Spiritual Practice Journal

Every time I pray the Daily Office, something good happens. I know this sounds superstitious, like the Medieval Christian practice of going from church to church to see the elevated host (large wafer representing the body of Christ). At a time when the people were denied communion and hungering for God’s presence and nourishment, glimpsing the elevated host was thought to protect the viewer like an amulet. But I digress . . .

Wednesday morning I was in a Starbucks eagerly awaiting a mocha frappuccino. The crowd of people waiting for their specialty coffees was large. After waiting three or so minutes I pulled out my iphone and tapped the Mission St. Clare app. I began to do Morning Prayer right then and there, in the midst of all those caffeine hungry souls. Back against a window, I quietly confessed my sins. Doing so did not bring me “down.” It actually lifted my spirits, giving me the opportunity to be honest before God, and to start the day with an awareness of the person I did, and did not, want to become.

A high point was the Jubilate (Psalm 100), especially the first part, “Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.” How easy it is to forget the joy God gives us, the privilege of living life in the midst of and through the power and presence of a merciful and loving creator. I love to sing, especially in my car, and it was good to be reminded that singing was a great way to pray to God and acknowledge God’s presence.

The Jubilate continues, “Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his, we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Knowing who and whose we are inspires confidence and peace. Being reminded that God is in control, and that we are God’s creatures is a good thing. Being joyful, living a life of gratitude, is an intentional spiritual practice.

As I stood there moving through the Office, reflecting on all the words and images that popped out at me in the Jubilate, Psalm 119, and the readings from 1 Samuel and Acts, I heard a woman say, “do you have a friend Blair?” It turns out that the owner of that franchise accidentally made an extra mocha frappuccino. Calling out the name scribbled on my original cup, she gave me the additional drink with the words, “this will help you make a friend.”

Just last week I decided to take some visiting friends from Connecticut to the Como Zoo. We began to drive around looking for a parking place, and I couldn’t believe how many people, especially Hmong men, women, and children were there. I thought it was great that so many people were enjoying the park, but was getting a little baffled as to why I couldn’t find a parking space in the satellite shuttle bus lot. Then I saw a sign: “Hmong Freedom Celebration.” After I dropped my friends off and had driven around for at least thirty minutes, I came across one parking space. When I got out of the car a nearby sign said, “no parking from 10 am to 4 pm.” It was 3:45, and I know the City of St. Paul is in need of revenue. So, I stayed in my parked car, pulled out my iPhone and began to say Evening Prayer right then and there. The time passed quickly, I had some important time for reflection and re-centering (after nonstop socializing with our friends), and I noticed a significant attitude adjustment. I found myself more thankful, open, and relaxed after saying the Daily Office. I smiled at and personally greeted everyone I encountered as I walked through the park. It was a great reminder that the day I was enjoying was a gift, my friends were a gift, and what a joy to be at Como Park for the Hmong Freedom Celebration!

Doing the Daily Office reminds me that I am part of God’s larger story, not a story of my own making. The office grounds me, teaches me, and informs my day. It helps me to notice things and people I might otherwise miss. It reminds me of the life I am called to live, and of the joy and goodness of this life, come what may.
Do you pray the Daily Office? What sorts of things do you notice when you pray it?

Blair Pogue

The Mission Saint Clare Daily Office is easy to use and can be found at http://www.missionstclare.com/english/. There is an app for most mobile devices.


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Practicing Sabbath

The last two Sundays, Dan Johnson has led the Adult Faith Forum in exploring the spiritual practice of Sabbath. The following post contains a few of his reflections on the topic.

For anyone wanting an executive summary of the last two faith forums, here it is:

1. Sabbath is a pause in which to remember and delight in the good gifts of God.

2. In a world that is filled with worry over scarcity, the practice of Sabbath helps us be a people celebrating the abundance in which we actually live.

Have you ever had one of those moments in the midst of a busy day when there was a short pause in the action and you had a chance to catch your breath? That’s one of the experiences that points to the spiritual practice of Sabbath. There are any number of examples that support the premise that regular periods of rest are foundational to our reality. Consider the beating of our hearts and that moment between filling and contracting. Or how about that short length of time between exhaling and inhaling? On a larger scale, ponder the harmonic motion of the earth, tipping towards the sun and then tipping away. These are the kinds of things, with inherent periods of rest, that make up the rhythm of our lives and all are essential to our survival.

That there are rhythms in our lives is one thing, but it is still quite a leap to talk about Sabbath as a spiritual practice. Perhaps coming at it from the other direction will help.

The Hebrew creation story in Genesis is poetic in form and mythic in scope. In it we are introduced to God who speaks into being everything that is; light and dark, sky and water, earth and vegetation, sun and stars, creatures of all kinds, and humans. The poem tells us each step of the way God says what was made was good. And when God looks at the entirety of creation, God says it is very good. Then, the poem tells us, God finished what was done by resting. That rest is called Sabbath and it’s spiritual qualities are grounded in this story.

The nature of Sabbath has been the subject of generations upon generations of thinking and practice. I find Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s perspective most enlightening. He asks, “What did God create on that seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose. Happiness and stillness, peace and harmony.” That list of qualities has a transcendent tone, but each one can only be understood in down to earth realities. The invitation of Sabbath rest is to experience these powerful and restorative qualities in the context of our lives.

Jesus says it this way in Matthew 11:28-30. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” The Message

So how does one practice this “unforced rhythm of grace” called Sabbath? First of all, be intentional and ask God for the gift of Sabbath. Notice those pauses during each day that are the opportunities to reflect on what has been done. As you get practiced in these momentary Sabbaths, find a time during the week to recall the moments and celebrate the goodness you find. (Our sisters and brothers in the Jewish tradition have long believed a whole day, Friday’s sunset to Saturday evening’s first three stars, should be set aside for this) Share the time of remembering with another person or group of people. We are after all in this together. Keep practicing this over a long period of time and see how it changes and affects you.

How about you? What do you do that has the qualities of Sabbath? How does it affect your relationship others? with God?


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Reflections on the Bombings in Boston and the Life to Which Jesus is Calling Us

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

Monday afternoon and evening many of us were shocked to learn that two bombs had exploded near the Boston Marathon’s finish line. The Marathon is not only a great event for Boston. It is a great event for all of us who are inspired by the endurance and steadfastness it takes to run such a race.

The Boston Marathon is exciting and inspiring. Runners from many countries and religious backgrounds participate. They are there for many different reasons. Some want to win. Others just want to finish.  Most want and need a challenge. Some are fighting and have beaten cancer. Others wheel disabled children, wanting them to have a taste of what it is like to participate in such an event.

On Patriot’s Day 2013, the same week as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, bombs went off aimed to maim and destroy the lives and futures of runners, and those present to cheer them on.  Who did this, and how could they not think about the humanity of their victims, of the lives that would be lost or forever changed?

Two pictures really got to me. The first was of the now deceased eight-year-old Martin Richard holding a sign that said, “No more hurting people. Please.” The second was men and women in Afghanistan holding small, handmade signs that said, “To Boston with love from Kabul.

For those of us in America this is a truly horrifying incident, and something that is fairly rare. For the people of Kabul, explosions like the ones that happened in Boston are a regular occurance.  What is it like to live in Kabul, Baghdad, or Aleppo, and to know that at any moment a bomb could kill you and your loved ones?  What is it like to live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty?  Do you just get numb?  Does your fear come and go?

Jesus of Nazareth was born into a violent world.  The Romans, while contributing to some helpful engineering advancements like roads and aqueducts, were brutal to the non-Romans they ruled. For those who were not Roman, wealthy, or well-connected, life was, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, despite the violence and brutality around him, Jesus continued to preach a message of love, healing, and new beginnings. He lived a life of reconciliation with God and those around him.  He spoke the truth, practiced what he preached, and faced difficult challenges with prayer and courage.  He boldly proclaimed God’s Kingdom, the in-breaking of which he claimed was already in peoples’ midst. In this Kingdom Jesus spoke of, men, women, and children from every imaginable background and stage of life were united with one another in a web of love, affection, and encouragement, as they realized that their deep interconnectedness was rooted in God.

In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote to his fellow Christian pastors who wanted to wait before pushing for civil rights.  He told them that he was in Birmingham, “because injustice is here.”  Further, he made the point that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He could not sit idly by in Atlanta when injustice was taking place in Birmingham. King continued, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Whether that injustice involves the denial of civil rights, or the denial of a safe, secure environment in which to grow, live and prosper, the Gospel of Jesus asserts that all people are God’s children and thus precious to God. Should not God’s precious children in Boston and around the world be able to play on safe streets, to run in races without fear of harm, to live with a roof over their heads, to have enough food to eat, to get a good education, to have the opportunity to work and provide a living for themselves and their families, to live in communion with and learn from people from many different backgrounds?

At an interfaith service in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross in honor of those who died, President Obama encouraged those present to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Let us continue to pray, and love, and listen, and serve, and give and receive hospitality, whatever we and our loved ones face in the days ahead. Let us fight the impulse to live in fear, to hide, to retreat into our homes, to become a military state. Jesus did not promise his followers an easy life.  He did, however, promise that nothing would separate us from the love of God – not tears, not suffering, not discouragement, not difficult questions, not death.

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The Spiritual Practice of Gratitude

This past Sunday Dan Johnson helped those of us who were able to attend the Faith Forum explore the spiritual practice of gratitude. This Easter season the people of St. Matthew’s and anyone who wants to join us are focusing on spiritual practices, as we continue to explore what it means to be learners or disciples of the Way of Jesus.

Dan began by asking “what is gratitude?” and then offered, “an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has. It is what gets poured into the glass to make it half full. It is also an acknowledgement of having received something good from another, a person or God.”

We discussed the relational aspect of gratefulness/gratitude, as well as the fact that the senses are involved.

Dan noted that our brains are giant filters. When we intentionally practice gratitude we tend to take in the most positive, helpful information.

At the same time, gratitude doesn’t mean that everything is okay. Someone present noted that “be grateful” can be used by powerful people and institutions to keep us in our place.

The intentional practice of gratitude makes us a more generous person to others.

At the end of the session, we were invited to try out the following spiritual practice. You are invited to join with us, and to post your insights and learnings on this blog. You are also invited to join us for a second session on the spiritual practice of gratitude at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, April 21 from 9:15 to 10:15 in the church Library (the best way to get to the Library is through the Chelmsford Avenue entrance).

A spiritual practice for experiencing/practicing gratitude with four components:

Intentional: Ask God for the gift of gratitude

Reflective: Each day take time to recall any experiences of giving or receiving gratitude you had. What happened? How did it feel? Who was involved?

Outward Expression: Keep a journal containing your reflection(s), create art, write a letter, share your experience(s) with the St. Matthew’s faith community and others on our blog.

Repeatable: Be intentional every day, journal at least once a week.

What happened and what did you learn as you intentionally practiced gratitude? Please share!

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The word “wonder” is one of my favorite words in the English language. We have the seven wonders of the world, “one-hit wonders,” “wonder workers”, and expressions like, “It’s a wonder that he even made the team,” or conversely,” “It’s no wonder that he was the leading scorer,” “I wonder what it all means?” and “I wonder how he got so fast all of a sudden”

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary offers these definitions of wonder:

1. a feeling of surprise and admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, or unfamiliar.
2. a person or thing that causes such a feeling.
[as modifier] having remarkable properties or abilities: a wonder drug.

1. feel curious; desire to know.
used to express a polite question or request.
2. feel doubt.
3. feel wonder.

There are 104 occurrences of the word “wonder” in the New Standard Bible. Nearly all are about miraculous “signs and wonders” by God or the disciples. These days, we don’t talk much about miracles, and many of us seldom feel a sense of awe or wonder. Technological advances are so commonplace that we not only aren’t surprised by them, but we have come to expect them.

We are much more likely to wonder in the sense of being curious or doubtful. I wonder what it feels like to drive a BMW, or whether the Twins will ever get out of the cellar. And I wonder where my life will take me over the next few years. But too seldom do I wonder at how a sunset could be so beautiful, or how another person can be so selfless. Not often enough do I experience feelings of awe, joyful surprise, unjealous admiration, and gratitude.

Besides making us less happy, the problem with our “wonder deficit” is that it can turn into a “caring deficit”. I believe that caring about our world, both the physical environment and the people in it, requires that we experience feelings of wonder for it. If you are struck with awe by the Grand Canyon or the North Shore, you are less inclined to want to mess them up with mining or other commercial development. Likewise, if you are charmed and delighted by the music or architecture of a people you are less likely to want to exploit them.

In Matthew 18:2 Jesus admonishes us to have faith like a child. The usual interpretation of the passage is that Jesus is calling us to a simple and elemental faith. But I wonder if it also suggests that we need to have a “childlike sense of wonder”. One of the joys of parenthood (or grandparenthood) is watching the delight of a child when he or she discovers something new and unexpectedly awesome, like eating an ice cream cone or seeing a big aquarium for the first time. At these times, kids are filled with unadulterated wonder. If we adults could capture more of that sense of wonder at God’s creation, we would be careful with that creation.

We at St. Matthew’s like to think of ourselves as being a “wondering” congregation. We pride ourselves on being intellectually curious about all aspects of our faith and our activities. We don’t blanch at questions like “Why does God permit evil?”, “Was Jesus really divine?” or “Where is God leading us?” But I think we also need to systematically cultivate the awe aspect of wonder and, in fact, become “ambassadors of wonder.” God calls us to promote love and caring among people, and to accomplish that mission, we need to help others to feel awe and joy at the wonders, both physical and personal, all around them.

The June issue of the Sierra Club magazine has an interesting article about an experiment in wonder ambassadorship: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201105/wilderness-diplomacy.aspx Working through an organization called Roots for Peace, nature photographer Ian Shive is distributing 25,000 copies of his book, The National Parks: Our American Landscape to a wide range of people in Afghanistan. Many Afghans know the United States only through our intervention there, through our movies, or though propaganda, all of which give a partial and often distorted picture of us. Their reaction upon seeing the pictures of our stunning national parks is one of surprise, awe, and wonder. And that reaction then opens up conversations about values, beauty and things we have in common. Shive is planning to reciprocate by photographing natural wonders in Afghanistan and sharing his photographs with Americans.

So I wonder: How can we as individuals, and as a congregation, cultivate and increase our sense of wonder, while still maintaining our open, wondering attitude? How can we be ambassadors of wonder and caring to people outside the church? Can we stage “wonder interventions” for those who need more wonder?

Ron Matross

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Curiosity as a Spiritual Practice

A few weeks ago in Adult Faith Forum Dan & Judy Johnson led us on an exercise about telling one’s spiritual stories. They had us think of six events in our lives—not the extreme highs or lows of life, but just six events that remained “interesting” in our minds—and had us write down a few words about each event. Then we went around the room and read our lines, one by one.

I was astounded at how interested I became. “The summer I moved to London.” “Getting lost in Northern Ireland.” “Is burning curiosity a good enough reason?” The captions invited imagination, begged for more information. I wanted to soak in the vivid details of my companions’ lives. We got to do so when we broke into small groups. My friend Jenny told the story about getting lost in Northern Ireland on a wild-goose chase to locate unwarned ancient relatives in an old town called Cove, ending finally through the assistance of an old farmer in stained vest and cap. As we listened, the group of us laughed, utterly transported to that quiet old landscape thousands of miles away across the ocean. When we came back to ourselves, we were refreshed, somehow more ready to face ourselves and the day.

The experience got me thinking about curiosity—not the morbid, addicted variety, but the wide-open, enormously interested kind. When I approach something with curiosity, I have no judgments about it; I am not experiencing fear or irritation or boredom; in fact I’m not experiencing my own inner chatter much at all. Instead, there’s a kindly and vast inner space, uncluttered with expectations, yearning to become acquainted with someone or something new. After immersing myself in curiosity of this kind for a while, I find my inner orientation has softened. I’ve become good-humored, easy, ready for anything. When I deliberately try on curiosity as a substitute for irritation—say, when my 3-year old is dawdling instead of doing what I want her to do—I find out all kinds of amazing things. Why is she dawdling? Why, because she’s in the middle of packing a bag to have an “adventure in the spaceship” in the backyard, a reality quite as vivid and important to her as getting into the car and going to the grocery store is to me. Curiosity also helps when talking to one’s spouse, I’ve noticed. The temptation is to tune each other out—to borrow a line from Tolkien, you think you know what your spouse is going to say on any given topic without the bother of asking him or her about it—but every once in a while, I find out my preconceived notion about this person I spend so much time with is dead wrong. That I can be surprised. That life is much bigger, wilder and more delightful—or more ferocious—than the humdrum chatter in my mind makes it out to be.

Curiosity can also lighten the downward pull of judgment. The other day I was in a group of fiercely committed and passionate Christians, each of whom had his or her own perspective on what the group should do. From time to time I found myself full of judgments. “He’s defensive again.” “She’s as sensitive as a bulldog.” Had I remembered it, I could have recalled the stance of curiosity: I wonder what is really bothering her? I wonder what the history of this conversation is? I wonder what matters most about this to him? Converting judgment to curiosity lightens the air, releases tension, and opens the possibility for communication and compassion again.

Buddhists, of course, are all over this concept. They call it “beginner’s mind.” Unattached, unhurried, interested, even delighted—anchored completely and only in the present moment—they teach this stance as the beginning of the road to enlightenment. But what does this practice have to do with the Christian tradition? You might say our “wondering” conversations at St. Matthew’s spring from the same willingness to be radically open and interested in the movement of the Holy Spirit among and within us. Think of Moses and the burning bush—what drew him, exiled and shepherding alone on the mountain far from his people, to approach the burning bush? Vast curiosity, of course. Curiosity which drew him out of himself long enough, perhaps, for him to forget his resistance, his judgments, and his boredom, and become open to the powerful voice and leading of God. May God grant us the ability to cultivate curiosity as a spiritual practice, at home, at church, among each of you fascinating people at St. Matthew’s and elsewhere. May we see familiar things—the liturgy, for example, the neighbor in the house next door, the weight in the droop of his shoulders, the insight in her comment during Faith Forum—with fresh eyes, open heart, and uncluttered mind.

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If I Had an Orchard…

By: Reed Carlson
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The Fleet Foxes are a wildly popular band within certain circles, but if you’ve never heard of them that doesn’t surprise me. They are arguably one of the country’s most popular “indy” bands (which is somewhat of a oxymoron if you think about it).

The Fleet Foxes are a band of contradictions. The two core members grew up in a wealthy suburb of Seattle yet they sing about places like the Blue Ridge Mountains and idealize the simplicity of rural life. The band gained notoriety playing folk music but their most recent release seems to channel a bit of 60’s rock, Simon and Garfunkel-type stuff. They have a mountain-man, flannel sort of look but the Fleet Foxes are most popular with urban hipsters and Europeans.

Below is a new song of theirs that has intrigued me since it’s release. The lyrics (as best as I can tell) are posted below. I’ve bolded the bits that seem interesting to me.

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you
Or bow down and be grateful and say “sure, take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak

Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I’ll come back to you someday soon myself

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen

The singer’s attitude (as I interpret it) is one that resonates with me and, I believe, many of my generation. We grew up being told we could accomplish anything that we set our mind to. We were told that we were destined for great things. More so then any Americans before us, we were pampered, protected, praised and pushed to insure we could reach our highest potential.

Unfortunately, while we were given many tools, we were not necessarily told what to build.

Consequently many of us have sobered as we’ve entered adulthood, wondering “just who we should be.” I find it ironic that a chief mouthpiece of the ‘me’ generation would long for being a “cog in some great machinery” provided that he served “something beyond me.” I wonder how many tattooed, independently-minded, self-styled 20-somethings out there are secretly asking the same thing.

Where is the Orchard that the poet longs for? Where is the idealistic cause that’s worth believing in whole heartedly?

Christians believe that we’ve found something worth living for in the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s the story of the renewal of all things. More than anything else, this is the most scandalous thing that Christians believe—that this Jesus who died and rose again is the purest expression of what it means to be alive.

Perhaps we should reconsider forcing people to find their own way or to build their own meaning. Maybe it’s time we be more confident in the orchard that we’ve found in Christ. It’s a fine line between tying someone to your boat versus leaving them to float home alone. I’m the last person to embrace inexorable dogma. But I hope that if anyone ever asked me, “what’s my name, what’s my function?” I could give an answer worth believing in.

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