Tag Archives: Brother Sun Sister Moon

Spiritual life on the edge and in the center: Joseph and my mentors

I don’t know how old I was (jr. high?), but I do know this: I was too young to be the Sunday School teacher for the 5th grade boys. But the church was desperate and I was their boy, so the coach put me in. I am not sure what the class learned except how clever they were to discover that I could be nicknamed “Rod White and Blue.”

"the Servant Of Joseph Finds The Cup In The Bag Of Benjamin" French School 19th, Oil/paper
Not exactly how the 5th grade boys staged it

But I learned quite a few things. One of them has stuck with me ever since. In order to keep these boys occupied I decided to have them enact the story of Joseph for the church (Genesis 37-50). I have no idea why the pastor let us do this in the Sunday meeting, since it was a uniformly terrible production. But the parents put everyone in a bathrobe and the servant found the communion chalice in a gunny sack and the whole thing. Perhaps the kids still remember the epic story as a result. I do. I have been pondering it my whole life (and I’m not alone).

Edge and center spirituality

Recently, I learned a new twist to the great story after I read a book about discerning life transitions. I have offered an entire series of messages about life transitions based on this great saga about Joseph and his family, since all the stages are all there and vividly portrayed. But this new book taught me that, in the course of moving through the stages of spiritual development, there is another theme to follow and the author used Joseph to demonstrate it. Ernie Boyer called it “edge spirituality” and “center spirituality.” Boyer’s idea sees two spiritual ways in life, reconciling them in the image of a circle, in which the “edge” is our traditional sense of spiritual discipline and the center is a renewed spirituality of everyday concerns. His idea brings Mary and Martha back to living together in the same house, perhaps Mary returning from her hermitage or Martha moving into the monastery.

Boyer encourages us to explore life “on the edge” (following the lead of our apostles, prophets, and artists) — like the edge of a wheel, feeling all the highs and lows, coming into contact with the rough surface of the earth, and rolling into what is next. But he also, realistically, encourages us to stop neglecting life “at the center,” which we often despise for its repetition and domesticity, and find the Spirit in what is already established. These two spiritualities are often side by side in the New Testament, though the edge is often considered the better way. You can see how this is a nice metaphor for meditating on our individual and communal lives. Individuality lends itself to a heroic search for the edge. Community leads us to look for ways to develop the sacrament of our routine and the blessings of living as part of the Lord’s body. There is always a balance of individual calling and caring for others, of looking at our personal career goals and caring for our family, both biological and spiritual.

Joseph learns his relationship with God and his unique calling out on the edge: in his dreams as a teen, in a pit in his twenties, way on the edge in Egypt in his thirties, in prison in his forties (the timeline is subject to interpretation of course). Then in his older years, he ends up in the center of Pharaoh’s household in the center of the whole kingdom and in the center of a famine that gives him the capacity to save his family, bring them to live with him and end up at the center of them again. There is an interesting dance of these complementary spiritual ways in the story. Joseph’s family upheaval spins him out on the edge. Then his great spiritual journey on the edge makes him fully capable of nurturing the center. You can also see this idea worked out from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s mission. At the beginning, Jesus is pushed to the edge by his mother, at a wedding no less. Then at the end, as Jesus turns back toward home, both as a man and God on the cross, he looks to his mother and provides her a home with John, then turns to the Father and says, “It is finished.”

How the two spiritualities go together

As I look back over my faith development, I can see how these two spiritualities often felt like they were in competition, but usually ended up in a balance – or at least a truce! When I got out of high school, and the kind of Baptist Church that would make me a Sunday School teacher (!), I became an actual Christian. My first mentors in the faith were all people who had great faith “on the edge.” I loved Anthony in the desert, Patrick on his hill, Francis in his cave and Wesley on horseback. It was a real question whether to become a Franciscan or marry Gwen. I just could not get God to let me be a Franciscan — and since you may know my wife, you can see why I did not argue too much with the good given to me in her! But my mentors in history made me feel a bit guilty about my choice. Since an “edge” spirituality often despises anyone who ties themselves to the “center” of the wheel.

Image result for francis and giocondo brother sun sister moon
Francis on the edge

Thank God I had the flower-child-recasting of St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon to encourage me. Here is a bit of wisdom stuck in my memory, straight from the script:

[Giocondo] I can take all the rest, the cold, the hunger, but there are days and nights when I’d gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love. I’ll ruin everything you’ve tried to do, Francesco. I can’t go on.

[Francesco] But, but you don’t have to. We’re not a regiment of priests for whom the sacred vow of chastity is a discipline. We’re, we’re just a band of men who simply love God, each according to his own capacity. But if Giocondo finds the lack of a woman distracts him from loving God,then he should marry and breed to his heart’s content.

[Giocondo] You didn’t cut my hair before. You knew I was weak. You knew this would happen.

[Francesco] If everyone took the vow of chastity, the human race would end. Be fruitful and multiply, but with a wife, remember.

Dwight Judy says, “Most of us are not living the highly individualistic life of early hermits in the desert. We live in society, in communities, and in families. Yet the resources from Christian spirituality largely reflect the individual quest for purity of soul before God. Even when engaging in a communal living situation, such as monastic life, our spiritual legacy of prayer and attention to the inner journey helps us primarily with the task of solitary communion with God.” Francis had to assure Giocondo that making love is great. For many of us it is one of the most spiritual things we do. And watching a child born is usually the closest sense of incarnation we ever witness.

The spirituality of the center is the hub of the circle where we live in community and family, doing the daily routine in grace. The turning of the wheel and the bumps in the road usually push us toward the edge, where we meet God in our unique experiences, gifts and troubles. The rarified experiences we have out on the edge then inform our return and refresh the center. The two spiritualities are woven together in a “coat of many colors,” just like Joseph’s.

Being conscious helps with the balancing

I have a great affection for St. Francis whose “out there” spirituality also built a community who still love to call themselves the “little brothers,” just like he taught Giocondo. I know my balancing act of the two spiritualities, though somewhat conscious, has often careened from one extreme to the other. This blog post arose in a day of retreat out on the edge. But I will be into the community life of Circle of Hope later in the week and August is full of family and friends — and I am still married to my lovely wife! But as much as I long for my solitude with God and the pure joy of revelation and comfort I find there, it is really no less joyful, I think, than having my grandson climb up on my lap as I am lounging, put his little nose on my big one and ask me one of his profound questions. So odd, isn’t it, that we might despise one revelation in comparison to the other, or ignore one and specialize in the other, or fear the edge while we cling to the center or fear the center as we look beyond our edge.

I take heart in the story of Joseph, since it begins and ends with impossible grace. He never knows what is going to happen next, but he apparently knows where he is going. He’s rolling along with God, not assessing whether he is experiencing “edge” or “center” spirituality! He receives whatever comes along. He even tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). But if you are learning how to have a disciplined spiritual life, the point is: Don’t mistake the edge for the whole wheel. Don’t despise the hub as if it were mediocre or mundane. It is all one life energized by God’s Spirit. From wherever you start today, perhaps clinging to the center too much or aspiring to an impossible edge too much, we all have the assurance that God keeps developing us, just like Joseph developed, by the seemingly unpredictable or even troubling experiences we face. It is all a wonder and God intends it for good.

Do we need simplicity skills?

Jonny Rashid often calls me a monk, which is more than a little bit true. It is very true that I admire the Christian radicals who created intentional communities in reaction to fellow-believers getting swallowed by the empire, and I admire how they multiplied monasteries when the Roman Empire fell apart. Believers gathered around Jesus and formed an amazingly creative response to the utter chaos and violence around them. They responded to their challenges with radical simplicity. As a result, their network of intentional communities preserved the truth about Jesus, provided a social safety net, and formed centers of creativity and charity that were rare points of light in Europe for hundreds of years. I think they flowered with Francis of Assisi. All the values that held the communities together: poverty, chastity, and obedience are extremely unpopular today. So people often ask the question, “Do we need to think about simplicity?”

Yes.

You might like to start with my favorite movie: Brother Sun, Sister Moon. In this clip [link], Francis and his newly-minted band of monks are working in the fields outside Assisi and dealing with the new poverty they have chosen. I like the heart of what they are doing, especially the way Francis receives the bread he’s begged with radical gratitude. His single-minded focus turns the hot, impoverished day into worship.

I don’t know what you think of these monk people: scary maybe, from another planet, embarrassing, quaint. Regardless of how you feel about them, they are successfully working on being simple. God did not give it to me to be a monk, but it was given to me to be simple, same as the rest of us.

The heart of simplicity

To get started on disciplining ourselves for simplicity, we will one main thing. That is, we focus on Jesus and let everything else follow who we follow. Jesus said,

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy (or single), your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (see Matthew 6:19-24).

That is probably the key teaching on simplicity. Simplicity is about being basic, unclouded, whole. Simplicity is about being radically centered, not just frugal or generous. Simplicity is not mainly an economic matter. The pure in heart, the simple, the single-minded, will what they do from one reality: faithfulness to Jesus, no matter what their circumstance. That willingness is the character trait upon which simplicity skills are founded. Eternity is centered in our hearts so that reality gives our hands their focus.

We usually think of simplicity in terms of money. We are living in the United States, after all — and those people care about money! Not that everyone in the world isn’t pretty much obsessed with it, too, but Americans are schooled to see themselves as part of an “economy” and to see their consumer choice as an expression of their “freedom.” No matter how many times we are instructed that the president can’t really do all that much about the economy, the presidential election is going to be about jobs, when it should probably be about drones.

We need simplicity skills because our relationship with money (and with most everything else about us) is not so simple. We are at the center of a schedule that cannot be juggled properly; we are at the center of a communication system that overwhelms us — we can’t even figure out how to use the machines we have to use to run it; we are expected to be the center of an enterprise that sells our time, our communications, and our future — in terms of debt. The decisions we have to make are weighty.

Here are two ideas that I find important as part of my own simplicity skills for dealing with money. I wouldn’t say they are easy, but they are basic skills for using the tool of money in a radical way.

Be frugal. Budget with a vision. James 4:13-17

We should not construct our budgets as if our lives came from ourselves and as if the future were in our hands. This is basic Christianity. We say things like: “If I live, I live to the Lord. Whatever is at the heart of God, that is what I want in my heart.” I don’t think anyone writing the New Testament is sitting around waiting to find the perfect choice to make so they don’t mess up eternity. God can be trusted for the future. They are moving with the Spirit and focused on that one thing.

I have had the distinct pleasure of walking with people who are getting married this year. Some of them have already talked a lot about their finances and others almost not at all. Some are easy-going about how to organize their budget and assets and naturally want to share. Others are quite nervous about how sharing is going to work out and are naturally protective. Maybe that reflects how they first attached to mom and felt she was generous or withholding. Who knows? But how we handle our money as partners and as a community is important.

A basic simplicity skill is budgeting our money. We should know what we have, what we usually spend, what our goals are. We should not have to go to the ATM to find out what we have before we buy a snorkel for our vacation. We should not put it on the credit card and fix things up later. We should have a radical strategy for how we spend so our money is used for eternal purposes.

Be focused. Know when to kill the fatted calf. Luke 15:29-30

Throwing a lot of cash at an over-generous party might seem like the opposite of having a disciplined budget and being aware of how one is spending down one’s assets. If we did not live in eternity, scarcity would, indeed, be a huge  problem. If you kill the fatted calf too often, there isn’t another calf to eat! You know about the calf, right? If you are a subsistence farmer/cow raiser, the succulent meat of the cow you fed a special diet to plump it into shape is a very rare treat. You don’t eat it until you are celebrating the Eagles winning the Super Bowl, or your sister finally gets her BA.

Simplicity is also about knowing when it is time to kill the calf and celebrate. Simplicity is not all sweating in the field being poor. It is sharing our bread and praising God. Of course, some of us kill calves we don’t even own yet, hoping we will get some joy out of it — that is a little backward. The skill is to have the joy of eternity in our hearts and to celebrate it, not to celebrate in order to get some joy. We might see some joy looking backwards, but we get it by living forwards.

Maybe we should all have a “fatted calf fund” as part of our budgets.  Some of us may be living under our means already, so we always have money with which to bless others. But some of us have not mastered money-making and spending yet, so we might need to deliberately put some money away for the time when we need to buy the piece of jewelry, or send someone on a trip, or take a friend to dinner, or buy a forty dollar piece of meat or  a wonderful carrot at Vedge. That’s radical budgeting, too.

I hope my two suggestions spur your imagination for how you can be simple in practical ways, in that you discipline your money, and other things, to move with Jesus in this wild world. One person told me, “Wow! Being simple is complex!” Well, I guess so. But the heart of all that disciplined living is simple. The main thing is being faithful to the Lord who is so single-mindedly devoted to us.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Saves the Weekend

Sometimes, being squished on a United Airlines plane — heading for a conference that promises to be discouraging, in a land broiling under a smoggy sun — can be inspirational! Take heart!

Suddenly, the screens tilted down and Ewan McGregor appeared. I quickly rummaged around and found the headphones because it was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I did not go to the Ritz to see this movie because I thought it had to be silly, even if Ewan was in it. Now I will need to buy a disc to add to my collection, right alongside Brother Sun,  Sister Moon.

I did not realize it was all about faith sneaking up on the over-bureaucratized. I did not know it was full of little epiphanies converting fear-ridden people. I did not know it was about a couple coming together over mutual faith in something that is a miracle rather than just a sensation. What a pleasure!

Even though I could barely see the piddly screen and could not see any subtitles. I got the picture. And I got the inspiration. A rich Arab tries to do something wonderful with his money. European bean-counters and petty office workers are lifted to something organic and eternal. Cultures learn about each other in a real-world scenario; bad things happen and they decide that faith is more important than  giving in to fear and hatred

I paid to see Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. (Well I guess I paid an airline ticket for Salmon Fishing….too). But I was not as well served. That one just retreaded the idea that love saves you, which looked even more unsatisfying when everyone blew up. Salmon Fishing had the same vile people doing the same vile things and the same lovers trying to make sense of it all, but they find something beyond their embrace to embrace and it makes all the difference. They did not exactly find Jesus, but Ewan starts praying — and that gives me hope.

I know I did not give you enough plot to convince you that this is not a silly movie. But take my word for it. Put it in the queue.  It actually unleashed a couple of hours of inspiration in me on an airplane serenaded by a grumpy baby! That’s something. It keeps coming to mind while I am in the Yemen of my conference wondering if salmon will ever run again. That’s really something!