Practices over Ideas and starting Urban Monasticism

This is the transcript of a talk given earlier in the summer of 2020. I was one of a dozen or so presenters looking at how the church might need to adapt for the future. There is the global pandemic, climate change/catastrophe, beginning of the end of the American Empire, the rapid secularization of the west, rampant well documented moral failure of Church leadership, and many other issues. It does feel like the west, the world, and the Church are at an inflection point from which we cannot turn away. So what might be part of the way forward?

This was my contribution.

Before I start I want to state something clearly. Every person who is drawn towards monastic patterns, rhythms, and ways of life does so for their own reasons, and from a unique divine leading.

This has been my journey and struggle.

Like many large life changes this began with a question. I was sitting in a coffee shop having just finished reading Mañana by Justo González. You might also know him from his seminal 2 part work on the history of western christianity. I was struck by how different their lived experience of our shared faith was in latin America that Justo described in Mañana.

As I reflected on Mañana and on the general western history of the Church I felt God lead me to a question.

“How did our christian ancestors live faithful lives pleasing to God for millennia?”

For over 10 years I have been unable to shake this question. It has challenged me, changed me, and is leading me away from what I’ve known. This question has ultimately led me to this conclusion:

Faith is lived, and not thought.
Our belief in Jesus must drive our behavior, not our words and ideas.

That I need to radically restructure my life to align with the basics of my christian faith. That in response to the grace I’ve been given our God is worthy of all praise, glory, and worship.

Said another way: The more I am overwhelmed by the grace poured out for me, the more I am pulled to prioritizing being present with God, and offering prayers and praise to Him.

At this point there have been three areas I am wrestling through:

1) Respecting the scope and scale of the bible.
2) Re-prioritizing my daily life, focus, and energy.
3) How to give praise, glory, and worship.

Respecting the scope and scale of the bible

I started to believe that our Christian siblings long past lived faithful lives which were pleasing to God. Yet so much of our current theological understanding did not exist, and wouldn’t for centuries. The reintroduction of Aristotelian rhetoric, dialectic, and more systematic approaches to understanding God had not happened yet.

Moreover I believe that we are expecting answers to questions for which the biblical authors were unconcerned. There was no concern about sexual identity and orientation, there was no concern about abortion, contraception, or the minutia of at which point life begins. There was no attention given to how someone ought to vote in democratic systems.

There are many areas in which I believe the church has overreached for centuries. While this was likely a response to the vacuum left by the fall of the roman empire to help provide some stability and direction for people. It never the less was an overreach which I cannot see the apostles or Jesus endorsing. Later on their collusion with the state is regrettable, and we are still in the process of unrolling this failure in leadership. The clergy should never have been a part of anything called the ‘First Estate’ as they were in France, Scotland, and other places. This does not align with our ministerial calling to live into meekness, humility, and as servants of all.

The church has struggled to wield its political and social power over the last century in particular. Finally the church is being crushed by this overreach. I believe that in this moment we have a chance to rediscover a respect for the scope and scale of scripture. This will require us to tell people that the bible does not address many of the questions they have. While I am doubtful that many christians will be able to make this transition, to cead the power they feel a right too. We must let go for the Church in our contexts to have a future.

Beauty in simplifying of our theology

There is beauty in this respecting the scope and scale of the bible. There is freedom in allowing the mysteries of life to remain mysteries. Us protestants have been some of the worst at crushing all sense of wonder and mystery from our faith. We then celebrate those who have removed it.

Yet we need mystery, we need the unknown, and we the space that creates for us to wonder. As we accept more mystery and unknown we allow ourselves to rest in God to wonder.

We know that God is loving, a source of true hope, and abounding in grace. Everyday that grace is new, and I need it even more than I did the day before. I feel it in my bones that I am falling apart. I know that without the love and grace of God that I would perish. And even with his sustenance my day will come to return to dust. That somehow billions of years ago stars exploded untold distances away of which I will never travel. And that those heavy metals ejected into the darkness found its way through space and time into my very blood. It is beautiful.

I find myself often lost in this life. I wish that it was as simple as the wide and narrow paths which Jesus spoke. It often feels like there are so many ways forward that I just want to sit down and enjoy being on the road at all. That Jesus found me in the clutches of killing myself, and found a way to embrace me. It is beautiful.

The core of our faith is that we get to begin the eternal task of knowing, loving, and worshiping our God. The God of all, whom within all things exist. Whose kingdom is coming, and right now is breaking through. That we are invited to follow Jesus in his prayers, his fasting, his worship, and his mission.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus

What if following Jesus, in discerning which path to take was as simple as returning to what Jesus told us God is concerned about.

I want to be clear. I am Christian. Urban Monasticism is explicitly christian. Yet instead of a statement of faith, we each must affirm the Nicene Creed. There should be no question that I love Jesus, and that I praise the living God, and am filled with the Holy Spirit.

The reality is that I have yet to master the basics of faith: Grace, Forgiveness, Humility, Hope, Faith, and Love. These are the attributes I see define the person of Jesus. The man for whom I prefix my identity as a Christian. To be like Christ means to do the hard, and quiet work.

Greatest Challenge to simplifying

One of the biggest challenges I see is that of false piety. In many of our contexts those who are seen to be leaders are those with a wide array of highly developed opinions. This expands on a wide spread belief that understanding is the same as wisdom, and that understanding is the same as maturity. Yet none of this is what God asks of us.

However those who wield the power in many of our institutions and structures are these exact individuals. I do not expect that we would be able to stand against them. In many ways – I expect them to maline, and marginalize us who seek to respect the scope and scale of the Bible. Losing their ‘valuable’ insights, and the platform that has given them. Yet this is a path before me which I must take. It isn’t for a lack of interest or excitement about theologizing, or ethithicating? If that isn’t a word – it should be.

Yet it is not just that we need to strip back the scope of our theology, but also the scope of our lives, focus and energy.

Re-prioritizing my daily life, focus, and energy

In many ways this journey has been about a radical reorientation of my thinking and my life. As I took an assessment I realized that my life does not reflect my beliefs or values. While this is likely true of most of us, how sad it is to admit as a minister of Christ.

So this has been a process for me. It has been a process I’ve been on for the last several years. The hardest part has been to stop doing things. I am still wrestling with how to let go of more things. Before to long I expect that I will step down from my committee chair position at the American Chamber of Commerce here in Paris. I’ve also been working with Jordan on re-designing our company and work to be less intensive of my focus and energy.

Additionally I have continued to try and minimize my consumption. Both in terms of food, and of general buying.

In some ways the balancing and wrestling is defined by needing to stay in the city, and continuing to work. I am needing to fight my hermit like tendencies and desires. There are many times in a given month where I have to suppress the desire to just walk away, literally into the woods somewhere – not telling you where, it’s a secret so you can’t find me. I’d be a bad hermit if everyone knew where I was. It is this romantic notion I have to resit. God loves people, has called us to a beautiful and historic place, and that part of honoring that call is to do the work needed to stay and be present here.

In terms of re-prioritizing my focus and energy I think we should also touch briefly upon on capacity (both mental and physical). Within the last few months I felt God challenge me in this regard. Part of this has to do with my cognitive issues I’ve incurred since contracting Covid, but the challenge has existed prior to this. It is a mix of faith, trust, and priorities.

In short, I don’t give the best of myself to God. In moments of honesty that I should probably not verbalize, I don’t trust God to provide for me at all. I’ve been cultivating my skills since I was 14. I think that it is my smarts that I use these cognitive skills to pay the bills, to make friends, to create opportunities, and to court favor where needed. I’ve gotten to meet heads of industry, billionaires, and other heads of state. But it is all for nothing, because it was just of my self. Now I find that I am unable to even give God the left overs most days. The one who left heaven to meet me on my way to death, who was gentle with me, who let me feel as much love as my broken depressed body could hold. Now I cannot even put him first. My mind is overcome every night and day with the concerns of life to make it another day.

What I need to do – what I cannot yet do – is to give God the best of myself each day. Then allocate what is left to the rest of my life: to my family, to my work, to my friends. I know this is being asked, and in my idealized moments I see myself doing it, but I have yet to just do it. It’s hard to admit this, but my actions show that I don’t value God, and don’t appreciate all He has done for me.

God does deserve the best of me, the best parts of me, the best parts of my days, and is patiently waiting upon me to trust him.

pause for a moment

Similarly to the question I wrestled with about our ancestors living faithful lives, I have been wresting with the question of what it means to give worship worthy of God.

How can I give God the worship he is worthy of, and desires?

How to give praise, glory, and worship

The next question for me was to ask how Jesus, the apostles, and the early church responded to this same pull. What were the core rythmic practices that sustained them in their ministries. As I have looked I see three: Praying the Hours, Fasting, and Communion.

Opus Dei, the Divine Work, Praying the Hours

It is interesting that in the book of acts 2:42 we often translate it as:

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Yet that last word is actually a plural noun in the greek (ταῖς προσευχαῖς). Our translations should say that they were devoting themselves to “the prayers“. And we know that the apostles were active in praying the hours as some key moments in Acts occur around this practice. The healing of the paralyzed man at the temple happened when they were going to pray, and Peters picnic vision took place as well during one of his prayers. This appears to be a strong logical connection that the origional readers would have made and understood. Luke was telling them to pray the hours.

This practice of Prayer was established under different names by the Coptic as Agpeya, the Byzantine as the Horologion, and the Roman as the Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae. In english it has a couple names that get used: Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours are the most common.

These prayers are about as different as I can imagine from how I was taught to pray growing up. They are liturgical. The bulk of our work is to reflect back to God the words that he has blessed as with. In doing this the word of God washes over us from inside out. It humbles my posture by actively showing that I have nothing to offer to God, but that which God has given to me. Finally, to pray prayers along with the my christian siblings. To pray across millennium with the saints of the church offering the best parts of my self, of my day, up to God. Who is worth immeasurably more than I can muster, and who has done more for me that I can ever repay.

So I invite you likewise to pray with us every day.

Fasting

Fasting also makes me a lot of friends (not really, people don’t like fasting). Yet we see Jesus tell the Pharisees that the only reason the disciples are not fasting is because Jesus is with them. We see that Jesus would regularly fast as well. Yet very few of us understand fasting in the way that I believe Jesus taught his disciples to understand it.

Yes, fasting can be a part of grief and lament. Yes, fasting is critical to mastering our flesh. Yes, fasting means going without food. Otherwise we are simply choosing to abstain – which also has its merits and place.

Yet I have come to understand the unique fellowship that I experience with the trinity when I fast. It is hard to express, but I see it in the passage I referenced before. There is an aspect of relationship, of community, of fellowship in fasting. That when we fast we are able to somehow have a closeness to Jesus. Not closeness like the disciples experiences with him as they walked the roads of the roman empire. But that with Jesus upon his throne at the right hand of the Father he joins with us. That our expression of physical emptiness, of rejection of one of my most basic needs, as a lived metaphor of dependance and trust. We are present with God. Not because we are asking God for something, but simply an act which proclaims that God is enough. That he sustains us, and that our hope is in Him.

So I invite you to fast with me every week.

The Divine Feast, Communion

How does flour and grapes become real sources of divine grace. Grace that we can see, touch, feel, and taste. That when it touches our tongue we know if it is warm, cold, moist or stale. We find in our lives such few moments when we can taste the divine. As a protestant it was not until seminary that someone told me what it meant for something to be a sacrament. It was in a history course of all things, and Dr Armstrong told us that it was a “tangible expression of the grace of God for us”.

This struck me. I can still visualize the whole room, and how no-one else was amazed by this. When we prepare the body and blood of Christ, these simple elements of bread and wine become divine. That God is present in ways I was never told, never appreciated, and struggle to communicate adequately. We are able to taste heaven while experiencing a morsel of the forgiveness, grace, and love God poured out through the Cross. It is the love of all loves and it is waiting for us whenever we come to the table.

So I invite you to taste with me, and see that it is good.

These three practices have sustained the church under persecution, through plagues, the falls of empires, ecological catastrophe we haven’t yet to experienced (ice skating on the Thames), and the overturning of whole economic systems. Those called as ministers of Christ have needed the hours, fasting, and the Eucharist to endure, to recharge, and to be reformed.

Finally, for the context in which our common ground within Communitas – Church Planting. It is an interesting historical fact that nearly all of Europe was evangelized through the work of Benedictine monasteries, and other monastic movements. Even the Reformation was birthed out of the Monasteries of Europe. There is something which God does through monasticism which results in expansive change, which creates the environments for people to fall in love with Jesus deeply, and profoundly.

Now it’s time to share a bit about Urban Monasticism.

So what is Urban Monasticism

The focus of Urban Monastics is to be:

Present with God
Present with Others

Being present with God, and others through simple monastic rhythms in everyday life. Rhythms that help us reconnect with God, the cities we live in, and live more holistic lives. This is something that we do together and alone.

As I was being drawn in a monastic direction I was looking for groups to join. It was oddly difficult. As a protestant the pool of monastic movements becomes nearly non-existant. This set Jordan and I praying about what this could be. I felt a strong pull to honor, and respect the historic practices and rule of the main monastic orders, but with a few areas in which we would need to accommodate.

First: It would need to be ecumenical, and protestant friendly.
Second: It will need to be sensitive to the vocational needs of people who cannot become cloistered at a monastery.
Third: It must be accessible and inclusive. Everyone should be able to see themselves as a monastic, in our practices, and in our texts.

Our goal is that anyone who practices with us will understand these same practices when they are to visit a monastery. In a way we are a community of Monastic Oblates.

Furthermore, I did not want us to simply co-opt the term Monastic for our personal mission, or to drastically reinterpret the practices. It is okay to do that, but I don’t think it is fair to use the term Monastic to describe what you are doing. Simply living together does not make you monastic.

These led to our core values:

Our core values are Monastic, Urban, and Ecumenical.

Monastic
Within a monastic community each person must attend to work of both faith and vocation. Both tasks are spiritual. Each person would provide work that makes money to maintain the community. With a similar spirit each urban monastic should work to provide for themself. The practices and disciplines of faith help us to work well at our vocation. They keep our hearts focused on the kingdom of heaven while working in kingdoms that fade. Together we commit to a way of life – a rule – which we pursue with grace and humility together. This way of life allows us to be more present with God in our daily lives.

Urban
The movement of vocation into cities reshaped the way people live and work. We now find the vast majority of work opportunities in large urban centers. God is incarnate in the world, and the Holy Spirit dwells within us and others. To work and live within the city is to be in the midst of people God loves. For those of us called to the city together we commit to rhythms and practices. That in the midst of city life we do not lose our focus on the Kingdom of Heaven.

Ecumenical
Together we have no commitment to one christian tradition we are open and accepting of all who love Jesus. Embracing and rediscovering our shared Christian monastic history. Our rule does not call for communal living, poverty, or chastity as many orders do. We do share a deep commitment to rediscover the practices that sustained our monastic siblings from the early days of the church. Urban Monasticism is cenobitic, and practiced in the neighborhoods in which we live. No matter how far or close you feel to Jesus today, you are welcome to join us.

Living out our Monastic Rule

There are many different monastic commitments, or rules out there. The most well known is the rule of saint Benedict. We’ve relied heavily on his rule when setting up the 24 current points of our rule. It is published online if you are interested in looking it over. It covers a few main categories:

  • Our relationship to God
  • Our commitment to Practices
  • Our commitment to living monastic values
  • Our relationship with the world
  • Finally some organizational details

While there are obviously some restrictions on our lives within the our rule, it is very simple, easy, and hope filled. If you are interested I would encourage you to check it out online.

Our Monastic Pilot

Since the start of Advent last year (2019) we have been in the midst of our pilot. It will end on Ascension next year (2022). The goal in this time has been to further develop our practices and our commitment with a group of interested people. It has been going well. We never would have guessed that a global pandemic would have appeared in the midst of this season, or that 2/3rds of our founders would get sick. But we are making good progress.

Every month we have been connecting online to pray Vespers, share in Communion, and have a conversation. We’ve made good progress in establishing our own urban monastic breviary – or prayer book. Having our own translations and texts will ensure we do not have any copyright issues to attend with as we repurpose and build upon our practices.

Right now Sheila, Jordan, and I are in the process of preparing for the concluding push of the pilot. From Advent through Ascension we are going to be actively inviting people to join us from all over the world. I am getting close to having our monastic platform online to generate our prayers – first in English, and after in additional languages. Once that platform is in place there are a lot of exciting and cool things we’ll be able to do with it.

You should join us!

Of course I am going to invite you to join us. You can join us at anytime, and when it no longer fits you are free to move on. There are three ways that you can be a part of Urban Monastics.

As a Monastic
Our hope is to have a community of individuals whom are actively living out our shared commitment.

As a Practitioner
There will be people who want to join with us in our practices without actively living out the whole of the shared commitment.

or As a Contributor
Throughout the life of Urban Monastics there will be needs that exist beyond our way of life. A contributor helps us create and realize these needs. Often there are projects we are working on which you could help us with. Right now a big need is for help with translations (my greek is pretty good, my latin is coming along, but I don’t really know much Hebrew yet), software developers, and with creating art.

If any of this is interesting to you please let us know! We would love to have you join us. There is a lot more information about the pilot on the website as well.

UrbanMonastic.org