Reflection

A Better Monk Would Know

Shutterstock / lestyan

Shutterstock / lestyan

I WAS IN A MONASTERY the other day and got to talking to a monk who, when I asked him why he was a monk, why he volunteered for a job liable to loneliness, a commitment to an idea no one can ever prove or document, a task that entails years of labor in the belief that somehow washing dishes and cutting grass and listening to pain and chanting in chapel matters in the long scheme of things, said, because it’s hard.

I was startled; sure I was. You would be, too. Rarely do people say with a grin that they do something because it is hard to do it. But he said it again, still smiling, and then he talked about it for a while, haltingly at first, as he felt for the words, and then with a lovely flow, like something let loose from a dam after a long time pooling behind the dam.

Because I am not sure I can do it at all, let alone do it well, and do it for years and years, perhaps for my whole life, he said. I cannot think that way. I try to be a good monk for a week at a time. Walking helps greatly, I find. Also birds. We have a resident heron here who has been a great help to me. Sometimes he or she is right there by the reeds when I am in pressing need of a heron. I have come to think that the birds are shards of faith themselves in mysterious ways. You could spend a whole life contemplating birds and never come to the end of the amazing things they do. There are many swallows here and I spend hours at a time watching them conduct their intricate maneuvers. They have the loveliest gentle chitter with which they speak to each other in the air. Remarkable creatures altogether. When I was first a monk I was of a mind to adopt one as a pet, and I actually got a ladder and climbed to one of their nests, but when I loomed into view there, surely a great horror to the parents and the young ones, I could not find it in myself to reach in and steal a child. I went back down the ladder and went to the chapel.

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Encounters With the Divine: Experiencing God on a 1,000 Year Old Spanish Pilgrimage

Image via Melissa Otterbein

These moments of wonder, beauty, and human connection — the simplicity of walking one foot in front of the other each day, open to conversation and observation of the time and space around you — are the elements of pilgrimage for which I am most grateful. As cliche as it sounds some 500 kilometers later, I really do feel like my pilgrimage is just beginning.

I believe pilgrimage, like God, is all around us and within us. And whether we are on this path for the first time or the 199th, there is still something here for us. Maybe not a revelation, but a noticing, a paying attention, a shifting our gaze from ourselves to the sky or the children’s laughter at the park.

If we approached this day as pilgrimage, a wandering toward creation, toward God, toward each other, toward the Earth and sky and stars, how might we see the world?

Spotlight on the Summit 2015: The Elders

Elders time of blessing, The Summit. Image via Sojourners.

Elders time of blessing, The Summit. Image via Sojourners.

Much more than an event or a conference, The Summit was the growing edge of the beloved community — a gathering of emerging leaders with deep reach into neighborhoods and communities that are outcast but vibrant, marginalized but standing tall. It was creative and radically inclusive, bringing together people with very different experiences in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.

To be included as an elder for such an event was a humbling and lovely experience — even more so to share that experience with such wise and faithful disciples as C.T. Vivian and Eliseo Medina, Heidi Neumark and Terry LeBlanc, Katherine Marshall and Roy Sano. I gained much more from each conversation than I could possibly have given!

The Beginners' Guide to the Sound of Sap

Photo by Timothy King

Photo by Timothy King

If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.

There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?

I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?

Bright Morning Star A-Rising

IF WE FOLLOWED the church calendar and celebrated Epiphany in January, we wouldn’t have to cram the wise men into the crèche to compete with the shepherds. We could save all the “Star of Bethlehem” songs to brighten the cold days of January. Obviously, the magi needed a few weeks to prepare and then travel “from the East.”

A new bright object in the sky was certainly an “epiphany,” but it was not totally unexpected. These magi were astrologers, the ancient astronomers of their day. To the east of Jerusalem lay Babylon, birthplace of astrology and location of a large Jewish community. The discovery of two astrological books among the Dead Sea scrolls showed that the sign of Aries the Ram in the zodiac represented the reign of Herod the Great in Judea. Since Herod was aging, it is not surprising that Jewish astrologers were watching this royal constellation.

In a television series called Jesus: The Complete Story, astronomer Michael R. Molnar notes an unusual astrological conjunction on the night of April 17, in 6 B.C.E., the year Jesus was most likely born. At that time, both Saturn and the sun were in the constellation Aries, and then the moon eclipsed to reveal Jupiter, king of the planets, also in Aries. Jupiter shone into the dawn, another auspicious sign of royalty. It was confirmation enough to send these astrologers on their way.

Perhaps if we celebrated Epiphany after Christmas, we’d have more time to learn about this epiphany and its remarkable interpretation.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[January 4] 

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To the Millennia and Beyond!

I CONFESS THAT I DO NOT often use the Revised Common Lectionary. As a Bible professor, I prefer to read texts in their larger literary and historical contexts. When a brief reading from one time period is lifted out of its context and juxtaposed with another written many centuries later, it can feel like an invisible hand is forcing me to compare apples and oranges—or even apples and mushrooms.

Nevertheless, I have been enriched by this year’s readings for Advent and Christmas. My “larger historical context” has become the sweep of a thousand years of Israelite history, from King David to the birth of the “son of David.”

For Christians, the coming of Jesus was a singularity. Though we focus on his birth in this season, that lower-class event was barely noticed at the time, and it is not mentioned by two of our gospel writers. It is his entire life, ministry, death, and resurrection that echoes throughout the ages and ushers in our hope of salvation. Our prophets and psalmists from the Hebrew Bible could not foresee details of the Christ-event from their perspectives centuries earlier. Yet their intuitions and hints and poetic expressions of joy over God’s in-breaking from their times are now borrowed to give voice to our exultation over Jesus’ coming today.

In a culture measured by quarterly profits and immediate gratification by credit card, we need a longer view to better understand what God is doing throughout human history. These Advent readings call us beyond the present to the millennia of the past and the hope of the future stretching to eternity.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at  http://www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

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The Lives of Others

WE LIVE IN A TIME of widespread violence. No country, no community, no person is untouched by violence. It is a complex problem stemming from our thought patterns and actions that are, in turn, shaped by various forces in our daily lives. Because violence is so complex, we often seek an easy answer—typically, naming a specific religion, culture, ethnicity, or nationality as a cause of the evil that perpetrates or stimulates violence.

But we all know that such scapegoating is another crime that only creates more violence. Each and every individual and community has good and bad, strength and weakness, merit and demerit. Just as no one is perfectly good, no one is perfectly evil. In her well-known book Eichmann in Jerusalem, philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt points out that evil is related to the lack of reflective thinking. “The longer one listened to [Eichmann],” writes Arendt, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

For Arendt, to think reflectively means to be aware and to take into account the reality that one’s own life is always in relation to the lives of others. This is also what the biblical texts this month invite us to contemplate.

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[Novemeber 2]
When Injustice is 'Normal' 
Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12 

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Commemorating 9/11, Commemorating Christ

"Christian liturgy is a form of commemorative ceremony." Photo courtesy of vivver/Shutterstock.

Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.

A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.

Orienting to New Horizons

"Living the Word" reflections for September 2014 can be found here. -- The Editors

THE PROBLEM WITH Christianity today is not that Christians lack faith in God. The problem is that Christians believe they “know” and “understand” God completely. In a world overflowing with information, we hardly acknowledge the importance of God’s unknowability. Yet a conception of God that doesn’t recognize the unknowable keeps us in an uncritical banality, which in turn leads us to follow orders without questioning, to play it safe, and to go along with mass opinion.

For Christians, conversion is required. Theologian Bernard J. F. Lonergan defines conversion not simply as an acceptance of a new belief system, but rather as “a radical shift from an old horizon to a new horizon.” Religious conversion, in particular, is to “fall in love with God.” Thus, to convert is to deny the conventional, habitual belief and knowledge system, and to discover a new reality in which one becomes open and vulnerable to challenges. Conversion is not a solitary experience. It is a prolonged dialogue that constantly transforms one’s horizon and motivates us to wonder, appreciate, and raise more questions.

The texts for the next four weeks invite us to a conversion experience. They are reminders that conversion starts with abandoning any sense of security based on doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and systems of belief—precisely because God’s love never allows us to find comfort in human constructions.

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[ October 5 ]
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Unearned Privilege

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A 'Discipleship of Equals'

"Living the Word" reflections for October 2014 can be found here. -- The Editors

ACROSS DENOMINATIONS, Christians have attempted to build a more egalitarian and democratic ecclesiastical structure. The phrase “discipleship of equals,” coined by the feminist theologian Elisabeth S. Fiorenza, suggests that a community of Jesus’ followers cannot tolerate an absolute, centralizing power that justifies a relationship of dominance and subordination.

Yet, while Christians continue to challenge hierarchical structures in the church, we also acknowledge that a discipleship of equals will not be established simply by removing the hierarchy. The church is enmeshed in a concrete reality of everyday life, filled with a web of power relations that are neither fixed nor necessarily top-down.

Power relations experienced within the church are often inconspicuous. They take the form of microaggressions, subtle insults against other members because of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and ability status. What is even more hurtful is that these insults are often disguised as “caring,” as when someone perverts a prayer request into gossip. The experience of the powers in the church can be paradoxical. Christians must deal with complicated and variegated claims to power, all of which borrow the name of God.

The texts for the next four weeks highlight the struggles in forming a community of God. They raise the question of power relations within the faithful community: How do we use the word “power” and what should be our first instinct in situations of conflict?

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[ SEPTEMBER 7 ]
Slow Peace
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

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