Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Reuben

Several years ago, when I lived in Jackson, Tennessee, I wrote a silly little article for one of the entertainment magazines in Jackson, TN, entitled, "In Search of the Perfect Reuben." It started when I got into a conversation with one of my church members, Tim Walker. Our discussion turned serious when we began talking Reuben sandwiches. After painstaking research, we came to the conclusion that there were two great places to get a Reuben in Jackson: the Bemis Deli (alas, a very short-lived business venture), and the Old Town Spaghetti Store.

My family has lived in Kentucky off and on since 1991, so we decided it was high time to go to Mammoth Cave. One of my church members learned that we were going, and shared with us a great place to get a meal. I didn't pay that much attention until she said, "They have the best Reuben sandwich you'll ever have." Hark! She wrote down the name of the resort on an offering envelope.

She was right. My wife, who had never had a Reuben, loved her sandwich. My daughter, who was scared of something new, took a tentative bite of my wife's sandwich and her eyes lit up. Lots of sandwich, wonderfully fresh marbled rye bread toasted just perfectly. If you're ever near Park City, Kentucky, and you like Reuben sandwiches (I hear the prime rib is good, too), you have got to check out Park Mammoth Resort. Go to the lobby, and the restaurant is located adjacent to it. It is a quaint, beautiful resort that looks like a great place to relax and renew.

Be forewarned: if you've ever watched Dirty Dancing, the place reminds you of Kellerman's. [smile]


Friday, May 23, 2008

Old & New With the Familiar

That is a picture of my prie deux that sits in my office. My hometown fire chief, Buster Williams, made that for me several years ago. It was the next-to-last piece of furniture that he ever made before he died. It reminds me that we stand (and kneel) on the shoulders of giants. It is my most treasured piece of furniture.

I have been in ordered life since 1991, and the Daily Offices have been a part of my prayer life since then. I was introduced to the daily office when I was in seminary. Two wonderful people, Mary Stamps and Don Saliers, led morning prayer at 7:30 in the morning in Cannon Chapel. Don was my professor of worship (and as all UM's know, so instrumental in worship renewal and study for UM's). Mary was a doctoral student and now lives in monastic life at St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery - a monastery she founded (story here). We all managed to play golf together once. In those days I took my golf seriously, but on that day I watched my language and managed to share fellowship instead of try to birdie holes. Or par them.

The Daily Office gives my prayer life structure and discipline. I learned the ancient practice of lectio divina, praying the scriptures. Both of those things led to my journaling and writing. And in the process, I have learned that when communicating with God, it is much more important to be silent and listen than to do all of the talking. God has important things to say to us!

Of late, I have incorporated something new into my praying the offices. This is hard for me, because I am very much a creature of habit, form, and structure. I received as a gift Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. I have Celtic roots (fair skin, a little red in my beard [what hasn't turned gray], and an appreciation for Guinness and Jameson), and Celtic Christian spirituality has a lot of appreciation for monasticism, higher learning, art & poetry, theological orthodoxy, and thin boundaries between the sacred and secular. Ireland was quite isolated from the Roman Catholic Church, and there really weren't any towns - just countryside villages. So their liturgy and their spirituality took on a more rugged, missionary quality.

More specifically, the Celts developed the idea of having a partner or partners (a "soul friend") to help in spiritual direction, and they invented personal confession. Because of illiteracy, they were an oral word-based culture; most of the people were illiterate but had great memorization skills, and as a result they loved to tell and hear great stories. They had a sense of closeness and immanence between the natural and supernatural, and placed great priority on hospitality. Family and kinship ties were very important to them.

So as I read ancient prayers and the biographies of Celtic saints, I go back in time with appreciation for my ancestral roots as well as my Christian roots. Incorporating them into my prayer life is both new, yet old. Which is how our faith is supposed to be.

The more I hear the phrase "ancient-future" used in a Christian context, the more I like it.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Nanos Gigantum Humeris Insidentes

My Latin is awful, but the above phrase means, "Dwarfs Standing on the Shoulders of Giants." (Latin doesn't have articles; fill in with the appropriate definite or indefinite article). It is a phrase I briefly remember from college, and became better acquainted with from my friend Johnny Jeffords. My brief time in Britain last year brought it home even more. For one, the phrase is written on the edge of the £2 coin. And for another, I went to places that allowed me to see where folks who have been formative in my life have walked, where, sometimes, they literally stood on the shoulders of others.

One was seeing the church where John Wesley grew up, where his father served as rector, and where, forbidden to preach inside his own home church, preached instead while standing on top of his father's grave (which was family property). Literally, standing on the shoulders of his father and legacy.

The other was going to the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. This is where C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and a few other notable writers used to hang out for discussion and an occasional pint. I actually got to sit down in the same corner where they gathered (that's Rick Dye, my D.S., with me in the picture below at the Eagle and Child). Lewis' writings helped me in discerning my call to the ordained ministry. Tolkien gave me a love of reading and writing that continues to this day, and also influenced my faith in ways that go beyond description.

Why all of these thoughts? I find myself in the midst of lots of funerals: family, friends, parishioners. I always use these opportunities to talk about legacy, the Communion of the Saints, and how we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us. Even folks who were barely 5 feet tall.

As a society, we're losing touch with our extended families. We have become increasingly mobile and have run greater risks of not appreciating history, community life, and faith communities. Maybe I just need to remind myself of where I've come from so that I will know where I am going.

Thanks for indulging me.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

God Is Always Present – Even, and Especially, In the Pain

I am secure enough in my masculinity to tell you that I do a lot of the housework at our home.

It’s really not drudgery to me – it is freeing. So much of what I do as a pastor isn’t good for someone who is as Type A as I am – there aren’t instant results, you can get through a whole checklist some days and still feel like you’re getting nowhere, and some days your best laid plans are thwarted by one phone call or office visit. That’s the reality of pastoral work.

Cleaning the house is different. There are instant results. When the checklist is completed, your work is done for that week. You can sit down, pour yourself a cup of coffee (unless it’s later in the afternoon, when something else might be more appropriate), sit in a chair and admire your handiwork. Just like mowing the yard, you can tell where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished. And, making something clean that was once dirty is very satisfying.

It was the tiniest book I had ever read: The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work”. It was actually a college lecture that Kathleen Norris had given several years ago. The book speaks of what it is to see the commonplace with “the eyes of the heart.” As one who is ordained, I was captivated by what she said when she was once at a Catholic mass. During the high liturgy and celebration of the Eucharist, it struck her that during the preparation and ablutions of the Table, the priest was basically doing the dishes (hey, another man doing “women’s work”!). Getting the vessels ready for the elements, cleaning the crumbs from the paten, finishing the wine, rinsing the chalice and wiping the inside of it with purificators... in essence, doing the dishes. While the liturgy left her disoriented in places, she noted that “eating and drinking were something I could understand. That and the housework.”

She goes on:
“Ironically, it seems that it is by the means of seemingly perfunctory daily rituals and routines that we enhance the personal relationships that nourish and sustain us.”

Some days, when I am doing the usual week of pastoral work: writing sermons, making hospital rounds, checking on those who are struggling, keeping up with facility construction, administration (you get the idea)… I have a hard time seeing God. Yet, in the ordinary routine of house and yard work, I realize that God is, and has been, present all along. I’m just too knuckleheaded to realize it.

I’ve gotten behind on housework of late, so this morning, I planned on getting up on the roof and cleaning the rain gutters out. It was a beautiful morning. I got the ladder positioned, started up my leaf blower, and began to ascend the ladder. When I got to the roofline, I stopped. I looked at the pitch of the roof and how my feet and ankles would be positioned. I thought about the kickback of the leaf blower… and I got scared. I’m not afraid of heights; heck, I used to be a firefighter and high-ropes/take-down rescuer. But my body just doesn’t cooperate anymore.

For the past few years, my arthritis has gotten worse. Doctors can’t decide if it’s osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. I have virtually no strength in my wrists and ankles anymore. Last Tuesday, I had nerve conduction tests (and I think John Wesley was certifiably nuts to have voluntarily electrified himself as much as he did). I take anti-inflammatories to keep inflammation down. I have prescriptions for pain meds when it gets really bad, but I rarely take them – I don’t like pain, but I hate being influenced by drugs even more.

Today was painful – physically, but more so mentally. I have cleaned gutters, climbed ladders, and walked on roofs all of my life. I realized today that I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m 43 years old; I’m not a spring chicken, but by no means am I ancient, either. It hurt my pride. I realized that I have more limitations than I used to. I’m gonna have to pay some kid to clean out my gutters.

After a brief pity party for myself… I recomposed. Centered my thoughts and prayers. And teared up – not out of frustration, but out of anger at myself. And it came to me, and I said to myself, “Silly Sky… God is still here. He’s still present. He still loves you. And He hasn’t forsaken you. Now go clean the inside of your house and get over this lament-and-bitch stuff.”

My house is clean. So is my body. And God is present. He already was… and He will be.