Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Protestant at a Catholic Abbey

For my spiritual retreat I went to a Catholic abbey in Oceanside, California called the Prince of Peace Abbey on Saturday August 30th. I went there not really sure what to expect, but was immensely blessed by the experience. 

I got there about 10AM and, after being impressed quite quickly with the quiet there, had an initial discussion with a receptionist who gave me the lay of the land so to speak. It was a smaller abbey so there wasn’t too much to see but that was good.

I started by going to a library they have there. Though there was enough light there to read, it was dimly lit and quiet also.  In my first visit there I just spent about a half hour looking around and thinking about what I was seeing.  Many of the books in the library were donated and some of them were for sale. I bought a couple things there including a book on the Didache, one of the earliest catechetical works of the Christian church.

I then went to a Catholic Mass, steering clear of things I do not agree with. There were several interesting things that came out of that. Common practices in Catholic churches include kneeling and bowing. This was the first of several why moments of reflection I had there. If someone bows out of habit that has the potential of being legalistically problematic, while genuine reverence is of course a good thing. The Gospel reading there was the Talents Parable in Matthew 25:14-30. The priest spoke of the depth of this parable and how each time we read it we get a little more. Do we realize we are given things by Him to be used for His glory? Looking at the way the three people handled the talents, a question to ask is will we take risks for Him? Did the one talent guy commit a sin of omission? He mentioned the song "It is better to have lost at love than never to have loved at all." Let us think about that from a Christian context. Do we love Him, really? He spoke of Jesus giving us the church; I need to think about that one carefully. I believe we as members of the body of believers in Jesus past, present, and future are the church, so a question to ask is is the church for us or for God the Father? He spoke of come share in your Master’s joy, implying Lordship. In a non-spiritual way, I was amazed that with about sixty people there they actually distributed Communion wine in a shared cup. I of course went up with my arms crossed. 

I then walked the Stations of the Cross there; it was a large circle outside that was about a half mile around. I have done this a few times as a Protestant. The key reason I do this is because I am reminded of the sacrifice given by Christ, for me, for us. My sin put Him there, and Christ, the God-man, suffered immensely in a physical sense. The price was enormous. Do we comprehend that? I was reminded of the carry your cross Bible reference and could not help but ask myself rhetorically if I would be willing and able to do that?

After walking that loop and praying some more after I was done, I went to burial grounds there for monks who were buried there.  While I am not Catholic, I gave thanks to God for men of extraordinary faith. When I encounter past Catholics or other Christians via history, I am always thankful for them. 

By this time I had been there about three hours. I then went back to the library for some more reading, prayer, and spiritual reflection. I read a couple chapters of Eugene Peterson’s book Eat This Book. This book starts out with a reference to the Hebrew word Hagah, which is what meditate in Psalm 1 is the translation for. However, that word has other usage instances that imply a much higher level of immersion and connectedness with that is being “eaten.” Revelation, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all have references to eating a book, to better connect with it, so it can become part of us. He used an example with a dog gnawing a bone slowly over some time as a way to demonstrate it. If scripture is holy, it must be read that way as well. What can get in the way of this sometimes is viewing ourselves as sovereign. We are not the authority, God is. 

When we speak or hear of being spiritual, the world’s view of that can give it a negative connotation. I usually think of non-Christian mystic types when the word spiritual is mentioned. The Bible should be the text by which we live our lives. The world has an interest in souls but not in scripture; shouldn’t there be both? Do we have both? The word Bible comes from biblion, implying plot, meaning, and purpose. Do we really want to read the Bible as only a historical work? Sadly many nonbelievers do that; do we as believers? Is it a stretch to say that the entire book has a purpose of changing us, to make us more like Him?

I then went to pray for about a half hour, focusing on how I was being changed by this, and asking God for more of it.  

They of course had a store there that I took a quick browse through before leaving, looking at some Ignatius Press books and many different Bibles. 

In summary I spent about five hours there and would say that quiet, solitude, peace, and retreat cannot be fully appreciated until they are experienced. I intend to do this on a somewhat regular basis; I was tremendously encouraged by the experience.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

2014 Missions Trip to South Africa

I just got back from a missions trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. I wanted to write about it some before too much time went by.

We left on Tuesday Jan. 14th from Los Angeles, and the first stop was in London. I had never been there before, so getting a quick view of the city via the tube was something I enjoyed. We mostly rode the Piccadilly line, winding up walking around near Westminster Abbey and Big Ben before getting back on the tube to go back to Heathrow and subsequently South Africa. It took till mid Thursday for us to get to South Africa. I need to actually go back so I can go in to the roughly 1000 year old Abbey.

When we arrived there we got picked up our missionary contact, Cheri Kommel, and some of her associates. My first peek into South African culture came on the drive out of the airport, when we discussed the post Mandela transition, and how many folks didn't have bread to eat. We made our way to the Nazarene Theological College Johannesburg campus, while also doing work at the neighboring Good News Convention Centre. The trip was a Nazarene Work and Witness trip. For the work piece of it, we went there primarily to work on technological things, such as improving the wireless LAN setup there so wifi could be used more around the campus. We used some Ubiquiti networks devices that covered the desired area nicely. We however had numerous technical challenges along the way, resulting in us not completing all of the desired work. This was my first missions trip, and from what I have heard that is a somewhat common occurrence. With another day we could have finished it up, but we got close enough that I would call the work portion of it a modest success. These challenges were shaping experiences it turned out I think we would all agree.

Of course, the real joy of this trip comes in the Christian aspect of this. Because of the above challenges, tensions were at some times high. I believe we grew as a result of them. No matter how hard you try, when you go halfway around the world to do some work like this, there will be some pieces of information that will not be communicated to you. For example, two members of the team went to Thulamahashe. We were told there wasn't wifi at the church we were going to. When the team completed the 6 hour drive to get there, replacing a flat tire on the way, they observed they had wifi, but that it didn't cover all the area that they wanted covered, and that there weren't power or LAN connections at all of the desired locations. Consequently, the work was left incomplete; we will be providing them instructions so they can finish it.

While that was going on, work was getting going at the main campus as well. We ran into hurdles because of lack of knowledge regarding their network and inability to get the hardware we needed. At times, the tension from this inability to complete things was really heavy over all of us. However, mixed in with all of this were several excellent moments of Christian ministry discussion. We spent a lot of time with Cheri, mentioned above, as well as a man named Lloyd Solomons, a pastor who is heavily involved in Nazarene Youth International in South Africa. Two members of the team rode as Lloyd made the above 6 hour each way drive, and to hear the team member's descriptions, they exchanged testimony stories along the way. The members of the team were really moved by this.

I also had excellent conversations with Lloyd, including some regarding South African youth and how when children are growing up they are thinking about what they want to be and gangster is not being considered at that point, yet due to life circumstances or sometimes poor choices, that is where some people end up. We also had excellent chats regarding other ministry topics like what should we be doing when pastors fail or members backslide.

I also spent parts of couple days at the Africa Regional Nazarene office. They needed some tech assistance and we provided that to them. The excellent conversations I had with them while working there will stick with me for awhile; they are really devoted to the service piece of Christianity. This, while not the entire Gospel, is an essential piece, and is one way to help tell if we really are new creations in Him. Jesus showed Himself to be the ultimate servant.

In the section of South Africa that we were in, it was different from the USA, but not so different that we couldn't cope. Food tasted slightly different and so did bottled drinks. The food was mostly recognizable, so that made it easier to deal with, though we did bring some food with us just incase. We ate a lot of sandwiches while we were there trying to keep it simple, eating a couple meals outside the facility as well. We did spend a couple days out on safari at Pilanesburg, having an encounter with a bull elephant that made our van's driver use reverse to keep us a safe distance away.

What I really came away with primarily was a vast difference in the everyday existence of South Africans vs. USA residents, as well as consciously examining all that I am doing now that I am back home. When I first got home, this was especially evident. I recall sitting down to watch a little TV and do some tech things the day after I got home and thought, this seems a little out of place in comparison to the last couple weeks. I was in a sense convicted when comparing these activities to those I saw while there. The Regional office time was also tremendously impactful to me; encountering technical folks who were also using their skills for His kingdom was most motivating.