live out daily.

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17 Seconds, Stanley

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I was taking out my dog, Bella, about thirty minutes before the Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals when this overwhelming swell of wind whipped through my apartment complex courtyard; spinning the bushes, creaking the bike rack, and swaying the mysterious oak tree that stands affront the building almost to the breaking point.

“Run, Bella!” Avoiding the downpour I scooped up our fury and frightened Shih Tzu, just escaping the flash storm that blanketed the Windy City. It all happened so fast.

It all happened so fast. Two minutes remained in the game and down by one goal our sites looked to Thursday night’s unexpected and undoubtedly exhausting final match-up to determine the 2013 Stanley Cup Champions: The Boston Bruins or The Chicago Blackhawks.

Our deflated table at a local pub sat impatiently watching as the final seconds slipped through the gloves of Chicago’s offensive attack when suddenly the scrappy effort of Brian Bickell tied the game up. The room erupted! Overtime period, as we saw the game’s outcome at that moment, was no stranger to Blackhawks or their fans.

What happened next no one in the room could have predicted. In 17 seconds from the moment the face-off following the game-timing goal, Blackhawks’ Johnny Odulla assisted David Bolland with follow-through slap-shot into the Bruins’ net with 58.3 seconds remaining. Shouts of joys, high-fives of joy, chest-bumps of redemption, tears of the reality that the Blackhawks may have just ensured the Stanley Cup filled the room and the rest of Chicago equally.

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ImageThe scenes and pictures from last night are still ruminating in my mind and soul. It was hard not to be captivated by the scenes on Clark Street. Minutes after the game, news stations had their camera’s tuned into the raw madness of fans pouring from the bars, homes, and friends’ watching parties to collectively celebrate with their brothers and sisters. Thousands upon thousands of people let go of their inhibitions as the pride for their team and their city had reached its boiling point.

I’ve always loved these scenes in the public sphere. Whether it’s rushing the court at a college basketball game when an underdog beats a giant or the images of millions waiting outside the Vatican with a spirit of hope as the announcement of Pope Francis was declared, people gather together when there is something to celebrate. People long for human interaction in the moment of great joy and gladness because the shared experience is something that enlivens possibility and creates memorable stories that can be told, captured, and re-told again. A common goal was reached for Chicagoans to win the Stanley Cup, so who better to celebrate than with the community of that common goal.

So how do we manifest this in the Church? In 17 seconds the Stanley Cup transitioned from something attainable of the Blackhawks in 48 hours to 58.3 seconds. If the Church hopes to manifest any form of celebration that these pictures display in the streets of Chicago following Monday night’s win, it must step into mindset that the possibility for creating a sustainable community, with the common goal of “acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God,” (Micah 6:8) is attainable today. Not after this fiscal year, not after this generation before us dies off, not when they start playing guitar during the service, and not when I get ordained and have some form of power. Nope. Today, now, this moment: this is the time to draw people together for the common good of our neighbors and neighborhoods. This is the time to grab our pads, our sticks, our Corey Crawford face-mask and skate into two-minutes-remaining-of-Game-6-mentalities. If we do this, with God’s help, the potential for a celebration-filled shared-experience is awaiting with excitement to fill the streets of the Kingdom of God. What’s stopping you this time?

(photo credits to The Chicago Tribune)

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Giving Thanks like Jimmy Fallon

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My absolute favorite late night talk show host is Jimmy Fallon. From his SNL-like skits, crazy antics with celebrities, or getting to hear the jams of The Roots every night as his musical relief though the show’s entirety, he’s got the the total package to conclude a long day at school or work.
Never knowing what segment he will present next, I find myself hoping he whips out a pen and a stack of envelopes signaling his beloved Thank You Notes montage. The concept is simple: with a dramatic piano interlude accompanied by The Roots pianist, Fallon writes Thank You Notes to a variety of ridiculously objects or cultural norms which he thanks for obscure reasons. For example, he writes:
Thanks… cough drops, for being candy with directions.
Thanks… skinny jeans, for looking terrible on people who don’t have skinny genes.
or Thanks… Cheerios and SpaghettiOs, for being twin siblings who chose different career paths.
The other night, while laughing to myself at the absurdity of his hand written note which thanked a tanning beds for looking like a human panini-maker, I though: when was the last time I gave God thanks? I pray throughout the week asking God for this, addressing God about these issues, or proclaiming God’s goodness due to this. How often do I just pray to God… “Thank you.” It is so easy to skip over it within the chaos of our world and the calamities of our daily lives. But today be challenged. Be challenged to give God thanks. . .
Thank you for yesterday.
Thank you in the Red Line at the Argyle Stop.
Thank you for your guidance throughout this semester.
Thank you for the sunshine that beams off Lake Michigan.
Thank you for the comfort of family members this weekend at my grandmother’s funeral.
Thank you for this barista at the Starbucks on State St. who told me I had a great smile.
Thank you in the morning when I rise.
Thank you at night when I fall to sleep beside my wife with a roof over our heads.
Thank you for the joy that exudes from the laugh of my one-year old cousin Cooper
Thank you when nothing seems right and yet your grace gathers me up and makes me whole.
Thank you for Missy Wise’s voice in my headphones.
Thank you for tex-mex.
Thank you through the tears.
Thank you for unexpected friendships.
Thank you when I don’t understand.
Thank you for my craving to know more.
Thank you for my breath.
May we this week breathe-in God’s presence and breathe-out our thanks for God’s continual faithfulness.

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The Harlem Shake and The Triune God

harlemshakeYou may have seen it, you may have heard of it, you may have even participated in one.

Just over a month ago, a cult-like craze shook uncontrollably across YouTube and Facebook accounts around the nation.

First filmed in early February by a group of teenage sketch comedians in Queensland, Australia, the video created a cluster of reactions within hubs of American YouTube followers spawning a massive replication frenzy.

The 30 to 32 second electronica-sound bite, recorded by artist Bauuer, begins with the camera directed to an open space where everyone is seemingly going about their business in regards to their context. As the music begins, one individual (typically wielding a mask or helmet of some sort) begins dancing; not swaying the rest of the “non-participants” from their course. Then, like any quality electronica song is supposed to do, the bass drops dramatically and the camera cuts to a mass of people (ranging from 10 to 10,000 as state universities began catching on to the trend) dancing ridiculously with various props, costumes, and… lack of costumes. 

That’s it. That’s what’s caught this nation by storm. Instead of the debt ceiling, North Korea, or post-Oscar buzz, this Gangam-style successor has challenged us to stop what we’re doing and simply shake what our mother’s gave us.

As controversy arose to the Harlem Shake not actually being the Harlem Shake of early 80s dance scene in New York City (some people even claiming it to be a cultural/racial disgrace to a culturally specific folkway), I’d hope we could look beyond this tension, and its overbearing news and social media coverage, to see what’s happening at the core of this most recent societal fad:  We. Are. Dancing.

Although dancing in public can be intimidating to some, there’s a sense of pure, unadulterated freedom that comes from this art form of dancing (despite whether you call this video sensation art or not). The other attribute of this dance is that it’s done together. This is not a solo performance of a beautiful ballerina, skilled tap dancer, or even a ballroom dancing duo; it’s a bunch of folks moving their bodies ferociously in the space they inhabit at that moment.

Greek theologian, John Damascene (676-749), developed a term to describe the three Persons of Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to display the dyanmic nature of each, but also to describe their relationship with the other two. Naming it perichoresis, meaning being-in-one-another or the mutual indwelling of the Three-in-One, the term was understood at face value, but lacked a metaphor that could be applicable. Beyond Damascene’s lifetime, theologians began linking it to the image of “the divine dance,” describing a divine sense of choreography that reflects symmetry, partnership, and accents of each Dancer’s uniqueness yet still connected at its core. Author and theologian, Catherine LaCugna, writes in her book “God For Us”:

“The image of the dance forbids us to think of God as solitary. The idea of Trinitarian perichoresis provides a marvelous point of entry into contemplating what it means to say that God is alive from all eternity as love.”

But don’t get confused. The Triune God doesn’t dance just for personal gratification. God invites us to dance within the mutual indwelling of the Trinity. God rejects isolation and deeply desires our communion. God’s hope is for us not to dance alone, but to join with our brothers and sisters to be most fully be in relationship with each other and with God.

The Harlem Shake is an example of a cultural communion of persons from all different cultures, races, and stories that came together for one common reason. May we acknowledge God’s invite to dance with a ferocious freedom with the Divine – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to more fully love God, love our neighbor, and experience a relationship with The Triune God who is unashamedly for us.

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Stephanie

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With two working parents, the first ten  years of my life were spent under the care of a full-time nanny.  Marcia would pick us up during the school year and have us ready for dinner as my parents would arrive home in the evening. During the summer she would take care of us Monday through Friday, eight am to five pm. From sundaes to french toast, the zoo to the playground, road trips to Tyler or parking at DFW Airport to watch the planes land or depart, Marcia created a memorable summer for me and my two siblings to enjoy.

Marcia had two daughters: Irene and Stephanie. Basically like sisters, they would join Marcia and watch over us, helping to add an element of fun to our summer-time schedules.

I loved running errands with Stephanie. She was in her early twenties, outgoing, a college student, listened to great music (Bryan Adam’s, Everything I Do, was our jam), and would occasionally take me to a store where I could spend my allowance on a new toy or game.

But there was one thing that seriously irked me about Stephanie that, at the time, was almost more than I could handle.

Stephanie would never let me buy a gun from the toy store.

Like, seriously? I’m a boy!  All my friends were wielding the newest NERF weapons, bee-bee guns, or talking about the rifle they shot some rabbits or a dear with while hunting out in East Texas with their father. Why couldn’t I join the club? Even with my well-executed arguments and intoxicating smile, I could not get her opinion to swing.

Her response was simple and to the point. Michael, I don’t want you playing with guns… they’re dangerous, whether real or not, and I don’t want you to feel comfortable with one in your hand.

That was never good enough for me. I still couldn’t grasp the tension of this really cool twenty-something telling me not to spend my money or play with something that was considered really cool in my school.

Following Friday’s events in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children and 6 adults were viciously murdered by an assortment of guns ranging from a 10-millimeter-Glock to a semiautomatic “long rifle,” my mind was is full of questions, my heart was is full of anger, and my eyes were are still filled with tears from the images, interviews, and growing details of this planned attack on helpless children and educators.

It was during this period of question and confusion that the image of Stephanie at the Target (on BeltLine Rd.)  telling me, with both firmness and love, that I would not be purchasing a toy gun while I was with her. Stephanie, a life-long educator herself, knew the importance of instilling a message for so many young, malleable minds of the dangers of guns and the dangers of becoming comfortable when a gun is around you. Stephanie made an impression, an impression that has always made me cautious around guns, around acts of violence, and around the events that follow someone who picks up or is handed a weapon of any kind. What happened after the Newtown shooter picked up one of his mothers many guns will be etched in the minds of an entire community and an entire nation for years and years to come.

This Advent season, a particular scripture has been revealing itself to me in numerous ways. From tweets, to text messages, to one of our readings at a Blue Christmas Service; a service of lament, sadness, and healing as the Christmas season brings with it not just joy and good tidings but grief and despair, it has followed me over these past three weeks. It comes form the first chapter of the Gospel according to  John, verse five:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

Stephanie was is a light to me and so many children that she encountered; making one bold, determined effort to keep guns out of the hands of her students.

God shares with us the light for all people: a light that regardless of how dark, how angry, how confused, and how broken we may be in lieu of this tragedy in Connecticut and the gun violence tragedies that soar at record numbers throughout this country (especially the south and west side of Chicago), cannot and will not be concealed.

We are called to be the light today. Let the end of this violence begin with us, God. Peace is possible. Peace is possible.

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Creating within the Process

Kyle Glanville’s explanation of preparing a great shot of espresso is brilliant. Call me a nerd,  but my spidey espresso senses were tingling while watching this video.

I’ve come to really respect espresso and the amount of focused attention it takes to pull the perfect shot since starting my position as a barista at Peet’s Coffee in March 2011. From seasoned aficionados from Italy who visit their kids at Northwestern who come in asking for their perfectly calibrated caffeination, to confused customers who ask for extra-shots of expresso to their already sugar-filled drinks, my job is to follow the process in which I’ve been taught and then formed into my own approach. Yes, Kyle Glanville’s systematic approach to this process is film worthy and makes for a perfect model to duplicate, but even Kyle adds his own flavor, his own movement, and adds his own finesse to the final product.

Whether you’re a church leader, church member, barista, accountant, stay at home dad, choir director, bass player, barber, librarian, aspiring actress or future family practitioner, the process in which you follow to do your best work should never lack your creative touch. People can see through lack-luster performance. Don’t hide your God-given talents behind your apron, stole, or lab coat. As much as God appoints, hurls, calls, sends, and follows through, God is constantly creating within the process of people’s everyday lives.

So grab a latte today. Watch your barista and see if they are intentional about giving you a bit of themselves within making a drink they produce on a regular basis. If not, grab that latte, pour it all over the table, and demand a refund. Haha! No, instead be challenged in their creativeness or creative-less-ness to shine within the process of everything you do. Search out the Kyle Glanville’s in your field and be inspired to be you.

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