Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Dark Providence of Suffering

The Beauty of the Flaw

The Wound has left its imprint John O’Donohue

I am enthralled with the Incarnation. Here we have a God wholly other who decides to take on the limited nature of His creation knowing full well the risks in this encounter. Mel Gibson’s picturesque capturing of Christ’s anguish is played out in the Passion and it was so clear the dilemma that God had allowed Himself to encounter. Destruction appeared imminent to our Lord in the garden and in His humanity He could not escape the shawdowlands of pain thrust upon His frame. To know of things to come but also sense the beauty in this flawed universe it to truly be torn asunder. This is dark beauty. This is God being abandoned by God. What seemed a foreign opening to His soul now became the portal into which true redemption could flow. Out of this dark beauty came a new authority, a new way of being, a new kingdom, a New Adam.

Years have a way of blurring if not blinding us to our inner beauty. Inside the seeming emptiness of labor, the weightiness of sickness and loss, and the incomprehensibility of discovering our own complicity in the dispensing of our life and light, we discover a shadowy mysterious destiny. This vocation is only sanctioned and animated through the beauty of the flaw. That which is hidden to all but children comes in later years only to those who have traversed the cold bleak winters of doubt and despair. In this journey they unearth this extravagant barrenness called the sacred wound. Only in this terrain of the soul seemingly emptied of light and heat comes the discovery of this luminescent gift.

My tradition of faith has taught me much. I am so grateful for the love of sacred writ, the excessive favor of the Father, the assurance of faith, and the fellowship of saints. However, I was also invited to experience God in ways that now seem full of presumption and projected requirements upon God. I prayed. I experienced God in one situation. Why would not all my prayers have some kind of shelf life to them before the seal was broken and the answers poured forth. Time, it now appears, is deeply in collusion with the Healer. Time is a companion that continues to edit and do great surgery to my lexicon of faith and spirituality. Words and descriptions that I wrapped around experience at some point proved to be unable to carry and illuminate the true import of life’s events.

It is not clear to me whether I am genetically prone towards depression or whether I am merely aware of the grandiosity of grace given my true estate. In recent years I had decided to make my secret weeping more public and at times I am haunted by my own brokenness. Why would I choose to chronicle this litany of ashes? What is the motivation that chants the liturgy of mourning? Why remain vulnerable when it appears to preclude the accolades my soul desires? Is it the dark providence released in this vulnerability that continues to bring me to this place? All of life has been an intervention.

John O’Donohue, a recently deceased poet and aesthetic philosopher, speaks of a “refined interiority” that comes with those willing to take the inner journey, the road less traveled. I am so tempted to define myself from the outer most reaches of my soul. I am what I own. I am how I look. I am what I know. I am who I know. If anything, this penchant for excessive yearning must point to a need. A need so profoundly planted within the core of my being that I have only two choices. Live or die. As we enter the limitedness of our form, we suddenly encounter the cold clarity of our ultimate demise and the insistence of the heart to call forth beauty from the flaws.

The incarnation pointed out this ultimate contingency. This divine embodiment confirmed the glory in the darkness. Millenniums later we return to the cosmos’ ultimate disturbance only to find these hours of darkness shine forth with splendor and wonder. Being drawn to the secret force of this apparent weakness and failure on God’s part gave Satan a false bravado. He still mocks us in these moments of revealing and taunts us to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ But the incarnation is a much more expansive story. Its unfolding includes even the beautification of death. Our very being is returned to forms that transcend the sadness and we often leave behind to our family and friends hints of the invisible. For those willing to stand with others in the dark corridors of death, they discover something profound and divinely wonderful. As the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral said “No, I don’t believe that I will be lost after death. Why should You have made me fruitful, if I must be emptied and left like the crushed sugarcanes? Why should You spill the light across my forehead and my heart every morning, if You will not come to pick me, as one picks the dark grapes that sweeten in the sun, in the middle of autumn.”

Now even our death is embraced in the dark providence of suffering. We often see affliction and death through the awful outer circumstances that usher in the end. But beneath and within is a prevailing grace and a final reminder that we are more than we seem.

Just recently my father passed on to the next realm. Towards the end it was clear to me that his body was engulfed in his soul and not the reverse. After years of discerning primarily through the mind and body, it was now evident that his soul was preeminent in the naming and descriptions of his swan song. The final frontier of death was all that lay ahead of him. As much as his body was worn and weary, his resilience was an anticipation of the final gathering up of things and a welcoming of the crossing. “Behold I am making all things new.” He heard the Savior’s voice and now even the shadows of his final days could not damper his enthusiasm.

As much as he longed for the new, it was his memories of his life that awakened this longing full bloom. O’Donohue said, "Memory is the place where our vanished days secretly gather.” This final harvesting took all that hurt him, all that diminished him in his own eyes, all that spent his life energy and through his memoires pointed to the resurrection. He did not and could not see suffering and death as the final reversal and unraveling of this mystery called life. Now, more than ever, the shame and condemnation were loosened and he heard the sentries guarding the outposts of heaven chanting his welcoming. He would continue on as himself. How all the flaws would make it into this next land was not a worry. Somehow he and the Savoir had created a life of companionship and he welcomed his own vanishing. I watched him become more beautiful as he neared the Kingdom. I too forgot his flawed estate and limitations and saw the radiance of the eternal blush his cheeks. I want to pass this way.

Holy Ignorance

The Presumptions of Pursuit

I have spent my entire life pursuing this desire for more than what is.
Thomas Moore

I am a fool. This proclaimed status is not for feigned humility's sake. This is an upfront assertion of the very character of my soul. This is not to denigrate my worth before humankind or God. It is merely to reveal at the outset my inability to speak of the holy and my presumptions in offering up speculations of the invisible. That is what makes me foolish. It is idea that what is beyond can be spoken of with such certitude and bravado.

So I begin with repentance. Forgive me for the parts of the work that lead you away from love truth, goodness and most of all the beauty of the Incarnation. I pray these writings are not an escape but an imaginal door into a world that truly is but only in our hearts.

To utter speculation regarding the infinite and ineffable is by its nature more poetry than the transference of facts. What is beyond is always beyond. What appears empty to this world is full only in our imaginations that we jump start with the metaphors of faith. These metaphors are the really real as they exist to allow us to even wonder about that which we cannot ultimatley know. In these moments of faith, the inexpressible is more prayer, as suffering, ambiguity, paradox and mystery are always dogging our every move. Thus, this work is more about my doubt and anxious moments than clarity and certitude. This offering is less persuasive acclamation and more lamentation and confession. Much of what resides on these pages is also given as gift and offering. When proof is no longer the dominant posture of the soul, mystery can truly become revelation. If the sublime and transcendent do exist, they do so for the sake of beauty and less so for the sake or argumentation and apologetical proof.

I cannot imagine a world without God. Yet, His presence is not merely difficult to feel or know it is also hauntingly absent and full of longing and despair. As I have grown older my inclinations towards God have become less needful of things being certain and concretely provable. To some degree, I am leery of the defensive stratagems that make sure all truth is contained in some repeatable formula. Therefore, in this offering I will sometimes discuss the idea of God rather than assume I am discussing God. The difference is in the gaze of the heart and nature of the engagement. Much of this distinction is reflected in the opaque nature of my speech. My diatribes are by their very nature abstractions. God does not reveal Himself merely because I talk about Him or name Him on a page. He is above naming and speculative assertions. He is beyond the metaphors I choose to point towards Him or allude to His possible presence. He is beyond my rhetoric.

Because of this inability to capture God, I can sometimes imagine Him to not exist. I can feel the despair of attempting to know the unknowable and feeling the absurdity of that attempt. In those moments despair may indeed be a proper response. Like Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, I have waited for God to reveal Himself upon my beck and call, on my time table, and through my chosen words and descriptions. When He refuses, I can quickly become a cynic and wonder if all my experiences to date have been fictional and make believe. I am agnostic if not atheistic. I am not sure if this disposition is a blessing or a curse. Much like Thomas Moore, however, I find myself caught between the two worlds of suffering and hope. I am, as Moore says, involved in two journeys at once. “Often we have to do two things at once. Affirm and deny, believe and doubt, worship and be skeptical, relate and keep it all empty, Moore contends.”

There are indeed parts of God that are unknowable and if that is the case why endeavor to write about the anonymity of the holy and beyond? Why write about what I cannot properly tell? Is this when my doubt becomes virtue? Is this when my seeking is divine love incarnate, when my imagining manifests itself in faith that which my assertions of intellect were never meant to hold as sacred? Possibly. Who can know these things?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wise Speech

Speaking the Truth in Love

Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.
Margaret Millar

Here we are at the final debate between presidential hopefuls. Both parties have ignored some of their earlier promises regarding the potential tenor and tone of the campaign and have resorted to unfair, untrue, and unwise discourse. What is the price a society pays when rancor and discord become common place? Why is our speech so important?

Speech is a vital part of our day to day lives. One cannot divorce speech from communication. Communication is in part words. We all know words can cause immense harm as well as great good. Skillful speech can open hearts and lead to profound insights as well as promote healing and transformation. Scripture tells us that a soft answer turns away wrath. James 1:19 says, Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath. Therefore the practice of “wise speech” is crucial for any person, company, church or community to truly communicate. In community speech is spiritually alive and therefore is in need of great mindfulness.

There are four qualities of wise speech
1) Truthfulness
2) Helpfulness
3) Kindness and Goodwill, and
4) Appropriateness (including timeliness, non distractedness and clear intention)

1) Truthfulness is clear seeing. It simply means not lying. This would include exaggerations, half truths, omissions, and denials.

2) Helpfulness deals more with the motivations of speech as to whether our speech is to create harm or enmity. This means looking deeply at the roots of non helpful speech discerning moments of ill will, self centeredness, and subtle disparagement.

3) Kindness and goodwill has to do with what might be called harsh speech. For it is possible to to be helpful in some ways while still remaining somewhat cold, seeing ourselves as superior, or lacking empathetic connection. Communication is not merely static information. Communication is carried and received through the conduits of our souls. Therefore harsh judgments and nagging comments will often reveal our cynicism and negativity. When we develop speech that is purposely kind we begin to see the power of words and communication differently. One can be truthful and still speak from the heart. These postures do not preclude being confrontational nor direct. It merely asks what the spirit behind the words. How does it feel in my body when I am saying the words? Why do I talk the way I do? Would I want these same words spoken to me in such a posture and tone? The biblical mandate to do unto others is salient here.
4) It is important to note that committing oneself to truthful, helpful, kind and appropriate speech does not mean being overly nice. There is an important place for speech that is direct, firm, and critical, (without being judgmental & personal). When one is being helpful or kind, it will impact the intentionality of the speech and therefore its delivery and spirit.

So how does one practice these guidelines of speech in the relationships, the public domain and business sector as well as the Church? Wise speech establishes safety. For true honest communication to go down safety is key. We need and want others to be truthful with us and thus we are safe as we know that what is being said to others is also being said to us and said in the same manner of disclosure. Many "concerned conversaitons" are indeed gossip and taint the spiritual water from which the community drinks. All discussions are indeed heard by the heart of the community. That is why the tongue has so much power over life. If we an control what we say, we are now in a positon to begin to get our bodies to do other things that look like servants of Jesus Christ. But without this kind of foundational safety, relationships in the business world and other arenas become strategic rather than cooperative and increasingly are filled with cynicism, skepticism, and even anxiety and fear about other’s intentions and perceptions.

In settings where community is not being experienced, I tend to look out for #1. Are there some , attitudes, postures,norms, guidelines, or policies individuals and communities can adopt to make wise speech more readily present? We currently live in a culture via websites and media where a growing lack of civility has impacted all public discourse. Spiritually grounded communities will make communication safe and encourage speech that is truthful, direct but also helpful, kind, and appropriate and timely. Can we practice safe and wise speech as we engage the political decisions that are about to take place? Without this intention, no policy or law will bring us together as a people. Let us strive to make all areas of our lives safe for the truth to be made manifest. Let us be mindful of the power of our tongue.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Oh That Christmas Were Real

Angels in the House

There are nine orders of angels, to wit, angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim, seraphim.
Billy Graham

Christians must separate the world of imagination from the imaginal world. There are things that are indeed imaginary. However, to know the world at all we must imagine. It is this function of the soul that brings to life the imaginal world that I am referring to in this blog. It is through the lens of our imaginal faculties that we experience the divine. In fact, it is through the imaginal muscles of consciousness that we even regard our experience as real and present.

In a conversation about angels one might ask up front if I think angels are real. This means that asking questions about whether something is real means asking what one means when they use the world “real.” The word real is used generally to imply tangibility both in a literal sense and in a scientific sense. Anyone should be able to experience something that is real for it exists outside the mind. It is concretely observable and always static in its nature and experiential engagement. If one cannot expereince it through the senses in an objective manner, it is "not real."

To believers real is what our faith animates and empowers as handed down through the great story called Scripture and Church history. It is clear that our brothers and sisters have known of and experienced angels for some time. Through the eyes of faith the grand story of Scripture jumps off the page and into our hearts. It is through this capacity to have a felt knowing and seeing that this blog on angels appeared. However, so as not to distance myself from the supernatural nature of their appearing, let me say that I do not separate the natural and super natural worlds from one another. There is only one world. By God’s grace, the story of my brothers and sisters who have come before, and their sense that indeed angels are in our midst, allows me to talk with such seeming abandon and a possible air of wackiness. But..For those who know me…there you go.

I am convinced that there are indeed angels. They are unseen for good reasons. Only faith senses their presence. They are God's emissaries to the weak, to those who greatly anticipate the ushering in of the Kingdom. These winged creatures do indeed guard us but not merely from the fallen powers of this world. We as believers get sick, get hit by cars, suffer at the hands of dictators and tyrants and fall prey to the fallen world. What angels do is protect our hearts from becoming part of the cynical world of greed and avarice. Remember the Scriptures about "gaining the whole world and losing your soul," or "It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." We gloss over these but Jesus was serious for He knew the power of desire. He knew we were initially created to desire more than this world could ever offer. Thus, we want what we can't have. Everything!

To experience angelic presences is only possible to those who become profoundly innocent. This does not mean sinless or perfect. It means totally dependent upon the intervention of God to sustain one rather than our own acumen, cleverness, and calculation. Most of us cannot remain in this state of innocence very long for it is too costly emotionally to encounter the forces just outside this place of the heart. This place is the last gate before death and life. There is a whirlwind of doubt, fear, and despair directly at the entry point of divine innocence. All dross of the soul flows to our heart and we are overwhelmed by our seeming distance from God.

Just before the angels appear, the abyss opens up and two voices begin to speak. One is shrill and life draining. This voice mocks our desire to know and enter the Kingdom and drowns out our ability to be present, much like a large airplane sound. However, now all the other senses are in a heightened state. If we sit long enough in the presence of this overwhelming siren sound, it begins to fade and we begin to hear another sound. In fact, this other sound is orchestral in its substance. It takes us up and out into a seemingly different realm and allows for us to have a felt knowing. In this felt knowing we now see these winged creatures. We are not seeing them with our eyes, however. This is all seen only through the lens of faith. These angels are not anything like words or metaphors have described them for language is an inadequate container and pitiful cipher for transcendence.

Although not God, these creatures do His bidding and have been sent to show us His heart, give us direction, and reveal His glory. Gabriel is a messenger angel remember so his entanglement in warfare ( getting through the barriers of doubt and fear) causes God to seem absent. There is great warfare going on in this world right now. But....they are moving amongst us.

Here are poems that honor this presence.

From the movie The Mission

Gabriel’s Oboe & the Musical Warrior Angels
Te Deum Guarani

The Father’s opus is faintly heard
On this side of the veil
For it is being played by covert operatives
Warrior-like minstrel angels on an unseen mission
Out of sight & sound to those
Who might attempt to coop these graces

These guardian emissaries
Using only beauty as their bow
Openly bestow these rapturous sounds
Daily on those about to enter the coming Kingdom
This is the national anthem of paradise
This composition accompanies
Each new long lost member of this new family
As they run to the Father’s ultimate embrace

These angels
Are the only one’s willing to go into
The dark brothels of New Delhi
The prisons of Guantanamo
The sex slaves transfers in Darfur
The mosques and churches
Of charlatans and cyanide paranoids
The shadowy back room dealings of corporate America
The filthy convalescent homes
Profiting from the final days of our elders
The suburban sprawl of resignation and desire
To busy to pause for love’s concerto

So these angels play for scale
No residuals
No ownership
All is public domain here

This masterpiece
Performed by seasoned winged creatures
Plays round the clock
Heard by those who stand just outside this emerging age
And greatly await this dispensation of an all encompassing grace
For this in their only portion
Their solitary delight
Their final threshold
Their wonderfully anticipated moment of divine welcoming

Oh that Christmas Were Real!

In its absence
I came upon a room
A room full of angels
Sitting bored and unnecessary
Smoking Pall Malls
Playing cards
Waiting on the cynic

All these grand creatures
Feathers of trust and truth
Were folded and put away
Because of undue holiday nostalgia
Standing at the door
I felt compelled to weep aloud
In hopes the winged creatures
Would see their awful estate
But I am mute
For this room is my heart
My protectors have been grounded due to my fear
The fear these messengers have no word for me
So this absence is my dismissal
Still uncomfortably drawn into their presence
I reluctantly enter the room
Nearly choking on the smoke
I walk amidst the angels as though invisible
Just a few steps into the space
Nearly inaudible
I hear this chanting
This is no trance
Cast upon these beings
They see me clearly
They are merely waiting
Waiting for my return
I stop and look down at one herald
His gaze transfixes mine
His very countenance alive with awakening
Startles me into this beautiful surprise
So I am Christmas
I did not know
And now the absence begins to speak
Be not afraid
I bring you tidings of great joy
You have been missed
Now go and tell others
I so hungered for this blessing!

The Color of Soul Making

Blue fire
Slipped into my room last night
Sighed heavily
Illuminated my labored breathing
And the shallow rise and fall of sorrow’s chest
As if both color and flame could speak
Their words came forth
“We are your indigo angels.
In this place most call a desert
Your sister the white Iris blooms
In this dryness the soul flowers
Reverie fills the darkened cobalt horizon
Lovers held in suspension
Melt into each other
And weep with longing
Here imagination burns a cerulean glow
Melancholy marries Kandinsky
And all this pondering rekindles
A thousand years of exile
In the unreflective underworld of black and white.”

Gabriel’s All Girl Choir

I could scream
I could cry
I could run a naked mile till exhausted
Running headlong into my empty estate
Now, emptied
Not one weighty needless worry
Still remains on my back
Now with grass and stones still stuck to my forehead
I role over
With arms outstretched I sing
Sing into the universe
Sing until I’m hoarse
And she is listening
I hear this hum hum humming
This love love loving
I don’t care whose name she offers up to me
I am still amazed that in this cage of life

I can still hear her singing me home
Calling me home
Loving me home
So if this space between us
Is a random toss at best
Between the earth and the galaxies I cannot count
Much more an oddity to me than a prison of my making
Is this song that fashions my darkness into this melody of hope
And it is sufficient to sing away the nothingness
That mocks the mystery
And denies the irresistible longing for the song
So let the chorus begin…..

How to Paint a Miracle

First you take the vapor like membrane between realms
And ever so slowly
Pull it away from the soul
Hold it up to the sun
Make sure it is a day
Clear and warm with light
To the left of the entire sky
Outside the world’s frame
St. Francis is singing
You will not hear the melody
But its colors will resonate
With your outstretched soul
Move your hands away from your sides
And prepare to be stigmatized
From the wounds
Azure blue will pour
Retain this sound
For it is both tragic and glorious
Only the red finch
Was made aware of this revealing
He is so delighted and will
Trumpet your ecstasy
As you arise from this enlargement
Pay close attention to the sounds
Of trees and stones directly in your purview
Tears will flow freely
At first this may feel disquieting
Do not be afraid
Angels are withholding nothing
From this unveiling
As you see now you know
It is good
These witnesses are sacraments
And along with azure blue offer themselves up
The veil is now removed……….Your miracle may now be painted

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Balzac and the Ban on Books Part 3

When Stories are Kept Hidden out of Fear

I believe our task is to develop a moral and aesthetic imagination deep enough and wide enough to encompass the contradictions of our time and history, the tremendous loss and tragedy as well as greatness and nobility, an imagination capable of recognizing that where there is light there is shadow, that out of hubris and fall can come moral regeneration, out of suffering and death, resurrection and rebirth. Richard Tarnas

The last few centuries have fostered philosophical conundrums that are definitely downers at the weekend pub exchange. Who wants to bring up the spiritual malaise of countless friends within our small clique of friends let alone the countries throughout the world that are going through massive shifts in how they configure and understand the world? For many, a return to ancient ways and times is the simple answer. God is displeased and sacrifices must be made. Infidels are amongst us and must be punished and true believers must rise up. This of course is a highly simplistic rendering of a much more complicated issue but neo-fundamentalism has become a force in many countries where technology and the inclosing world have proven to be more than problematic. They appear to threaten the very underpinnings of a civilization.

Anyone traveling overseas understands that much of the products the Americas send overseas are media and entertainment oriented. These products are in many ways narrative salvos across the bough of cultures that here to fore knew nothing of these fables. The self made man, the romantic love interest, the dumb and dumber clown that is there for our mocking, the greed that is sanctified through the wounds that lead the antagonist there in the first place, are all novel expressions of being human in these first and second world countries. Many of these metaphors were nonexistent to these people groups or were couched in much more uncontaminated and societally sanctioned settings.

In the wonderful film "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," by Dai Sijie, two boys in their late teens are sent to a small mountain village to be re-educated during the Cultural Revolution. They both fall in love with an old tailor's grand daughter who is known as the little seamstress. During the internment the boys discover a stash of books one of their fellow bourgeois transplants has hidden away. They steal the books and begin to read to the young girl. She falls in love with Balzac out of all the choices primarily due to the shear freedom of soul she finds in his writings.

We in the West are so deluged with books and art in the after math of many years of free speech we are unable to detect a good read from a bad. Could our intellectual oppression actually be more of the type of barbituated presumption predicted in the writings of men like Aldous Huxley in Brave New World? We now have so much freedom we deem our ability to form new stores an entitlement, thus, we do not read. This is not due to some ban on books but a ban on the intrinsic power of the soul to hunger after the beauty of images and metaphors . We are deadened to the power of story. We are emptied of our need to expand our very being through the sway and vigor of language and heart felt accounts of the universe written by our fellow planet mates. Are we not interned as well?

Who would have predicted that a young girl in the far reaches of rural China would fall into the metaphoric arms of Balzac and begin to re-name her own experience as real and true. Balzac, known for a kind of post-romantic realism brought to his readers a desire to offer a perspective on his characters that allowed them to be seen as real; capable of both good and evil. This glimpse into the characters of men and women of Paris during the early nineteenth century jumped off the page of this banned book over one century later in the outback of China and moved this young girl to see beyond her village, to dream beyond her current life.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Many a young person was punished or killed for this kind of risk taking during the cultural revolution. Why? Grand meta-narratives were colliding. Old stories or oppressive ways of naming were in control. These were as much wars over stories as they were over nation states and resources.

Those unsettling times of great transition regarding our foundational accounts of life and truth are not battles fought once and for all. These wars rage on and on. Many believers feel as though they are in an intervening time as well. So much of what we thought we knew seems to have evaporated. So much of what we regarded as firm and genuine is now on shaking ground. During these story wars, or as many have called culture wars, we are “in-between” stories. Whose story will win? Whose story is the most powerful to define and a refine the conundrums of life? Whose story resonates deepest with the cavern like recesses of the human heart?

Research seems to indicate that one actuality lives inside of their account of reality. Experience places us in mundane day to day stories that we tell ourselves so the world seems to cohere and make sense. On a much deeper level we have sacred stories that are not religious in an explicit sense but are sacred in that they offer up levels of meaning that allow us to navigate the vicissitudes of life. Some who study the brain and thought feel that stories may actually be consciousness itself. In other words, we may be aware of what we deem reality by virtue of the stories we tell ourselves about reality. Hence, stories by their nature create the world. Not that they are creation stories in a religious sense but that they create the world of consciousness and the personhood or self that lives inside that story and inhabits it.

This understanding as to consciousness is different than many psychological readings on consciousness. Most compartmentalize our sense of being human inside a number of neurological and even chemical responses to stimuli. They determine that we are really biological machines that configure and manifest life as a byproduct of our biology merely responding to the outside world. Narrative theories seem to offer up a much more metaphorical construction. In this understanding we name and embody our world. I am the story I tell myself about myself.

Psycho-drama experts tell us that asking a person “Who told you that about yourself?” is key in the deconstruction of dangerous and unhealthy stories about oneself. We learn about life and ourselves from what and how others name us. In our early years of childhood we are at the whim and whimsy of elders who could tell us anything about ourselves. We hear of horrendous memories from individuals who were told highly toxic things about themselves. Years later that story is almost some kind of mobius strip that plays over and over again inside the mind. The dismantling and rewriting of that story cannot be done alone. No amount of positive thinking or recitation of some positive mantra will release a story that is so deeply embedded in one’s consciousness. In fact, the earlier it was deposited, the difficulty involved in disengaging it is daunting and the expertise in dislodging it and retelling it is not for the faint of heart.

What is my current story? Where did it come from? What will the new story be? How do I begin to write that saga? If this formation of consciousness is possible, then the nature of the stories we tell ourselves now become much more significant to our sense of living in this world. Contemporary popular psychologies have grabbed hold of this tendency to be able to “speak” our existence into being and have made the power of words and narratives supernatural in their ability to create our world from our thinking. This is a sinister plot twist, however, as the study of narratives on the development of consciousness is not as simple as speaking some mantra of prosperity, wealth and health over yourself. In fact, this idea that the self alone can alter the very nature of reality is its ultimate flaw. Stories are never created nor sustained by the individual. We are a peopled story by the nature of our imbededness in time and space. We are all telling stories together at the same time. Occasionally we listen and incorporate each other in love. That is the Kingdom way of story telling. There is a grand narrative. We do not and can not write this story alone.

My Story Trumps Your Story Part 2

When the Plot Needs a Re-Write

It is the process of writing and life that matters. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories. Natalie Goldberg

With the advent of the global village, a phrase coined by Marshal McLuhan, we are discovering that we can no longer be mute to the varied stories in our world that conflict or strongly attack our own accounts. The proximity of the web and the day to day barrage of pictures and sound from the media have forced their way into our minds and there is no turning back. The phrase "what you don’t know can hurt you" could also have added "but what you do know can hurt you more." The daily litany of horrors and banality cling to our souls like existential Velcro and even mindless entertainment only dulls the chatter for a brief period of time. We are now to close to the sounds of “the other” to ignore his or her voice and chronicle of life. I cannot afford to have a story that excludes others.

For many, this entourage of reports from the edges of the world is used to quicken deeply held beliefs that these people may indeed deserve these atrocities. Tribalism is alive and well and even white collars will not remove the war paint hidden in the heart. If we live in a global village, is it possible the resources are limited and if so how far must I go to protect mine? When does all the information cease to inform and now only confuses or reinforces the exclusion of "the other"?

Part of the challenge of competing stories is the need for points of reference. When and where do we come together and agree? When and where do we disagree and what does that look like? It is highly threatening to discover that others not only disagree with our story but have thought deeply about the same issues and have come up with an entirely different set of cosmic answers. Without a dialogue with "the other" we are prone to demonize the person because their story represents what is wrong with the world. Their story challenges our moral and spiritual values as well as our understanding of how government and society should be lived out. It can also be something as silly amd banal as commentaries on music and films we love or hate. How dare these people assess our world and find it lacking? How presumptuous for someone to call me a bigot, a radical, or left wing or a right wing extremist and not even talk to me before I am named. Now, with Muslim fundamentalsim we have the pathological condemnations of “the other” who desires to see our very presence wiped off the face of the earth. These ideologies and sentiments are varied and nuanced in their degree of impact on us but they deeply impact our own sense of continuity and meaning. In the end we find ourselves asking, "Why can’t everyone leave my story alone? "

Ironically this barrage of differing narratives now begins to erode our own personal sense of confidence in our way of seeing the world. The attacks or even occasional engagements with those that differ now begin to make us wonder. Could I be wrong? Are my long held beliefs and sacred stories really as silly and lifeless as these people rage? These moments of self reflective doubt are seldom if ever repeated inside or outside our heads and hearts for they represent the beginning of truly looking at our own story. These questions will surely open pandora's box.

As the shear amount of grand narratvies cascade over each other via the web and media, it becomes clearer and clearer how muddy our hearts and minds have become when it involves an over arching story. We, and I speak as if I am talking for humankind right now (a lofty almost silly assertion), have outgrown our older stories and in our looking for new ones have yet to find any worth saving to our favorite sites if you will. We are a world in search of a new way of seeing and naming ourselves.

Because all encompassing overarching stories (meta narratives) are not in vogue in academia or artistic circles, the tendency has been to go deeper into the story of self. Let’s peel away the skin of the onion and see just what resides at its core. This process seems to have yielded little as the onion appears to merely be an onion. We were in hopes this search for the self would uncover the long ago forgotten code that realized the power to reign in the universe and hold the malaise at bay. But on the contrary, our search for the “core” of self has only revealed how unable an individual is to assess his or her own experience let alone offer up the deep answers to life’s ongoing conundrums.

The story of self, as meaningful and as necessary as it appears to humankind's understanding of being human, has built in limitations in its ability to form a larger narrative. In fact, the very idea of "the self" has arrived on the scene fairly late in the history of intellectual history. The self is a self. It cannot and will not see outside its borders unless it collaborates with other stories. Left to its own narrative devices, the self becomes grandiose and absorbed. Sequestered in the machinations of the unquestioned mind, the self dreams of glory and dishonor simultaneously and offers up the glory of transcendence on one hand while robbing the other of his or her glory on the other hand. This is paradoxical. We have created a way of seeing and naming that have penned a story which is now inhabitable. Many appear to be storyless and yet fulll of self.

To write our story we must have degree of narrative input from our own personal narrative (i.e the self). However, we are in times where the exalted account of the isolated self is not only limited and flat but dangerous and unreflective. The world can no longer sustain itself on the accumulation of self absorbed hearsay of the glorified ego. This world cannot be about each individual getting what they want or even deserve. Sounds good on Oprah, but in truth, my search for fulfillment may indeed rob you of your search for actualization. We have been offered a path of fulfillment that is proving to be the very road to destruction we have feared. We are following each other into the abyss of self fulfillment and development. We need a bigger story. We need one that invites all to the table to share their part of the ever changing all inclusive story. This is challenging. Stories written in collaboration are full or re-writes, long conversations about the meaning of words and the intentions of the heart. This will take time. We must take the time.
We must begin to write these stories together. As Christians we may just have inherited through the incarnation a unique posture for engaging the storytelling challenge. God must have known we would want our re-writes.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

For Those in Search of a Story Part 1

No story is the same to us after a lapse of time; or rather we who read it are no longer the same interpreters. George Eliot

Everyone loves a good story. From holiday memories of old Uncle Herbie exaggerating the family into hysterics to midnight fright night legends that scare us silly; we all love a good story. Stories hold the mystery together. They are not really about being right or wrong as much as they are about people and places, about how the world seems to be at certain times. Some stories we remember and retell them over and over again. These usually have something to do with clan or kin or some horrendous tragedy or likewise some outstandingly wonderful windfall. We want to remember those moments when the universe deemed to speak to us, to tell us it was aware of our presence. Most of the time the story of life is lost in mundane activities which even in moments of hyperbole just don’t sound all that exciting.

And yet there is a story that runs much deeper through our hearts that reveals something about how we see ourselves and others. It is a story that also reveals our role as the omniscient author. We are all writing a novel in which we are the protagonist or antagonist. In this story we are offered a set of options and as best we can we engage the role with a MacGyver like zeal. Sometimes things appear to work out and we feel vindicated and even celebrated. Other times we hope the episode is lost in the archives and never to dawn the door of reruns again.

The choice of reruns and their viewing, however, seems not to be some arbitrary choice we get to make. The hiding away of stories we find unpleasant or shaming cannot kill our role and our authorship in the scripting of this fiction. In fact, it is the stories we so disparately attempt to hide that are often the one’s that fuel the chapters and episodes we offer up for viewing to the world and our friends. It is like a film with missing scenes or a book with missing chapters. It is the missing chapters that I will be addressing in the next few blogs. We all have those missing Nixon tapes somewhere in our archives.

It is believed that what is not said may very well be as important as or more so than what is said. Why is the clandestine so revealing? Why are our omissions so full of meaning? James Hollis said that, “The healing of the world is in what we do not want others to know about ourselves.” Why is this silence or missing information so vital to knowing who we are and what our lives are attempting to say?

Entire schools of therapy have centered on the unsaid or hidden slips one makes when discussing his or her life. It is as if much of our life is unknown and buried to even us. This cryptic hiddeness is seldom addressed for its very presence is mysterious and enigmatic. How do we describe what our own heart and tongue will not address? How do we name what we will not even speak allowed or even let flow into our awareness?

Could it be this silence about our own hiddeness is actually a deeper reflection of something we feel about life itself? Are the deeper questions of life still unanswered to us? Are the mysteries of life still alive and well in our hearts and yet we are expected day after day to operate as if the world of the unknown and the mysterious are only for philosophers and saints? Are we unwittingly ask to act as if this big story were easily downloaded as spiritual "Cliff Notes?"

Yet this kind of opting out of the deeper questioning is not working or even possible for those who are seeking. The hidden parts are hidden because we choose not to search our hearts. The silence remains deafening because we fill it up with the din of busyness and self absorption. At some level we are all practical mystics. Life gave us this pen and we are writing. Some of our manuscripts are lost from the frenzy of sorrow and happenstance while others are purposely secreted away from all observers. There are stories half written and plays offered up only to the gods. Why all the covert hiding of these messages from the soul?

There are so many answers in life that are attainable and accessible. With the advent of the Internet many conundrums regarding health, wealth, theories, philosophies and such are only a few clicks away. We are all able to do research on the quandaries of life with great flare. However, most of these quandaries are not existential in nature yet they often plague us day to day and I for one am grateful for the avalanche of accessible knowledge.

Knowledge and knowing, however, may actually be different things. I can obtain and record much information that one might call knowledge. But if I were to ask how one knows something then the puzzled look comes over a person’s face. What does one mean when they ask “How does one know something?” We have assumed for centuries that the gathering of information, the testing of certain problems and questions, and the recording of those results, always arrive at some form of concrete knowing. This process that happens day and in and day would lead one to believe that what we know and how we know are the same thing. Is it possible they are not? And how would the issue of how we know impact the way we form stories and retell them to others.

There are many stories that exist in the world. The one about my flat tire has a degree of importance in my life but does not resonate in its impact like the death of my father. The account of my run in with the police while speeding does not weigh in as powerfully as the chronicle of my great grandparents coming over through Ellis Island. Stories have different degrees of narrative power based on their impact on my humanness. I am formed by stories and some reflect upon my life in a much deeper more profound manner.

We are living in times where the shear amount of stories is overwhelming. As the web offers up more and more conspiracy theories and film and TV push the mundane and glorious into our consciousness, the library of stories grows and grows until, much like the little boy in the Never Ending Story, we are all looking for the magic book, the ultimate story that frees the secret, unlocks the mystery, and demystifies what mystics have kept shrouded for centuries.

In recent months, the book The Secret has gained gargantuan proportions. Oprah Winfrey’s fickle hand of fate can do that in a world of media giants but why that book and not another? It is clear that we are all looking for some magnificent legend that forms and informs our deeper parts. We long for the wonderfully woven fairy tale that makes sense of it all.

As believers, we are part of a grand narrative. Yet for many of us, even that story has come under scrutiny and deconstruction. Even that story has been offered up to pundits, charlatans, and fear mongers. Many of us feel storyless. It is for the storyless for which I compose. It is for those who sense they are in-between stories that I put pen to the paper. But this story is not just mine to write nor interpret. It is indeed a never ending story of which we all play a part. Let us seek the emerging grander narrative in concert. Let us compose together.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Divine Consolation

To be Enlarged by Need

It is one thing to see the weak, appreciate their status, and pray for their condition. It is entirely a different proposition to actually be counted amongst the weak. To count ourselves amongst the weak is to walk the journey of descent. To be the weak is to allow the glorious shining sun of our egos to fall from the sky and watch all our attempts at Godlike status to be erased by the shear whimsy of the universe.

In recent years God has called many of us to not merely expose our weakness but to walk in the humility that comes from our weakness finally being a grace and not a burden. This means we must not merely share our tendencies towards human frailty and failure but our total inability to accomplish what our destiny demands. We are called to be what only God can accomplish in us. The process is ultimately hindered when we engage life from our positions of strength (i.e. self sufficiency & accomplishments)

Jesus tells us over and over again that the weak see things the strong do not. The weak will inherit much in the coming Kingdom. The weak represent a posture and disposition of the soul that allows for the Spirit of God to truly reign. When the Kingdom reigns inwardly we do not merely acknowledge the poor but see all states of sufficiency as roadblocks to this divinely ushered in new way called the Kingdom reign. When walking in and under the Kingdom rule we offer up our neediness and weakness as signs of faith. We understand that God is indeed interested and does not merely feign our essential humanity but created us thusly.

As life unfolds much of our fears and concerns center around our ability to stand up to what seems to be required. So much of life appears to demand more than we have to offer. This is indeed what it means to be weak. The weightiness of our humanity often overwhelms us and catches us unawares. We were not prepared to be so so so needy. We didn’t mind having some needs. We didn’t mind asking for a little help. But to find ourselves dependent upon forces beyond the human is to truly walk into the Kingdom reign.

Trusting in what man can do is part of our journey. We all have experiences where humankind has let us down. To be hopeful that this will change is part of the burden we bear. But to mistake the presence of man as the presence of God is to be blinded to the eyes of a loving Savior. He indeed sees us in our state of total brokenness. In fact, in and through His eyes, even our supposed sufficiency of houses, cars, savings, and amusements are heavy rocks our soul must carry. To place our hope and ultimate state of security in the things that pass away is to be forced to monitor those things in terms of our worth and endeavors. We constantly refer to that which is passing away and wonder why our souls shrink and fade.

To and for what does my soul work and long? When I am stripped of all I begin to see the Allness of the Savoir. I begin to get a glimpse of the Largeness of God’s provision. This of course does include my future story and the final consummation of this Kingdom reign. I am being drawn into the arms of the loving God. This is my ultimate need. This is my ultimate desire. This is my ultimate destiny. When all is gone but the final veil of pride that keeps me from approaching the Father, I can finally stand in the sufficiency of eternity.

It is a dark and lonely road to this place. That is why suffering is the only path to wisdom. That is why we hide the poor from our eyes. We do not want to acknowledge the insufficiency of all things but God. This day I not only see the weak but take my place in this group and wear the glory of that position as a part of my true nature and calling. I am blessed. I am close to the Father. He sees my weakness and is moved. This is my divine consolation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Deep Confession and the Sacred Messiness of Life

Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into the darkness
Closer to the light
Bruce Cockburn

I serve a God who hides. There are times when regardless of my rituals or disciplines, the Father will not reveal himself. During these times of seeming darkness, I cry out for clarity and certainty ironically calling out for instant faith. Sitting in my yearnings and longings are so revealing that I am anxious and distracted by anything that will offer some relief from the unveiling.

In the messiness of life comes a sacred imperfection that is not packaged and planned according to my schedules. We usually do not question our direction in life during vacations. We do not mourn the poor decisions we made regarding purchases and opulence in times of abundance. We are full of hubris and confidence when our dreams are seemingly running the universe and surrounded by potential franchisees. Countless times in my short life I have reached the boundaries and imitations of my own abilities. I have reached the confines of anything I could attain. Most of the time I initially seek everything and everyone else other than God and the truth. Why?

This is paradox. Part of me aggressively strives for position, power, and a legacy that can be pointed directly back to me and my talents while God is simultaneously doing the exact opposite in my deeper parts. This tension is so powerful at times that I can feel my body being torn between the two worlds-His kingdom and mine. I love and hate simultaneously. I pray and curse in the same sentence. I cry out for justice and rob the widow. This overwhelming sense of my duplcicty can often cause a high degree of ennui and tristitia. I have evolved my broken estate into a postmodern malady of the soul. I equally loathe and love my reflected self.

There is, however, a shattered part of me that knows where in my healing resides. There is a deeper knowing that is asking for truth rather than quick fixes and spiritual band aids. This desiring for the felt presence of God does have a price tag. So much of my relationship with God has been defined and run through the grist mill of religion and community. In one sense, I am communally formed and need this family to make myself actually be a self. On the other hand, I can easily rely upon this constructed family to be a God replacement. I can assume that my attendance at religious meetings, my collections of icons or relics, be they actual icons or books or tapes or DVD’s from “well known” teachers, will take the place of God. In fact I often mistake them for Him.

My imagination is often agnostic. I desperately hold on to the dusty relics through which I frame the Father. I know Him to be a certain way or so I am told. To experience Him directly myself is to allow a degree of the self to fall away. Richard Rohlheiser, in his book The Shattered Lantern, comments on this agnosticism when he says, “We live in an age of unbelief. What sets us apart from past generations is that, today, this is as true within religious circles as outside them. The problem of faith is especially one of unbelief among believers….Belief in God, for many of us, is little more that a hangover. We feel the effects of the religious activity of the past, but our own consciousness borders on agnosticism and active disbelief. Rarely is there a vital sense of God within the bread and butter of life. We still make a space for God in our churches. He is given a very restricted place everywhere else.” Page 18-19 The Shattered Lantern

When my agnosticism is revealed to my own heart I see that I am still directing where I want the Spirit of God to move in my heart. I still want to direct His ways. I want to keep my life. I am not prepared to offer it up as sacrifice. I want to dictate the restoration in my time and on my terms. Because of His very nature, spirituality even in its imperfection is pervasive. I cannot compartmentalize His presence and movement. The Trinitarian nature of God is also reflected in my own nature. I have a body, a mind and a soul (or spirit). These parts of me desire to be in unity. These parts of me desire a kingdom order that allows for real shalom to not only visit my yearning heart but take up a habitation.

For this habitation to take place, a space must be readied for the Sprit to come in. This space is a posture and it is one in which I am uncomfortable. I think of the scripture in I Corinthians 3:18 that says..”Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age you should become fools so that you may become wise.” This divine inversion is what it is that I am so discomforted by. Must I be emptied to be filled? Must I be so weak to see His strength? Must I know so little to be made aware of His mind and knowing? Must I lose my way to find it? The answer of course is yes, yes and yes. The hidden way of the mysterious Spirit is not because He purposely desires to keep me in the dark. Quite the contrary. For me to see I must grow accustomed to seeing my own powers and abilities meet their end. This is what we call darkness. In actuality it is merely the limits of “my” seeing. It is the space outside of my strengths and giftings.

Why is it that many of us in the West tend to view the dying of our flesh and the struggles that come with being a vessel of the Lord as an optional encumbrance? Could it be that we have been taught an Americanized Gospel? Could it be that we actually think God is there merely to answer our prayers and merely to make our lives easier?

The book of Job is one of the earliest books written. Is it not ironic that Job’s friends as far back in biblically antiquity as this book refers, still were much like friends today that tell us…”if you are suffering it is due to some sin or some principle you have overlooked.” But is this truth the very road we must travel to take on the life of Christ? Could some of our sufferings come with the restoration of the cosmos and the purposes of God in this world? Could our death be a blessing as we begin to see who He is in light of who we are not?

I recently ranted to a friend that I could not have one more theological discussion about anything but God’s response to suffering. This of course is an exaggeration on some level but my soul is weary of the life energy that flows from my heart during and after discussions that seem to offer up more of my presumption and confident assertions about God than a practical real life conversation about my neighbor who is without a house payment this month, or a friend who has just found she cannot pay her bills on the Wal-Mart salary as they have cut back her hours.

These discussions are too dangerously painful to have and they tell us how little power we have over much of life. It is easier to have a dialogue about things that don’t really matter or if they do, not in a immediate survival sense. I wonder if God is interested in these conversations? Jesus seemed to shy away from dialogue that attempted to set Him up and led to the reproof of those engaging in the diatribe. He knew the hearts of those who ask Him questions to which they already thought they knew the answers. Something happens to my heart and my ears when I think I know. I speak out of turn and seldom listen. Why would I? I already know the answer for I have consciously directed the conversation in the direction that allows me to trump my opponent. So many conversations start out benign and harmless and end up filled with confusion and hurt. We are told to stay away from these kinds of engagements but there is something about how we have learned and been informed on how to articulate our faith that by its very nature seems to lean towards this kind of pontification. I want to believe that my diatribes set the world in order and allow my conjectures and assertions to have a weight that all will acknowledge and honor. This is why so often following one of these kinds of exchanges my own heart seems oddly emptied and feeling less of God’s presence. Am I so unaware of Him when I am so full of myself and so confident life is at my finger tips?

There is a divine messiness to life. We must grow accustomed to seeing a portion of our lives unravel. If things are always going well in the sense of order and freedom from pain, we are probably barbituating ourselves with some pleasure, some diversion or merely ignoring the truth of our lives in hopes it will all go away. Of course life never goes away. This fallen world is the one in which we live and with that inhabitance comes much joy and sorrow, much pain and pleasure
, much fame and dishonor.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Not Knowing Everything

Here You are again

Hidden so mysteriously in Your revealing

I make demands upon You for full disclosure

I am not prepared to honor the concealed nor veiled

I place You outside the ordinary commonplaces I breathe

Only in worship

Does the immense numinous seizure of beauty capture me

And for a few brief moments of sustained appreciation

My foolishness becomes Holy and a Gift

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Sufficiency of the Day

Gratitude and Gift Giving

These are not grateful times. It is safe to say that these are times of great presumption and possessiveness. We live in a world (primarily the Western advanced 1st worlds) where much of our days are spent desiring. Economies run on desire. Something deep within our being desires.

Gratitude is a much more pure and simple form of desire. Gratitude regards the thing as not something to be possessed but something to be enjoyed and even cherished. Is it not ironic that much of what we posses we stop enjoying. How many of us have built some room or extension onto our houses around a desire( a hobby or pleasure like pool playing or wine ) only to find these rooms are now dusty relics that represent desire gone south? We coveted this space and now want something new, something more.

The poor teach us how to be grateful for they have been forced by life to allow God to bring things into their life. They have the same desires but have those dispositions formed out of simplicity. A simple meal, an adequate car, a small but cherished home are all gifts. For our
gratefulness to be formed by the nature of divine gift giving is to avoid possessiveness. To possess something is to truly be controlled by the idea of this object and its perceived power. Advertising knows how to take the innate desire to be, to belong, to be known, and attach things to that desire. Now we are known for our things. We are known for our style. We are known for what we seem to possess within and without us. It is our gift to dispense, our gift to define, our gift to display.

Truly grateful people tend to empty themselves of their gifts. In Babette’s Feast, Babette, currently a house keeper, unbeknownst to the town a formerly famous chef in Paris, pours out her gift of culinary beauty upon a small town. They do not know her former status (she is now a mere servant in this community) nor do they understand the power of her gift. Note ('s_Feast) the film powerfully depicts the starkness of the life lived as thought it were to be safely dispensed and monitored with great care and ownership. In the end Babette (once again unbeknownst to the town) wins the lottery in Paris and decides to stay in Denmark in this small town and uses her winnings to create one glorious meal. In this offering she pours out her gift lavishly and something mystically joyful happens to the entire town who receives the gift given. She was a servant mind you with little to no perceived power in the community. In fact, true gifts are never postured as power. They must by their nature refer to the glory of the one receiving the gift. Gifts are graces. They are meant to pour glory into the life of something else.

We don't learn the power of gratitude when there is a great absence of gift giving. We hunger for something and we think it is about us. We think we need to work to receive it and work to hold it. Of course Jesus was clear that the Kingdom is upside down. It is better to give than to receive. This sounds so pious but upon deeper contemplation we find its meaningfulness. The act of giving places us in a position to offer someone something we ourselves desire as well. We all wonder if the universe is adequate. Is there enough? Can I trust the power in and through the world to see me and my need? These are natural ponderings and most of the time our answer is NO! God seems absent and so does the thing we so strongly desire. When our posture shifts from giving rather than receiving, we find that God has already set the world up such that the most glorious of gifts are already available in and through this world without effort. They are not possessions and will never be”things.” This is not to say that the poor and the needy (which we all are) do not need food and sustenance. This is our daily bread. The key here is the word daily.

Unless someone travels to a Third World country the Lord’s Prayer does not make total sense. Give us this day our daily bread, is not a prayer we in the West understand. We have enough bread to last a lifetime and much of it is rotting. Why? It was never meant to be kept in such a manner. Let me qualify here realistic forms of storage and refrigeration. However, you still find that in countries where these are not available, meals are eaten corporately, food is shared communally, and the daily bread is not a curse as much as a blessing of what happens when the individual self is lost in the family self.

We have lost the idea of family in our time. In fact, I have met many whose families were not protective and sustaining but were indeed the very opposite. They refused to share and refused to empower. Thus, there is great woundedness in the West. It comes from the loss of communal families that take care of the weak and elderly. Much of our 401 k’s and retirement programs are really protective mechanisms to hedge against the aloness our society has thrust upon us. We all know that in our latter years we may be alone and forced to die without family.

The poor deal with that reality all the time and have few choices. They still must see sustenance as a daily gift. The government offers some help, some churches step in and offer some assistance, but by in large, most of the poor will indeed die empty handed. This may seem sad and overwhelmingly cruel. In some cases it indeed is as their lives could have been healed or restored with so little medicine or so little money. But just as they had to look to the Father for their daily bread, they now have to await His arms in the Kingdom that is being ushered in. This ushering in will take place primarily by those who have need of it to be ushered in.

We will not usher in what we do not anticipate. We do not long for the new heaven and the new earth for we have created one here now. Disney is not just a theme park. It is a Jungian fantasy that wipes away the dark of life and has us tied into a monorail car in an endless loop of “It’s a Small World After All.” This is humorous but sad. We have become satiated with our desires fulfilled. We have received what we thought we wanted and now there is nothing to long for.

I ponder much about longing for it can become the sanctification of desire. When longing is recognized as a deeper voice in our souls we begin to listen. To be grateful is to truly listen to our longing. What is it that I want? At a very deep level it is indeed immortality. We have indeed been meant to live forever. Thus, to have my desires for immortality submitted to material things only confuses my soul. My soul knows. My soul reads well the power and presence of things. It is my flesh that is stupid and ungrateful. It is my false fallen self that wants things just for the pleasure of ownership and possessiveness.

I meant this excursion to be edifying. To talk of death and the afterlife for some may be morbid. The phrase “I want it and I want it know,” is a mantra of many in our culture. Thus, holding at bay the desires in our hearts is a risk that there is nothing beyond what we see. Materialism is not just a malaise. It is a principality that rules and guards our hearts. It gives us the divine lexicon for meaning. It tells us what we are worth and what others are worth. It dispenses power, weakness, glory, and glamour. I was going to say beauty but it cannot really dispense beauty. Glamour etymologically refers to something that tricks us. Glamour is a ruse. But we in the West are caught up in its spell. We hunger for the style and grace that glamour offers. We buy the goodies that fashion and style tells us who we are.

Let me close with a story. A friend of mine has a friend. This friend of mine has grown up in the middle of the middle class. She has never been without but always known the challenge of hard work and saving. Recent years have added much loss to her life and in the process she came into contact with her “new “friend. This new friend comes from a poor urban background and knows little to nothing about things like music lessons, picnics, Easter dresses, college aspirations, dreams of owning one’s own home. These were never on the table. But this “new” friend was indeed a rich women. What she offered as a gift to my friend was an unencumbered sense of being in the now. She had to. Today was truly today. To live and survive you had to be present. To live and survive you had to believe that this day offered a gift. In that neediness was formed a great sense of gratitude. As my friend (middle class) began to grow in her friendship with her”new” friend, a mutual sharing began to take place. But in the end, it had little to do with possessions, things, power, prestige, or entitlement. In the end the gift shared was the mutual awareness of the sufficiency of the day. Today is sufficient in itself. This is the posture one needs to be grateful. Today, a blessing will indeed be deposited in my heart through the grace of God and His creation. Let me be conduit for that grace. May you be a conduit for that grace.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Inbetween Stories

The phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” seems to sum up the manner in which all who introspect reflect upon their age as they step back to ponder. Since the Fall, it appears our inner spectacles must always weigh the burden of beauty over against the hideous, truth against the deceit, and love over against the loathing. Our eating from this tree has somehow divided the world into two parts or so it seems-good & evil.

I am blessed at this point in my life with some spiritual companions who seem as heaven bent as I to figure at least some of these conundrums. One is my pastor Stan. I seldom see him when he is not embroiled in the larger dilemmas of life and quite frankly, his righteous struggle gives me hope that my own is not OCD. There must be some genome that some of us have that thrusts us into the cosmic ping pong of life unable or unwilling to relent to the absurdity and yet so aware of how much floats above and below us all.

We are in-between. We are juxtaposed. We are crossing not yet, hearing not yet, feeling not yet but oh so full of longing. So full of a yearning for closure, redemption, love, something to ease the weightiness of this seeming abyss looming up in our sight.

I am constantly teased about what I read and honestly, if I mentioned my regimen, much of it may finally prove the OCD diagnosis. Truly I am a confused man. I agree with Flaubert when he said, “I read in order to live.” My spirituality is so imperfect, answers so daily revised, my love so incomplete and my story still mostly unwritten. There is sadness in that statement. At this point in my life, all of the grand spiritual paths tell me I should be so much further along the journey. My own faith, Christianity, sometimes is offered in such pristine finely packaged offerings and I find myself still thirsting after the tasting.

Thomas has been mythologized as the cosmic doubter but in the nowness of life, doubt seldom offers us a spot in the biblical hall of fame. In fact, my thought as I wrote that sentence was to call it the hall of shame. Doubt & suspicion in the world of western peoples is taught at every level in secondary and graduate school, no even in primary school and yet when one matures, they are somehow told to ignore the doubt or satiate it with consumer goods or the will to power.

There I go waxing philosophical but it is in moments where the story loses its inner force to move forward and the stuttering ensues that all the classical philosophical questions arise. Who are we? Why are we here? Or here is a good one, how do we even know we are here? I hate all these big questions but they reflect just how big this story is and how small untested dialogue and word offerings cheapen the very narrative of which we believers say we are a part.

There is a shift taking place. Maybe “the shift” is the acknowledgment of the beautiful chaos built into the very fabric of this universe. Maybe the seeming shape shifting of truth and lies, keeps us humble or broken. Maybe our need to know this way is why we were told not to eat the fruit. Now we are obsessively longing for the reasons we live when before our eating we felt no burden of proof. We had no shame of comparison and worth. We walked in the cool of the garden for we were loving this story rather than co writing it. Now the chroniclers of our age continue daily to add to the story and much like a stock report is an absurd reflection of life’s tentativeness, we can only see the chaos in its aftermath but we cannot predict its movement.

I am so prone towards going backward into some form of retrenchment. Moving forward into this never ending story is tiring to the soul but unquestionably the only elixir for doubt and suspicion. But when the disparity between an old story and the new one seems so far apart, the muse becomes a late night harasser of sorts. The 3:00 o’clock “hour of the wolf” appears literal as our very soul can be heard to wail. Is it our late night howling that like the wolf pack bring us back together? Or is like Ginsberg’s lament over the slaughtering of the innocents? Why are many lamenting and baying at the moons of institutions, rituals, beliefs, and well worn ways of being?

Is this merely the narcissistic whining of an age preoccupied with self or the spiritual craving for a small portion of some larger plot to be revealed? How much of the story do we get to really know? How much of our art is the soul projecting cinema on life? Neal Gabler in his work “Life the Movie” sees much of the formative nature of our story telling as mediated through the entertainment industry.

One can read Orwellian fears into that interpretation quite easily. Part of our search for story is a search for place. A search for personal naming and inheritance. Must we fight for a self or is it offered freely? Why are we so confused in these times about our very being? Is this the burden of the fall realized by the masses? Has our suspicion and doubt so attenuated our sense of story that we either despair in the search for narratives that guide and direct us or wily nilly pull one down from TV or the Internet and try it on. Have we finally blurred the lines between fantasy and reality or have they always been opaque and seen through a glass darkly?

Questions come with knowing. Maybe the agonizing believers experience over the desired certainty of their faith is less about certitude and more about the overwhelming sense of emptiness that can grab the soul unawares in fear. All my life, (I am the son of preacher man), I have been in proximity to the dissemination of truth claims. Right belief was offered to me as a spiritual prophylactic from the ways of the world and if I only would capitulate to the ways of the Spirit, I would find myself floating above the mundane struggles of the spiritual proletariat. Now in retrospect I sense, that as a small child, I became skilled at the storing up of claims that bolstered my parents desired certainty. I did not ask many questions. Those matters of course were not on the radar of a small lad but in my teens for sure I was asking a lot. Many of the queries were submerged in teenage angst and pushed through the cipher of my emerging sexuality and individuation. But my questions were real to me. They were less about rebellion and more about a more nuanced reading of the story. It was as if I kept getting the “Cliff Notes” on this exquisite account of life, time, and Father God instead of the more graceful renderings offered by poets, story tellers and novelists. I was asking not merely for the right beliefs but the manner in which I could believe in the right way. At some point in my teen years I began to wonder if all the “talking” about God was the problem. All this incessant debating. Peter Rollins, undoubtedly one of the emerging churches most articulate theological philosophers brings this exchange into focus when he juxtaposes the words of Wiggenstien with his experience with charismatic evangelicalism.

On one hand our talk of God can become prattle and arrogant chattering void of depth and humility. To this tendency one might agree with Wittgenstein when he said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” An homage to the shear incomprehensibility of the transcendent is alluded to here and my superficial entrance into mysticism tells me this is true. However, as Rollins, I am a child of evangelicalism and the charismatic renewal. Thus, God is one subject of whom I can never stop talking.

Are we at a point in the story where a paradoxical dialogue is the language that begins to emerge? Have we on one hand so colonized the name of God as Rollins says or is the “unspeakable” the very place where the story and the most compelling language of description is going to emerge? Is there a secret waiting to be told? Is there a heretical orthodoxy that is articulating the right way of belief rather than the right beliefs? Is this a sacred listening taking place?

Gerhard Lohfink so aptly states the results of moving away from all our gallant efforts and truly believing one place in time can become an outpost of holy eavesdropping.
“It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God's plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have the opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.Clearly, this change in the world must begin in human beings, but not at all by their seeking through heroic effort to make themselves the locus of the new, altered world; rather it begins when they listen to God, open themselves to God, and allow God to act."

Much of my recent spiritual pilgrimage has taken place within what Wendell Berry might call a sacred space. Since my early hippie years I have experienced and longed for community. Not merely a group of people who had like minded theology and ideas on the world and its transcendence but a people who truly lived life together. This dream has proven much more formidable in a world where individualism is paramount and even the community called the Church is fairly formed through the ideologies of capitalism, therapy, and technology. Much of this blog represents for me my final willingness to bring presence to my voice, to throw out my poems and stories and add one more hopefully unshrill voice to the cacophony. We are destined to converse through these pages if you are this far along. Here is a poem to soften the incessant inquiry.

The Color of Soul Making

Blue fire
Slipped into my room last night
Sighed heavily
Illuminated my labored breathing
And the shallow rise and fall of sorrow’s chest
As if both color and flame could speak
Their words came forth
“We are your indigo angels.
In this place most call a desert
Your sister the white Iris blooms
In this dryness the soul flowers
Reverie fills the darkened cobalt horizon
Lovers held in suspension
Melt into each other
And weep with longing
Here imagination burns a cerulean glow
Melancholy marries Kandinsky
And all this pondering rekindles
A thousand years of exile
In the unreflective underworld of black and white.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Grand Humbling

An Invitaiton to Suffering

Once again, out of the experience of suffering, an invitation is found. As our brother Job learned, our presumptive contracts are delusory (our attempted deals with God that is) by the ego to be in control. We learn that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible. While we are rendered more uncomfortable by this discovery, it is a humbling that deepens spiritual possibility. The world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, and less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young. James Hollis / Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

Some years ago, while pondering the highly mechanistic nature of how the church engaged spiritual growth, it came to me that in many ways the Church has regarded the soul as a project. Spiritual growth as well is often seen as a technical program of ideas disseminated at the correct times and if ingested properly will automatically create the desired results. This idea that God’s Spirit will engage us clinically, objectively, or in a detached fashion is one of the reasons we often think we know something before we actually have experienced it.

We “modern “Christians have things to do and places to go. We desire that even our spiritual lives be akin to our work schedules and physical lives ( exercise regimens) in the sense we can schedule in exercise and have our doctors and trainers give us instant advice or pills to speed up the results. We are in a hurry and the soul is one area of life where our hurried harried lives are sorely obvious. Gandhi said there is more to life than merely increasing its speed.

If I have heard it once I have heard it countless times and that is the statement, “God said it so He must honor His word.” On some level the sentiment has enough truth to be articulated with some sense of spiritual fervor. But the darker side of this articulation may really sound more like, “ I have a contract with you God and You are not keeping up to Your end of the deal. What is up?”

It is a frightening and spiritually disappointing encounter to realize that God does not make these kinds of deals. Suffering is one of the areas that this hubristic proclamation says more about our presumption than the character of God. God never made such an arrangement that offered Job a painless, suffering free life and the crisis in assumptions was Job’s day of reckoning.

I have been pondering the invitation suffering is offering and its weightiness is too much to bear alone. Dealing with suffering with a gracious heart is one of these areas of my walk I feel like such a neophyte and baby believer. I am so poor at nourishing my mind, body, or soul. Wholeness seems elusive as so much in my culture asks me to separate myself up into compartments, and ask me to divide myself up into sub-categories and experiences. Whether it is body or soul sickness, I so often ignore my very being's beckoning calls for nurturance and push myself way beyond healthy limits. I am vaguely aware of this behavior as it is taking place as it impetus is deep in my soul’s story of reality that no longer works.

Suffering has been a major challenge to my journey as its presence is ubiquitous and I often feel as though I have little recourse to curb its ultimate verdict. Many of you may or may not know of my bout with cancer. Needless to say its wake is powerful and looming in its impact. Likewise, there is much grief and sorrow that naturally accompanies being human in this day and age. Just because we do not live in war torn countries, or struggle for necessities such as water or bread, we Western Christians often neglect and ignore the deeply hidden maladies that rob our joy and ability to be present.

I do not understand suffering. As a believer brought up in the evangelical subculture, I was led to believe that I could somehow avoid suffering or at least have this near heavenly response to its power and impact. I have not learned this in the last decade nor am I currently capable of dealing with or accepting real suffering. I am also confused as to where the art of suffering comes from trying to serve God and the Church and the world and what part of suffering is merely induced by me and my own selfish neurotic will.

We all have been told that right conduct, right intention, proper piety, would protect us from the vagaries of life and the inscrutable universe. But prolonged sickness, tragedy, unpredicted death, heart attacks, childbirth gone awry, divorce accompanied by dark and sinister wrangling, quickly inform our souls that these deals were presumption at best and closer to fact, straight out fantasy.

As sickness and financial struggles have dogged my heels in recent years, it becomes deeply apparent that certain parts of life are merely out of my control. No manner of domination or fixing changes growing older or being a part of a music industry that is collapsing much like General Motors in Detroit. I am also aware of how often I so ungraciously bear the normal troubles of life and discern which ones come as a byproduct of my faithfulness and the prophetic work God has called me to and discern which ones come as a byproduct of my own lack of stewardship over my life, body and giftings. I have never rejoiced in tribulation to date as far as I can remember. I say this with some shame.

I wonder if I should be surprised given the current social climate in Western societies that tell me to pursue comfort and eschew any or all philosophies that tell me my entitlements are not valid. Pascal said centuries ago, “What amazes me most is to see that everyone is amazed at his weakness.”

Are there any benefits to suffering and will some forms of calling and service actually even lead to distress, anguish or even persecution? Can I develop a new appreciation for the “gifts” of suffering” that may bestow grace upon my discipleship? This phrase sounds odd in light of our culture’s penchant for health, ease, comfort, and the exaltation of youth ( Marva Dawn- The Sense of the Call). Dawn remarks on how even churches today call for leaders that are “colossal in their skills for preaching, supernatural in their abilities to attract youth, and phenomenal in their ability to grow the church." Never has she seen the phrase (and "are also a model of godliness in the midst of suffering.”)

“Why do we try so hard to avoid suffering?” Dawn asks. Is it because we lack a real “theology of suffering” thus we often cannot see that certain calls on our lives will by their very nature involve suffering? One of the reasons we must take care of ourselves (our health-and I am being humbled so much here) is that some prophetic roles may drain us and if already exhausted, all we see are the ever present pains of suffering. One of the reasons we avoid suffering is that we do not have a big enough vision that could actually clarify and define the future such that we can walk into this place with hope. In fact, most of the time I either demonize (literally) or figuratively my sufferings or curse any pain and struggles that enter my life as unfair and unjust. I am so quick to blame others and hold them accountable.

It is a heavy message to remember that part of our calling is to lay our lives on the line to serve the Church and the world. Dawn goes on to say that often physical, emotional, and professional, familial, and financial ailments overwhelm us. In these times God seems distant, silent, untrustworthy, oppressive, and even demonic. She remarks, “During these times I have literally felt abandoned and tell God I cannot endure one more hardship.” Dawn responds to this predicament with a deeply moving insight. “The hardest things for us to admit is that when we think we can dig ourselves out of such holes- we are in much deeper trouble than we can imagine. "When penetrating weariness seizes our love for God, we will serve only lesser ends. If our work cannot proceed from love for the Eternal One, we can no longer do any genuinely eternal work…We need a fallow year. A period of time which nutrients are put back into us to make us fit to produce again. We also need is a weekly Sabbath that keeps us aware of the New Creation in us and around us. I am not talking here about Church attendance but the laying down of our busyness as if we held up the universe with our human doings. If we do not seek this Sabbath we become so overwhelmed we lose our capacity to suffer. This is paradox for sure.

Dawn tells about her Christian friends in countries formerly under Communist rule who now reside in the States. She was shocked when they told her it seemed harder to live out their faith in Western countries where they had all these freedoms, choices, affluence and technologies than it did in the former Communist block countries. They remarked at how there did not seem like there was any “radical alternative” to the way people lived in the States. Everyone was so accepting of the status quo as it allowed them to live their Christians lives in private. For those who grew up in persecution this seemed to water down the real radical nature of faith necessary to live as Christ followers. For these Communist refugees, communal suffering was part of the calling. In fact, their solidarity in those sufferings involved being a Christian in that time and space which became radical and subversive by its very nature.

Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite authors and a long time pastor, says this about our need to suffer and be subversive out of that posture..."If the church member actually realized that the American way of life is doomed to destruction and that another Kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be pleased at all. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me. True subversion requires patience. You slowly get cells of people who are believing in what you are doing, & participating in."
As my wife and I have dealt with the disappointment of our house not selling one more time (it is almost like a house showing is an operation that causes pain but heals nothing ), we are tempted to not see what God is doing in our midst. We can be discouraged that His work is not going forth through us and in us. The work of authentic community is in some ways quite subversive to me. Sometimes I feel like I am just planting seeds but in recent weeks I have seen a harvest that has convicted my heart. I ( we) must embrace hope and let these Kingdom cells sprout and grow as God wills. We are not alone in the Kingdom work and the community is growing and taking form. Sometimes we must bring Bad News to deliver the Good. Could the Bad News of sorts be- “suffering is a part of our obedience and when it is done unto the Lord we take on the sufferings of our Lord.” We must actually take on His sufferings as He would were He here in the flesh…..And He is. Blessings