If Prayer Were a Landscape

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If prayer were a landscape, what would it look like?

Would it be busy, like a city? Skyscrapers with little windows, some lit up brightly even in the middle of the night, where you might cram wishes and dreams and fears as if into an apothecary’s box, one at a time, whenever they pop up? Names of people rattled off as you toss and turn at night, the City of Prayer populated by needs. Vicki is sick. Miles is lonely. Ron needs hope. Are these requests racing by on freeways or crawling along in traffic jams that don’t move? Is prayer congested? Angry? Confusing?

Or is prayer more rough and craggy like the cliffs in a Bronte novel? Lonely and empty and often dark? Do you feel sometimes like the sound of your own voice is the only thing you can hear, echoing off rocks and dissipating into the mist like even more mist? Do you wonder if you are the only one there, with the wind whipping your dress around your ankles as you shout into nothing?

Do we meet God in a tundra? Is it cold and dead, like winter feels? I wonder if dreams can curl up like tulip bulbs and survive, even thrive, during long months of cold when it’s all you can do to tick off the passing of the days.

But I live by the ocean. I love water, and had both of my babies in huge tubs of it. I like ocean waves, the ins and outs of them. The regularity and yet the surprising unpredictability of them. The knowledge that I am small and that God is big. I want prayer to be like the beach, where he tells us he’s numbered every single grain of sand.

But if I am honest, prayer is all of these locales. It is sometimes busy, sometimes lonely, sometimes warm and comforting and sweet.

The Apostle Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, and I wonder often what he means. I can do hardly anything without ceasing. Except maybe worry. Or watch Netflix. So I keep praying, when and how I can. I offer up my traffic jams, my crags, and my icy tundras along with the perfect crests and swells that whisper, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “all shall be well.”

“Lord, hear our prayer,” we say in church. Lord, hear my prayer.

 

 

*Image: Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCow & Calf Rocks, Ilkley Moor – Credit: Tom Blackwell

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how to watch the moon

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My kids were a little bummed out by the Super Blood Moon, if you want to know the truth. The three-year-old, after discovering that we weren’t actually going to the moon, and the six-year-old, after approximately five whole minutes of staring into the sky.

We’d driven up Mulholland Drive to get, I suppose, as close to the moon as we could get. There’s something romantic about that. And ridiculous. “Where should we watch the moon in LA?” I’d been Googling. I hate Google because it forces you to put into text just how stupid you are. It also validates that sort of stupidity because the question always pops up before you’re finished typing it, as tens or hundreds of others have asked the same thing. Of course I could just walk into the front yard and view the moon, as I have been able to do for… ever. The moon is sort of inescapable that way. But I am a first-born and we are selfish and self-important and like to have the best of everything, so I put in a little effort to make sure that I’d not have to settle for an only so-so view.

We ended up alongside that famous drive, looking opposite the way the lookout was intended to be used for looking: away from the lights of the city and toward a barely-distinguishable orange glow.

The moon was clouded.

The first-born in me raged.

“That’s it?” Miles asked. The first-born in him was also a little peeved.

“Keep watching,” I said, unconvinced and probably unconvincing. Turns out the Super Blood Moon was bumming me out a little bit, too.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Fire in the sky? Some kind of pyrotechnic show? When something happens only once every twenty-five years or so, you kind of want it to be memorable. You want it to be spectacular. You want it to be Disneyland’s Paint the Night Parade. So I was equally bugged by my children’s indifference as I was in complete solidarity with it.

At first, I felt the whole experience had been over-hyped. The moon itself was letting me down. The moon isn’t really that good. But God said it was, on the fourth day of creation, specifically, so I tried to revise that thought. Good. Maybe it was just the clouds that weren’t so good? Yeah! Los Angeles and its dirty, disgusting smog was ruining the good moon. Or maybe I was unlucky? People got better, closer, cloudless views of the moon if they’d gone to the Griffith Park Observatory! My Google-brain ranneth over with ideas and excuses for how or why I wasn’t enjoying the Super Moon as much as people all over the country were. Midwestern friends gushed on their social media platforms about just how super and amazing the moon had been when it was visiting them. Was it possible that the moon used up all its superness somewhere over Colorado?

But of course the Super Blood Moon was not a disappointment. It was, after all, my view of it, and I don’t mean my perch on Mulholland Drive.

The thing of it is this: my heart needs the moon.  I know this by the way I check my phone during the day: unconsciously, repeatedly. I know it by the way my mind wanders and flits over a to-do list. I know it by my meager prayer life. I know it by how often I just try to “get through” the best things in life: the dailyness of cooking up dinner on the stove, the sweet smell of sweat on my children after a day of play, the quick, almost automatic, kiss hello from my husband, the time I get to write.

Annie Dillard was correct, of course: “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

I wondered how I might stop acquiescing to all that does demand my attention. (“She puts it in the microwave,” the Internet bellows at me, “And you’ll never believe what happens next!”) I sat down on the edge of our minivan to watch the feathers of clouds pass through the otherworldly light of that familiar orb. When was the last time I’d done it? Despite the chatter of my children and the periodic glow of headlights passing by, despite the quickness with which those around us got into their cars and left, and despite my own reluctance to stop and see, there were many moons that night. At turns orange and bright white, it was half there and all there, dwarfed and cut off by the earth, abask in the light of a sun I couldn’t even see.  A moon both familiar and unfamiliar, glorious and quiet, larger than life and exactly as it’s always been. A moon swathed in clouds moving quickly past it and on their way through dark.

The world spins, I remembered. The world spins and I don’t even realize it. My personal orbit keeps me so occupied that I forget my place in the cosmos sometimes.

I forget that that beautiful, good moon is up there each night.

The smaller light to govern the night.

It is a quiet miracle only in that, no matter what Shakespeare said, it is constant. It is not a spectacle only because it is always.

“Be still and know that I am God,” He said.

“Be still,” my husband told the kids, “And let’s just watch the moon.”

*image, a composite of the moon that night, via Mike Mezeul

When You Are a World Away

We live in Los Angeles, in a house that has a parking lot for a backyard, so we’re always searching for ways to get the kids into nature, as they say.  I hear of friends in Kansas who demand their children play at least a few hours in the backyard during the summer, kicking them out the back door like garden snakes that have somehow slithered into the house. We don’t do that; they might get run over. Instead we spend a lot of time at the park, or at the beach, trying to look up at the sky and past the distraction of the spinning ferris wheel that sits atop the famous pier. City dwellers can surely relate to this longing for a sky full of stars and fields of idyllic, uninterrupted countryside, and my husband Scott and I felt it strongly in the last weeks of summer this year, so we decided to take the kids on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. I’d read online about the Top Ten Swimming Holes in Los Angeles and was interested in one nearby. I imagined an old tire swing in the branches of a weathered oak, overlooking a watering hole where the kids could swing into the still water. I would dress them in cutoff shorts and bandanas. I knew that this was the wrong thing to imagine, but my inner Harper Lee was having a field day with the details, so on the car ride over, I indulged those fantasies a bit.

We paid $12 for parking, which I felt like Harper Lee would really disapprove of, and then took 30 minutes figuring out at which trailhead to begin. The path was clear, well-worn and, though it was meant for hiking and not for driving, better manicured than most roads in most parts of the world, I’d suspect. Trash cans and picnic tables and somebody’s forgotten can of spray-on sunscreen. Our ears reached the swimming hole before our feet did, and the sound of  literally hundreds of people splashing, jumping, and playing snapped me back to reality. This was no more my watering hole than the city was mine. It was ours, and the over-crowdedness of this quaint little swimming hole was not lost on me; I was not the only one dreaming of a little idyll. I was not the only one feeling a little bit separated from reality, the grit of real dirt and miles of space uninterrupted. I felt insulated from real nature. I wondered about this as we exited the parking lot, passing the rangers who regulated today’s hiking experience and glanced out the window at transplanted palm trees and the manufactured grass the city had taken to installing since the drought began.

What would my children’s childhoods will be like, since so much of their surroundings is covered in concrete? It is nice concrete, to be sure. Smooth, good for biking and strollers. But concrete nonetheless.

*

I think about this when I consider how insulated I am from the rest of the world. Syrian refugees are as real to me as the graduating class at Hogwarts, and I can barely fathom what life is like for a mother, just like me, who must flee for her life, dragging protesting babies into a crowded rowboat rather than a minivan.

Lord, hear our prayer.

I want to send money, send my extra Moby wrap, send my love and luck and something more than just love and luck. These gestures seem so small, don’t they? They feel like nothing. Opening your front door to someone is different than clicking the Donate Now button on a website, like I am helping to fund some new sort of cat cafe upstart or Zach Braff’s next movie rather than food and socks and medical attention for the displaced. I want to make up a guest room for these runaways. I want to fling the sheets in the air and find all the extra pillows. I want to make a huge pot of soup and more cornbread than my glass casserole dish is equipped for. I want to share the bathroom and listen to stories, late into the night, of the courage and fed-up-itude it took take to finally go.

The Pope called on all the parishes in Europe to take in at least one refugee family. My heart aches to be able to do that, and I wonder how I might. Me, whose biggest complaint some days is that the spout on the expensive conditioner she bought doesn’t reach all the way to the bottom and so there’s no way in God’s good world that I can get that last bit of conditioner from the bottle. I might have to take the cap off, maybe even hold the bottle upside-down for a few extra minutes as the hot water runs down my back.

Insulation from pain, hunger, disease, cursing, the chill in bones from never being warm, the fear that comes when you realize you have no home, no safe place to sleep. Thermoses should be insulated. Attics should be insulated. Should I? Should my children? I alternately thank God that they are and pray that their hearts are not– that the thick shell that lines their drink containers would never replicate itself in the way that they see the world.

The Beatitudes are nothing if not a warning against insulation: blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted, the insulted. Jesus gives us a character sketch of a person who is up to her eyeballs in the mess. A person who suffers, who is uncomfortable and unguarded, whose outfit is dirty, mismatched, ripped. Insulted, Jesus says; not insulated.

I wonder how to deal with this paradox in my context, where Jessica Alba shops at the same Target as me and where most all of the homes are million-dollar homes. Geographically and economically, I am far from up to my eyeballs in the mess. Even homeless people are scarce around here; the city shoos them away like bunnies who are disrupting the garden. So I read on the internet about the refugees, the widows, the childless and the lepers. I send donations when I can. I pray about how I might become a Beatitudes woman, with a heart that is vulnerable and soft and motivated and full. A woman who opens my door. A woman who, as Kelley Nikondeha has written, “can name [those who suffer] and stand in solidarity with them.”

*

Peanut butter smothered on empty toilet paper rolls, then covered in bird seed. I’d hesitated at the Dollar Store, wondering if the Finch blend or the Wild Bird blend would be best. I finally decided on Wild Bird, which delighted Miles and Evie with its strangeness. We placed our makeshift feeders on the branches of a half-dead azalea bush right outside our living room window. We made sure the little birds would have plenty of space to land and enjoy the seeds. We went inside, with dreams of the little flock of birdies that would soon arrive. We waited.

And no one came.

So we kept watch over a few days, noticed some bare spots where something had come– perhaps in the early hours of the morning?– to sample the seeds.

One day, after taking the dog for a walk, I noticed him. The dog and I quietly sneaked inside.

“There’s a little birdie near our feeders,” I told the kids. And much to my surprise, both blonde heads snapped up from their coloring at the kitchen table.

“Is it a wild bird?” Miles asked.

I thought about the tiny creature hopping at the base of the azaleas. Wild? Well, he was brownish and cute–Probably a finch, I thought ruefully–tiny and timid and looking like one of Snow White’s friends, but sure, technically, wild, too.

“Yes,” I said. The kids dropped their markers and ran to the window.

“I see him!” Miles said.

“I see him, too!” Evie practically shrieked with delight. “The wild bird!”

Far from disappointed in this overall average and underwhelming bird, my two little ones splayed pudgy fingers on the glass. Sweaty palm prints I’d have to clean later. They kicked their feet out behind them, facing the wrong way on the blue sofa: away from the television and out at the world. For this was nature, too. It was here, right outside the thin glass of our picture window. And the wild bird hopped about, pecking the Wild Bird Seed we’d bought just for him.

We don’t have to go far to find what is right under our windows. And though it is not some exotic hawk, this wild bird is my neighbor. This bird sings from the telephone wire, even as the traffic whizzes by, and I begin by feeding him.

something else on new year’s eve

I don’t know what it is about the new year that invites sadness, but for me, it’s there. It starts with New Year’s Eve, a holiday I’ve come to loathe simply because I’m never, ever dressed up in sequins, gingerly cupping a flute of something sparkling in a slender glass. This seems unkind to me, on behalf of the world. And on behalf of my friends who throw fancy parties. (You know who you are.)

I’m never dancing. I’m never partying.

Usually, I’m at home, in sweatpants, clicking back and forth between New Year’s programming, disparaging the hosts and critiquing the musical guests and otherwise bemoaning the sorry state of society whilst eating Doritos. Combine that with the knowledge that most of my resolutions won’t get checked off, that winter cold and dark is not even half over, and that I now have the cumbersome task of cleaning up after the holidays: the mess, the tangled lights, the low–sometimes negative– numbers in the checkbook. Yes, the beginning of a new year can sometimes be sad, and I will feel a smidge apologetic about the acerbic nature of my comments regarding the New Year’s Eve hosts, but only later on.

I have always known that there is a little something wrong with this rather negative response to a minutes-old, fresh and clean, newborn year. I have known it for a long time, but this year, I have been able to identify it a bit more thoroughly.

In a list he developed in the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius Ponticus ranked sadness among the Eight Deadly Thoughts. When I discovered this, I was confused. Wasn’t Jesus once described as a “man of sorrows”? Isn’t it appropriate that we mourn the sin, the injustice, the downright yuckiness of the world and our lives sometimes? And what about depression? Can we really boil that down to a “deadly thought”? Isn’t there more to it?

But sadness, as Evagrius defines it, is not the godly sorrow or lament that is often mentioned in the bible. Neither does it have much to do with depression. The sadness he describes is, when boiled down, a desire in one’s heart and mind for something else.

Something else.

How many times have I wished for something else? How many times have I imagined what my world would be like with more money? A different nose? More recognition or success? Fewer Doritos?

I think about people in my life with big, Mount-Everest-sized problems that dwarf my Doritos: a friend who lost her father, suddenly and quickly, right before the new year started, another who is caring for a husband who most of the time cannot remember her, another who has been confronted with news that she’s ill.

I wonder how easy it is for them to dwell on something else. Because for me, it is easy.

What sadness robs us of, of course, is the beauty of what is.

What exactly is is… well, that’s not the point. The is can be any number of qualifiers or adjectives: good, bad, boring, exciting, sad, overwhelming, contented, unfair. There is a time for all of it under heaven, isn’t that what Ecclesiastes reminds us?

What is is all that we have. The moment. The here. The now. I have heard this before, and, undoubtedly, I will forget it and have to be reminded of its truth over and over.

But this year, when I tucked her in early on the night before the new year dawned, a tiny child kissed me, once on my left cheek, once on my right cheek. I wondered again where she picked this up, then I thanked God that she did. I did not feel sorry that we can’t afford a babysitter on this New Year’s Eve. Instead, I bought Doritos with abandon. I extended some grace to the talking heads on the television screen. I felt the comfort in my ugly pajama pants and fluffy slippers, and refused, for once, to mourn that they do not sparkle.

what the ferguson and eric garner cases are teaching me about advent

FX Photo Studio_image

We spent the weekend decorating our sanctuary for Advent. We used the more liturgical colors: pinks, blues, but mostly deep, dark purple. The color is a sad one. We often use it in the church during the Lenten season, and it is associated with penitence, fasting, lament, suffering. I used to have some misgiving about this, as I’m one of those people, overeager to put up a TREE and LIGHTS and MUSIC and CAROLS and PRESENTS and CIDER as soon as possible. Purple ruins the fun. But this year, as I hung long panels of crushed velvet on our sanctuary wall, I felt a twinge of relief. It made more sense to me this year than any year.

I suppose this naturally happens as you get older, as days begin to mean a little bit more and weigh a little bit more. But the stories of the killings in Ferguson and Staten Island, the outcomes of those deaths, the backlash and the venom, those things have forced me to consider lament again.

I feel the weight of these things. I feel compassion for a mother who has lost her son, and for a man whose life is changed forever because of the violence he’s perpetrated, and for a community enraged, and for someone who feels her only option is riot and unrest. I feel a longing for equality, for justice, for peace, for life. I recognize a need to feel heard, to protect and serve, to do good, to do better, to feel human, to survive. And in all of it, from every angle, my best response is to weep:

“How long, O Lord?”

Never have I prayed this prayer so often in an Advent season, and I am grateful for purple. Purple doesn’t sweep injustice under anybody’s carpet. It recognizes violence and inequity and helplessness and mourns it. Purple doesn’t pretend. Purple doesn’t rush through to the singing. Purple sits with sadness and holds it and strokes its hair like I do when my daughter is hurt and reminds it of a coming savior, a savior who has always upset our expectations and grand ideas, who came once as a baby king, and will come again as… well, who knows? Because purple is also the color of royalty.

I have a friend in war-torn Palestine, a friend crushed under a mountain of debt, a friend who is caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s. And those are just three. Just three at the top of a very long list of people I pray for, and when I pray, it’s “How long, O Lord?” because that’s the best I know how to pray sometimes. I am out of Ideas for God on How to Solve the World.

It isn’t all sadness, though, because after three weeks of lighting purple candles comes pink: the color of hope. Pink is always peeking out from behind crushed velvet, you know. Pink is even part of purple, half of its very makeup.

And I believe we should prepare for his coming, to live with and expect and brag generously about and impart the pink, to sow seeds of compassion, to stand on the side of the suffering, to be humble and to listen, to love and live in a way that images Christ, to be balm and salve, to give with abandon and sacrifice, to do love as best we know how, and to revise that version when necessary. To be hands and feet of Christ in a world that needs to feel him, in drinks of water or a place to stay or an awkward side-hug or a meatloaf dinner or a protest march.

Because Advent gets us ready for Christmas, and I believe with all of me that our God is with us. It is the meaning, the very meaning, of Emmanuel.

Our God is with us.

I want to breathe that, in and out, until Christmas.

And on Christmas,

I will sing it

with the angels

that fill up

the sky.*

*I have had Ellie Holcomb’s song “Hope is Alive” on repeat in my house for the last two days. She sings truth, and you should download it and put it on repeat in your house, too.

sermon. (wait. what? sermon?): evagrius ponticus and the eight deadly thoughts

IMG_1636Scott asked me a while back if I’d like to preach. My answer, like any sane, rational person, was NO WAY. But almost immediately I changed my mind. We are doing a series on saints of the church, so I decided to share on Evagrius Ponticus, a 4th century monk who devised a list called the Eight Deadly Thoughts. I’ve been studying about him for awhile, as these thoughts are the subject of a book I’m working on. 

My favorite part of the morning was hearing from some of the church ladies, who told me they were proud of me for being the first pastor’s wife to ever preach. It made my morning. Then they gave me flowers, which made it even more.

We are not very tech-savvy yet at our church so there is no video, but I thought I’d post the manuscript of the sermon here, for anyone interested. 

I am not a preacher, necessarily, so instead I will start with something more familiar to me: I will tell you a story. Six years ago, I was living in Kansas City. I was going to school full-time to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kansas, and, in tandem with that, I was teaching two sections of freshman writing course. Anyway, being a TA paid significantly less than being a public school teacher. Scott and I had recently purchased a house and so, for what we pay here in Santa Monica in monthly preschool fees, we had a mortgage. And, as he was still finishing school, we needed more income.  Thus began what was probably the busiest season of my life. I was working five part-time jobs at once: the college teaching, waitressing at a Mexican food restaurant, taking calls at the front desk of a snow removal company, selling candles as an independent rep, and proctoring college entrance exams. Oh– and remember I was going to school.

When I found out I was pregnant with Miles, my world got a lot slower very quickly. I quit work at the Mexican food restaurant, for fear that I would slip and hurt the baby. I took naps daily. I let Scott be in charge of most of the laundry, because doing laundry meant going up and down our very steep basement steps. And because I hate laundry. It was as if my body were preparing me, via pregnancy, for what I’d experience later.

Soon after Miles was born, I had to get used to living at a toddler’s pace. This, of course, is different from quitting jobs and taking more naps. This is meandering. Straggling. Lolly-gagging.

To say I have been bored and impatient for some of these years is not inaccurate, I’m afraid.  I have had to relearn how to go slow—or perhaps learn it for the first time—and young children are persistent teachers. I struggled, sometimes, with sitting on the floor to play a session of choo-choo trains with my son. Building the track was tolerable, as there are at least a few mental gymnastics involved in making sure the track eventually becomes connected at all the ends; it was what came after that drove me nuts. I couldn’t fathom how he could want to send the trains around the circular track again. We’d been around the track. A lot. I was the green train, he was the blue train. He got the biggest car. I tried injecting some imagination into this play—I came up with overused action movie plots in the quiet of my brain where the trains were transporting drugs or long-lost lovers or bombs or lethal assassins. That helped a little. But the plot always seemed to lag on the seventh or eighth lap. There is only so much excitement that happens in a loop.

Only recently have I begun to realize that the boredom had been teaching me something. It came as a surprise, because I have never given boredom a chance to be a teacher. In fact, I spent a good deal of time angry and frustrated that I was bored at all. It was during this time that I started studying a bit about the desert fathers and mothers, as they are so known (for their tendency to hang out in the desert, seeking solitude and stillness). They thought a lot about the practice of listening to the boredom, learning from it. They call it a “recollection of the self,” and Kathleen Norris describes well the sentiment behind the practice:

“Can’t we just call it a day, and give our overanxious and ironic selves a rest? Might we consider boredom as not only necessary for our life but also as one of its greatest blessings? A gift, pure and simple, a precious chance to be alone with our thoughts and alone with God.”

A recollection of self. We collect ourselves. Again. We remember that we are more than productivity machines; we are spirit and soul and heart and consciousness, too. So, after being kidnapped by the mundane for enough time, I began to discover a fresh desire to care for my inner world a bit. Cut its fingernails, wash its hair. I was spending a great deal of time with myself, so naturally I wanted to make my inner self a little cuter.

It was during this time that I was first introduced to the Eight Deadly Thoughts. A desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, compiled this list in the early 4th Century. He sought to itemize and label the most tempting “bad thoughts” that a monk might encounter. And while they may have been intended for an audience of monks and solitaries, they felt universal to me. I recognized myself in each of them (well, the ones I could define, at least): gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. The list felt even more true as I began to understand that Evagrius was not simply ranking the thoughts he believed were worst, but the ones he felt were part and parcel of every other sort of harmful thought. They were where harmful things might begin to be nurtured. These thoughts were the peat moss. The amniotic fluid.

Evagrius’s emphasis on the mind, and the discipline that goes along with contemplation and stillness, is what made me interested in studying him a bit. He was interested in how we practice our faith, every day, in the particular realm of ours that we think of as our “heads.” For me, though, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to separate the mind from the heart and even the gut. Our inner worlds are so rich and full, always with us, narrating the world for our, making sense of things, giving us complexes. In church, we often talk about actions, which, I think, is right: our outward expressions are of great importance. “Faith without works is dead,” James wrote. But we can’t ignore the mind, either, because how we think about things, and what things we think about, is important and, really, informs the way that we act. One commentator wrote that “For Evagrius, such observation was a form of searching for God,” (p 9) and that’s my desire, too. As I tell you a bit about what Evagrius thought and taught about, I hope that we may all get a little glimpse more of what God is like, what God wants for us, and the value with which He views us, His children.

Let me stop here and give you a little bit of information about Evagrius. He was born in the year 345 AD and, even though we’ve been learning that a “saint” is anyone who follows after Christ, he may be more in line with what you envision a “saint” to be. He had a beard, for instance. And most of the portraits that survive of him are ones that look like this: with the halo-ey thing and the crazy eyes. Right? Or is this only me that pictures a saint in this way?

He started his career in Constantinople, where he was quite a big deal and where he studied with other guys who were also very big deals. (I would give you a list, but most of us probably don’t have a good working knowledge of who was important in the theological world back in the fourth century, so I will skip it and you will just have to trust me.) There was a great deal of temptation in a place like Constantinople, for a person such as Evagrius, and he began to notice himself struggling spiritually. He was garnering lots of high praise from his contemporaries, so he struggled with vanity and pride. He was surrounded by good food and drink and found himself growing gluttonous. The final straw for him, perhaps, was when he fell in love with a married woman. He had a dream in which the woman’s husband had him imprisoned by the governor’s soldiers, and he decided immediately thereafter to high-tail it for Jerusalem. His insides were not matching his outsides, he realized– he had all this potential, was so well-regarded by others, and he felt himself constantly attacked by these vices that he just couldn’t escape. So he left.

I will tell you right now that that’s enough to get my attention. You hear a lot about people who hit rock bottom and then they decide they need God, but Evagrius was at the top of his game. He was at the pinnacle. And he knew that he had to do something because his heart was somehow getting away from him. I admire that quite a bit, and I don’t think it’s easy. Because when everybody likes you, and the food is good, and you have a cushy place to live, and you have everything under control– it’s easy to fall under the impression that, man, you are just awesome at life. But Evagrius knew otherwise.

I think what I like most about Evagrius is his emphasis on practice. Probably his most famous piece of writing is called The Praktikos, and I think, if you look at the way he lived, you get a good idea that when he practiced his faith, it was really more like he practiced and practiced and practiced it. It took a lot of practicing, and it seems to me that Evagrius was not one to just call it good enough. He was never like, “Well, now that I’m friends with Basil of Clement and the people in Constantinople listen to me when it comes to God, I should be a shoe-in for heaven so I can just chill.” No.

When you’ve been at faith a long time, I think it’s pretty easy to achieve a certain comfortableness with it. I think, for me, that was true. After college and getting married and attending church enough time, I felt like I was a pretty good Christian. Not great or anything, but I knew that I knew God, and I was a faithful member of a church and I’d gone on a few mission trips to Mexico and whatnot, and I tried to be nice to people, generally, and I knew the bible stories.  And I think I just stayed there for awhile. I coasted. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what else to do? Or maybe I was just content to be “good enough.”

So Evagrius moved to a little monastery near Jerusalem for a bit, and then finally to the desert. He was searching for stillness, I think. He spent the rest of his life in the desert, surrounded by a monastic community of solitaries who were in it for the same reasons. He wrote, and he prayed, and he taught until he died in the last year of the fourth century.

Now. I have a question for you. How many of you, at one time or another, have wished that you could know what someone else is thinking? Raise your hand. OK, most of us, right?  Second question: How many of you have ever wished that everyone else knew exactly what you were thinking? How dreadful would this be? On a first date? Or when you’re in over your head at work? Talking to your boss, maybe? Trying to be patient with your kids? In a conference with your pastor? Oh, Lord have mercy, right? That would not be for me! When you think about it, it is kind of amazing that we all have these personal little worlds that we cultivate in our heads. And the bible has a lot to say about our minds, how we tend to them.

One of my favorite verses regarding the mind is probably one that you’re familiar with:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]

I love the word “transform.” There is a certain magic to it, don’t you think? Perhaps that’s because, most of the time, we encounter the word couched in fairy tales: a pumpkin is transformed into a stagecoach with the flick of a wand and a Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo. With a simple kiss, a frog or a beast becomes a prince. A mermaid gains legs, a teacup becomes a little boy, an ice castle springs up where there was just lumps of snow.

Transformed, here, in the Greek is METAMORPHOMAI which means the that the outer form changes into something new because of something that happened inwardly. That’s what the Disney versions never seem to capture in the animation– the changes happen instantaneously and usually involve spinning sparkles, but we don’t hear that the outer newness is the result of some inner change. The pumpkin didn’t think long and hard about its place in the world and decide, instead, to pursue life as a carriage.

It’s a wonder, isn’t it, how people can change? How our minds, by continuous renewal and by the power of the Holy Spirit, can become new? Do you believe this? Have you seen it?

In Ephesians, Paul brings up the same idea again, writing:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

There’s that word again: “renewed.” The way the Greek word works, or so I’m told, by people who know Greek, which is not me, is that the construction of the word suggests a process. One that is ongoing. Continuous. Our minds are renewed again, and again, and again. This is reinforced by Paul’s use of “put off,” which is a figurative expression much like how one might “put off” their garments every day. We do it again, and again, and again. We practice, knowing that God is also at work in our very hearts.

As I mentioned earlier, Evagrius developed a list of eight thoughts that he believed every single one of us will struggle with. A few hundred years later, someone else tweaked these to become something you’re probably more familiar with– the seven deadly sins– but I happen to believe they are more helpful when you consider them as thoughts. Even more helpful is thinking of them as patterns of thoughts. A way of thinking.

In Romans, Paul talks about this dichotomy between a mind focused on the spirit versus one focused on the flesh. It is a relatively familiar passage, I think, but I want to share here the way The Message bible translates it, because I think it will help us consider it with new ears:

5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing.

So I want to delve into these eight deadly thoughts a little bit. I want you to get a feel for them, because I think that part of the way God works in us is by helping us recognize when these temptations occur, and by helping us discover a new way of thinking, of living.

GLUTTONY

This one, we usually think about in terms of food. It is over-eating, overindulging. But it isn’t ALL about food. It’s a bit bigger, and it refers to any time we over-do something that is necessary for us. Another way to think about it: it’s desire without restraint.

LUST

So lust is usually associated with sexual immorality. It has to do with bodies, and especially how we might take advantage of bodies without real concern or care, or how we might put more value in bodies than we do in the people they house. But lust isn’t only about sex. You can also have a lust for power, or blood lust. There’s also wanderlust, but I don’t know that the desire to travel is one to be real concerned about.  No, another way to think about lust is as a desire for something wrong.

AVARICE

Avarice is an unfamiliar word, but it’s definitely not an unfamiliar topic or feeling. Usually, now, it is translated into “greed.” It’s a specific type of greed, though. It is a hoarding, clenching sort of greed. It’s the kind of greed that stores and stores and stores up our things, just in case we might need them later. It is kind of how I think about baby clothes– a sickness that you might easily diagnose if you were ever invited into my garage! So, avarice is the desire for something more.

SADNESS

I had trouble with this one at first. How could sadness lead to sin? Well, it doesn’t always. Evagrius describes this sort of sadness as a wish that things were somehow different. It can trap you, really, into just wishing away your whole life. It is sort of related to envy. So sadness is the desire for something else.

ANGER

Anger. Other words for anger might be indignation or bitterness. It’s when we look at something or someone, or the past, and think that we were right and someone else was wrong and now they have to pay. It’s where the whole idea of revenge comes from. So anger is the desire for something “right.”

ACEDIA

Here’s another familiar word. I will be real honest here and tell you that this is the deadly thought that I struggle with the most. Acedia is what Evagrius calls the “noonday demon.” It’s the one that looks at the hands on the clock, and thinks about how many minutes there are until bedtime. It’s associated with sloth, with laziness, but it’s worse than those two because acedia is really a rejection of the day, of time. Acedia is the desire for something less.

VAINGLORY

Vainglory is a concept that the church needs to think about more, I think. It’s an old word, one that we don’t really use all the time, but I have heard it said that this particular deadly thought is especially associated with the clergy and with religious people in general. Vainglory is smugness, thinking that we are somehow better or more righteous than other people. It’s the idea that comes into your mind, even while I’m describing these eight deadly thoughts, that you know someone who really needs to work on their lust problem or their anger issue. Do you recognize that thought? Oh man, I do. It’s so much easier to diagnose other people’s problems, isn’t it? Vainglory is the desire for superiority.

PRIDE

For Evagrius, pride was the biggest. This one is similar to vainglory, but not the same. It is the belief or the attitude that you can do it on your own. That you don’t need others. That you don’t really even need God. You can handle it. This one sneaks in everywhere, and it is amazing how easy it is for us to not even realize its deadliness. Pride is the desire for independence.

Do you hear it there? In these explanations? Every one of these deadly thoughts is focused on the flesh. On self. On me. On what I get out of life, on how I view life, in how comfortable I am in my life.

But Romans says: “Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us into the open, into a spacious, free life.” It’s not that God wants to give us all of these rules to control our lives, it’s more that freedom, a truly free and beautiful and good life, comes when we learn how to put off these desires of the flesh, when we learn how to put off the old self and put on the new self, the self which is transformed and renewed to look more and more like Christ.

Sometimes, the bible is just great because you have a question, and it just answers you flat out. Sometimes, that’s not the case, and there’s no easy answer, but sometimes, there just IS. And this time, there IS. Philippians 2:5, in one translation, says: “Think as Christ Jesus thought.” Wow. Why, thank you very much, God, for spelling it out this way. Here’s that verse and what follows it:

5 Have this attitude [e]in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be [f]grasped, 7 but [g]emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death[h]on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There is nothing inherently magic about Evagrius’s list of eight thoughts. You can’t think about them and then work on them, one by one, checking them off like a to-do list. It’s not the be-all, end-all of Christian living, or the trick it takes to move up a level in spirituality. Darn it. In fact, the list is nowhere specifically in the bible– rather, traces of these thoughts show up all over the text. It’s just one way to get closer to what we’re really called to, and that, my friends, is no small thing. We’re called  what we’re called to do is to become more like Christ, in our actions as well as in our thoughts. (You can fake the actions, you know, but it’s a little trickier to fake your thoughts.)

The mind of Christ is humble, it is generous, it is trusting, it puts others ahead. It does not seek the desires that an earthly mind might, but it is transformed by and into love. “In the beginning was the Word.” Not the law. Not the rules. John is not even talking about the bible here. He’s talking about Jesus. “The Word became flesh and walked among us.” The Word of God put on skin. So when we seek to live with a mind focused on the spirit, I can’t help but realize how incredibly blessed we are to have had the example of someone, of God even, who came before us and showed us how to live, how to be, and even, how to think. What a beautiful story to remember, again and again, in the stillness and the boredom. In the quiet.

*I would like to give credit to my new email-friend Frank Murphy, who is the driving force behind a website that has helped me interact with the deadly thoughts. “The desire to…” ideas are his. Visit evagrius.net for more of his work!

evie dances

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There are some Christian praise songs that leave me feeling a bit uncomfortable because, not to put too fine a point on it, they sort of sound like a pack of lies. When I was in college, maybe a decade or so ago–though I’m actively trying to rationalize a way to state differently that so it doesn’t so far away–there was a song with this lyric: “We lift our holy hands up/ we want to touch you.” I used to get physically annoyed when that part came. I’d shut up, stop singing, purse my lips like your very disappointed substitute teacher. Not just because of the “holy hands” part, though my hands were far from holy.  Nor from the creepy feeling that “we want to touch you” seemed to give me. It was the part about lifting our hands. I always looked around the chapel at that point, tried to count the number of holy hands that were raised in song. Not many. So basically we were just lying to God. In melody form.

There are a number of songs like this, that advertise how we’re dancing or standing or lifting our hands or clapping our hands or waving our hands for Jesus. Maybe I am too much of a literalist. After all, I don’t necessarily shake when listening to Taylor Swift. Not always, at least.

My dad has this thing about being told what to do in church services. He doesn’t like it. He’s a grouch like that, but I totally get it. If the guy leading the singing says, “Everybody stand with me,” my dad will just sit there. Because he is awesome like that, and because he is an Enneagram 8– The Challenger– and he likes to challenge authority, even if the authority is only a skinny kid with a guitar on a tiny stage. (It was rough on my dad for a few years, being this grumpy, but now I feel like he’s finally hit his stride– he’s old enough where it is endearing in a Walter Matthau sort of a way. It works for him.) He says that Jesus told us to pray in secret, not out loud in front of a bunch of church people. That philosophy extends, for him, to dancing and clapping and all that. I’m pretty sure my dad dances in secret, but don’t tell him I said that.

I don’t necessarily hate being told when to stand or sit during a service, probably in part because my dad has given me permission to worship whatever way feels right and true. I never feel pressure that the skinny kid or Jesus or really anyone is disappointed in my choice to stand or sit or close my eyes.

I do sometimes wish there was a little more Pentecostal in me, though. Have you ever visited a really participatory church service? I went with my friend to her church in Kansas City a few times. Risen Lamb. The congregation was mostly African American, and their style of worship was so fun. They sang “hallelujah” and “amen” just whenever the mood struck–even during announcements, like when someone mentioned there was going to be an all-church BBQ and people should sign up to bring potato salad. They danced. They waved their hands around. They were very noisy. By contrast, I have never felt quite so stiff, and I actively tried to mentally convince myself to “get my groove back,” so to speak.

It was like the time when my friend Nick invited me to homecoming. He was the best dancer in the whole school. I will always remember how he break-danced on stage to a Beastie Boys medley in the talent show. Anyway, I probably should have thought about that before saying yes. The entire night, I danced really, really poorly and really, really self-consciously, as I always do. And he danced, as he always danced, like someone who could have been on Soul Train. It was a little awkward. And that is how I felt at Risen Lamb, even though nobody was trying to make me feel that way.

Anyway, this week, during service, we sang another song with lyrics that made me uncomfortable: “Lift my hands and spin around/ See the light that I have found/ Oh the Marvelous Light!/ The Marvelous Light!” But this time, my Grinchy heart grew three sizes or so, because my three-year-old was in front of me doing just that. Hands lifted, denim dress spinning, chubby little legs peeking out. She does this every week, in fact, during whatever song we are singing, sometimes during the prayer or the Scripture reading, when it is totally inappropriate and somewhat distracting, she is dancing. Usually, she has flung off her shoes by this point, but my favorite is when she is wearing the beat up red and black cowboy boots that are flaking from the amount of love and wear they’ve received.

At first I wondered if I should let her do this. Would it bother other church members? I was silly to worry, though, as no fewer than, well, everybody at church, has sidled up to me at some point or another to tell me how charmed they are by watching Evie. It is as if she has injected a fresh sense of wonder into all of us.

She is unconcerned about how she looks or what other people will think. She is dancing because she likes how it feels to spin, because that is what the music or the Lord or maybe just her boredom compels her to do. She is free. O Marvelous Light.