|Abbot (me) and Minstrel (Matt Wise) together.|
I was recently invited to serve as the "abbot" for the Spring semester gathering of over 75 students from campus ministries across the state of Texas. The idea to have an abbot was the amazing brainchild of Matt and Alex, the student leaders who planned the weekend. Alex and Matt had a vision for a weekend without a guest speaker, but ordered by the daily rhythms of prayer. From Friday evening to the Sunday Eucharist, the community gathered for worship six times. When we weren't worshiping, the community enjoyed free time, meals, and workshops focusing on different aspects of being in relationship. The overall effect was a retreat program that belonged, in every sense, to the whole community of the faithful.
Before I left Madison for the weekend, I had a chance to ask the prayers of my community at St. Francis House. Those prayers were deeply felt. Much of what I shared as the one responsible for the weekend's worship was a sharing of our rhythm at SFH. Indeed, the Service of Light on Saturday evening is the service our community developed this past year in response to the students' desire to continue worshiping throughout the summer.
I told the students at SFH that I think Henri Nouwen got it right, when he insisted on bringing members of his community with him on speaking engagements. I am not sure my reason for wanting this is the same as Nouwen's, but I figured the presence of holy friends who knew me well would protect me from the temptation to be other than myself. I am deeply grateful that the community at SFH is composed of many such friends. Alas, it wasn't feasible to bring them along. However, I am delighted to share that SFH will be doing the next best thing: a sizable group of us will be traveling to Austin over Spring Break for a week of service, relationship, and the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust. To be blessed with the opportunity to further share these friendship with the community of St. Francis House is a gift beyond anything I could have hoped for.
What follows is my introduction to the students on the first night of the Camp Allen retreat.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Strange Lord, who would rule your creation through the crucified Son of a carpenter, make us workers in your kingdom. We want to work, but so often our work turns out to be nothing but busyness. We think that if we are busy we must be doing something that you can use. At least being busy hides our boredom. Yet we know you would not have us busy, having given us the good work of prayer. Help us, in our busyness, learn to pray - so that all our work, all that is our lives, may glorify you. In a world that for so many seems devoid of purpose, we praise you for giving us the good work of praise. Hallelujah and amen. (Hauerwas, Stanley. Prayers Plainly Spoken, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999.)
Howdy, y’all. It is so good to be with you! My name is Jonathan, and I’m the the Episcopal campus minister at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Where it is not *quite* this warm. I bring the greetings of the campus community at St. Francis House and the Diocese of Milwaukee. It is wonderful to be with you.
Having said I live in Wisconsin, before I disappoint you with my inability to say things like “Minne-SO-ta,” I should tell you I was born in Austin, grew up in Dallas, and served two parishes in West Texas before moving up to the tundra to work with students. I am in my eighth year of ordained ministry, and my second year on campus. It’s work I dearly love. I should tell you, also, that I am married to a wonderful woman, Rebekah, and we have two amazing children, Annie and Jude, who are 4 and 2, respectively. Later on, this fact will explain my inability to say anything intelligible after 9 o’clock. And, if you’ll humor me for one moment… *take pictures of the group*
The kids are so excited for me to be with you, and they’ve heard stories about you for weeks now, they know to be praying for you and for us, and they will get a real kick out of seeing you. Other things: I love to knit, hike, drink coffee, read Garrison Keillor anthologies out loud, and pray. I know some of you, but haven’t met many of you. Please come up during a break and say, “Hey, I’m Bob or Sarah.” It’ll help if that really is your name. Tell me something about yourself. That’s just to say you don’t have to have a particular reason or deep question or thought to say ‘hey’. I really look forward to getting to know you.
Truthfully, to be your abbot is both wonderful and a little weird. Most of my high school friends earned titles from their peers like “most likely to succeed,” “most likely to become a social activist or world changer,” even “most likely to be arrested.” Alas, my life has never been that exciting. My wife reminds me that a top music magazine recently dismissed my favorite band of all time, Matchbox Twenty, as “unremarkable dad rock.”
The only way I can make sense of the remarkable invitation to be your abbot is that I love to pray with God’s people. I value praise with the people of God as much as anything in this world, because I believe we were made to sing God’s praise together.
Admittedly, believing we exist to sing God’s praise together makes me a disappointing conversation partner for questions like “What should I do when I grow up?” (Which is a very good question.) It’s just that I think you already have the most important part of the answer: You should praise God with God’s people, all the days of your life. You should do it as students, as doctors, as teachers, scientists, thespians, engineers, musicians, and even as priests. You should start where you are, and you should avoid, on the whole, decisions that squelch praise in your soul. So I think it is an incredible thing that your leaders for this retreat weekend have decided to order our days with prayer. What a gift that is for us - to be free to do the thing for which we were made.
So, what is an abbot, anyway? “Abbot” is the traditional word for the head of a monastic community. If I am an abbot (and, to be clear, I’m not a real one, I mean, besides for purposes of this weekend) where is the monastic community? That would be all of you. A community of faith bound by a rule of life; held together by prayer. Matt and Alex have arranged over these three days for us to be a community 1) ordered by prayer and therefore 2) centered on Christ.
Our theme for this weekend is relationship. I want you to think just now of the kinds of relationships that are important to you. Relationships with old and new friends, one another, as a community (maybe your community back home), with other communities, with siblings and parents and significant others. All different levels of relationship. Some close. Others not as much. Your relationship to yourself. And your relationship with God. I invite you especially to approach our worship this weekend as the community’s commitment to relationship with God and one another; worship as relationship with God and, because we are made for worship, right relationship with ourselves.
Last thing. In Christ, we discover that relationship becomes real and makes us real in the giving and receiving of gifts, in the giving and receiving of ourselves. Toward that end, I want to give you two suggestions for flourishing the relationships of our worshiping community this weekend:
Don’t be afraid to ask each other interesting questions. I know, questions like, “Who do you like in the Super Bowl?” are tantalizing. Ask that. And questions like “What year are you?” are enlightening. Ask that, too. But also ask questions like, “What do you love to do more than anything? What’s encouraging you lately? What’s one thing that’s a challenge? Where are you finding life right now?” Sure, it’s a risk, but surely it’s a risk for which the baptized Body of believers has been equipped. Each of you has unspeakable gifts to offer our community. Ask questions that help one another give voice to these gifts.
Embrace the interruptions. You can’t pray four times a day without feeling interrupted. But if relationships are about sharing gifts, they are also about interrupting one another. In my family, we joke that we’re a show and tell family. Constantly interrupting each other with this or that that we can’t wait to share with the others. And sometimes it’s my turn to show and tell; other times it’s my turn to listen and receive. With my kids, especially, I don’t always get to choose when it’s my turn to receive. But I follow their lead because relationship, with one another and God, is a commitment to care about the things that the people we care about care about. When God interrupts to show us what God cares about, we rightly pay attention. This is why I love Scripture so much, because in it God shows us God’s heart. The gift of receiving is also why we will keep some moments of our worship in silence.
It’s a joy to be your abbot. I only have one goal, in the end, for our worship this weekend. When I was in college, I took this jogging class and, day one, our professor said, “My goal, when we’re done, is not that you would run marathons, or even half-marathons, but just that you would wake up the day after class is over, and have an inexplicable urge to run. And maybe, once you’ve crawled out of bed and scratched the crust from your eyes, some of you will.” That’s the goal. “Continue in prayer,” writes St. Paul, “and watch in the same with thanksgiving.”
I will see you around the monastery!