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Pastor, Writer, Contemplative

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The Gospel & Star Wars

SW-poster

Thirty years ago, when I was about seven, my dad took me to a late-night showing of Return of the Jedi, at the old-time movie palace landmark RKO Keith at the end of Main St., where cobblestone still lined the center of Northern Blvd. I remember, at the movie’s close, walking out into the night air with my dad, to the center parking lot in the middle of Northern Blvd., bewildered by what I had just seen and having been introduced to a whole new world of fantasy.

Three decades later, the circle is now complete, as I have tickets in my hand for the opening late-night showing of Ep. 7, to which I will take my 8-yr old son and 6-yr old daughter. We’ll be watching it in the Houston Palladium, equally grand, but not quite as historic. I look forward with slight amusement to the bewildered expressions and awe of my own children after the movie.

I think stories like Star Wars show us there is a yearning in our collective consciousness for a greater Story – something true, something noble, something Good. It’s distinctly postmodern:

  • the antiquated “relic” look of technology – shows the time of industrialization has come and past; and we are now disillusioned with technology. Returning to the earth (Tatooine) and its good forces reflects some of the same themes I am finding in the writings of Wendell Berry.
  • an aversion towards fascist totalitarianism as seen in the Nazi-styled Empire – which seems to make a reappearance in Ep 7 The Force Awakens:

SW-nazi_empire

  • it goes to show that postmodern themes still resonate; we’re still repulsed by / drawn to the same ideals as we were 40 years ago when Ep 4 A New Hope lit up the screens and struck a chord…
  • we reject any grand scheme, beit political or religious, and yet we yearn for some greater story that is true – this yearning for a metanarrative. It must not be enforced dogma or else we will resist it, yet we long for “It” – whatever it is – to be big enough, universally true enough, so as to touch our souls deeply in a special way, and we all have to feel it.
  • and of course, the spiritual bent of “the Force”. In the words of (who I presume to be) a now-aged Leia: “The Force – it’s calling to you… just let it in.” See if you can watch the preview and hear those words without feeling something tingle inside:

Maybe it’s the Force.

All to say that this saga continues to be the Story of our times; depicting our yearnings writ large on the screen. It is the only feasible metanarrative for us all because it is fantasy and demands no religious devotion or fanatical adherance. And yet people give it, showing that we will give our devotion somewhere…

I welcome this, in the same spirit of Tolkien and Lewis, who saw that fantasy was a gateway to reacquainting ourselves with Reality, while reality became less and less real. The stories indeed are true, but we have aged, stopped believing, grown cold cyber-appendages, and lost sight of the Spirit, the Good. Lewis would say, “It’s all in Plato… bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!” Sometimes fantasy is more real that reality, or at least points us back to it.

I, for one, as a person of faith, eagerly anticipate any resultant spiritual discussion. It’s a gateway. To talk about Star Wars is compatible to talking about faith, and that’s a beginning.

 

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A French Monk On His Murder By Terrorists

After the Paris and Beirut attacks I found myself despairing a bit.

Not able to find my higher ground, the higher plane of confidence and hope in God, I floundered for a bit, until I read this: http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/dom-christians-testament. Then a glimmer returned, pointing the way to the Ancient Path. I cannot imagine such a transition coming easy to those close to the attacks.

The story of Dom Christian de Chergé is not one to be read. It is to be meditated on. Chewed on. Mulled over. Internalized. I hope it brings you hope as it did me:

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A French monk on his murder by terrorists

source: http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/dom-christians-testament

Dom Christian de Chergé was one of the Trappist monks killed by extremists at the Monastery of Notre Dame of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996, by terrorists identifying themselves as the “Armed Islamic Groups.” (Their story was told in the film “Of Gods and Men.”)  Dom Christian and the other Trappist martyrs knew that by remaining in Tibhirine, in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the country who also faced terrorism and violence, they might be called upon to offer their lives.  This is in stark contrast to the terrible plight of those who died in Paris yesterday, whose lives were taken from them forcibly.  But Dom Christian’s testament is a profound meditation on suffering, death and reconciliation, which may help as we reflect on the terrible murders in Paris,   May all those who were killed yesterday in Paris rest in peace.  May God console all those who mourn them.  And may Notre Dame de Lourdes and all the saints of France pray for their country.   (Le testament, en francais, est ici.)

Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé,      (Opened on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996)

Facing a GOODBYE …

If it should happen one day–and it could be today–that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.

I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?

I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.

I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.

I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.

It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.

I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.

It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.

For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.

I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.

I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”

But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.

This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.

In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families — you are the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:

Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours.

May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

AMEN! INCHALLAH!

Algiers, 1st December 1993 | Tibhirine, 1st January 1994 | Christian +

 

What Exactly Is Christian Fasting All About?

"The Blind Man's Meal" by Pablo Picasso

“The Blind Man’s Meal” by Pablo Picasso

I was recently asked about fasting: What exactly is it? Why do religious people do it? What purpose does it serve? I do not claim to be an expert; but I do practice the discipline once a week. So I might be able to give a few ideas but claim no authority; thus I’m opening this up in a blog post to allow an open format discussion on the topic.

As I see it, we typically fast for several reasons:

  1. to get something
  2. to do penance for something
  3. to discipline ourselves for something

And I don’t think these bad things.

In fact I think these are the starting points for all fasting. I know when I started to fast it was for my church to grow. But as I did it more and more I began to find my motives getting purified; I found I had to make my demands less petulant and demand-y (reminding myself fasting is not a hunger-strike) and more and more of my submitting to His will; in fact the further along I got in the practice I found I prayed less for what I wanted and more “yet Thy will not mine be done.” I began to say “yet give us what we need, not what we want” – and I’ve strangely found this to be precisely granted. Miraculously even. So I am committed to fasting – because it works – yet often not in the way I expect it to. But it definitely has the (side) effects of:

  1. subduing my appetites for lesser things
  2. making me more content with lesser things
  3. raising my appetite for spiritual things
  4. making me more submissive / receiving / open to God’s plans

On a theological note I see fasting as learning to be content with all of the fruits of the Garden (of Eden). And yet why is it that we are so often drawn to that one forbidden fruit? It’s nuts-o! We have all the fruits of the garden! It’s all ours! Yet because we are discontent, restless, and irritable, we pursue that which is not ours. Fasting subdues this inordinate hunger and makes us content with the lavish generosity God has already given us. In that sense one of the best ways to conclude a period of fasting is to close with the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread…” and I am also reminded of a line from the Serenity Prayer: “that we may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy forever in the next.” Fasting puts hungers into perspective. We want life to be euphoric, delicious, decadent, succulent, rich, deliriously happy. That is seeking supreme happiness in this life. But that’s not supreme happiness. It’s cavities, cancers, and cravings. True happiness is satisfaction. Contentment. Fasting raises reasonable happiness in this life. Makes us satisfied with our humble, daily bread.

I still ask for what I want / need in fasting, however.

But in the end I find myself – to preserve my own integrity – having to say, “Yet not my will but thine be done.” I know too well that I don’t know too well what I need.

God does. And the more I fast, the more I get that.

 

Speaking of Faith & Race in Katy, TX…

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This week at Woven Church, we are embarking on a two-week discussion about faith & race thru the lens of Scripture and also the movie Selma. As I’ve lived in Katy TX, a suburb of Houston now for over four years, I’ve just begun to deeply understand the nuances of race and religion in Texas.

While on the one hand it is not as simple as some might believe – there are complex hues to the discussion of race down here – on the other hand, the city I live in falls victim to its own caricatures of what a southern city might be like when it comes to race & ethnicity; for example, nowhere have I seen a city more segregated on Sunday than here in Houston.

Some might think it fighting an uphill battle and swimming upstream to try to plant an intentionally multiethnic church here; what I see is a vast untapped and ignored demographic. I’d say “marginalized” but the notion is not in vogue here.

And I don’t entirely disagree.

Which is why people from ethnic backgrounds should get involved in the discussion about race, and not wait for the dominant culture to start it. We’re only marginalized as far as we stay silent and unengaged; and so this daring and bold attempt to start a discussion about faith and race in Katy and the suburbs of Houston – it might be the start of something… which I hope will better not just this “city of churches” we live in, but the entire community as well.

unBROKEN: Hitting Rock Bottom & Finding God There

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Years ago I heard a compelling story about a WWII vet who survived a Japanese prison camp only to go back to that camp years later – to forgive his former captors. I believe I first heard about this story in a sermon by Tim Keller. It was so compelling I looked it up and ended up sharing about it in my own sermons. This week I have the privilege of preaching two sermons with the story of Louie Zamperini as thematic context.

BROKEN

Contrary to the title, I think the Zamperini story is one of brokenness. The irony of it all is that he survived so much only to fall apart when he returned home to safety. There, the unbroken man became undone, and almost shipwrecked his life on the rocks of alcohol, despair, and PTSD. While not many of us can relate to surviving shark attacks, plane crashes, and brutal prison torture, I think a good number of us know the experience of rock bottom, being at wits’ end. That’s where I think the Zamperini story is so human, so relateable to all of us, that it is very preachable material. We all know what it’s like to be broken.

FORGIVENESS

The following week I’ll be talking from this angle of the Zamperini story. To hear that he went back to his captors, to pray for and forgive them – that was incredibly powerful. To know that he wrestled so intensely with feelings of hatred and revenge – that is something also relateable and that all people need to hear about. Tangible steps of forgiveness. How it’s done. What it means. How to work through it. While no expert myself on the subject, I’ve had expert guides who have shown me the way of liberating myself from the prison of resentment. It is a powerful teaching that I look forward to sharing on April 19th.

Until then, I’ll be marinating in the Zamperini story (alongside what I consider comparable stories in the biblical characters of Jonah and Joseph, respectively). Hope you can join us if you’re in the Katy, TX area come April 12 and 19, 2015.

Finding Serenity As A Church Planter

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COMPLAINT

I have found myself laboring and complaining. Looking up at God and wondering worrying fretting about the fruit and the Harvest. I wonder why toil is so… toilsome. I wonder why by the sweat of our brow we make our bread. I wonder and question God, more than a little resentful. Exhausted. Tired. And with no choice but to press on.

But then I look at my hands.

STRONGER

They are bronzed and hardened and strong. They have worked the earth and tilled the soil. I look at my faith. It has worked wonders, seen miracles because it has learned to extract Self from the equation of life. I have grown stronger through such seasons of life.

SERENITY.

I am learning that the secret to being content is serenity in the midst of all and any of life’s storms. I’ve given up trying to avoid storms or control them. Futility. I merely accept them now, and walk the path I must follow today with whole-hearted acceptance. Thank you God for serenity. Thank you that I am not afraid anymore. Thank you that i am stronger.

The Concluding Prayer of the Church

God, you have prepared in peace the path I must follow today. Help me to walk straight on that path. If I speak, remove lies from my lips. If I am hungry, take away from me all complaint. If I have plenty, destroy pride in me. May I go through the day calling on you, you, O Lord, who know no other Lord.

– Ethiopian

Here Among The Hinterlands And Its Residents

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This past Saturday I showed up to facilitate an art therapy class for disabled / autistic people. It had been a few months since the last class and getting back into the swing for winter semester was no easy task; truth be told, it was quite difficult. I had come into the day with a mind preoccupied by seemingly weightier things, at least in my estimation, bigger fish to fry than help helpless folk push paint around on oversize canvases. It was hard for me not to be distracted. I was moody, and pensive, and the irritating demands of these handicapped people reminded me too much of the irritating demands of my own children. Except these were not my children.

As the day progressed, I wondered if they sensed my “energy” and several events got me thinking that perhaps they could. First, I was resisted by a very large autistic man, who honestly, frightened me. As I spoke quiet, but firm “no’s” to his attempts to grab random brushes and to put paint everywhere but on canvas, I was cautiously vigilant and wary that he would lash out. Instinctively, I felt the need to protect myself.

That same instinct would prove necessary for a second incident, where a much smaller guy – but surprisingly equally as strong – was having a bad day and decided to completely flip over two buckets of paint water. In a fit of misdirected frustration he clawed me (I have the bruises on my left bicep to prove it) and even attempted to bite me. I got away. So did he, leaving a hurricane trail of destruction in his wake.

It was a tough day.

Afterwards, as we had to clean up the mess, I found my irritation further amplified by a few ineffectual high school student volunteers who stood around unable to be self-directed, as if I had to spell out: “This Is How You Clean Up.” They were young. Shocked.

Post-Reflection.

I’ve had time since then, to reflect on this past Saturday. I found solace in the words of Nouwen and Vanier, which I share below:

Severely handicapped people often sense the mood of their assistants and the atmosphere in their foyer with an uncanny accuracy. When there is harmony and peace in the house they are  happy and content, but when there is conflict and tension in the air they often pick it up and act it out before their assistants are fully aware of it. They are true barometers of the human spirit. And, as one assistant said: “It is not always easy to live with people who so directly reveal to you your own ups and downs.”

Perfectly said.

Community, as I have said, is a place of pain, of the death of ego. In community we are sacrificing independence and the pseudo-security of being closed up. We can only live this pain if we are certain that for us being in community is our response to a call from God. If we do not have this certitude of faith then we will not be able to stay in community. I see this very much in our own communities. People will come to L’Arche attracted by the community, they like our community. They like it , and it’s great, for a few days! When somebody says to me, ` I find it very painful to live in this community, but I’m here because God has called me here,` then I know that person has made a passage from dream to reality. They have found their place. We will only stay in community if we have gone through the passage from choosing community to knowing that we have been chosen for community. It is for us the place of purification, and of support, given to us by Jesus, that will lead us to a deeper love and liberation, a place where cleansed of our egocentric attitudes we will be able to give new life to others.

Appropriately, these words orient me not just to the challenges of working among the disabled, but to the challenges of being in community. They speak to me not just about the work of handicapped ministry but the work of community. It is here – among the hinterlands and its residents – where I am struggling to liberate self from selfishness, to repudiate my own lust for vainglory – and to find the elusive contentment that my soul so needs.

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(above quotes, respectively, Lifesigns, Henri Nouwen; From Brokenness to Community, Jean Vanier)