The Mystics and the “Middles” of Life

By Joe LaGuardia

I attend a Baptist pastor’s meeting every so often in which we have a time of prayer, as well as listen to a one-hour presentation from a guest speaker.  There is always a speaker, and although it is meaningful, we are never left to talk among ourselves—to share, to compare notes, to engage one another, or wrestle with things that are happening in our community.  It is always someone from the outside, some church planter, consultant, or church leader.

Every leader sounds the same: to persuade us to take on new ideas, fresh starts, new programs all designed grow the church, make ministry effective, be relevant, increase giving and tithing, bring revival, save the lost, be true to doctrine, and on and on it goes.

No one ever addresses how to do what I call “The Middle”—that long expanse of ministry in which you are pursuing an idea or program that you were excited about starting a while ago.  No one ever addresses on finishing well either.  We like beginning new things, starting new ministries, buying new things, and getting fresh ideas; but where do we find encouragement just to do what we are doing, stick with things, and bring certain seasons to an end in a way that celebrates the meaning of that season in the first place?

For those of us familiar with the Christian Calendar, we know that “middles” are just as much a part of our walk with Christ as are the beginnings of things (like Christmas) or the end of things (like funerals).  The “middle” is what we observe in the church season known as “Ordinary time,” which goes from Pentecost to Advent. It is the longest season of the church calendar, and sometimes Ordinary Time seems to go on forever.  People get bored, we get anxious; we wonder if this whole thing is a waste of time!

The fact of the matter is that our society has capitalized on beginnings, new things, change, and convincing people that boredom and unrest can be met only with the newest craze, fad, or gadget.  No one knows how to live in the “middle” anymore—to work, eat, sleep, care for family, play with kids, go to church; and to do that over and over and over again.

For me, none other than (and most ironically) the Mystics from the Middle Ages are what have helped me get through my middles and Ordinary Times.

The Middle Ages were a time of great change in Europe, so there were many new things erupting in towns all over the known world.  Universities met the needs of the increasingly curious and ever-growing population of the merchant, “Middle” class.  Monasticism promised an escape from the world, harkening opulent and flamboyant Catholic Churches back to simpler times.  A new movement of mysticism exposed the notion that all this new wealth and learning and concentration of resources were not an end-all of things.

Several mystics marked the 13th and 14th centuries with writings, guidance, and spiritual direction that reminded people that “boring” can be just as spiritual as “the new,” that God works just as much in the mundane routine of life as God does in the “urgent.”

Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, reformed his monastery by returning to the simplicity of Benedict’s Rule of Life.  He claimed that our hope is not always found elsewhere, say, in the bliss of heaven, but in creation as well—his writings focus on the incarnation of Christ.  Jesus saw it fit to become flesh and blood like us, so there is value in this life, value in our ability to love God and others.

Hildegard of Bingen was a renaissance woman of sorts whose art, music, teaching, preaching, and prophetic witness sought to marry spiritual ecstasy with creativity rooted in earth, rules and routine.  For all practical purposes, she was the West’s first female naturalist—she was able to pay attention to the little things rather than be swept away by the shiny big things that captivated one too many hearts.

Julian of Norwich was also a romantic.  Her writings show a deep spiritual love for Christ grounded in the mundane routine of living, of loving passionately, and of seeking Jesus’ face for the sake of obeying Christ.  She suffered from ailments that became for her sources of spiritual growth.

All of these mystics teach us what Marilyn Robinson calls the “inexhaustible ordinary.”  It has been my passion to teach my congregations this truth: That if you are always looking for excitement at church, or a new program to jumpstart your faith, or the newest purchase to fill that restless hole in your heart, then you are missing the point of Christian discipleship.  It was Augustine who told us that our hearts are restless until it rests in Christ.  But the key word there is to rest—to Sabbath, to enjoy, and to see routines and daily habits as that gift that God gives us to live with intentional purpose and blessing and peace.

Take with you five values that the mystics taught us along the way:

  1. The mystics valued the incarnation of Christ: Make Christ the Lord of your routine (read Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, if you haven’t already!). In Old Paths, New Power, Daniel Henderson points out that Jesus did not pray as a part of his ministry, he ministered out of a life of prayer.
  2. The mystics valued incarnational ministry: Become a naturalist and develop a sense of interiority that grows outward and beyond you—honing the ability to grow in awareness, empathy, observation, attentiveness (a new(!) book by Samuel Wells, Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church, addresses this.)
  3. The mystics valued the rhythms of life. Celebrate blessings; accept crises of faith as gifts.  Ministry brings times of joy as well as hardship; do not avoid them, but treat them as potential opportunities to grow in Christ even when others around you fail to grow.
  4. The mystics valued the naming of experiences, even if it meant making up images, words, phrases to best express them (like Julian of Norwich, who coined the curious moniker,  “Mother Christ”). Learn how to articulate your personal experiences of Christ, and offer that gift to help others describe the movements of the Spirit in their life.  Read often to emulate how to wield language and construct alternative narratives whereby others can live.
  5. The mystics valued routine: Incorporate a Rule of Life. It’s healthy, it puts feet to your faith, and it promotes self-care.
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CORE, part 2: Repair the spiritual deficit by discovering core values

This is the second of a three-part sermon series on core values preached at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, GA, from July 17th – July 31st.  This was an article (rather than a sermon) that was originally published in The Rockdale Citizen, July 30, 2011.

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Decision time: Do we cut entitlements, raise revenue, or both?  That is the major question that Congress is wrestling with in the federal budget crisis of late.

The question does not reveal the complexity of the issue so much as it reveals the vast array of values that make up the decision-making process within two diametrically opposed political parties.  And not just any values, but core values: the basic foundation–the heart–that informs all other decisions related to spending and saving.  And when there is no agreement on the core values, paralysis ensues.

Truth is, in this unstable economy, all of us have to decide which values will inform our future.  With limited resources, we must choose what is most important, who is most important, and what relationships are most sacred.  We may have dozens of values, but only three or four rise to the top at the end of the day.

I would argue that knowing our own, unique core values is an important step in knowing our very purpose in life.  I learned this at a very young age when I was trying to figure out who I was and why God created me.

At first, I tried to mimic people I admired.  When that didn’t work, I tried to be all things to all people.  That soon failed, and I was finally forced to focus on what God had in store for me apart from all of those outside influences.  I was a person of many values, but I had to discover which ones grew out of the core of my being.

One of my mentors helped along the way.  A late professor of mine echoed his favorite author, Frederick Buechner, when I asked him how I knew for sure what God wanted me to do in life.  He said that the answer exists where my deepest passion meets the world’s deepest needs.

So, when I started praying about those things that I was most passionate about, certain core values started to emerge.

For one, I found that I had a passion for people.  I value hospitality as a spiritual discipline, an ancient tradition of welcoming “the least of these” as if I were entertaining angels unawares.

I also learned that I had a passion to learn about and teach God’s word in order to spread the Gospel.  No wonder why writing yet another column for you, dear reader, is still as thrilling as ever.

Another passion is to follow Christ by exploring creative avenues for worship and spiritual growth, be it through writing, art, or by practicing a variety of spiritual exercises.

What are your core values?  Your answers will help you find true north and guide your decisions so that Christ can use you to your greatest potential.

Unfortunately, so many of us have become so lost in a world of misdirection, we have thrown up our hands in resignation and simply follow the crowd.  We give into the drones and talking heads, and we look to others to figure out what we believe, what we consider important, and how we should spend our money.

Only when we focus on our relationship with God in a sold-out commitment to him and him alone will he save us from our penchant to mimic others and the world.  Only then will he lead us into the liberating vocation that makes each of us uniquely beneficial in Christ’s body of believers.

Not unlike Congress, we are not without some responsibility in repairing much of the damage in our national, spiritual deficit.  God is calling all of us back to the heart of the gospel, to the heart of what is most important in life.  And only by focusing on him will we discover what that is in our own unique way.

The legacy of the empty tomb

Jesus rose from the dead and is free from the tomb. Let's leave Him that way.

It has been a week since we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, and I am still wondering whether we have moved on to live out the Easter story beyond the graveyard.  Jesus overcame death and ascended to His Father, but in many ways we continue to keep him entombed by our very lives.

Although each of the four Gospels tell the resurrection story slightly different, they have some elements in common.  One commonality includes certain questions that the angels asked Jesus’ disciples when they came to the tomb on Easter morning.

According to Luke, an angel asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  In John’s gospel, Jesus asked, “Why do you weep?  Whom are you looking for?”

The disciples should have expected an empty tomb.  Jesus already told them that God was going to raise him on the third day.  Besides, Jesus was always on the move in his earthly ministry–“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”–so they should have known that He was going to be on the move after his resurrection.

Jesus is still on the move.  He is not in the tomb. Nor is he some archaic historical figure that we can keep locked in a textbook.   Yet, that’s precisely how we think of Jesus sometimes.  Jesus lives and gives us abundant life, but we do not reflect that reality.  Often, our actions, words, and thoughts communicate that Jesus does not exist whatsoever.

Easter has passed, but we still find ourselves back at the tomb as if Jesus will be there.  We go back to the tomb of architecture–expecting Jesus to be encapsulated in our church structures, without any ability to move beyond those heavy, stone walls.

We entomb Jesus in our ideologies and our opinions, as if Jesus remains in the stagnate thoughts of humanity’s limited understanding of God.  We treat him like some file-folder we can pull out whenever we need Him.  Jesus makes a convenient appearance now and then when we are fighting a culture war or debate.

We entomb Jesus in our worship preferences, assuming that He is only pleased with one style of worship or another.  We assume that we find Jesus only when we sing certain hymns or sing praise-and-worship or preach the lectionary or have Mass.

We entomb Jesus in our foreign policy, always arguing that Jesus is on the side of just war and liberty.  That tomb is very important because as long as He remains there, we can ignore the myriad of verses in which Jesus talks about forgiving our enemies.

Don’t forget our tomb of domestic policies as well.  When we return to this tomb, we realize that Jesus looks like the rest of us and cares about the things that we care about:  the American Dream, a Cadillac, and an air-conditioned home filled with trinkets and appliances made in China.

Why do we look for the living among the dead?  Perhaps its because we forget that Jesus is living in the first place.  “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

This Lord is not someone whom we can hold or control, pin down or predict.  Jesus is always on the move and breaking out of the tombs that we often establish; Jesus works in places, people, and ideas where we least expect it.

In at least two Gospels, the angels tell the women that Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee.  Jesus was not at the tomb because he was alive, and he went to Ground Zero–the beginning–where all things began.

May our hearts and minds also be where Jesus is, at the source of God’s very divine purpose for humanity rather than at the tombs that we construct from our limited perspectives.