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

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Larger Work

The Deeper Promise

We have cluttered our lives with strategies for belonging, trying through some combination of performance & cleverness to make ourselves look attractive and valuable so that those who really belong will let us stay around. But trying to earn our belonging by pleasing others is like shoveling mercury with a pitchfork. As hard as we try, sooner or later it all slips away, leaving us feeling homeless and bereft of a place we can call our own.
Wayne Muller – Legacy of the Heart

It is not an exaggeration to say that I have spent my entire adult life looking for a place of safety, care and belonging. My story has been told over and over again to the men in our community and I am always amazed at how gentle and kind they are. I am sick of my story but I now understand that there is a difference between wallowing in my hurt and shame and sharing my need for redemption. For many of us, even marriage, church and friendships seemed like “temporary postponements of certain exile,” as Muller articulates. Life was merely a backdrop for the inevitable: the revealing of our ultimate judgement-we have little to no worth.

This cleverness and performance approach can work in the early years of our male rites of passage. People will hook their wagon up to our energies and use our gifts. That is the problem. They use our gifts not to celebrate them in light of who is offering them up. We are merely a disseminator of what props up and keeps running the corporate dream. Thus, if you work over time, ignore your family, spend way too much time at work or on line checking out the information running through your job title, then so be it. It is for the greater good which is seldom if ever questioned.

In authentic community everything is held up to the light. All things are questioned. In that space we are constantly asking ourselves what we really want and what we really need. It is clear that for me, issues of care and belonging will be sacred wounds into which God is pouring Himself continually. When I get caught up in relationships and endeavors that grant me stay only if I produce, I begin to self sabotage. I begin to lose my interest, lose my heart.

Being allowed to stay is not the same as belonging. All communities will have certain conditions but in healthy communities they are not about performance and cleverness. In fact, these ways of engaging only keep us from finally coming home. We are not spiritual share croppers that work the land on a conditional basis. No man owns our soul. Our sanctuary is always available because of whose Son’s we are.

Why do I avoid belonging then? Why do I impose a degree of self exile upon myself? Why do I hide out in books, creativity, consumerism, wasteful time given over to the things I call my hobbies? These are my secret places that keep me from getting hurt again. But they no longer work for me. I have waited too long to belong so I must confess to all my real needs. I hunger so deeply to belong and be cared for. Life seems to be a place of scarcity on so many levels. Why be present and disappoint myself one more time? This is my struggle to be present. To know what it means to belong is to truly open myself once again to rejection and exile. In other words, I must spiritually reenact the very thing my soul knows well is my Achilles heel and see if the universe will once again name me as unworthy.

I am so blessed to have heard from my brothers my real name. I am beloved. I am a Son. Praise be to the Father. He is full of loving kindness and mercy. I now know that there is no place of refuge. There is only a people of refuge. No job, no house, no amount of money or lack of money ultimately defines me. I always belong. I am always a Son. I always have refuge. Yet, I forget. To sustain this awareness I must continually bring before the community my insatiable need to be loved. I am ashamed of that need and this I know is wrong. I should glory in the fact that my deepest parts only live and survive on love-unconditional love.

I am slowly beginning to discover that real care is not in short supply. My history tells me that care is rationed and that I must either fight for it or live without it. In the past I have chosen to live without it. On paper the shear absurdity of this statement is clear. And yet my soul has breathed in as little oxygen of hope as possible. I have hid my very body and presence in hopes no one would see me and shout, “ Hey, he does not belong here!” My sense of scarcity has become so habitual and chronic that only severe mercy and powerful displays of God’s love shake me from my self exile.

As God allows this life to wrench from my hands the last vestiges of my self entitled ownership I am slowly beginning to understand the wealth of my community. In this larger family I am a rich man. In a larger family I am cared for and my scarcity posture begins to fall away. Now I begin to see and know that there is abundance if I will come with my real condition and need. I want to cleverly get my needs met. I want to fill up my sense of emptiness without making a place for the infilling. I want redemption without confession and repentance.

David Steindle-Rast, a Benedictine monk, speaks about this ever flowing abundance that heals my deepest needs for belonging and care. To access this abundance I must realign my posture to receive by allowing myself to be emptied. Real abundance “is not measured by what flows in, but by what flows over. The smaller we make the vessel of our need. The sooner we get the overflow we need for delight.” By walking into the abundance of the brotherhood through my deep fear of scarcity, I find so much is overflowing. There is no scarcity here. And yet, the impulse to heal myself through a job, a home, a clever saying or article all begins to reveal the inability of these endeavors or objects to fulfill. I close with a poem by Wendell Berry. This poem to me is an homage to the bounty of God through His creation and His people.

Like tide it comes in
Wave after wave of foliage and fruit
The nurtured and the wild
Out of the light to this shore
In its extravagance we shape
The strenuous outline of enough

Our Father has given us to each other. We each carry this precious glory, this brilliance and this beauty of soul in jars of clay. Yes, the phrase works here. We bring “our enough” in containers that appear to be unworthy. That is the divine joke. Oh the beauty of it all! Let us laugh today.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Suffering as Community

Stephen Levine reminds us that when we move from seeing our particular suffering as “our “ pain and begin to experience it simply as “the “ pain- the pain of all creation, of all beings- then we move from being separate and alone and our suffering becomes a doorway into community with the family of earth. The pain we have felt is intimately connected with the pain felt by the women giving birth; by the families torn apart by civil war; by the children dying of cancer, and by the fathers and mothers who hold them as they die; and by all those who suffer hunger, war, or oppression. Every one of us is given some quantity of suffering; some are given more than others, some more violently, some more subtly. But the suffering we feel has never been ours alone; it is simply a fragment of the suffering given us all as children of flesh and spirit. The form of the suffering may change from person to person, but the fact of our suffering is something we inevitably hold in common with all sentient beings.
Wayne Muller Legacy of the Heart

We are all shining cells in the body of Christ. We are valuable members of God’s family. Each time we gather and share our deepest sorrows we begin to see just how intrinsically tied to one another we are. Our naming of life is always a challenge. In Christian circles it appears that much of our time is given over to theological naming. As believers who are attempting to navigate life through the narrative of Scripture, this conversation makes sense to me. However, beneath much of the push and pull of navigating the meaning of the text what we are really asking is “Why do I suffer? Why does God seem so distant? Why does life treat me this way?

Is it possible that this seeming ebb and flow of God’s presence in our lives is tied to the naming of things at deeper and deeper levels? Faith for many has been relegated to some once in lifetime encounter (i.e. salvation) rather than a journey. This journey cannot be traversed alone. It is by its very nature a shared pilgrimage. The sharing of this pilgrimage is this constant stopping by the side of the road and wrapping and unwrapping each others wounded bandages. We are as Henri Nouwen said “wounded healers.”

Why are we surprised to discover in each other unresolved places where to date God’s renaming love has not yet been acknowledged? I find that I am blind to my blindness. I am unconscious to what I am unconscious of. I do not know what I do not know. I will fight against what I am afraid of regardless of how powerless that entity may appear to others. This is my suffering. At some level I think I deserved it.

Some have regarded pain as a sign of their special status in the universe. Not special in the sense of brilliance and light, but special in terms of unworthiness and retribution. Their pain and suffering are indeed cosmic signposts as to the very worth of their existence. When this is my posture I must find the person responsible and then place the pain back on them or attempt to understand why they would have even done these things in the first place. This is not to denigrate therapy or looking to our past or the world’s past for that matter to determine how we might avoid pain and suffering in the future. Is this not what learning should ultimately be about? However, to spend the fullness of my time and presence on this earth in search of the perpetrator, the victimizer, makes me a foil in someone else’s life. I am playing a bit part in someone else’s story. How do I make this pain “our story?”

How do we join our stories? How do we bring our pain and suffering into a place where it becomes teachers and sages for others who suffer much like us? Jesus taught us that our pain is not our punishment. The disciples were so desperate to understand the nature of the blind man’s condition that they asked Jesus a question that by all cultural accounts made sense. For what purpose was this man made blind? Jesus response says so much about how the Father sees things. For Jesus this is an opportunity to bless and heal. It is about compassion, not shaming.

When my suffering becomes “our” suffering then my consciousness begins to shift and my vision of life slowly but profoundly begins to find its naming vision through other’s stories. I begin to see that my gifts were meant from the foundations of the earth to be given to my family. I just needed for someone to call them out. The phrase” call someone out” may have some baggage attached to it. It can sound a bit harsh and purposely harmful so as to expose another. In this case our calling out is about the wisdom, love, and beauty we so desperately need in our own lives thus we stand before each other in such beggar like postures. We are all saying like the character Tommy in The Who’s rock opera,

“Listening to You, See me. Tommy: See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.See me, feel me, touch me, heal me, heal me, heal me.Chorus: Listening to you I get the music.Gazing at you I get the heat.Following you I climb the mountain.I get excitement at your feet!Right behind you I see the millions.On you I see the glory.From you I get opinions.From you I get the story.Listening to you I get the music.Gazing at you I get the heat.Following you I climb the mountain.I get excitement at your feet!

Each time we gather together we are listening to each other’s stories. We are submitting ourselves to the narratives regarding our pilgrimage and our search for special status. Why do I get stuck in my own pain and suffering? Why do I rehearse over and over again the recrimination that seemingly brought me to this weakened helpless state? To date it is the only story I have known. I will continue to do this dance of suffering until I allow myself the time and place to grieve. I must allow myself to sink down into the place of pain and abuse. But…I cannot do this alone. This is why the suffering becomes our suffering. In fact, I believe that we Christians are to carry within us the awareness of the entire world’s suffering. As Paul said in Romans, the very earth groans and moans for liberation and rescue. All creation longs for respite in the Father’s arms. In the meantime God has given us His Holy Spirit. He beckons us to be the Bride. He beckons us to activate the one and only antidote to this strange virus called suffering. That is the forgiveness given to us in the very act of the suffering Savior. He has given us an example. He humbled Himself even to death so as to break the cycle of suffering and sin.

This day we can be set free in Him. Without His atoning gift our suffering and the sin done to us and the sin we do to others that causes them suffering has no meaning. In forgiveness this suffering is not made to disappear but now becomes compassion, grace, and love. This is the redeeming power of forgiveness. It changes almost like an alchemist the very foundational elements of a substance. What was once only pain and grief now becomes a place of refuge and restoration. In this place of forgiveness all of humanity can find redemption. Redemption does not forget the past but retells the story. In this final rendering we are seen and known as we were in the eyes of the Father from the very beginning. We are beautiful. We are the apple of the Father’s eye. As we say in New Adam, Your work is my work.” Let us add another few phrases….Your suffering is my suffering. Your forgiveness is my forgiveness.”
Let me end with a story from Wayne Muller’s book Legacy of the Heart which I recommend heartily.

In Vietnam there is a traditional folk tale that describes the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, everyone is given an abundance of food and then given chopsticks that are a yard long. Each person has all the food they need, but because the chopsticks are too long, the food never reaches their mouths.

In heaven, the image is exactly the same. Everyone is given an abundance of food, and their chopsticks are also a yard long. But….in heaven people use their chopsticks to feed one another.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Reflection of Our Unknown Face

Projection makes the whole world a replica of our own unknown face.
C. G. Jung

It is human to unknowingly see ourselves in the actions of others. The degree to which we react can often reflect how unaware we are of the very same trait within us. To deny my likeness in others deposits my sin onto someone else in an exaggerated manner. I will inevitably lack compassion towards them for compassion is in part the awareness of my own broken humanity in regards to that same trait or behavior. How can I offer to someone else that which I will not receive myself? Compassion is always gift

Likewise, I may exalt someone unduly or demonize them without recourse. However, it is in my observance of someone else as a self, separate from me, that allows me to love. Love reveals my own denial about my inclinations towards a particular way of acting. The reasons certain behaviors and actions so bother me are because I am familiar with their outworking on a deeply unconscious level. I intuitively know "the other's" darkness but have difficulty admitting the hold on my own heart. Even retaliatory actions of protection towards injustice can quickly become Gestapo tactics that scapegoat the potential for all to be the fallen one.

For Christian community to continue to thrive we must be mindful that life itself is a projection of sorts. We place on others our understanding of ourselves and them to make sense of life. When making sense becomes too complex, hidden or seemingly undesired, community must do its best to name the shadow within us all that desires to take us over. Some may call these strongholds both personal and corporate. To clearly see these things in ourselves we must offer a much more compelling revelation of what this trait or behavior can and will become when redeemed.

For example.......Addictiveness becomes steadfastness
Compromise becomes Negotiability
Compulsive orderliness becomes organization & efficiency

Let us properly name our own image first so as to not place it upon others. Or at least soften our denial that we are so much alike and are deeply loved by the Father. It is good to admit how in need we are of redemption. It is good to allow ourselves to become weak in front of each other as this allows for our hidden sin and shadow to come into the light and find our true self unencumbered by the impostor with whom we are so familiar. Let us welcome in each other this revelation. This is our gift to one another.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Thomas Merton Quote on Contemplation

Excerpt from a letter written in response to a request from Pope Paul VI for “a message of contemplatives in the world.”

God seeks Himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find Himself in us because we do not dare to believe or trust the incredible truth that He could live in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed, we exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world. His epiphany. But we make all this dark and inglorious because fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despairs of ourselves. If we once began to recognize, humbly, but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.

The contemplative is not the man who has fiery visions of the cherubim of God on their imagined chariot, but simply he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and ideas where God is encountered in the nakedness of pure trust, that is to say in the surrender of our own poverty and incompleteness in order no longer to clench our minds in a cramp upon themselves, as if thinking made us exist. The message of hope the contemplatives offers you,, then, is not that you need to find your own way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God; but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present to you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons. The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and to say, that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk sharing that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is to close to be explained; it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s Spirit and your secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth one Spirit, I love you in Christ.

Thomas Merton 1915-1968 American Cistercian Monk