Monks and Mediation: What some Benedictines taught me about conflict

Chapel steeple, Monastery of Christ in the DesertSeventy-five miles north of Santa Fe there’s a high desert canyon so ancient, so primordial, I half-expected to see pterodactyls in the sky instead of hawks as I steered my rental car along 13 miles of single-lane dirt road. The road runs along the Chama River where elk graze along the banks and beavers big as bear cubs drag sticks from the woods to their dams in the greenish water.

At the end of the road is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where some 25 Benedictine monks from a dozen countries around the world share their lives with one another and with the guests who come throughout the year to pray and work alongside them. Hospitality is embedded deep in Benedictine practice.

The robed, sandal-shod brothers gather in a beautiful adobe chapel seven times a day for prayer, starting with Vigils at 4:00 a.m. and ending with Compline each evening at 7:30. They pray the Psalms, all 150, over the course of each week, then start over again. They sing all the psalms, even the “cursing” ones that call down the whole gamut of affliction on the heads of the psalmist’s enemies. I can report that Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks feels perhaps a wee bit less appalling when set to Gregorian Chant.

The monks not only pray; they also labor four hours a day and invite their guests to join them. My assignment the first day was pulling weeds in the cemetery with Brother Will from Atlanta and hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow with Brother John Baptist from Malawi. Other guests worked in the hops field. The monks brew and sell their own beer, called Monk’s Ale. “Brewed with care and prayer” it says on the label.

Trouble in the Canyon
I came to the Monsatery a week before their 50th anniversary celebration. In the gift shop I bought a history of the community, commissioned for the occasion. The monastery got its start in 1964 when an intrepid Benedictine monk named Father Aelred from Rhode Island stumbled upon the remote canyon by happenstance and was hooked. He and two close monk buddies from New York set up three tiny tents on the banks of the Chama and made a go of it. In the face of blizzards, floods, land disputes, wild animals and near-fatal injuries, they carved out a primitive observance of monastic life in the tradition of John the Baptist.

Fast-forward eight years to 1972. The monastery has grown! From three monks to four.

However, relationships between them have deteriorated to the point that Father Aelred and his one-time best friend, Father Gregory, are no longer speaking. They communicate now with each other only through notes passed to the other two monks. Things continue to go downhill until one day Father Aelred asks the groundskeeper to drive him to Santa Fe. Without a word to his three brothers he catches a bus out of town. They never see him again.

Ain’t for the Chickenhearted
I talked with Brother Andre, a spunky monk from Connecticut, about this. “For crying out loud,” I said “All you guys do is pray and seek God. How did things get so sideways?”

Brother Andre just grinned and said, “Yeah, well…”

Then he told me about a monastery in the Midwest where the brothers were in revolt against the abbot, declaring that they’d rather see the monastery close than work with him. “They had to bring in a mediator,” he said.

“Geez,” I said. “I’m torn between feelings of despair for the Church in general and relief over the size of our occasional kerfuffles back home.” Brother Andre grinned again, the skin around his eyes going all crinkly. Then he summed it up for me in a pronouncement worthy of a bumper sticker: “Sister,” he said, “Christian community ain’t for the chickenhearted.”

There’s a grace note at the end of this jangling ditty. Because the Spirit of God works just fine in spite of human silliness, the Monastery is a beautiful, thriving community today. I’m sure squabbles still flare up over this or that. But love pings around the place like a pinball and bounces off the red canyon walls. And every night, as the monks wrap up their prayers, their liturgy includes mention of “our beloved founder, Father Aelred,” making no reference to his defection forty years ago. Instead they bless his memory and thank God for all the gifts that have come since.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

This piece originally appeared September 4, 2014 at http://www.abpnews.com.

What THEY’RE Having

While in New Mexico this summer my friends Lauren and Amy and I drove into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to attend Mass at the historic Santuario de Chimayó.
It was Pentecost Sunday. The small chapel was filled to capacity and hot as an oven, so we stood near the door where at least a hint of a breeze was stirring. The priest read from Acts Two, the part about the Spirit blowing life and courage into that first gathering of believers. Then from John Twenty, where Jesus breathed on his friends and said, Receive the Holy Spirit.

After Mass we went for lunch at the nearby Rancho de Chimayó, a restored century-old adobe home with a garden terrace. As we waited for our names to be called, a party of six older Hispanic adults walked in. Lauren, Amy and I halted our conversation in mid-sentence as we watched them walk past. All six were wearing something red. A Pentecost parade!

A tall man in a hat wore a skinny red tie with his white Oxford shirt. One woman was wearing red everything—pants, skirt, shoes, socks. But best of all was the seventy-ish woman wearing a long, red satin cape, like Superwoman, trimmed in white lace all the way around. On the back of the cape was a large golden dove with the word Come! stitched beneath.

I was thrilled when we wound up seated next to their table. Trying hard not to stare, I couldn’t help but watch them throughout the meal. They talked and ate with such joy. They lifted glasses of sangria into the air with a hearty toast to the Lord: “Thanks be to God!” And oh, man, they laughed. Not restrained giggles. Not tempered chuckles. I’m talking deep-from-the-gut laughter that shook the water glasses and had all of them wiping their eyes.

When their food came they all joined hands while the man in the skinny red tie offered a passionate prayer, calling on Holy Spirit to “hold us and guide us,” upon which they all bellowed Amen! Everyone sitting near them in the restaurant seemed blessed by the overflow and maybe even a little wistful, in a When Harry Met Sally way: “We’ll have what they’re having!”

These dear Catholics took themselves so lightly, precisely because they took Holy Spirit so seriously. There’s something marvelous and mysterious about the presence of the Spirit in a church. As Jesus observed to Nicodemus (John 3), we can no more explain the work of the Spirit than we can pin down a breeze. But we’ll know the Wind is blowing when leaves in the trees—and even friends around a table—are shaking with something like joy.

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Better Than Normal

Well, my lovely three-month sabbatical is winding down. A pastor friend told me that he’s never more depressed than at the end of a sabbatical. When you’re on sabbatical, he said, you come to realize that a pastor’s life isn’t normal. When you have a chance to taste “normal”, it’s hard to go back to “crazy”.

I know something of what he’s talking about. Still, my sabbatical is having a different effect on me. Having tasted “normal” (or as normal as life in the P-R house is ever gonna get) for nearly twelve weeks, I’m coming back inspired and eager to try some healthier practices, both at home and at church. More on that later.

This week I’ve been holed away at a mountain cabin, writing, writing. Mountain “cabin” is a bit of an understatement. More like a mountain mini-Biltmore. Undying thanks to two dear friends who opened their home to me.

Today I’m doing my best slug imitation, lazing in a rocking chair, soaking up the harmony of wind chimes and ogling the lavender carpet of mountains in the distance. Just off the deck is a bird feeder that seems to be a Circle K for every feathered creature inside a five-mile radius—warblers, plovers, thrushes, tanagers, buntings, chickadees. These birds of the air indeed do not sow or reap. But they do bully each other for Cole’s Special Blend around the feed trough. Here’s a 30-second clip:

My friend Brett Younger says that when you look up the word sabbatical in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of a pastor smiling. Yep, I’m smiling.

And so grateful.

First, to a good God who’s in the restoration business.

Second, to my dear, generous First Baptist Decatur family for giving me time and space to refill my saggy tires and to remember who I am, what the Church is about, and what we’re meant for.

Third, to our selfless staff who’ve covered lots and lots of extra bases all summer. I know, I know…I owe you big time.

And finally, to all the super-dee-duper preachers who’ve filled the pulpit each Sunday. Confession time: It’s a tiny bit possible that in some dank, reptilian corner of my soul, I secretly hoped that at least a few of you might stink a little, you know, for a comparative boost when I got back. You let me down, people.

Next Sunday I fly to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to wrap up my sabbatical, kayaking on Lake Superior with nine people I’ve never met. Back before Easter I saw an ad in the Christian Century for a retreat, sponsored by the Cedar Tree Institute, called “The Spirit of Place”. They had me at hello. We’ll kayak by day and talk about the writings of Flannery O’Conner around the campfire at night. Yes, I’m that lucky.

Two things you should know about the Michigan trip:
a) The ICE PACK on Lake Superior finally thawed just last month. Did I mention there’s been ICE?
b) I’ve never actually been in a kayak.

I’ll keep you posted.

Lenten Confession: Theft

drug-store-aisle

Yesterday at the Drug Emporium
while scanning the shelves
for my favorite lotion I encountered
a blind woman and her companion who,

to my profound irritation, scooped
the last two bottles of St. Ives
Creamy Vanilla from the shelf
and dropped them into their basket.

I have not yet determined whether
it is a sign of my complete self-absorption
or possibly exhaustion
that when the companion made a quick dash

to the toothpaste aisle I considered
pilfering one of the bottles (just one)
from the blind woman’s basket,
then tiptoeing away, silent as the grave.

Truth Beneath the Ashes

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses.

Ash Wed. SchmeerSeveral years ago in Waco, TX, a couple hundred of us gathered for a crack-of-dawn Ash Wednesday service led by a team of seminary students. All kinds of folk—Baylor students, doctors, construction workers, grandparents—gathered at the shoreline of Lent, sleepy-eyed and somber. Fiddle music beckoned, “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy…”

No Ash Wednesday service would be complete without the imposition of ashes and pronouncement from Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We spilled into the aisles, ready to receive the mark of the cross, after which we would turn and mark the forehead of the person behind us. Just ahead of me in line stood a college student, a kind, cheerful young woman named Rae. We waited our turn, then Rae received the ashes and I stepped forward to receive mine from her. That’s when things went…um…slightly askew.

Rae pushed my bangs aside and smudged the sign of the cross on my forehead, according to plan. But as she drew her hand away, somehow she got some of that inky schmeer on my nose. Horrified, she tried to wipe it off and in the process, managed to spread the greasy mixture to my cheeks, my chin and, as best I can recall, one of my earlobes.

Finally there was nothing to do but laugh at this epic Ash Wednesday fail. I hugged poor, mortified Rae and returned to my seat, looking like a coal miner.

But as I sat there blotting my face with a tissue, it occurred to me that what Rae had just done, quite unintentionally, was to paint a picture of how it really is with me.

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses: As with those ashes tucked conveniently beneath my bangs, either I try to cover up my sin so that no one will see—or I try to pretty up my sin in order to make it appear more respectable. I’m okay wearing my dust in a smart little liturgical shape, along with everyone else. In fact, when worn that way, the dust actually becomes a sign of my spirituality. But the greasy truth is this: my sin is all over me in blotchy smears from head to toe.

The Apostle Paul also found himself covered in dust one day—sprawled face-down in the dirt of the Damascus road, blind as a bat. But even as he lay there picking grit from his teeth, a promise began to stir inside his heart and mind which, later, he would put into words for all of us: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

That’s my story. I’m gratefully sticking to it.

This piece also appears at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc.

Love’s Bullhorn

Some things are a delight to listen to. Then there’s John the Baptist.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
~ Matthew 3:1-2

Street PreacherThere are certain sounds in this world that make listening a pure joy. I have my favorites: Garrison Keillor’s buttery voice on public radio; the pure brass tones of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man; Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk; anything by the Avett Brothers. Some things are a delight to listen to.

Then there’s John the Baptist.

This wild-eyed, wild-haired, hellfire-and-brimstone Nazarite is anything but delightful. And yet all four Gospels report that the people flocked to him in droves from what we know today as Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. Think about it. Jews and Arabs standing elbow-to-elbow because, as Fred Craddock put it, when the gospel is being offered you tend to forget why it is you hate the person standing next to you.

Meeting John the Baptist is about as much fun as walking through a body scanner at airport security. So why in the world would all these incompatible, barely-speaking-to-each-other people leave home, hike all the way out to nowhere and let themselves be devoured by sand fleas in order to hear an uncivilized oddball holler at them for hours about getting right with God?

Maybe because for all his eccentricities, poor grooming, scorching rhetoric and horrible bedside manner, John brings them face-to-face with the moment they’ve both craved and feared most: the opportunity for a do-over. A chance to come clean. The hope of a fresh start.

I have a friend in his 60s, a rugged, burly, brilliant guy who looks a little like the Marlborough Man from the old cigarette commercials. Decades ago he graduated from an elite university in the East, then moved to Texas to work on a graduate degree. But somewhere along the way he became addicted to crack cocaine. Lost his family; lost his place in graduate school; lost big pieces of himself.

Providentially this man washed up cold and wet on the shores of our church. We did what Christ-followers do and put our arms around him. Gradually he began to find life again and, miracle of miracles, was even reunited with his wife. My husband and I had them over to our place one night for supper.

As we lingered over coffee and dessert the man began to open up; talked about where his life was going. “I want to believe that my best days aren’t behind me,” he said. “I want to believe my life can still be good for something. I just can’t help but feel like I’ve blown all my best chances.”

That’s when his wife—a lovely, sixty-ish, bohemian Texas flower child—grabbed his hand and said with conviction: “Baby…if God can yank Jesus out of a grave, I figure God can make something beautiful out of your busted parts.”

With John the Baptist it may feel sometimes as though he’s the one busting our parts. But his message comes down to the same good news: Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Love’s Eyes

Love has a way of changing people’s features.

EyeJoseph, son of David, the angel said, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
~Matthew 1:20b-21

You’re darn right he’s afraid. See, for most of his life Joseph has pretty much lived with a carpenter’s saw in one hand and his rulebook, the Torah, in the other. And his rulebook tells him there’s only one way to see an unmarried, pregnant woman. This is a disaster for poor Joseph.

But in a dream he hears the angel say, “God is doing something new here, Joseph. Mary is not who your rulebook says she is.  God is bigger than your rulebook. Take the leap of faith!”

Often it does require a leap of faith in order to be able to see someone in a new light.

Our son Taylor is a remarkable person with a quick sense of humor and a tender-to-a-fault heart. He also has an acute sensitivity to people in pain, no doubt because he himself lives every day in the land of Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

One night a few years ago when he was a senior in high school, Taylor and I spent an evening meandering about town together and ended up browsing for an hour in an art gallery. We topped off the evening with cheesecake and coffee at a favorite restaurant.

As we were eating, out of the blue, Taylor said:  “I know I’m not much of an artist. But if I were a painter, I know what I’d create.”

“What would you paint?” I said.

“I’d paint a banquet scene,” he said. “A super-elegant table with flowers and crystal and mountains of food. And there would be some very particular guests.”

“Who are they?” I said.

“So, sitting at my table would be Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden.”

I took a long sip of coffee. “That’s some pretty intense company,” I said.

With a mouth full of key lime cheesecake he said, “Yeah, but in my painting, even though we’d still be able to recognize them, they would look different than we’re used to seeing them.”

“This is fascinating,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, see—because we hate them,” he said, “we only know how to see them one way. But in my painting we’d also be able to see them as they appear to God, who only knows how to love them.”

Love has a way of changing people’s features.

Love says: People aren’t always who you think they are. Take a leap of faith . . . I’m doing something new here.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Love’s Family Tree

charlie browner

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…”
~ Matthew 1:1

Sometimes people decide they’re going to read through the New Testament in order to grow spiritually. So they turn to Matthew because it’s at the beginning of the New Testament and, alas, never make it past the first seventeen verses. This guy begat that guy, and whosit begat somebody else, and what’s-his-name fathered so-and-so. Just dreadful.

As every great storyteller knows, the beginning’s got to be great. He or she has to have us from “hello.” Had John Grisham begun The Firm twenty years ago with a three-page genealogy, he might still be practicing law in Mississippi. No gifted writer starts by blathering on about who begat whom. It’s a lucky break for Matthew that the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were maybe the only people on the planet who weren’t bored by the “begats.” After all, this was their story.

There are two things I particularly love about the lineage of Jesus.

First, the surprising variety. There are all sorts of folk, both pious and problematic, dangling from the branches of this family tree and Matthew doesn’t try to cover them up or pretty them up, God bless him. As family trees go, Jesus definitely has a Charlie Browner on his hands. This is something of a relief to me since my own family has its share, not only of humble, salt-of-the-earth types, but also bootleggers and jail-dwellers and a smattering of moonshiners. Hey, no problemo. Jesus’ family is a fixer-upper, too.

The other genealogical jewel here, I believe, shines best in the names of the women on this list. Sure, there are plenty whose names should have been included but weren’t. Conversation for another day. But four of the five who do make the cut all have something surprising in common:

Not one of them is Jewish.

You would assume to see a lineup of pure-blooded Hebrew matriarchal all-stars in this genealogy. But nope—turns out Jesus wants everybody on his family tree: Jews, Hittites, Moabites and Canaanites. Also Postmodern-ites, Democrat-ites and Republican-ites, not to mention seducers and murderers and schemers and well, just everybody.

Ultimately what this boring list of names stands for is the beautiful news that none of us really belongs but God loves us just the same. Not one of us qualifies for a spot on this tree but God welcomes sinners like you and me anyhow. It’s not about pedigree—it’s about mercy.

What do you know, maybe the boring thing’s not so boring after all.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Let It Be: 2014

Snowy tree-lined road at sunrise.

Call them resolutions, aspirations, intentions, whatever. I pray that a year from now these will have been true of me in 2014:

1.  She lived in and led from the roominess of God.

“The Good Shepherd leads his sheep out of the tight and tiny boxes in which we lock ourselves into his spacious pastures.”
~ Timothy Radcliff

“All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origin in the Spirit.”
~ Thomas Aquinas

2. She wore her own face.

“Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces…”
~ May Sarton, “Now I Become Myself”

“The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation… and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but their own vulnerable selves.”
~ Henri J. M. Nouwen

3. She was mindful of each moment.

“We spend a long time wishing we were elsewhere and otherwise.”
~ Robert Farrar Capon

“The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline.”
~ Philip Simmons

4. She practiced stillness.

“I learned…that inspiration…comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness…The imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.
~ Brenda Ueland

5. She operated more often from love than from fear.

“Our fear is in the service of all the little ways we have learned to protect our false self. But love is really who we are. We’ll never see the love we really are, our foundation, if we keep living out of our false self of self-protection and overreaction. We must remember that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4:18).”
~ Richard Rohr

6. She chose joy.

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation…
~ Mary Oliver 

7.  She finished that dag-nabbity book!

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
~ Thomas Mann

Good and gracious God, let it be.

photo cc flickr.com/photos/18_2rosadik36

In the Receiving Line After Worship

Mophead HydrangeaIn the receiving line after worship an elderly man
wants to tell me about his hydrangeas. They were
gorgeous last summer, he says, but not as splendid

as in 1972 when the blue ribbon at the state fair
went to his wife who, he reminds me, was Miss Butts
County back in the 1950s and whom he still misses

every day, especially when he eats peach jam
on his toast which is almost every morning
except Tuesdays when the VFW guys get together

down at the café. The people behind him in line shift
on their feetand glance at their watches while he,
oblivious to their impatience, goes on to describe

for me (in detail) the attributes of the winning Lemon Zest Mophead
which he swears was the size of a dinner plate, or maybe
a large salad plate. The hydrangea story is taking forever

and my own agitation is building until the moment
I take his hand in mine (a gesture of care but also,
I regret now to say, meant to hurry him along) and I feel

his paper-brittle fingers which are not at all like
a hydrangea but rather like a maple leaf in November,
all that lush, green vigor stored deep within itself

just before it releases the limb and is airborne at last,
carried on a breath, caught up in the glory of all created
things, its final fluttering an ovation of praise.

Red_maple_leaf