Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

Ok, after my return from my little jaunt to the monastery, one of the books recommended to me was "St. Benedict's Toolbox", by Jane Tomaine. I will probably be mentioning this book now and then as I work my way through it. It is not meant to be a "speed read". (Uh, I'm sort of guessing it was meant to be read in a more or less "Benedictine" fashion...hmmmm?) So, for the last week or so, I've been going through Chapter 1 slowly and stopping on the questions, and times to think and reflect. The book has a series of "tools" designed to cultivate the Benedictine values of stability, obedience, and conversion. (My priest has been razzing me that I would be attracted to any book with the word "tool" in it. Well, ok, can't fight there.)

This is the tool in Chapter 1 that really hooked me as I read it--it refers to "living reflectively":

“Develop the skill of observation. Mentally step outside yourself during the day and gently assess your attitudes and actions. Do the same when in conversation with others. Before going to bed, think about the day, looking gently at who you were and what you did throughout the day.”

I got to thinking...I DO these things, I am very observant, I am learning to be reflective, but I sure do not historically do them GENTLY. I am terribly hard on myself. I historically kick my own rear end something fierce. This often comes from the demands and expectations that were placed on me in my medical training, and the nagging sense of “failed perfection” that I grew up with. Learning to do this GENTLY takes some thought.

So I got stuck on that thought, "How does one 'gently reflect' when one is used to a lifetime of harsh reality causing the equal and opposite reaction of harsh reflection?" Some of you have heard me say before that I don't belive that God operates outside the laws of least not in this plane of existence. The universe has cosmic law. The laws of physics are our understanding, feeble as it might be, of cosmic law. This all seems congruent to me, because if the universe is a creation of God, then cosmic law would also be God's law, at least in terms of "how things work" in the universe. I know I sound a little like our friend MadPriest when I get to thinking this way, but let's be real. I'm schooled in the sciences. It is my default sphere of reference.

Well, I got to thinking in terms of electrical current. If you really think about it, our brain can function as a capacitor. All our stored memories and experience can more or less up the charge of any given piece of information. So, it's conceivable that a piece of information that has similarities to our stored up memories and experience can become more "charged".

So in that vein, maybe "reflecting gently" simply means to take your observations for what they are, and not put more "charge" to it by letting it connect to all the things that are already in your brain that can hook it.

I got to thinking about my recent daily foray into the book of John. It is easy for me to feel "charged" about this gospel because I historically don't like it. Something I am noticing as I go through this Gospel every morning is that I am catching myself identifying with the people in the stories. I wonder if this is part of how to "live reflectively"--to imagine yourself in the shoes of others, even if they lived 2000 years ago.

Last week, I sort of “became Nicodemus.” I can understand how Nicodemus, one of the Sanhedrin, had to come to see Jesus under cover of darkness. I don't think it was that Nicodemus meant Jesus harm, or that he was a jerk who could not give up the trappings of his power, as some make him out to be. I think it was just that he had a real and earnest curiosity about Jesus, and until he could figure it out, he could not risk his position. What John mentions of Nicodemus, Nicodemus seems to be a "good man." I think he was simply a "torn man." I think he knew there was something very authentic about that Jesus guy. But he was steeped in years and years of rabbinical training and how could he possibly suspend disbelief to go against his training?

I think about my own years and years of training in the applied biological sciences. I had a hard time believing Helicobacter caused peptic ulcer disease for a long time. I had been told for years that ulcers were caused by stress and the "modern lifestyle" and the lack of psychological coping mechanisms. We cut vagus nerves to stop this disease. We resected chunks of stomach. Yet, someone wanted me to believe that a BACTERIUM caused this? That sounded like science fiction to me. But over time, the proof was there, and I could believe.

How is this any different from the evolution of my understanding of gays and lesbians? How is this any different than my understanding of God compared to the God of my youth? The "proof", and our acceptance of the proof, takes time to process. So in that sense, I can understand Nicodemus in a way I could not if I just read the passage and read someone's commentary.

This week, sitting in John 4, I see I am already trying to "be" the Samaritan woman. Overall, I think this is good. I am trying to put myself in the shoes of these people and trying to be aware of the parts of them in myself. Maybe this is part of how I can take information about myself and sort of keep it divorced from the things in my brain that can hook it and act as a capacitor and make it more "charged." Maybe by truly putting myself in the shoes of others, I can in fact be more gentle with myself. I remember an argument I had with a friend once. I was royally pissed that he was just doing the "you're wrong" thing over a decision I had made. I remember in exasperation going, "Hold it! Just for 30 seconds, I want you to imagine you're ME. MY life, MY job, MY baggage. NOW tell me why I'm wrong." I remember it slowed him down and he went, "Huh. You're right. I was looking at it solely from my view of the world as seen by my life. I think I WOULD have handled it differently if I were you."

I'll tell you the hardest part of trying to figure out what God wants me doing or being in a given situation. I know we are all called to a ministry, even as a lay person. Sometimes I think the priestly crowd gets off easy. They are given a collar and an identity for their ministry. We lay folk are not. The priestly set does "discernment" with a finite goal--ordination--to either look at and go "yea" or "nay." We lay folk see these "traditional ministerial roles" and go, "Nope, nope, nope, not this, that, or t'other" and may, in fact, diss the idea that our ministry is "out of the box." Few of our ministries fall into a distinct category. I think all ministries are like snowflakes, priest or lay--they are unique--but the "defined" ones have their own common trappings, just like "White coat = health care." We see clearly who we are, yet go, "Nahhhhh, that's not a MINISTRY. That's just me bein' me." We're wrong as wrong can be when we do that, but we just get blinders about it.

I know my blinders. I get the big attack of, “Ehhh, I’m such a ‘not standard model Christian’ (whatever that is), so how in the hell can God use ME?”

Somewhere in my brain is this archetype of "Christian." Shiny, happy, got a halo over your head, every time you open your mouth, it's all peace and love and la la la. Never gets mad at God, never questions the Gospel accounts, and Jesus sits on your shoulder. Then that flip, raw, salty, 4 letter word-laden me stands next to it and might as well have a big sign that says, "UNCLEAN".

My brain plays out the inner struggle of "unclean" vs. "Hey, wait a minute...God made my personality what it is. So it must be ok to not be a shiny happy sort of Christian." More and more, as I read the New Testament, I am learning that Shiny Happy Christian is a myth. Jesus opened up a can of whoopass in the temple. The disciples were horribly martyred. The desert monks all seem a little grouchy. When Jesus rebukes Peter (as he often does,) I get the feeling he doesn't go, "I rebuke you, Pete." I have a feeling Peter gets, as my granny used to say, "A good old-fashioned ass chewing." Paul's letters deal with all sorts of church dissention that make my church's coffee hour gossip look pretty dull. "Shiny happy" is a delusion.

It doesn't change the fact, though, that trying to understand "my ministry" gnaws on me. It is maybe more itchy and gnawing than it used to be, simply b/c my awareness of God has changed. It did not “itch” me two years ago. It did not “itch” me as much one year ago. It gets itchier and itchier, like an allergic reaction. I expect to break out in hives any day now.

In some ways, I know God loves me more than I ever realized. Yet “My ministry” is less clear than it was a year ago. Thinking of this in Benedictine terms, the world is playing on my “stability” nerve, I still have problems believing my own “conversion,” and it leaves me only with the one thing I try to do—obey—and sometimes obeying feels like I am banging my head against the wall.

Then I think of another something my granny used to say..."Well, do SOMETHING, even if it's wrong." It's not "decision", it's not "mistakes" that kill potential. It's inertia. Well, I refuse to be inert. So, I may not know what "reflecting gently" really means, but by golly, I'll try something, even if it's wrong. I guess even "sitting still and letting it come to you" is doing something. I know one thing; when you try something and it doesn't work, you certainly know "what not to do next time!"


Time prevents me from saying too much, but I will say this... I love this post.

That book, which you discussed with me after you returned, sounds great. The whole idea of observing in that way is a challenge but also a great invitation.

After years of feeling otherwise, I took a course on John and began to see that Gospel in a new light. I am frequently lost in thinking about the Samaritan woman and her audacity... and her transformation.

Along with many other things. Peace to you my sister, peace and healing always.

I like your words about vocation (priests have a definite goal whereas laity when they enter into discernment about their ministry, the church doesn't know what to do with them).

What you are describing is how I understand 'ministry of the baptised': not what one does inside the walls of the church but how one figures out how to serve God in 'daily life.'

Kirkepiscatoid --about the gospel of John, some scholars are saying that its genre is like a play --and you are supposed to resonate with the actors--put yourself in the place of the characters. and that the 'beloved disciple' is actually written in the neuter tense so that anyone may see/hear themselves in that place.... (see s. schneiders, written that you may believe).

thank you for this reflection.

Maria, don't you know I'm a part of your ministry? You minister to me every time we talk about believing and every time I read your blog. We both have a lot of the same doubts. Here's a deal: You be gentle with yourself, and I'll do the same with myself. We'll help each other remember.

Jane Tomaine is a very recently retired Episcopal Priest in the Diocese of Newark. This was her D.Min Project at Drew.

It feels great to be able to say that.

Elizabeth, I bet it DOES feel good to say that! (Watch out--you're gonna pop a button on your clergy shirt.)




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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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