Tag Archives: Christianity

Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.

2 Comments

Filed under devotionals

Hospitality

Welcome

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day and I’m tempted to say all the many things I’m thankful for. Instead, I want to share something that God’s been teaching me lately. We all know about the benefits of prayer, Bible study, and worship for growing in the Christian life. These are all important. But one of the most important spiritual practices in the New Testament is often ignored: hospitality.

Have you ever noticed how often the Gospels tell us that Jesus was eating a meal with people when he taught them? Learning and teaching during mealtime was a practice embedded in Jewish culture. To this day the Passover celebration takes place during a meal – called the Seder. In this meal the story is retold and questions are asked and answered about God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people from Egypt. The Passover Meal is the background for the Lord’s Supper in which Jesus identified the bread and wine with his body and blood. The early Christians celebrated this meal daily in their homes (Acts 2:42, 46).

Jews extended hospitality not only because it was part of their culture, but they did it to be obedient to God and his Word. The book of Proverbs even says hospitality should be extended to one’s enemies: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21-22).

Jesus used the language of hospitality to describe the Kingdom of God. It’s like a great banquet to which many are invited he explained on one occasion (Matt. 22:1-14). On another he told a parable about a host going next door to borrow food from a reluctant neighbor as an illustration for persevering in prayer (Luke 11:5-13).

In his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus even ties hospitality to salvation: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:34-35). What is Hospitality? It’s giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It’s inviting strangers in. It’s treating people as if they were Jesus Christ himself, because in a sense that’s who they really are.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “Martin the Cobbler” found in his book What Men Live By that illustrates this point. It concerns a man who was told, through prayer, that Christ was going to visit him on a certain day. He went about his business as usual; he was a shoemaker. His first customer was a prostitute; the second, a mother with a sick child; and the third was an alcoholic. He hurried around trying to be hospitable to these people, offering them a kind word and something to eat, as well as fixing their shoes. When evening came he was rather disappointed, for it was time to lock up—and Christ still hadn’t come. He was very unhappy until he heard a voice saying, “But I had come, in the person of each of the people to whom you offered hospitality today.” (Doherty, Poustinia, p. 84) If Christ were to visit us today in the form of a homeless person or a Syrian refugee, how would we receive him? Would we show him hospitality? Ignore him? Or worse, treat him with contempt?

Hospitality is reciprocal. It’s both giving and receiving. When Jesus sent out the 12 Apostles to preach he told them not to bring any provisions so they’d be forced to rely on the hospitality of others (Matt. 10:9). That requires both faith and humility.

But Jesus wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done himself. Although Jesus was God from all eternity with all the riches of heaven at his disposal, for our sake he humbled himself in the miracle of the Incarnation by becoming human. He didn’t arrive in this world as a full grown man capable of providing for himself, but as a helpless baby who had to be fed and burped and changed.

It’s just as important to accept the hospitality of others as it is to give hospitality. To do this, we have to be humble, flexible, and open. It also means that we can’t always be in a hurry, ready to rush off to the next task.

Hospitality isn’t just a matter of good manners. It’s a way of life and an attitude of the heart. If we consistently practice hospitality, we’ll be walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

2 Comments

Filed under devotionals, holidays

The Visitation

El Greco The Visitation

Last week while I was on vacation I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I visited Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown. Owned by Harvard University, the museum has a small but significant collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, reflecting the eclectic interests of its founders Robert and Mildred Bliss. I know almost nothing about Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, so I thought I wouldn’t recognize anything in the collection. But as I passed the Italian Renaissance-style music room on my way to the Philip Johnson Pavilion where the Pre-Columbian exhibit is housed, a smallish painting caught my eye. Even before I recognized the subject matter, I knew the artist: El Greco (1541-1614). Upon closer inspection I saw that it was a painting of the Bible story known as The Visitation (Luke 1:39-45). Mary, having just been told by an angel that she would miraculously conceive the Son of God, visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a miracle baby, John the Baptist, conceived beyond the mother’s childbearing years.

The expressionistic style of the painting makes it look remarkably modern, as if from the twentieth century, even though it was painted sometime between 1610 and 1614. One commentator praised the work for embodying “all the mysticism and eerie brilliance typical of the best phase of [El Greco’s] style.” In it, two nondescript figures, robed in identical silver-blue hooded garments, embrace in a corniced doorway with a white, fluted casing. There are no halos, no religious symbols. The scene is strikingly ordinary, considering the miracle it depicts.

When Mary greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. That experience prompted her to utter one of the most famous lines of the Bible: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” part of the Hail Mary prayer Catholics around the world pray every day. Still, as important as the story is, it hasn’t done a lot for me in the past. I guess it’s difficult for me, a modern American male, to relate to pre-modern Eastern women both of whom are carrying miracle babies in their respective wombs. Besides the fantastic-sounding conception stories, I don’t understand why Elizabeth saw the baby moving in her womb as a miraculous sign. Don’t all babies do that? Was being filled with the Holy Spirit what enabled Elizabeth to see the ordinary event of a fetal motion as a divine sign?

I’m not sure why it’s difficult for me to see God’s hand in the ordinary. Perhaps it’s because I’m not looking for it, or at least not looking carefully enough. Both my religious training and my personality have made me hesitant to acknowledge the fact that God speaks to us outside of Scripture. Too many people get caught up in Charismatic kookiness or plain old superstition, so (I reason) it’s much safer to stick with the Bible. Yet even in Scripture God speaks to his people in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s miraculous like Moses at the burning bush. At other times the means of divine communication is surprisingly ordinary like an unborn baby moving. Jesus himself drew his greatest lessons from everyday life: a farmer sowing seed, a shepherd tending a flock, a fisherman catching fish, a woman searching for a lost coin.

I am trying to learn how to find God in ordinary things, even a trip to a museum.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, devotionals, personal

Building Towers

Boy Scout Tower

My fourteen-year-old son Mark is away at Boy Scout camp this week. That’s got me thinking back to my own experience. The last time I went to a Boy Scout camp I was thirteen. One of the major activities was building a twenty-foot tower. It took our troop most of the day to lash the wooden poles in place and make platforms that were sturdy enough to hold our weight. I remember the pride of accomplishment we felt when the job was done. From atop the tower we were lords of the Earth. We wanted our structure to last forever, but at the end of the day it had to be disassembled so the next group of campers could build their own tower. I’m sure each troop thought their tower was the best, but in fact they were all very much a like. Some were a little taller than others, some a little sturdier. But they were all made with the same materials and techniques, and the differences were more superficial than substantive.

Boy Scouts aren’t the only ones who build towers. Theologians do too. They build beautiful systems, logically lashed together. Each group defends its own tower, claiming superiority of craftsmanship and fidelity to Scripture. Built on an Aristotelian foundation, these systems thrive on defining themselves against the other: sacramental vs. non-sacramental, predestination vs. free will, Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Orthodox, and so on. Such systems provide certainty and security for their adherents but they also foster a kind of theological agoraphobia, a fear of wandering outside the safety of one’s own system. Stepping outside one’s theological boundaries can be as terrifying as stepping off a twenty-foot tower.

But what if truth is greater than any one theological system? What if truth isn’t like building a tower but like triangulating on a location from different towers? What if truth isn’t propositional and logical at all but personal and mysterious?

The Bible doesn’t tell us to put our faith and trust in theological systems. We are told to believe in a person – Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

2 Comments

Filed under devotionals, personal