Tag Archives: contemplation

Love – In Small Doses #11

 

Bite apple2

 The Education of Desire

The woman stared at the fruit. It looked beautiful and tasty. She wanted the wisdom that it would give her, and she ate some of the fruit. Her husband was there with her, so she gave some to him, and he ate it too. Genesis 3:6 (CEV)

Loud, the crash and feral
thrashing of a heart
wedged in desire’s thorns

no exertion heals
the festering wound

at length
mind wears down
bows stiffly
folds into sheer being
draws up soft
sheets of silence

 ___________________

How is it for you to sit still with your conflicted heart, enmeshed and torn by desire and longing for things  you do not have?

Can you stay with your wounded heart until your mind stops trying to analyze and understand? Can you trust as you surrender into the silence?  Will you discover tender compassion for yourself in your own suffering?

Will you hold still while unseen hands place a poultice,
warm and moist, where you hurt the most?

maryjesushands

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Central Academy Lent 2015
1248 SW Buchanan
Topeka, Ks
Each Wednesday from Feb 25 to March 25
5:30 Gather for Soup
6:00 – 7:30 Class

 It is not too late to join us. Don’t worry. You will fit right in!

Call or email to let us know you are coming so we have enough cookies.
Contact Central Congregational Church
(785) 235-2376; centralucc@yahoo.com

I am teaching a five week class on contemplation, Prayer of the Yearning Heart.  It is a great help to practice contemplation in a group. Come sit with us a spell and let peace creep into your heart.

Slamming Doors, Punching Walls

slamdoor2

We don’t teach meditation to the young monks.
They are not ready until they stop slamming doors.

– Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966.

The Anglican priest across the table  thought for a moment before he responded to my question. I was trying out my idea of a life and ministry focused on prayer. This man and his wife had formed contemplative communities in India and Hong Kong. “What suggestions do you have for me, a Presbyterian minister, about how I could do this?” I had asked, not even sure what I meant by a life of prayer.

“Holiness takes time,” Fr. Murray Rogers began. “You can’t hurry holiness.”

From birth to death  faith development moves us toward  deeper maturity. Followers of Jesus build strong, resilient, resourceful, creative lives through periods of doubt, struggle, disillusionment, and loss. Our life in God teaches us how to take responsibility for our inner lives – the anger, resentment, bitterness, sorrow, envy, and greed – whatever may be blocking the flow of grace in and through us. To take responsibility for our own attitudes, emotional states, opinions, and behaviors is to stop slamming doors or punching holes in one another. Mature souls require time to ripen and the ability to tolerate the slow pace and periods when it seems nothing positive is happening at all.

Such maturing requires us to look inside, to notice what is there, and to be present to what is so in our hearts moment by moment. In this process of looking we wake up to what is true and real, beyond our drama, blaming, projecting, judging, and attacking. We begin to love ourselves, God, and others more  fully and freely.

This looking inward with awareness and compassion is called contemplation in the Christian tradition. Here we discover that the realm of God is within us, as Jesus told his friends. The practice of contemplative prayer or meditation grounds and fuels our awakened compassion and love, as we carry the fruit of our practice into the world with acts of justice, mercy, creativity, beauty, and courage.

prayerstool

Little seems more important to me than this work of opening our eyes to what is true and real. Our awareness is nurtured by noticing and appreciating the myriad miracles, which surround us each day. A few minutes of silent communion with the Giver of these gifts heals, soothes, brings insight, and draws us into Love’s embrace.

Instead of our conflicts, trials, suffering, and confusion overcoming us, they become the curriculum in the school for our soul. Our teacher is the Spirit in our times of attentive listening and contemplation. As we keep showing up for class, little by little, we are freed and transformed in Christ.

Love in Small Doses for the Sin Sick Soul – Part II

This lent I will be continuing and adding to a series, Love in Small Doses, which I first posted in 2013. These are short  poetic takes on the themes and scriptures of lent. Each post will invite you to savor, slow down, or be still for a moment.

A teacher who has deeply influenced me is Carmelite author and nun, Constance Fitzgerald. Read her sweeping understanding of the significance of practicing contemplation in our time:

Teachers need to know how to educate for contemplation and transformation, if the earth is to be nurtured, if people are to be delivered from the scapegoating oppression of all kinds of violence, and if humanity is to fill its role in ushering in the next era of life on earth.

This may be the most basic challenge of religion today: not sexual mores, nor bioethics, nor commitment to justice, not dogmatic orthodoxy, not even option for the poor and oppressed nor solidarity with women, but education for a transformative contemplation, which would radically affect human motivation, consciousness, desire, and, ultimately, every other area of human life and endeavor.

All great change begins with a shift in perspective
within an individual soul and consciousness –

a truth told
a veil lifted
a sorrow rising
a cry piercing
a heart ravished 

I look forward to our lenten journey together and the changes we discover along the way.

BTW: You can do this.
I am an old monk and still slam doors from time to time.

_________________________________

Topeka Area Readers Please Note !

Want to learn to MEDITATE or approach scripture from a PROGRESSIVE PROSPECTIVE?  Here are two FREE options to deepen in the SPIRIT this year during Lent.

Central Academy Lent 2015
1248 SW Buchanan
Each Wednesday from Feb 25 to March 25
5:30 Gather for Soup
6:00 – 7:30 Class
Two class offerings this year

Sign up and RSVP for classes!
Contact Central Congregational Church
(785) 235-2376; centralucc@yahoo.com

I will be teaching the five week class on contemplation, Prayer of the Yearning Heart. Rev. Joshua Longbottom will be leading a study of the gospel of Mark from a theologically progressive perspective.

It is a great help to practice contemplation in a group. I hope to see some of you there!

If silence is not your thing, dig into Joshua’s class on Mark. I promise that it won’t be dull. You will definitely see things from a new perspective!

Irony and Bliss

 

TrinityIcon

On Trinity Sunday I arrived early at First Congregational Church, a block from where I live, and settled into my pew to contemplate the glory of the Holy Trinity. Yes, I know, who does such a thing? But the Trinity is something I can actually get carried away by. Before I left for church I read the beautiful prayer to the Trinity by Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. Her prayer begins with these words,  O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity.(You can find her prayer below. Be careful, if you read it, though. It is pretty hot stuff for Protestant non mystical types.)

First Congregational United Church of Christ is a denomination, whose Reformed roots I share, and I feel gratitude for.  United Church of Christ folks hired me,  a young Presbyterian minister, fresh out of seminary, and pregnant to boot, to be interim pastor of one of their churches here in Topeka, Seaman Congregational Church. That baby she was carrying, whose footprint you can still see in the sidewalk behind the church, turned 32 last month.

Sheep

As my imagination was roaming around the abyss of God’s greatness with Elizabeth, the good Rev.Tobais Schlingensiepen was moving about the sanctuary checking on his sheep as they arrived.  He passed along the rows in his robe, sleeves billowing, shaking hands, and patting shoulders like a benediction. No skinny jeans and sport coat for this pastor. Nor was he busy checking his twitter feed.  He spoke to the sheep by name, asked questions, looked for nettles, matted coats, signs of infection, injury, illness.  Had any wolves slipped into the fold over night? Were the pregnant ewes eating well? The lambs coming along okay? He checked the weather and the flock’s energy. What do they need from him today? Is what he has planned on track with what he is seeing this morning?

Arriving at my row, he reached to shake my hand. “Hi, how are you today?”

I responded with something like, “Splendid, just fabulous,” all smiles. (Because I really was in that high dazed state of the fullness of love for God that comes upon me sometimes.)

He smiled, looked in my eyes. And asked again, “How are you…,” leaning in a bit more, waiting. He knows how sheep lie.

“I am great!” a little embarrassed by my own high spirits. “Sometimes I feel people shouldn’t be this blessed.”

“I just wanted to be sure you were not being ironic. People use irony so much.”

Let’s take a moment to let this sink in. Is this the world, the church, we find ourselves in? A place where bliss and ecstasy are so rare that they may be mistaken for irony?  Or has irony, that sarcastic twist of reality into its opposite, created a world of smoke and mirrors, where what one says rarely matches with what one means?

Without irony the psalmist shouts, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go into the House of the Holy One!’ I among many others have carried a  heavy heart with little or no joy into the house of the Lord on some occasions. And on those days I also know how very much it matters that someone notices, shows concern, and checks for any irony in my voice.

Yet are really happy sheep, saturated with love and joy, rare? I do not think so.

“The kingdom of heaven will come when men and women are willing to be penetrated by bliss.”

Years ago in a very unhappy season of my life I read these words by poet and potter, M.C. Richards.   Richards’ words opened my eyes to my own freedom and responsibility for the joy in my life. I knew deep down that her words were true, absolutely, and I have been wriggling my way into such a reality ever since. I believe that joy awaits us and is ours by virtue of our willingness to open the door, receive it, and to offer that willingness on the altar of the messes in our lives and this world.

Meninger mic

The Sunday before I went to First Congregational Church, I was on retreat listening to Father William Meninger, a Trappist Monk, and one of the leading voices in the conversation on Christian contemplative prayer. We had gathered at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. Meninger is now 81, and an unfettered, jubilant soul, if I ever saw one.

He began the retreat and introduced himself with the Buddhist saying, The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Meninger said the way (method, creed, practices, and means of revelation) to God is not God. The way (your way, my way, the Presbyterian way, the bumblebee’s way) is a finger pointing beyond itself toward ultimate Truth.

Meninger might have been channeling the German theologian, Karl Barth, who said that the Bible is a whole gathering of people pointing up at the sky. The Bible is not God; it points us in the direction of God. The particular mode through which God reveals divinity is less than the reality to which it gestures toward. For God is always beyond any particular description, form or conception of God, which we can reduce, carry around in our minds, and try to shove down somebody’s throat as The Way.

Speaking of contemplative practice in the church Menninger addressed the group of 140 lay people, nuns, pastors, and priests from a wide variety of Christian faith traditions, including Assembly of God and Evangelicals. The group included one or two young people under thirty. Meninger is quite clear that contemplative practice arrives for most people in the second half of life and did not gnash his teeth over the lack of young people in attendance at the retreat. “They are not ready yet. They have other things to do first.”

But he refuses to let us off the hook when he says, “Our churches today take their people to the door, but we hold them back. We don’t lead them into the silences.”

At First Congregational we had some silent time.  The worship leader took us to the door and gave us some time to check it out. The bulletin said:  Silence (30 seconds). I would have liked 30 minutes, but I figured that was all that the sheep here could tolerate; and that it helped them to see a time limit in print; and that, further, this silence thing was not going to go on and on and leave them sitting there stewing in their own juices forever.

I think Meninger is right. We do take people right up to the door to the deeper mystery and beauty of God, but we stop short. I see this often. Why is that? I wonder – failure of nerve and lack of faith, or maybe because some pastors do not spend much time on the other side of the door – simply surrendered to Christ in love, being in union with all there is – and want to get through the next point of the sermon and the sheep home before noon.

Old Woman Praying (Prayer without End) Nicholas Maes

Our problem is not that the sheep have never crossed over to the silences. You know how sheep are. They will poke their noses anywhere. They know and have experienced union with God, that shimmering silence and peace which rises up in their hearts, but they will call it something else. Day dreaming, sitting on the deck, holding their grandchildren, looking at a sunset… We all have moments where words fail, time stops, and a moment brims over with beauty and joy.

What the church may fail to do is give us time, space, and permission to savor, taste, swallow, and deeply enjoy these moments and value them as holy. Instead we get anxious, feel we are wasting time, need to stick with the agenda, or are being lazy. We worship the relentless, mean, crushing, 24/7 gods of consumerism and production instead of the endlessly abundant, overflowing goodness of the Trinity. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson writes, we have a serious problem in our brains and in our culture with our ability to take in, soak in, and absorb the good in this world which is constantly pouring itself out upon us.

On Trinity Sunday the Holy Spirit at First Congregational kept opening the door and I am sure quite a few of us there that morning went over the threshold to  communion with the Trinity.

The sublime guitar and violin duet did it for me.

Pastor Tobias did it too.He swung a door wide open in his thoughtful probing of the creation story in Genesis 1 as he invited questions and observations from his flock. He gave us some history and asked us to see beyond the story to the minds that told this story and found incredible hope in it in a time of their captivity. In this poetic account of the beginnings of things we find a God who stands outside, beyond the fingers of time, space, creation, and history. Here is a God who is sovereign over all that I can possibly imagine and not subject to anything that has been made or thought by the creation. Here was a God who was more than my little piece of history and present suffering who had made a world that is good, surely a God worthy of my hope.  Such a wide open door inspires a long silence, a bent knee, and a prolonged dwelling in the wonder of this God.

So I say, be bold in leading ourselves and others into the silences! Encourage ourselves to take more than a tentative sniff.  Take us gently by the scruff of our necks and say, “Come on, try it. I will go with you.”

Holiness likes to camp out in those nooks and crannies of time and space, for which we tend to have such disdain. We even call them “dead spaces.” Look again. Such unscripted moments are empty tombs resonant with the echoes of a risen God and the swift beat of wings.

Go ahead. Take a chance on bliss.

 

More about fingers and the moon

More about William Meninger

Elizabeth’s Prayer

Note to Topeka Area Readers
Father Meninger is interested in offering a retreat in Topeka next year.  Any persons interested in helping to make that happen please comment or contact me. lross@fromholyground.org

 

 

Manure and a Praying Life

Note to Praying Life Readers:

If you are a subscriber to Holy Ground Quarterly Reflection on  Contemplation  or support the The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer you already have received in your mail the letter posted here. A mistake was made by the printer on the envelope enclosed for you to mail in your gifts. The wrong address is printed on that envelope. The printer is sending a postcard to you with the correct address. We have contacted the post office about this error. If you have already sent the incorrectly addressed envelope, please let us know by email or phone lross@fromholyground.org . We will let you know when it makes its way to the correct address: 1600 SW Campbell Ave, Topeka, KS 66604.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. As for the printer, he is deeply repentant and will be forgiven shortly. I figure another twenty-four hours and God’s grace will have overcome my anxious fretting. Besides a wise person told me when I began this ministry, “Your mistakes and failures are like manure for God’s garden in your soul.” I am anticipating a bumper crop in 2014! 

anniversarylogo

The Sanctuary Is Celebrating 25 Years !

It all began with a resounding NO. Twenty seven years ago I applied for a church position as head of staff.  Few, if any women were heads of staff anywhere in those years. Still I held out hope, even though I was warned. The clerk of the Presbytery told his wife (who told me), “She doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting that job. And besides, it would kill her creativity.”

When the phone call came and the caller broke the bad news, I wept and stomped my foot. My daughters, who were outside playing, began pounding on the door. Dashing inside, breathless and red-cheeked, they shouted, “Mom. Mom! The wind is blowing. It’s blowing hard. Blowing all over the place. We need something to catch the wind with!”

Laughing in spite of my tears, I reached under the sink and pulled out a couple of big black trash bags. The girls ran back outside. I stood at the door, watching them race up and down the yard with the bags billowing behind them, catching the wind. Their wild exuberance and thrill in the blustery Kansas day, swept away my tears and anger. I felt rinsed clean and surprisingly reoriented.

It would be a while before I fully understood what God was up to in that heartbreaking no. Slowly I began to dare what seemed impossible: to pursue a ministry, which focused on the spiritual lives of people and prayer. As I began to say yes to this deep desire, door after door swung open. At some points I almost wished someone would say no, for I had little idea how to actually accomplish it.

haqqodeshsign

A ministry of prayer, which included a lifestyle of prayerful solitude, as well as organizational structure, as I envisioned it, was so removed from my denomination’s understanding of what pastors do. There were no models within my tradition. There was no provision for salary, pension, or manuals on how to do this “decently and in order.” I had only something I sensed was missing from many churches – something I and others hungered for – and the will to somehow supply some of these missing pieces.

The work has been challenging. I made mistakes. The Spirit has refined my motives and fine-tuned my sense of what I am to do, and is still challenging me to grow.

I have been immensely blessed. After twenty-five years of listening to people’s stories of their faith, it is still miraculous and thrilling to watch the wind of the Spirit of God at work in an individual soul. I see how personal transformation radiates out into the world, initiating family and community change.

Through the years God has been faithful. Needs are provided for and inspiration given.  You have been faithful too. Once when I was about to give up, one of you who had come for a visit to the hermitage said, “I have faith in you. I believe you can do this.” I have never forgotten those words of encouragement.

Roadsidefruitstand

You are why The Sanctuary exists. Your desire to deepen your faith, willingness to struggle with difficult issues, to pray and nurture yourself for service to your church, community, and the world has summoned this little “Roadside Fruit Stand,” as one of our board members called it.

You are also the how of The Sanctuary, for we are nothing without you – a far-flung community of varied faith expressions, people of compassion, wisdom, and love. You provide accountability for this ministry, a community, and a covering of prayer, as you teach us what you need and how to better serve you. You spread the news of this Fruit Stand out here in Kansas through your friends and contacts. Your subscriptions and generous gifts make this possible.  Thank you so very much!

As we celebrate 25 years in the coming year, we have some surprises and good things to share with you. Watch for a new website coming soon. Meet some new board members. Get the inside news on the progress of Loretta’s new book, Account for the Hope. Keep up with us on Facebook and our blog, The Praying Life, Pinterest, and Twitter.

We remind you to renew your subscription as it comes due. (The date of your subscription expiration is on your address label in the upper right hand corner. ) And please donate to The Sanctuary Fund. Your subscription fee allows us to break even on publishing costs. Additional gifts to The Sanctuary Fund enable us to maintain our web presence, offer spiritual direction at reduced rates for those of limited means, pay for business operations, and keep this roadside Fruit Stand open.

If you have questions  about your donation or subscription, let us know. And please keep sharing your feedback, ideas, and comments on how we can best serve you. You can phone us at 785-354-7122 or email at lross@fromholyground.org. We always love to chat with those we serve.

The wind is blowing here in Kansas today. Dried leaves rattle as they tumble down my street. The maple shakes out her falling locks, shedding what is no longer useful, and waves her dark branches to an approaching winter storm. To begin this celebration I am going to reach under the sink, pull out some trash bags, and go catch some wind. Will you join me?

Yours, chasing after the Holy Spirit with love and gratitude,

Loretta F. Ross

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But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5: 22-23

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DONATE to The Sanctuary Foundation

Wake Up!

Man Waking to Alarm Clock

Contemplation is about waking up. Simply defined, to be contemplative is to experience an event fully, in all its aspects. Biblically this is expressed as knowing “face to face.” What is implied in that phrase … is that we are in contemplation when we stand before reality and experience it without the limits and distortions that are created by narcissism, pragmatism, and excessive restlessness.   Ronald Rolheiser, The Shattered Lantern

                                              

Prayer wakes us up to what is so, not to our dreams, illusions, wishes, and desires for what is so, but to the sacred reality of each moment.

How grim you may think. How boring – this dirty kitchen, this cluttered desk, this sagging body, this pock-marked, disappointing, and flailing world?  From here it is a short, sad trip to the dark pit of the if onlys, the why nots, and maybe whens. Or perhaps I look around for someone or some event to blame for my shabby reality. Maybe I plot a way to get even, or tune out and play a game on my cell phone, fool around on Facebook, go shopping, or eat something.

We live in a culture which makes an art and a virtue out of avoiding the truth of our deep need, our sadness,  grief, and anger –  at what? Let’s put it like this: at being human. For buried beneath  much of our striving, stress, and anxiety I often discover a kind of contempt for ourselves and our vulnerability. We persistently look outwardly for relief for the painful human condition, which plays neatly into the agenda of  our culture of consumption, as we seek to find our worth through other persons, power, prestige, and possessions.

Over time prayer may eventually shatter such agendas and expose their superficiality and ultimate inability to satisfy our deep need. We find ourselves sitting in the midst of reality, still mundane, yet strangely shot through with beauty, wonder, and joy.

“You are a ruby embedded in granite. How long will you pretend it’s not true?” asks the poet Rumi. Contemplative prayer wakes us up to see through the granite of illusion to the splendor of the ruby.

FREE !

In gratitude to Praying Life readers and to all who comment, like, and share our posts here, please help yourself to a free pdf version of the most recent issue of Holy Ground Winter 2013. This issue is about waking up and finding that ruby.

If you find this to be something you would like to receive on a regular basis, please subscribe! You can receive your own copy delivered to your home mailbox or electronically online. Just indicate which version you prefer in the drop down box when you subscribe.

By subscribing you will also help support The Sanctuary Foundation as it reaches out to people of many faith traditions to nourish inner peace in a chaotic and complex world. We cannot do it without you. Really.

Holy Ground issue

Appliance Violence

SEEKING A MORE EXCELLENT WAY

refrigerator2My first exposure to appliance violence was an article I read years ago in The Holton Recorder, the newspaper of Holton, Kansas. The headline read: Hunter bags fridge. The story was about a rural Whiting woman whose refrigerator stopped running. According to the article “a repairman found the cause. A bullet had passed through a refrigerator wall at a critical point. The slug, from a high powered rifle was found in a drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator. Not only had the bullet struck the refrigerator, it had passed through two walls (including an outside wall) of the house and two pieces of stuffed furniture.”

The local sheriff said “the shot that killed the woman’s refrigerator was not a criminal act,” but warned, “People need to realize that some of those high powers (bullets) go three miles.” I saw the article as a cautionary tale for people who live in rural areas and hunters, and laughed over the clever headline.

That was before Sam told me about the darker side of appliance violence.

First I want to tell you about the award Sam gave me. Then I will tell you why he is quitting his job of four years as an appliance repair worker.

When I met him at the door, I liked Sam right away. Tall and lanky in his neat uniform, toolbox at his side, he impressed me as a young man who was on his way up.

I welcomed him in, led him down the steps, and introduced him to my dryer. He was here on a routine maintenance call. In a weak moment I had purchased a protection plan from a persuasive salesman. This was against my principles. I believe manufacturers should make things that won’t break. But I was weak. The salesman had kids to feed. And after he told me about the horrible fires dryers cause, I caved. Since I had paid for the darn thing, I figured I ought to take advantage of the annual maintenance check.

Sam laid out his tools, pried up the top of the dryer and set to work. When I returned half an hour later he said, “I have never in four years of servicing appliances ever seen a dryer as clean as yours. There was not any lint. I even lifted off the bottom plate to check under there – spotless.”

I demurred, “Well there is just me and I don’t do big washes.”

“Oh no!” he assured me. “I have been in homes with single people whose dryers are dirty within six months. This one has not been checked for two years.”

“No dog hairs?” I asked. “Spiders, crickets? I had a lizard down here last summer and mice this fall.”

“Nope,” shaking his head. “I have never seen anything like this.”

I need tell you this made my day. One has to grab for any accolades that are offered in this life, and a clean dryer award from a repair man is all that I need to smile for the rest of the week.

“You must see I lot of things in your job, coming into people’s houses, their basements, moving out their refrigerators…? “ I ask.

“Oh yes,” Sam said. “It’s awful. People  threaten me. They are so mad their appliance is broken. They are mean. I have had people pull guns on me. One woman shot at me. Hit my truck. Put a hole in the side, as I was walking around to come up to her house. Sometimes I have to leave and go drive around the block out of sight and call the police. I even put in to work in customer satisfaction, but it was just as bad there. And they don’t pay as much.”

I wanted to be sure I had heard him right. “People draw guns on you over their appliances?”

“Yes. All the time. They get so mad. I am not going to do this work anymore. It’s not safe. My fiancé wants me to quit.” He went on to tell me of the two job offers he had.

I live in Topeka, Kansas, where some people still have a Wild West swagger and hold fiercely to their right to bear arms and to protect their property. However, I cannot understand how someone could feel so threatened, or so powerless, that he or she would feel a right to draw a gun on the appliance repair man.

I have been thinking about the people who shoot at repairmen, those who take aim at the random person in the mall, or shoot to kill the guy stealing their TV. Sometimes they are mentally ill. Sometimes they feel threatened. Sometimes they are just really pissed off.

Here are questions the current gun debate in our country poses for me:

What do I do, if I do not get what I want or need?
What do I do, if I do not get my own way?
What do I do, if I get so mad I can’t stand it and want to kill someone?
What do I do, if I feel so afraid and powerless that I want an arsenal of weapons to protect myself?
What do I do, if I suffer grief, frustration, oppression, or injustice?

I am not saying weapons never have a place. I am not against weapons, but I am for people having a wide range of options for handling conflict, frustration, fear, and pain. When my only option is threatening someone else’s life with a gun, I have reached a radical impoverishment of intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual resources. My freedom and dignity as a human being, as well as that of the one I perceive as my enemy, are deeply compromised.

There appears to me, to be in some citizens, a gaping lack of the personal resources to handle strong emotions, manage anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, and threat without resorting to violence.

I am thinking about the guy out on Croco Road sitting in his cold house waiting for the furnace repair truck to drive up. I am thinking about the woman who walks into the Quick Stop and shoots the clerk to get fifty dollars. What sort of despair, sense of powerlessness, and desperation breed these acts?

A sign of the maturity and social development of a culture is not the size of its arsenals and fire power or access to weapons, but the depth of its restraint and the richness of its citizens’ internal and external resources for coping with the inevitable frustrations and sorrows of being human.

Through our faith traditions, science, medicine, our community resources, art, and our open hearts, we as a culture have a treasure trove of resources to help us deal with the agonies of being human. There is more help available than ever before, for when we do not get our own way or what we need.

Christian writer, Dallas Willard, has suggested that –

perhaps too much time has been spent by Christians trying to smooth over hurt feelings and even deep wounds, given and received, and to get people to stop being angry, retaliatory, and unforgiving. But suppose, instead, we devoted our time to inspiring and enabling Christians and others to be people who are not offendable, and not angry, and not fearful, and forgiving as a matter of course. p. 303, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard

Willard reminds of a story I heard years ago.

A warlord stormed with his troops into a Buddhist monastery and came before the abbot waving his sword. The abbot stood firm and calm. “Don’t you know I can run you through with this sword without batting an eye?” the warlord thundered at the abbot.

The abbot replied, “Don’t you know I can be run through without batting an eye?” At those words, the warlord put down his sword, bowed before the Abbot and left with his troops.

There is a more excellent way. We have great arsenals for peacemaking stockpiled in the teachings of our spiritual leaders, saints, and the faiths of world. We know how to teach our brains to be more compassionate and lower our blood pressure. We know how to help those among us who are mentally ill. We know how to be there for one another in tough times. We understand what breeds desperation and despair.

My friend Sam is headed for bigger and better things. But no one has a right to bear arms over his broken dishwasher. And no one in this nation ought ever to have to feel so unable to get his needs met that he must have a gun in order to do that. No one should have to carry so much pain inside she can’t stand it.

We can do better than this.
We are better than this.

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Holy Ground, a quarterly reflection, serving up spiritual food that sticks to the ribs for twenty three years.

Holy Ground, a quarterly reflection, serving up spiritual food that sticks to the ribs for twenty three years.

                       Back issues of this little newsletter can be found in every stack of papers in my house – I move them from my desk to the kitchen counter to the pile of mail on the dining room table, until they eventually become dog-eared and fall apart. I just can’t seem to throw an issue of Holy Ground away.
                    Why? Because Loretta Ross, an ordained Presbyterian clergy woman and a fine writer, puts equal amounts of inspiration and whimsy into every issue. Even though Holy Ground is a thin little folder – 7 or 8 pages, one essay, really – it’s always refreshing, renewing,; an awakening of sorts.
                                     Review by Susan Jelus in A New Song May, 1999

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I want to thank you for all your support, shares, comments, follows, and subscriptions to the Praying Life blog over the past three years. You continually call me to deeper truth, deeper prayer, and better writing. You are each a gift in my life.

Here’s the deal: Subscribe to Holy Ground and get the first two issues of a new series of issues on contemplation FREE!

What is Holy Ground?
Before I started writing the Praying Life blog I had been publishing a quarterly reflection on the life of prayer called Holy Ground for over twenty years. In 2000 Sheed and Ward published the best of those essays in the book, Letters from the Holy Ground –Seeing God Where You Are. I occasionally feature excerpts from this book here.

Who are you really and why should I invest in a subscription to Holy Ground, even if I get two free copies?
Many of the subscribers of Holy Ground have been reading this little publication since its beginning. The writing in Holy Ground is similar to what you find in my blog here, except that each essay is a lengthier consideration of some aspect of our life in God. Many Holy Ground issues make their way to Bible study classes and prayer groups.

As with The Praying Life blog, the writing is informed by my thirty years of listening deeply to the stories of others about their faith lives. As a spiritual director I have spent thousands of hours listening  and learning of the struggle, the suffering, and the beauty of growing in the likeness of Christ. My ministry as a pastor, as well as personal study and training in theology, scripture, and faith formation also shape my understanding of the church in this tumultuous time. I am accountable to a Board of Directors, a member of Spiritual Directors International, and an honorably retired member of the Presbytery of Northern Kansas. I take very seriously the access others give me through my writing and seek to be held accountable by other professionals and my church.

Finally and most important, is my commitment to prayer. Setting aside a day of solitude and prayer weekly, is the only credential I offer of any lasting value. For twenty five years I have focused my ministry on prayer first, last, and always. This is the core of who I am.

In the words of Oswald Chambers, “ I am called to live in such a perfect relationship with God that my life produces a yearning for God in the lives of others, not admiration for myself. … God’s purpose is … getting me to the place where God can use me. Let God do what he wants.” My Utmost for His Highest.

For me prayer is the process of continued surrender into the will of God. I am not my own, but belong to One greater than I, whose purposes for me I generally resist, but ultimately seem to surrender to.

So Tell Me More about Holy Ground
This new series of Holy Ground issues is on Contemplation and the first issue of the series, which you get free with our offer, is a general overview of contemporary contemplation and a consideration of several definitions of this somewhat obscure word.

The second issue of the series, which you also get free with our offer is a long, loving look at what it means to pay attention.

Here is an excerpt from the first issue:

One learns a lot from the disciplined practice of the present moment, or mindfulness, as it is sometimes called. As I watch the fleeting shadows of my mind’s picture show, I encounter my restlessness and my estrangement from my deepest self, where Holiness abides.

Day after day my ego strides with a flourish to its pulpit to justify, defend, or convince imagined audiences of its own certainties. Persistent and untiring, it plants its elbows on the podium and tightly grips the sides. Posturing and pontificating, it attempts to prevail against the horror of its diminishment and disappearance in the embrace of what is beyond our naming.

We sit still as stones as love stalks us, waiting just beyond the edges of our awareness to pounce upon its prey and carry us off between its teeth into the divine depths of each moment. . . . .

The past thirty five years we have seen a tremendous growth and flourishing of contemplative practices world wide. Understanding and appreciation of contemplative prayer have grown in many faith traditions.

The hunger for communion with God and the development of the spiritual aspect of our being has spilled out from churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples to PBS special documentaries, internet, coffee shops, retreat centers, and hundreds of programs in faith formation world wide, as well as secularized versions in business and the sciences.

So what is this contemplation? …

Excerpted from Vol. 23, No.2 Summer 2012 of Holy Ground, copyright©2012 Loretta F. Ross

By subscribing to Holy Ground, you will get more encouragement for your journey. A year’s subscription is $35.00, which with our offer includes six issues, instead of the usual four. That is a 50% savings.

Subscribe today. Click here. You will soon will receive in your email copies of the first two issues in the series on contemplation. You will be glad you did. And you will help us keep offering serious rib stickin’ soul food. If you would prefer the printed snail mail version, check that option in the drop down box and we will get your free issues in the mail right away.

If you have any problems or questions, leave a comment here, look for the facebook page The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer, or email me at lross@fromholyground.org.

Again, dear ones, thank you from the bottom of my heart for carefully tending to your own souls and including this blog in your diet. If you already subscribe to Holy Ground, thank you so much! How about giving a gift subscription to a friend, or passing this post on to someone you know?

What Readers  Say about Holy Ground
Holy Ground essays sustain long after the rise and fall of scandal, political wranglings, and the garish blare of media sound bites.

This issue is one of my favorites. Thank you for the call to contemplation. I especially liked your sharing of the process, the distractions, even related thoughts that are not in the present. I’ve experienced all of those! M.T. August, 2012

Wow, Loretta, you went all out for your Autumn Holy Ground. I received it yesterday and read it this morning. Really, for me, one of the most powerful things you’ve written since I’ve been receiving your reflections. It was truly inspired. I am grateful for this gift that resulted from your deep prayer life. Thank you, thank you – for sitting, for waiting, for praying.It is really an incredible reflection. – S. P. Dec. 2009

Hi Loretta – I am an avid and appreciative reader of Holy Ground. It waters my spirit without fail. Thank you for sharing your gift of spiritual insight and ability to express it in words and white space. H. E. Dec. 2011

Volume 18, No 2 arrived this week. It is poignant, and hits a mark in all of us. But what I want to say here is thank you for your continuing transparency, and your courage to share your deep self with all of us. Not only your ministry, wisdom and insight, but your willingness to share yourself with so many, is a great gift. P.M. August 2007

Your newsletters are always so deep and challenging, the most profound Christian spirituality around. Thank you, love, C. M. Dec. 2009

I am so glad Holy Ground was forwarded when I moved from Topeka to Cincinnati. The messages are among some of the most life giving ones that are out there. Thank you for this opportunity to keep receiving it!!! L.O. Oct. 2007

Summer 2009 HG

Holy Ground.  goes great with a cup of coffee!

The Writers Workshop, A Love Story

Lovers entwined, a kiss-print still/singeing your collarbone come morning,

Buzzing cicadas, whose mouthparts reek of root juice.

A splayed hand
nailed to tar shingle
on a Texarkana roof.

A silo squats in kindling grass, kneeling like a giant monk,

Laundry day debunks the laws of physics, where the personal is the thermodynamic, for this homemaker

A Requiem for a shoe: a shabby wingtip with broken ties ….lying on its side in the byway … becomes, somehow holy.

A teacher singing show tunes and weeping in a middle school classroom, filling empty space with melody, another period/full of lyrics; accidents.

These images and snatches of experience, have been resonating in my mind, calling out to me, reflecting parts of myself, and connecting me to someone else’s story, passion, or singular beating hope.

The lines are the work of the following poets in the order in which the excerpts appear:
Timothy Volpert, “Love, don’t limit me to looking,” (untitled poem, first line)
Leah Sewell , The Cicada Fling, excerpt
Ben Cartwright,  Accidents, excerpt
Peter Wright, The Silo, excerpt
Cale Herreman, The Personal Is the Thermodynamic
Sandy Morgan, Requiem for a Shoe, excerpt
Ben Cartwright, Melody and Empty Space, excerpt

The Topeka Writers Workshop

I spent evenings this past summer in the company of a small group of local writers. Mainly younger than I, they are part of what I like to think of as “the hip scene of Topeka creative life”- that outpouring of energy among young artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs of the past five or six years.  We meet after hours at the Blue Planet Café to drink coffee and munch the cookies the owner leaves for her writers.

The Topeka Writers Workshop was founded three years ago by Leah Sewell, who facilitates it as well. Leah gently leads us in writing exercises and the workshop model of critique. I joined the group because I wanted to get out of a box and mix it up with people different from me around a passion we share in common, good writing.

The group turned out to be mostly poets. At first I was afraid to tell them I am poet too, having written and published poetry since I was ten or so. But these were real poets, serious poets, the kind, who say they are addicted to poetry and take big risks for it.  One is a PhD candidate in creative writing, another is an MFA candidate. Besides, what I was bringing to the workshop was prose, chapters from a book I have been revising forever.

 

Confession, Mom and the Starlit Road

Yet I need to confess that poetry is in my blood. I remember gathering with my family around the radio in the evenings to listen to Len Howe read mom’s poems, broadcast from WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. I recently found in her files a sheaf of postcards dating back to 1948 from the radio station telling her when her poems would be read on the show Starlit Road.  Over 79 of her poems were read,  some more than once.

In the kitchen mom often stopped mid task to grab a towel, wipe her hands, and scratch out a line of poetry on the back of an envelope. I recall her urgency to get a phrase or image written before it went down the drain with the dishwater. Sometimes I sat on a chair while she ironed and read aloud from the first poetry book she owned, Untermeyer’s Modern American and British Poetry, (1928). I loved Edna St Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, and Walter De La Mere.

Only much later would I learn of mother’s inner struggle between longing to be a poet and the demands of wife and mother. When she asked the poet, Paul Engle, why through the ages only men had become great writers, he told her, “Women simply do not have the stamina for rigorous creative arts. It happens in all the other arts as well as writing.” He went on to say that great writing required the writer to suffer great tragedy which apparently the obtuse fellow assumed only came to men.

Poets Exposed

I never took a creative writing class. I skirted around the edges of poetry, deciding to perform it rather than create it. My undergraduate and M.A. degrees were in speech and theatre with a minor in English. I only began to claim being a writer in my mid thirties.

So I sneak into the group with my prose to be critiqued, and, of course, they go after it like poets. Write that paragraph like a prose poem. Take out all the extraneous words. These economical sifters of sound and meaning hone in to the spare, bare truth. They sculpt experience and meaning until reality is exposed, glistening on the page – a newly delivered child wet luminous – like a miracle:

 her long legs dawn strawberry blonde
 & I am an old wolf maintaining the furnace

(Peter Wright, teaching me to swim, excerpt)

They talk about my writing, while I listen:

I don’t think this fits here. It’s good, but use it elsewhere, says one.

This is contemplative. You pose a question and then approach and answer in different ways, notes another, getting what I am up to.

If you can’t already tell, I have fallen in love with them. The tall pianist who lopes in, plays a prelude, and reads his hilarious ironic piece on the ill-fated love story of two workers in a call center for a sex hotline. (Ok, I did blush a little.) The house-husband with a gentle soul needing to talk of something other than lunch boxes, cartoons, and laundry and be known as more than dad and husband. The unassuming woman, who quietly grieves the unspeakable loss of her dearly beloved. The PhD candidate who sends me to the dictionary to look up anamorphic and writes poems that turn over in my mind like ancient runes. The young woman, who shyly offers her poem, anticipating abundance in the putting together of two lives. And our guide, Leah, who tosses off these stanzas:

Above my head a dark sight
thrums and swoops, careens
fast to the blunt flatness
of a fence post. Fallen starling,

parted beak, gasp of dread
glint-wing broken open
in a sinister cape. I cup
its gloss in my palm.

The children fret and coo as I carry the bird
to a canopied place, wish it peace,
and bow away from its pointing eye.

The storm’s outskirt arrives
in black overhead. The wind
grips my face, tells me to get inside.

(Leah Sewell, Backyard,  excerpt)

(By the way, you must read this poem excerpt out loud to taste and feel the wonder of its consonants and rhythm in your mouth.)

Each member brings poems which stun me with their beauty, jolt me with clarity, slap me with surprise, intrigue and invite me into the warm mystery of another human being.

And I like it that they are not churchy. Trust the reader more, they tell me. (Don’t preach.) Let us make the connections. (Don’t patronize.) Let us have our own meaning. (Don’t proselytize.) We are open and welcoming, but please don’t write like the kind of Christian, we were afraid you might be, when you first joined the group. Like hound dogs, they sniff out my defensiveness, my need to please, and expose my vulnerability.

They confront me with my own prejudices and what it means to write about God and even use the J word (Jesus) in a culture where the word, Christian, makes many people, including me sometimes, squirm.

Flannery O’Connor called poetry the accurate naming of the things of God. Taking their cue from the great southern writer, these poets simply inspire me to write poems, to trim away the fat, to consider just what I am trying to accomplish here, and cast off all self consciousness. They make me more contemplative and honest.

Psychologist Carl Jung observed,

Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.

I am interested in communion, that co-union of minds and hearts, that bridges the isolation and the apparent inadmissible truths between us, where we find a home,  if only for a moment or two, in one another. I found it with these poets, reaching beyond their isolation with the things that seem important to them.

Don’t Miss This

If you are looking for a home, a little clarity for yourself, and some good entertainment, come to the Blue Planet Café on Friday evening, September 21 from 6:00-8:00 pm for Topeka Writers Workshop READS. Be there to listen and meet these writers. I think you will fall in love too.

______________

Leah Sewell is a poet, book designer, magazine editor and MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska. She is a past recipient of the Association for Women in Communications Women Making Headlines Award in media and the Penwomen Scholar Award for Letters. Her poems have or are expected to appear in PANK Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Roufus City Review, Weave Magazine and Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems. She is the founder and facilitator of the Topeka Writers Workshop in Topeka, Kansas where she lives with her family.

The Closing

A life time is like a flash of lightening in the sky
rushing by like a torrent down the steep mountain.  Gautama Buddha

It is done.
The message glowed in my palm.
The screen went dark.
The home full of light and memory
had passed neatly out of our hands.

Half a day’s drive north
we rose with the birds
to wash our faces
walk to our cushions
sit in stillness
as the sun came up.

Occupied with the throb
and slosh
of humans being,
minds alert
to the swell and surge
of experience,

we did not gulp or grasp,
but lifted our forks slowly
to savor what was on our plate.

Carrying our cups attentively
like offerings of fragrant brew
we got insights
we got bored
our necks ached
our necks really ached
our legs cramped
our minds sank.

Fur grew in our brains.
A cat named Torpor climbed up our bodies,
stretched herself across our shoulders, purring.

We stepped carefully along the drive,
the wooded path, the lawn.
When the bell startled
the still air and the finches flew,
we returned to sit
and then to walk
and sit again.

Up against our limits for the taste of God,
we picked up our hand held devices
just to check the time
and well, maybe, any messages
and then like hopeless junkies
shot up
with the news.

And, Lord, like Peter, (say it)
we slept.
We could not stay awake one hour
to watch our own suffering
let alone yours.

And the tall ones,
full of grace, like some exotic species,
came and moved among us.
We tried not to grasp
their beauty with our eyes
or covet their youth.

When they left too soon,
we, shoulders shaking, sobbed,
Oh no. Oh no.
Oh please don’t go.

But they with other roads
to travel and business
of their own stepped easy
over the threshold, saying

Let go. Let go.

And Mary said,
They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where they have laid him.

And the angel said, He is not here. He is risen.

And Jesus said,  Don’t
cling to me.

And raccoon, rotund and tight with bloat,
lay on the side of the road
and said,  See my insides are turned out.

And Coyote
trotting briskly across the clearing in bright midday
paused to look behind his shoulder
then disappeared into the woods.

A thick snake of ancient sorrow
rose up in us from miles below the surface
twisted, heaved us double with its force.
A wind whistling loneliness
whined and keened through all the spaces
in our bones.

every
thing
is going
back
and forth
across
a threshold

coming into existence
and going out of existence

while the dying rising one stands ever
on the brink
offering
a torn fragment of what is so

lost opportunities
things we have done we cannot change
our loved ones whose graves we want to tend

 we gaze at the ragged piece of our existence
resting in his tattered palm

Jesus, how will this ever be enough
to satisfy our hunger,
or slake this sorrow?

 Take. Eat, he says.
Be healed of thy affliction.

Thou, who gives and bears away,
grant us mercy
to take each moment
to our lips
and drink the cup you give
bitter,  sweet.

Give us,
O Sentry at the terminal,
where all things come and go,
the appetite and wit
to swallow and digest
entirely
what is so.

________

You sweep people away like dreams that disappear. They are like grass that springs up in the morning. In the morning it blooms and flourishes, but by evening it is dry and withered. Psalm 90: 3-6 New Living Translation

This existence of ours is a transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A life time is like a flash of lightening in the sky rushing by like a torrent down the steep mountain.  Gautama Buddha

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid. John 14:27

Rx for a Crisis

The man, unemployed for two years now, leans his elbows on the kitchen table, puts his face in his hands and weeps.
Be still and know that I am God.

The family, numb with shock and grief, stare into the abyss the sudden death of their child has opened before them.

Be still and know that I am God.

The couple – run ragged with work, child care, and keeping up with the Joneses – gaze across the room at each other and wonder how their love turned to resentment and anger.

Be still and know that I am God.

All the while the nation’s public discourse rages on with the clamor and clang of opinions, self righteous indignation, and attack.
Be still and know that I am God.
So much of our lives seems to be fueled by fear and hyperbole, or hype, as the word has morphed into. The fear and anxiety tend to compress our perception into narrow tunnel vision and demand that we act immediately, often at the expense of reasoned consideration, and gathering all the facts. Hyperbole, the fetching sister of fear, exaggerates, escalates, and glamorizes her brother. We feed on sensationalism, scandal, and worst case scenarios.
In the context of this culture of fear and hype, when we encounter the pain and loss of being human, in whatever form it shows up in our life, we may feel overwhelmed, isolated, or ashamed.
Our times are difficult. We face as individuals, as a nation, and as global citizens immense challenges. People are suffering. The planet is suffering. We must act and act wisely. Will our action, our response to the crises we face, rise from our faith or our fear? Will the choices we make be fueled by hysteria, anger, discouragement, or the wisdom and grace of something greater and mightier than we?
Be still and know that I am God. Well, what good will that do? Is that going to improve the job opportunities in my town? Is that going to bring back our son from the grave? Is that going to bring back the love and joy we used to know as a couple?
No. It may or may not change the crisis you are facing. However, it will change you. Absolutely. Being still and knowing that God is God and you are God’s creation will shift how you perceive yourself in the midst of your crisis, and how you perceive the crisis itself.
Being still and knowing that God is God will establish you in the depths of God’s Being within you. Here you will discover a strange peace that doesn’t make sense, that passes all understanding as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 4:7). You will begin to live and act and make decisions from that deep well of peace, rather than your fear and anxiety.
The New English Bible translates this verse from Psalm 46 in this way: Let be then: learn that I am God. Let things be as they are, stop strategizing, blaming, figuring out solutions, or how to get even. Stop your action and thinking. Be in that energetic stillness that is God’s presence within you.
In doing this you will learn that God dwells within you, speaks within you, and is moving in your life and world. You are not in charge, never have been. You do not have to figure this all out and get it right somehow. Relax. Trust.
God is our shelter and our refuge,
a timely help in trouble;
so we are not afraid when the earth heaves
and the mountains are hurled into the sea,
when its waters seethe in tumult
and the mountains quake before his majesty.
There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God
which the Most High has made his holy dwelling;
God is in that city; she will not be overthrown,
And he will help her at the break of day.
The Lord of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge.    from Psalm 46


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