Over the last few months, I have had the honor of leading a small but devoted group of people in regular morning worship. You can find the service for yourself HERE. Our process for engaging with scripture is to use ELCA Book of Faith Initiative devotional reflection questions. We take a couple minutes to reflect on each question silently and then join together for discussion. This has been a wonderful opportunity to receive the wisdom of others and to be in relationship with the Word of God on a regular basis. Occasionally you come across something that just wants you to wrestle with it and see what it has to offer if you will engage in the struggle it brings up within you.
For me, I came across just such a “word” as we read from the third chapter of James earlier this week:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
What caught my attention was what it means to “sow in peace.”
As a gardener, I can tell you the act of sowing seed is not one where there is a large amount of struggle. You buy a packet of seed, you keep the weeds out of a certain area, you wait like Goldilocks for the soil to be not to wet and not too dry, and then you run a finger down the row to make a shallow furrow, put the seeds in at the right spacing, gently cover up the seed, water gently, keep the weeds at bay and wait. This is, overall, not a difficult thing to do. And certainly not worthy of an existential crisis. And yet, if we will dare to leave the world of neatly packaged garden seeds, and enter the world of First Century CE agrarianism, we will begin to see that there is indeed a crisis taking place when it comes to planting seeds,.Further, if we are bolder yet to leave the literal world of seeds behind and enter the world of metaphor, this crisis once again becomes our own and we have much to reflect on with what it means to “sow in peace.”
Several years ago, we tried growing dry beans in our garden one year. We planted a whole packet of seed, tended the plants all summer, let them dry out in the fall, and then harvested them. Granted this was not the most productive garden I’ve ever seen, but we yielded about 2 cups of dry beans. Two whole meals worth. So, the crisis for folks in the first century was this: To get enough to fill your stores with enough to sustain you through a year, you have to part with a substantial amount of food that might otherwise feed and sustain you now. You have to put that good food in the ground where it will either grow or rot. Then you have to hope that the weather will bring you a crop that will allow you to do this all over again the next year. For folks in the first century, for folks in some places of the world today, planning is a very literal existential crisis.
What James is talking about, though, and what most of us experience is more in the figurative realm. We sow the seeds of new relationships, we enter into new endeavors at work, we bring a child into the world, we engage in the creative work of a hobby, we start a new business, or work to make the world a better place through some volunteer work, we make a resolution about our health. All of these things and more are about seed planting, and when it comes to sowing seed, we can either sow in peace, or we can sow with a great struggle.
To sow in peace, to me means, coming to terms with what must be given up in order to plant a given seed. Starting a new hobby means making space for the equipment that is involved, engaging in new work, paid or unpaid, means taking time from somewhere else, sowing the seeds of a new relationship means opening a space in your heart that is big enough to accept the things about this person that you do not know about them quite yet. This is often something we do after the fact, and truthfully, we can never know fully what a particular seed will ultimately ask us to give up. However, to the extent that it is possible, the more we can come to terms with what must be given up to plant a given seed, the more we will be able to sow in peace.
Second, to sow in peace, we must recognize that the harvest we desire is never assured. I cannot think of anyone that I know that in the last six months has not had some seed or another that they have planted either rot, or give a lack luster yield, or turn into something completely different than they had expected. Life happens, as the saying goes. We cannot foresee storms, droughts, or other phenomena that will affect the seeds we plant. At the same time, we cannot plant in peace, without recognizing and coming to terms with this reality.
Finally, to sow in peace, we must recognize that what does come of our seed planting is from God, and is ultimately for God’s purposes. This does not negate our need to work at watering and weeding and doing what is necessary to help the seeds we plant produce a yield. Nor does it mean nothing of our yield is ours to enjoy, God’s gift to us is that we are sustained as much as those around us by the yield we bring in, and I believe God celebrates with us in the midst of the bounty of harvest, even a meager one. What is truly astonishing though, is that by recognizing the harvest as coming from God and being for God’s purposes, our labor becomes sanctified. It is set apart and made holy by God which makes it wholly other from seeds that we might just toss in the ground and see what happens.
As you go about your seed planting, as plans begin to take shape from what might be next in your life, take time to consider how you might better sow in peace, by recognizing the cost, recognizing that things are not assured, and recognizing how your harvest is of and for God.
Over the last few months, many of our lives have been turned upside down as the Covid-19 pandemic has spread across the world and now the United States. Today, our family experienced one more upset that has pushed us further away from our usual level of connection with our community. We learned tonight at 5PM that our daughters would not be returning to school following spring break until at least April 1st. What this means for our family is that we will be spending the next two weeks at home. In addition to the school closure, worship has been canceled at the congregations that my wife serves which makes one more step toward isolation.
We have been in conversation for a few weeks now about what we might have to offer if something like this became a reality. What we are ready to offer, though it might be a little rough at first, are some participatory worship experiences that go beyond a livestream that you simply watch and listen to, and some ways of gathering together online that can provide some relief from our stresses and ways of connecting across generations. You can find these offerings as well as instructions on how you can join in by clicking here.
I pray that you can and will stay healthy and safe during this crisis.
This week, Morning Prayer continued to work on me as I worked with it.
Morning Prayer in the forms I have experienced it, opens with these words, “O Lord open our lips, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise.” Though I usually say “my” since I am by myself. Regardless of how many people you find yourself in the company of, there is a lot of promise in those words. It’s not that our mouths’ might, or could, or even will proclaim God’s praise if the Lord opens our lips, but we are promised with a very firm “shall,” that if God opens our lips, what will proceed forth from them is praise.
What I was finding this last week, however, was that more often than not, the words that were proceeding from my lips when they were first opened in the morning were not praise. I could only conclude, therefore, that the one that was opening my mouth in the morning was not God, but rather, me. I am generally not what you would call a morning person, and last week I was not feeling great. You can add to that as well, my wife was out of town for a conference for several days and it was looking like snow might delay her from getting home when she was scheduled to do so. It was a stressful few days, yes, but I’ve also found that if you are willing to look, stressful times are good at holding up a mirror to look in. Though I can’t say that I took a good hard look in the mirror that was being held up for me, I did peek. What I saw with my peek was this; the word that was first coming out of my mouth almost every morning was, “What?” This was not a “What?” as in what did you say because I couldn’t hear, it was not a pleasant “What do you want for breakfast?” or “What can I help you with to get ready for school” It was simply one word, short, curt, and gruff in tone, “What?” The unspoken words being “do you want?” and the meaning behind them being “Leave me alone, don’t talk to me, and can’t you just take care of yourself.”
Oddly, while all of this was going on, the words to the beginning of morning prayer were starting to run around in the back of my mind, “O Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Along with these words, there started to arise some dissonance within me that just kind of said, “This is not quite right, this is not living into the promise. But it is what happens when you open your own mouth.”
With the gift of a peek in the mirror bringing this to consciousness, the last couple of mornings I’ve woken up to the words, “O Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” already running through my mind. However, they have turned themselves from a declarative statement, into a plea, a supplication, a desire to live with and in God’s promises. With the same words as always, “O Lord open my lips.” The prayer goes along these lines, “Please Lord, open my lips, because when I do it, I’m no good at it.”
I wish that I could report that this has all somehow magically turned me into a morning person, and that I’m looking forward to getting up on the next school day before the sun rises to deal with whatever minor crisis arises as everyone gets ready to leave for school. It hasn’t and I’m not. God opening my lips has not made the concept or practice of morning any more tolerable to me. What is has done is make me a little more tolerable to be around for others. It’s just a small change but God opening my lips has softened the edge of my “What?” a little bit. God opening my lips has led to a little more seeking of information and willingness to help. God opening my lips has allowed the possibility of compassion to exist. It’s a small thing, I’ll take it, but more important is what it offers others to receive.
optional in my life. Much of the work right now is testing the schedule to make sure it is challenging but achievable and that it will bring life to those following it rather than take life away. So far, things are going pretty well, but there was an item missing and that was worship. The time had come to figure out what the daily times of worship will look like here, and if not exactly what it will look like when students get here, at least what it will look like for me in the meantime.
I have known for a while that I wanted some form of Morning Prayer with a daily lectionary reading. As I looked for these items, I was able to find some good resources in the public domain that allowed me to create a page on The Forming Spirit’s website that offers a concise Morning Prayer service that can be used as an individual or with a small group.
It was in using this Morning Prayer service, that I was reminded of one of the things that I love the most about Benedictine Spirituality. That thing is, the repeated parts of your day that you begin to take with you and that work on you to slowly and surely bring about a change. As part of morning prayer, for the last week, I have been listening to the recording of Psalm 95 that is featured at the top of this post. The chorus goes along these lines, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.” It’s a line that stuck with me and that I found myself singing silently throughout the day.
So, as this line is running through my head, I was also struggling with some things, some physical projects I was trying to complete. I had been working to get a washer and dryer set up in our student house, and I was also getting ready to overhaul a toilet that had been turned off for years due to a leak that had developed. The dryer had been hard physically to do but it went fairly smoothly. The washer was another story. The supply lines had gone okay but the drain was giving me fits. The drain line had been rigged up by an unknown saint longer ago than anyone remembers and for my part, I was not sure whether I was re-rigging the jury or re-jurying the rig. To say the least it was proving more difficult than I had anticipated and had taken at least one more trip to the hardware store than I had liked. So I took a break, and decided I’d work on the toilet. I figured it would be simple enough. Just pull it up, slap on a new wax ring, replace the guts in the tank and we’re back in business. Wrong again. I got it off the floor and found something I'd never seen before. There was no flange! It was just a pipe in the floor that appeared to be lead with a lip hammered out of it. I had been struggling with the washer, but knew I'd get it eventually with. This...this was over my head. The funny thing to me though was what was going through my head. It was not, “Oh no, now we don’t have a toilet.” What I was thinking was, great, now I have to admit, there is something I can’t do. That’s a bit of a problem for me. Those that know me know I can do a lot, and at times it seems I can do almost anything. It’s a bit of a source of unhealthy pride for me, and as I was in this moment, the Psalm chorus started playing in my head, “If today you hear God’s voice. Harden not your heart.” I’d like to say it instantly hit me as the chorus kicked in but it took a while to break through. What I began to realize though as this chorus sunk into my dilemmas was my problem had not been a stubborn washer drain or a flangeless toilet. My problem had been, I was trying to prove myself rather than work for the good of the community I’m establishing. Further, my problem was also a desire to do it all myself rather than have to rely on the community I am in, a community that includes experts in their fields. God had been speaking and I had been hardening my heart. God’s voice was an invitation through difficulty to refocus my intentions on what I was doing, and to live out one of the values I wish people to develop: reaching out to others, when their own expertise and abilities are not adequate to a given task.
So my heart was eventually softened and I was led to finding a few more assets that I did not know about. First, I learned that the local co-op has a lot more to offer than I realized. It’s where I was led to find the drain tubing that I needed, 2 blocks away, within walking distance, when I had spent a couple hours driving around. Second, I’m starting to get to know a local plumber, someone I can work with and can get to know and who I can call the next time I find an unexpected surprise in an old house that is coming back to life.
It's occurences like this that make me believe that God is talking to us a whole lot more than we might realize, and that the concept of a hardened heart is a whole lot wider than we give it credit for. The chorus of the Psalm that started this whole episode might be sung more rightly as “WHEN today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.” So listen for God speaking in the little things of your life, the unexpected places, the places of frustration and struggle. What “more excellent way” is God inviting you into? Who is God inviting you to reach out to? What parts of your hard heart is God working to soften?
Just for a chuckle, I wound up sending several pictures to the plumber of the flangeless toilet drain. A few hours later, my phone chimes and I look at it. Google has sent me a notification that says, “Check out your new stylized photo!” So I did, and complete with an offer to buy a print, this is what I was greeted with.
I've never seen a better looking toilet drain.