Pictured: an ordinary lunch at the Missional Order gathering last week, time spent not only sharing meals, but listening to the ‘other’ and entering into their stories. It’s a mundane sacred practice… but I’m getting ahead of myself. I have now transcribed my notes from cards into an OpenOffice document, partly as a way of reviewing, processing, and synthesizing. As I was reviewing my notes and thoughts with my cards spread before me, typing words that I jotted down and having those words jog others, voices, phrases, I began to feel strangely moved. I wonder if the truly subversive nature of what we’re talking about has not fully sunken in for most of us. We really are talking about changing everything, but we aren’t changing much of anything. As we return to the ideals God set in our hearts and the practices he has given us, God himself is on the move, changing things fundamentally. The cheese has slipped off the Romans’ cracker, and while they fumble about to find it and reassert its position, it’s being gobbled up by the peasants. The lowly, the ordinary. The meek.
As I review my notes, I find a deep encouragement about this process. We are grappling with some fundamental shifts in society, in the church, in many spheres. This is the time, more than ever, for us to rediscover the basics. It’s not a time to proclaim new and hidden methods, or formulas, or massive programs, nor the discovery of hidden secrets. It’s not even a time for proclaiming past successes for the application of a pattern. It’s a time to remember what we’ve forgotten.
It isn’t the first such time in history. 2 Kings 22-23 provides an obviously-abbreviated account of the 31-year reign of King Josiah. In the eighteenth year of his reign, he sent a company to Hilkiah the priest on a financial errand concerning the restoration of the temple. Hilkiah returned the message, “I have found the Book of the Law in the Lord’s Temple!” Josiah discovers what was written there — forgotten things, and it changes the course of history for the remainder of his reign. Hilkiah had discovered nothing new… just something forgotten. In Nehemiah 7-10, the people return from exile, and the first thing they do is dig up the records of their family tree to remember who they are. Having remembered this, they gather to hear Ezra read the Book of the Law to them — something forgotten while in exile without opportunity to hear it. They build a special platform for Ezra to stand on, and he begins to read as the people shout “Amen” and bow to worship. The things they were reading were being explained, and the people are told to celebrate. On the second day of the reading, they discover that they are supposed to be celebrating the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles)… so they stopped right there, and did just that. (The reading of the Law by Ezra on this occasion actually changed the celebration of the feast even to this day.) What else would they do? They discovered something they had forgotten, and they acted upon it immediately.
I remember some years back, not too far back, I read from this passage to our church planting leadership team, associating the Feast in Nehemiah with our Thanksgiving Holiday. We read about a feast that was to be “a lasting ordinance” for the people of God, a time to give thanks. We quickly planned a feast for our congregation, and it became a significant event for our little community. We began a pattern of feasting together as we learned some things we had forgotten about community… and the feasts were rich to the life of the church. (Until they became a program and died, but that’s another story.) It’s a time like that, a time for remembering, oh, I’ll say it… the forgotten ways. (I don’t think Alan has patented the phrase!)
Those who visit the site instead of or in addition to reading the RSS feed will know I have a random quote appearing in my sidebar, including these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this.
It is indeed such a time. I’ve added another quote by William Stringfellow, one which was significant to the Northumbria Community:
Dynamic and erratic, spontaneous and radical, audacious and immature, committed if not altogether coherent. Ecumenically open and often experimental; visible here and there, now and then but unsettled institutionally. Almost monastic in nature, but most of all enacting a fearful hope for society.
Do you see the pattern here? I want to press further, taking note of something we’ve so deeply forgotten — the ordinary. Does not our culture eschew the mundane? Deep down, we know its power… but we don’t believe.
I’ve written about wonder recently (two parts) and the sense of finding God in nature around us. The ordinary. I’m thinking of what Ken Gire calls Windows of the Soul, being ready to find glimpses God in unexpected places, in ordinary places. Something that Rickard Bjerkander wrote about Ordinary Life as context for Spiritual formation. We need a healthy baptism of ordinariness. I remember a little over three years ago now sitting with a group of people gathered at my CLB. I’ve mentioned this before, way back, but the group was talking about spiritual warfare, in that flashy confrontational way that charismatics of the 80’s and 90’s so loved. I was asked to say something… so I drew a breath and said something like,
You want to know how every one of us can participate in a powerful form of spiritual warfare? [I knew I’d get their attention.] This is true spiritual warfare: go home, love your spouse, and care for your kids. Be nice to one another, and think of each other more highly than you do yourself. Don’t gossip, but bless each other instead. Pray for one another. When you do each of these things, you push back the darkness encroaching on your life, just an inch. When we all do it, there are a lot of inches on a lot of fronts, and we live in unity in the process. The Evil One loses ground in this manner, and he flees. Whether some demon is oppressing an individual or doing the territorial thing, it doesn’t matter. With enough light shining an inch more at a time, you displace him as he gets tired and runs from the light to someplace darker.
I don’t think they liked what I said… I gave them the ordinary, a routine lifestyle that sounds normal… but face it, it’s hard. Attainable, but requiring daily practice. It’s fundamentally mundane, but powerfully effective. Returning to the snippets of wisdom that appear in my sidebar, I quote Lao Tzu:
Why not simply honor your parents, love your children, help your brothers and sisters, be faithful to your friends, care for your mate with devotion, complete your work cooperatively and joyfully, assume responsibility for problems, practice virtue without first demanding it of others, understand the highest truths yet retain an ordinary manner? That would be true clarity, true simplicity, true mastery.
As I was reviewing my notes from the gathering, I found a note I made near the end, when the subject came up of our return to our homes, churches, and workplaces. The question, of course, is always what to tell people when they ask what the conference was about. “Tell them,” it was advised, “It was about learning to listen to the ‘other’ and entering into the stories of the ‘other’.” It sounds very mundane, but in its ordinariness, there’s a powerful subversion happening. We are dealing in dangerous practices here.
Yesterday I was thinking about how things like the Daily Office, a Rule of Life, and other disciplines like Dwelling in the Word, Listening to the Other, and even the Lectionary help us in our formation. And all of these are very ordinary things. We forget how we are formed by the ordinary. Sometimes we need to trust the process, and for him who has ears to hear, I offer a Zen parable:
What Am I Learning?
A long time ago in China, most of the families that lived in the small towns in the countryside were poor. They worked hard to keep everyone fed and sheltered. In a few places there were monasteries where monks lived, grew their own food, made their own clothes and were totally self-sufficient. These monks learned philosophy as well as physical disciplines such as martial arts. The story of one family who had too many children and not enough grain in the field goes like this:
The father decided to take one of his boys to the monastery and ask the monks if they would accept him as an apprentice. The father promised that the boy would work very hard and obey the monks and that he would work extra hard to repay their kindness through his labour and his contributions. It was not easy to do this, because there were many poor families and only a few children were chosen as apprentices. Later on, when the boy became a monk he would be able to help his family.
The monks agreed, and the boy stayed, leaving his family behind in their village. The first day the monks gave him a simple robe to wear and the boy then had no other possessions. Then they put him to work. An old monk said, “Take that cauldron over there, fill it with water and place it on that large stone there.” The boy did not understand the purpose but he obeyed and was a little afraid of what would happen if he didn’t. There was no fire in the room so he wasn’t sure what the cauldron was for. Then the monk said “Now splash the water out of the cauldron with your hands, like this.” This seemed very strange but the boy obeyed. Some time later the stone floor was wet and the cauldron was empty, and his arms were stiff. Just then the monk came back and said “Now fill up the cauldron again.” So three times the first day he did this, and three times the next day. After a month the boy was regretting his father’s decision greatly but he was still afraid of disappointing his family and of talking back to the monks.
Finally, after 3 months the boy was offered a chance to go home and visit his family. He was very excited and relieved for a few days without the cauldron.
At home, everyone was full of questions — “Do you like it?” “Is it hard?” “What did you learn?” “Can you break a board with your hands?”. This was uncomfortable because he hadn’t really done anything. He had filled the cauldron and emptied the cauldron. That was about it.
He just said “I haven’t really learned anything yet. It’s coming.” But still they persisted — “Surely they showed you something show me one thing.”
The boy was getting anxious now, irritated. “I learned nothing,” he said.
But still, one more time a relative walked into the kitchen where he was sitting and said, “Please, I know you can’t tell everyone, but tell me what did they teach you?”
The boy became so angry that he yelled “I didn’t learn anything!” He jumped up from his chair and slammed his hand down on the thick wooden table, which broke instantly in two.
Only then did he realize what he had learned.