Monthly Archives: May 2012

Invitations from God: Accepting God’s Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More

INVITATIONS ARE POWERFUL. Like tides, they ebb and flow, shaping the contours of our existence. Some invitations we desperately want but never get—”Will you marry me?” or “Would you consider a promotion?” Other invitations we never want to receive but must honor all the same—”We are letting you go,” “The text came back positive,” or “Your baby has Down syndrome.”  Invitations pound away at the coastlines of the soul. They contain a transforming force that can carve our possible and impossible futures.

So begins the introduction to Invitations from God, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. The book is beautifully written, and for or my money anyway, the 19-page introduction alone is worth the price. The rest of the book is equally good and, with each chapter, lines out the invitations that frame our lives,

In order to recognize and say Yes to an invitation from God, one needs to say No to a collection of other invitations from friends, family, school, work, boredom, “the culture,” the (gulp) church, and our own compulsions. The key question, writes Adele, is, “Do the invitations we accept make us more free or less?…Learning to listen and respond to God’s invitations is the path to real freedom. Invitations from God bring healing and liberation from the gnawing lies of the enemy…Only free people know how to say yes and no.”

God’s invitations are formative and shape our character. She writes that, “God’s invitations are meant to mend, shape, anchor and grow us into the character of Jesus. They call us into our true selves in Christ… Invitations from the Holy One serve God’s dream for the world. They don’t call me to become what I produce, what others think of me or what I know. They invite me to be free.”

THINGS I LIKED

1.  GOD KEEPS ON INVITING  “It doesn’t matter,” Adele says, “if you were on the paid staff of hell: God’s invitation goes out to you again and again. No matter how God’s invitations get delivered, they let us know that we are wanted, loved, named and known.”

2.  GOD INVITES US TO FOLLOW  Adele observes, “Jesus doesn’t use the word leader at all, as far as I can tell.”  But the language of leadership is so common in the water in which we swim in places like Cambridge that it’s difficult to consider Jesus’ alternative – servanthood. She also doesn’t have much patience with the superficial spin that is popular today – calling “servant leadership” a rationalization for preserving a “superior heart—a heart that does not identify with the descending way of Jesus” Rather than a strategy for acquiring and wielding power, accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow him means we “risk his journey of descent—the journey that will be the making of us. Maturity, humility, patience, godliness—these are all fruit of following Jesus. These are the fruit of following Jesus down.” Consider the practices she suggests:

  • Put myself in a position to take direction, instruction or guidance from someone else.
  • Practice secrecy by keeping my accomplishments to myself.
  • practice being lead servant. Share my perks or give them away. Don’t expect special treatment.

3.  GOD INVITES US TO ADMIT WE MIGHT BE WRONG  One of my dear friends, Bill Stuntz accepted this invitation frequently. Even though he finished his brilliant academic career as renowned scholar of criminal justice at Harvard Law School, I frequently heard him preface a comment to students with, “I could be wrong about this…” It always opened up the conversation. This invitation is like a 2 x 4 across the forehead for those of us who wanto be, not just right – but good.  “The good news,” Adele reminds us, “is that I don’t need to be afraid of being wrong.  Jesus’ death on the cross undoes the lies that tell me I am loveable only when I am right.” As a start, Adele suggests that we practice awareness:

  • Notice where I am unable to let something go uncorrected.
  • Notice when I get into argument over details that may or may not be important.
  • Notice how I listen to and treat those I think are wrong.
  • Notice why it matters to me to be right.
  • Notice what heppens when I don’t defend myself and my opinions.
  • Notice how many (or I add, few) friendships I have with folks I don’t agree with.

4.  GOD INVITES US TO WAIT  “To wait expectantly and with open hands requires a relinquishment of control that gets at the roots of our motivations, fears and idilatries. It is where we learn that God isn’t a genie and that happiness is not a matter of God meeting our expectations. The truth is that God doesn’t come to us in our future. God comes now—while we wait. It’s not up to you to make things happen or to make God show up. What you can do is say yes to God’s invitation to stay alert while you wait… it is in the waiting that things happen in our soulds. In the waiting our character is formed.”  To help myself learn how to wait, I can:

  • Notice when I get impatient and stay in the moment wiht God.
  • Become aware of expectations for the day. What happens when my expectations are not met?
  • Notice what I do when I am not in control.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

Honestly, this book is so beautiful and each chapter such a clear invitation of its own, I was left with few questions.  Instead, I’m working through which invitations are most important for my own walk with Jesus and how these invitations will shape our Rule of Life.  Stay tuned as we figure it out…

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The Holy Rule of St. Benedict

My friends do whatever they can to keep their options open. Whether it’s an invitation to come to dinner, attend a retreat or travel to New Orleans for spring break, the people I hang with don’t say yes quickly or easily. They delay and deliberate and wait until the last minute because – I assume – they want to see if a better opportunity comes along.  If I sound whiny, it is certainly because I behave exactly this way myself – I want to choose what to do and when to do it.

At the beginning of the 6th century, a young man named Benedict left his wealthy family and the debauchery of the academy, moved into a cave near Rome, and began to pray. He read the Gospels and began to write about the way of Jesus and how it contrasted with his life of private autonomy and personal privilege.  The invitation he heard was to “give up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience…”  Not a hint of keeping one’s options open.

His Little Rule for Beginners, which became the guide for Benedictines monks, describes a way of living that is shocking, countercultural and almost completely incomprehensible in places like Cambridge.  He lines out behaviors and logistics required of a community of sinners that have gathered to live and grow in Christlikeness together.

THINGS I LIKED

Benedict’s Rule contains invitations that ring as true and powerful today as they did 1500 years ago.  Here are a few:

1.  Humility – The pull is strong to hold onto my “rights” – to be the master of my own destiny (let alone my money, daily schedule, what I eat, etc…).  This is the fundamental issue (I think).  Am I willing to humbly yield control to someone else – God, for instance?  It’s ok if I say no.  It just means that I shouldn’t call myself a follower of Jesus.

2.  Silence – Of course my mind immediately jumps to the times when keeping silence is the opposite of pursuing humility.  Nevertheless this is a profound idea – that I would hold my tongue when I have something to say – even when it is true, helpful and (especially) clever.

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that “in a multitude of words there shall not want sin” (Proverbs 10:19); and that “a man full of tongue is not established in the earth.” (Psalm 139 [140]:12).  (p. 116-117)

In graduate classrooms at Harvard where students compete for “airtime” and are scored on how frequently and how well they speak, this discipline stands out.

3.  Speaking – It doesn’t take much imagination to discern what Benedict might have to say about other forms of speech (FaceBook, blogs, etc…)

The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”  (p. 118)

4.  Counsel – The Rule calls for the whole community to gather when making important decisions.  And in this context it is required that all pay special attention to the younger members of the community.

It is for this reason, however, we said that all should be called for counsel, because the Lord often revealeth to the younger what is best.  (p. 56)

Humility recognizes that God’s way may be seen most clearly through the powerless and (seemingly) insignificant.

5.  Obedience – This is one of the hallmarks of the monastic life envisioned by Benedict and envisions obedience to the Abbot as equivalent to obedience to God.

… not living according to their own desires and pleasures but walking according to the judgment and will of another, they live in monasteries, and desire an Abbot to be over them… This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God.  (p. 79-81)

I read those lines and wonder why, as crazy scary as they sounds, I am drawn to it.  Perhaps it is because it makes concrete the sort of obedience in my better moments that I want to offer to my God.  Certainly it is the sort of obedience I long for from my own children!

6.  Prayer – Benedict called for prayers to be short – another mark of humility.

And let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in the purity of heart and tears of compunction that we are heard.  (p. 179)

7.  Hospitality – My first experience with the Rule of Benedict came in 1983 on a retreat at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, MA.  All of us were warmly welcomed by the brothers to participate fully in the worship and life of the community.

In the greeting let all humility be shown to the guests, whether coming or coming; with the head bowed down or the whole body prostrate on the ground, let Christ be adored in them as He is also received.  (P. 325)

I don’t remember the brothers laying prostrate on the ground in front of our group of graduate students but their welcome to us was as they would have welcomed Christ.

8.  Eating – I can’t imagine what Benedict would say about the way those of us with money and access to an almost infinite variety of foods eat what we eat.

…we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth hour and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient for all meals…  Let a pound of bread be sufficient for the day, whether there be only one meal or both dinner and supper.  (p. 257-258)

I remember reading somewhere that John R. W. Stott was known to never return for seconds at a meal – a practice he adopted so that he might be continually reminded of the privilege and blessing he had to be able to have enough food and water – something that many others around the world lacked.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Humor – Benedict may have been a very likable guy but (it seems) he was not a joker. At least he doesn’t express much of a sense of humor. Even more, he writes that speaking in a way that makes others laugh is forbidden.

The Instruments of Good Works [include]:  (54) Not to speak useless words and such as provoke laughter.  (55) Not to love much or boisterous laughter.  (p. 68)

But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we don not permit the disciple to open his lips.  (p. 87-88)

He doesn’t really say why. Perhaps he is picking up on Paul’s admonitions against “coarse joking” (Ephesians 5:4) or the warnings in James (James 4:7-10). Maybe he is cautious because of the tendency of humor – especially the sort of snarky, cynical humor (did they have cynicism back then?) we know all too well today – to draw attention to oneself while it degrades and embarrasses others. The world is a serious place for Benedict – I just want to know, might this not be a place where the light of laughter could help?

2.  Nothing harsh or burdensome?

We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome  (p. 23)

He has the best of intentions – to “preserve charity” and “correct vices” but his Rule seems quite harsh at times.  For example…

Whenever, therefore, boys or immature youths or such as can not understand how grave a penalty excommunication is, are guilty of a serious fault, let them undergo severe fasting or be disciplined with corporal punishment, that they may be corrected.  (P. 214-215)

Oh the other hand, I guess if you are convinced that the immortal souls entrusted to your care are in peril then even beatings start to seem acceptable.

3.  Personal ownership – I mention this instruction in this lower section not because I have questions about the instruction itself – it makes sense in the context of a monastic community.

The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root…  Let all things be common to all, as it is written.  And let no one call or take to himself anything as his own (cf. Acts 4:32)

My question is whether/how this practice of the earliest followers of Jesus ought to be practiced by those of us on the outside.

The draw to keep ones options open is strong and living by a Rule can sound archaic and needlessly restrictive.  Clearly it isn’t the choice of most of my friends in Boston.  But what if it makes way for us to embrace what the Apostle Paul called, “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19)?  Maybe the “Little Rule for Beginners” is worth a second look?


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