Tag Archives: God

Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birth
to redemption in your time and place.

Part One – Mary and Cousin Carl

A-annuncia_Fra_Angelico

Most every epiphany or showing of God in scriptures is met with fear. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying,  “Rejoice, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary does not break out in ecstatic bliss. Instead she is greatly troubled at the saying. As Luke tells it, she considers in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And well she might. It was probably not the first time some itinerant ladies’ man claiming to be an angel had come on to her.

The angels in the Bible get some of the worst lines. They are hard to pull off with any authenticity. Enter one angel Gabriel with a flourish of wings and heavenly splendor who must make believable both his incredible presence and the words: “Rejoice, O favored one.”  Smile, God loves you. This is your lucky day! Any virgin with an ounce of sense might consider in her mind, “Right sweetie. Have I ever heard that one before.”

The immensity of the heavens is about to invade Mary in a mysterious and awesome conception that will defy rational explanation and accomplish an incarnation that ushers in the redemption of the world. Yet before Christ is born, Mary must face her fear and make a choice. And so it is with us. When God’s cheery messenger meets us with the news that we will conceive and bring forth the fruit of salvation, fear rather than joy is likely to be our first response.

A-Annunciation_da_MessinaMessengers sent by God to announce God’s saving love often wear camouflage. They have a hundred disguises. Can we trust that they are who they say they are? This seed of hope they want to place within us, dare we believe it, receive it? What if we are mistaken and this is all a dream or a product of our own egotistical imaginations? What arrogance makes you think you can bear sacred saving gifts into the world? This is no angel, but Cousin Carl dressed up in Aunt Edith’s chenille bathrobe with some tinfoil wings and a halo made out of a pie pan!

In real life angels rarely look like the ones in paintings. And yet, does it matter if the angel really is Cousin Carl? To me, what matters is that we believe that holiness and salvation are afoot, whatever ridiculous disguises they wear.

Prior to the advent of God’s redeeming love in our lives and world comes a courageous act of faith. The birth of Christ is contingent on the belief of a young girl with an imagination creative enough to envision the impossible and a sense of her worth strong enough to defy fear and anxiety. She places her whole being in jeopardy as she lays out her life and all that she holds dear on the gamble that there is a God in the heaven who might have some business to do with her.

We are to rely on faith rather than evidence, Ian Matthews writes in his interpretation of St. John of the Cross. Yet, here’s the kicker: the danger St. John warns of “is not so much that we shall trust in the wrong thing, but that we shall stop trusting at all; that, while we may never say it in so many words, we shall cease to believe that we are factor in God’s life.”

Matthews continues:
Survival demands a certain skepticism. We are trained to cope as social beings by keeping our desires within realistic limits. But where God is concerned, the problem lies in our desiring too little, and growing means expanding our expectations; or rather, making [God’s] generosity, not our poverty, the measure of our expectations.  – Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Mary, sizing up her heavenly visitor, is moving from the rather safe place of conventional norms into a new realm where few of the old rules will make much sense. No one else can judge for her the validity of that grinning angel holding out joy like Aunt Edith’s peanut brittle. Should she take a bite? She hasn’t forgotten that incident in the garden with the serpent. What is truth? How can she be sure this is an invitation from God?

There are no books she can read, no wise men and women she can consult. She alone must determine and act on her own truth. How will Joseph or her village ever believe what is happening to her? Yet what others will think is not her ultimate concern. Her concern is obedience to the living God, to hope, to the possibility of wonder that lies beyond what the eye can see.

Joseph and the others must come to their own conclusions. They, along with the rest of us, are given that freedom. In W. H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, Joseph says to Gabriel:

All I ask is one important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
Gabriel responds:
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.

Weighing the odds, Mary asks one question, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”

“No problem,” guarantees the angel. And citing the case of barren Elizabeth, he assures her that with God nothing is impossible. Mary’s question raises a far from minor point. The participation of a male is a basic ingredient for conception. When God sends a divine messenger to us announcing that we have been chosen to bring forth some saving work, it may appear that some major components for success have been omitted. How shall this be since I have no money? Since I have no work? Since I have no education?

“No worry, it’ll be a cinch,” says Cousin Carl, snapping his fingers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”

Finally it is up to Mary. The redemption of the cosmos is resting on the consent, the free choice of this mortal woman to have faith, to believe that what she is experiencing is true, and to claim and live out her experience of that truth by conceiving the fruit of salvation.

What will be your answer to Cousin Carl?

 

A_Annunciation_Collier

_______________________

 To be continued ~ watch for part two of this two part series. Will Mary say yes?  And what’s faith got to do with it?

This post is adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

You Will Die Before You Finish This Prayer

“I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer – and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short – is to make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!” cheerfully advises the fourteenth century English author of the Epistle of Prayer.

The author, most likely a country parson, is writing to a young person, who asked for advice on how to control the mind when saying prayers. This is a request I often hear. Some things never change in the praying life.

I recently tried the parson’s advice and it about did me in. I attempted to make certain I would die before I completed my prayer, and learned that there is little like death to focus the mind:

The world rushed in with her fetching beauty, her clear blue sky, and yellowing maple leaves, waving, “Don’t forget about me, and me, and the red bird house, and the wren, and the dragonfly and the glaciers gripping the ground, and the wild horses pounding over the plains. The wind, whooshing leaves down the street, sent a shower of glimmering memories – babies, kitchens, ginger snaps, story books – I gave thanks for galoshes to help me wade through all the goodness. I will be ancient or dead before I finish stringing the pearls of this gratitude.

After the gratitude came the love, flowing up to the porch, running under the door, pooling at my feet and rising, slowly to my knees. I climbed up on the table and the love still mounted. Love is the color of spring and snow and fire. It moans and sings and weeps. It tastes bittersweet, smooth and creamy, warm and rich as hot chocolate. Then I grew bold and dared to believe that I could breathe in it, could breathe under-love, and that I would not drown or melt in it. So I slipped off the table and swam a few strokes around the room, then let the love sweep me out an open window into the world, buoyant and giggling.

When I came across the English parson, I had been feeling little gratitude and not the least bit buoyant. Instead of gratitude and this exuberant love, sorrow and longing for God had occupied my heart. My praying life had honed down to a narrow naked ache, like a thorn, for several weeks. I hurt. I went to sleep with the thorn and woke with it, a stab of incompletion and desire, lodged like a fish hook in the center of my being. There was no one thing I could name that would satisfy or heal this pain, but only the one whose name was above all names, who was before there were names.

The thorn was part grief and a prickly call to deeper freedom. As I grieved recent and old losses in the midst of many present blessings and considerable gladness, I was being weaned from some of the things of this world, which are lesser than God. And it hurt. I sensed there was something I was to let go of, but I couldn’t quite see what that was, though it seemed to have to do with some of my mental constructs, attitudes, ways of naming and holding what I knew as reality. It seemed to have to do with who I thought I was and how I held myself together. And this felt really, really scary.

So I prayed, meditated, read holy words, exercised, talked with friends, listened to and felt deep compassion for others. I also played a lot of mindless solitaire on my phone.

I went to the Antiochian Orthodox church down the street, where, except for the jean clad worshippers, I felt I had stepped into an ancient Syrian synagogue where Paul might step out and begin preaching any moment. I let the tonal chants in four part harmony wrap around me, as the icon saints gazed out from all four walls. Each word and act in worship was directed, not to audience appeal, market demographics, or video screens, but to the Holiness that filled the space. It was clear most of the people, as well as all those saints with their sorrowful eyes, also had thorns of longing love in their hearts too.

I have had periods of prayer like this before and trusted God was at work somehow. I know that uncertainty, alienation, and disorientation are part of growing in faith. The temptation during such times is to turn in disgust on oneself, dredging up failures, mistakes, weaknesses, and falling into a dark pit of self-negation. Yet I have learned over the years, that it is precisely, when we feel the most pitiful, that we are most in need of our own tender compassion and love.

During this time I gobbled up The Cloud of Unknowing, another fourteenth century English classic I first read years before. The writer affirmed what I was experiencing and assured me that it was God at work in me. He counsels “to reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after God whom you love. … Your whole life now must be one of longing… And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent.” Rats, there seems to be no escape, short of solitaire or The Voice.

I recently realized with relief that the thorn was gone. The longing remains, but the acute pain is gone. This was a few days after I imagined that I would die before I finished my prayer. I have no idea why or how it left. I am just grateful to not feel so gripped and mournful reaching out to the heavens. Living in the cloud of unknowing and uncertainly is difficult to those of us who take pride in our intellect, our ability to be in control, to know things, and manage our own destinies.

Some religion is all suffering and damnation. Some religion is all sweetness and happy thoughts. Mine is sorrow and love. In the painful friction of sorrow and love new life ignites, leaps forth, and gives light in the darkness. Lately the words to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross have been singing themselves in my mind. So much of Christianity is mystery and wonder to me. I am clueless. I go walk around the block with my dog, praying that God make something holy of my life. I do not care what it is.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
– Isaac Watts

Have you ever found yourself wandering in the cloud of unknowing without a prayer, but the longing of your heart, the aching desire for God?
If you wish, share a little of your experience here.

Do You Know What You Know?

Four Great Questions

The word is very close to you.
It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.

 I was putting away some of the books which had clustered around my reading chair:  David Brooks, The Social Animal; Contemplation Nation, edited by Mirabai Bush;  poetry by Wendell Berry, The Hunger Games; The Cloud of Unknowing… when I randomly opened one of the books and found Four Great Questions.

The questions are in the book, Yoga and Anxiety – Meditations and Practices for Calming Body and Mind by Mary and Rick NurrieSterns on page 102. I will tell you what they are in just a minute.

I find the world fascinating and cannot get full of the knowledge and wonder of it all. I usually am reading four or five books at the same time. Often what I read opens doors of understanding and appreciation. Other times reading confirms my own intuitions and understanding, or it invites me into whole new places and realities I have never experienced or imagined.

“He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s actually kind of dangerous,” a friend recently said to me about a young professional on his way up the ladder to “success.” Sometimes we do not know what we don’t know. We may then set out to decrease our ignorance, or remain self-deceived, uninformed, arrogant, and even dangerous.

On the other hand there are occasions when we don’t know what we know, which could also be dangerous. The questions I found on my way to my book shelves are aimed at uncovering truths we already know, but are ignoring, denying, or deceiving ourselves about.

For example, we may know more about what is the best course of action for us, than we allow ourselves to own. Sometimes I play dumb in my relationship with God. I will go back to God over and over with some question I really already have the answer to. Yet I insist on double checking, second guessing, and reconfirming. It is my anxiety and doubt that send me back for continual assurance. I almost seem to prefer wringing my hands and hemming and hawing, than striding confidently, calmly into the next step.

This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you.  It isn’t unreachable.  It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?”  Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?”  Not at all! The word is very close to you.  It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.   Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Common English Bible (CEB)

Four Great Questions

Sometimes we are not ready to face a truth for various reasons, so we choose to remain ignorant. These questions help you consciously acknowledge a truth that you know deep inside, or to bring into the light a nagging realization that keeps popping up.

1. (Fill in the blank) The truth about this relationship is ______________.

2. I know I need to _______________________________________.

3. The real truth is _______________________________________.

4. What do I know about myself and my life that I haven’t been listening to?

Take some time this week with these questions. Find out what you already know and let me know how it goes.  “The word is very close to you.”

Questions from Yoga and Anxiety – Meditations and Practices for Calming Body and Mind by Mary and Rick NurrieSterns

The Writing Exercise

Write a letter to a landscape or scene you pass through today.
For example, “Dear Branner Trafficway.”

Dear Mom,

You rest now in my way.
The plastic cartons I put you in
clutter the path
from
kitchen
to office.

I step around the contents of your dismembered
life
trying not to trip,
coffee cup in one hand
sheaf of papers in the other.

Squeezing past a bin
I stumble upon
your journals
tales of trips
to the woods
wildlife sightings
what happened last Tuesday,
and how Gladys brought over a pan of sweet rolls,
still warm from the oven
poems about birds and babies
dragonflies
and things you cannot change and break your heart
word snapshots and watercolor sketches –

scattered orange road construction cones
confuse the once familiar scene.

The blue china sectioned dish you fed me from,
when I kicked my legs in the high chair,
peeks over the top of another box.

Photo albums, the ducks you carved,
and all the letters and cards I ever sent you
occupy the landscape of my life
and I am no longer sure
how to get from here to there.

Periods of disorientation are part of the spiritual life Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann tells us. Such periods precede what he calls new orientation. Brueggemann charts how the history of Israel tells the story of orientation, confusion and loss of direction, and new clarity over and over. The story culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection and then continues with the church and our individual journeys as well.

What are the inner and outer landscapes you are passing through today? Take a moment to share what you are witnessing so we all may grow closer to seeing the big picture.

Thanks to Melissa Sewell and Leah Sewell and the Topeka Writers’ Workshop for inviting me to pay attention to my landscape.

Boring Church and the Vulnerable God

There is a bit of the scientist in anyone who sets out to test in his or her own life if Jesus Christ is really all he is cracked up to be. “Prove it,” the contemplative says to God. Here are all these promises: freedom, joy, abundance, peace, wholeness, justice, truth, and life eternal. “Show me,” says the contemplative, setting out to experiment with divinity in the laboratory of experience.

In the beginning God is the object of the search. At some point God may peremptorily rise out of the test tube and take over the experiment. I find myself being dissected. My soul is flayed open by truth. I am blinded by glaring light and toasted over a Bunsen burner, where my impurities are burned away and I am distilled into my essence. I am no longer in control of this process. The knower and the known have shifted places. And truth is not something I can find, but something that has me in its grasp.

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes, “Reason, even the most acutely critical reason cannot establish truth.” … [This is because] You cannot criticize a statement of what claims to be the truth except on the basis of some other truth-claim – which at the moment – you accept without criticism. But that truth-claim on which your critique is based must in turn be criticized. Any claim to know truth is, therefore, simply a concealed assertion of power.” (Truth to Tell, The Gospel as Public Truth, Eerdmans, 1991, pp 29-30.)

The work of scientist Michael Polanyi reminds us that “all knowing involves the personal participation of the knower, that knowing always involves the risk of being wrong, and that the struggle to know calls for the fullest exercise of personal responsibility.” Truth to Tell,  p.51)

Instead of seeking proofs of God from reason or experience, the contemplative finds fulfillment simply and humbly dwelling in love in God’s presence.  The contemplative gives God entry into the world, not through a claim of truth, but through a believing heart. Instead of an exercise of power through the assertion of my reality over yours via dazzling argument or feats of spiritual prowess, the contemplative takes the vulnerable route of allowing God to make God’s own appeal through the context of his or her surrendered life.

I acknowledge my vulnerability when I say, “I cannot know it all. I may be wrong. This is what I see. This is what I am responsible for articulating as clearly as I can.” We might characterize the spiritual journey as the process of discovering right relationship to this vulnerability, which we meet in ourselves, others and in God.

By vulnerability I mean capable of being wounded and wrong, open to attack or damage. Our vulnerability may include our sin and temptation to evil, our failure and weakness – wherever we are not whole, wherever we fall short of the glory which is our promised inheritance as God’s children.

We can relate to our woundedness in many ways: with anger, resentment, impatience, contempt, deceit, shame, and blame. We can so identify ourselves with our vulnerability that we know ourselves only as victim. Then, committed to our suffering and stubbornly resistant to healing, we may defend our wounds with fierce loyalty.

God sends into our consciousness, into the heart of matter, Holy Vulnerability in the form of Jesus. It teaches, heals, suffers, dies, and rises saying, “Look, watch me. This is what it means to be human. It is all right. Everyone is wounded. Follow me and be healed.”

Over and over Jesus’ ministry reached out to the vulnerable ones. He brought home the lost and the misfits saying, “You belong too.” He didn’t bring them back to turn them into Jews or folks like him. He just brought them back saying, “You, just as you are, are important. You have a contribution to make. We need you. You belong.”

Loving Jesus takes away our shame for being human like nothing else can. For he shows us how to be poor, how to value and appreciate our vulnerability. He tells us the vulnerable ones will see God and inherit the kingdom of heaven. He helps us get off our high horse and come down where we ought to be on our knees.

In the painful encounter with our vulnerability and diminishment, we meet the diminished suffering God and our own holiness. For in my poverty I discover my true worth. Stripped of what I can do, what I possess, how I am known by others – all the external ways I have attempted to create worth for myself, I find my true self in the center of my humility, which is also the dwelling place of the Trinity.

I used to read my children a story about a little girl who was born with a long tail like a dragon. Various characters seek to help the child with what is perceived by some as her disability. I liked Mike the cat’s approach best. “Teach her to love her tail,” he sagely advised. He shows her how to switch her tail back and forth, wind it around the fire escape railing and hang upside down. Teach her to love her tail.

Part of the task of the church is to teach us to love our tails and God’s tail, Jesus. Spirituality without Jesus Christ is spirituality that may be resisting the fundamental truth of our vulnerability. It may be a spirituality that, well or ill disguised, is exercising power, trying to be God.

The world holds vulnerability with fear and contempt. The church ought to teach us to hold it in our arms and love it. But the church is, of course, vulnerable too.

I was trying on a new hat when eleven year old Cicelia observed that you should always wear a hat to church. “It protects you from boredom, mom. The boredom rays, like the ultra violet rays from the sun are in church and sometimes at school. If you have a hat, you will be protected from the boredom.”

I hope the place where you worship is not boring. Maybe if churches had more to do with being with God and less to do with talking about God, things wouldn’t be so boring for Cicelia and others. As EvelynUnderhillobserved, “God is the interesting thing.”

A good deal of church seems to have little to do with God and is conducted as though God were, if not absent, at least very far away. Little time is given for God to get a word in edgewise. Our frantic activity and anxious busyness comprise our faithless creed that not much of anything can happen without our doing it ourselves.

Perhaps it is just too risky, too frightening. What if nothing happens? Nothing is changed or accomplished? Once Cicelia put a sign on her door painted in large red letters: KNOK or ELSE! Red paint ominously dripped from the letters like blood.

Jesus, we know you stand at the door and knock, but beware! We are resistant to transformation, devoted to our losses and the sins of others against us, and do not really trust your power in our lives.

The church will always be imperfect. It will be unimaginative and boring and rigid sometimes, because we are unimaginative and boring and rigid sometimes. Thank goodness God’s presence doesn’t depend on our winning academy awards in best Pentecost service of the year.

I have been in so many churches where you wonder why anybody comes at all. What with the dozen dusty arrangements of silk flowers and the sappy pictures of Jesus and the bad roller rink organ music you wonder what the appeal could be.

The appeal is, of course, Jesus. Jesus is there and active, because the people believe in him. Their vulnerable belief holds the door open for the vulnerable God to enter.

Knok or Else.  He is likely to walk right on in.

This post is an excerpt from my book written about learning to pray as I raised children in small town, Holton, Kansas. Loretta Ross (Ross-Gotta),  Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed and Ward, 2000,  pp 119-122.

The Dancing God

 

Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity?
I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity
the Father laughs
and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs
and gives birth to us.       Meister Eckhart

Western Christianity used the Latin word circuminsessio to describe the activity of the Trinity. In contrast Eastern Christianity used the Greek word, perichoresis. Circuminsessio means broadly to sit around in a circle. Perichoresis means to dance in a circle.

 Needless to say, I prefer dancing.

BLEST COMMUNITY

 O Most Holy Trinity
Undivided Unity,
teach us the gentle deference
of your dance of surrendered love
how with infinite tenderness
and utmost esteem
you so gently
adoringly
are present
to one another.

Teach us your perichoresis,
your grand circle dance,
where you eternally birth joy
from the womb of reverence.

Teach us your unending,
enfolding regard
for the pure holiness
you hold and behold.

You,
sweet breath and the lungs of creation,
eternally giving,
empty
and eternally receiving
are filled.

You release and bind,
but never push nor pull.
You hold accountable,
but never blame.

You incline yourselves to one another
as a grove of green willows
bending in the breeze
bowing to each other’s grace
known and cherished
on the broad plain of mutuality.

Deepen our trust, O Blest Community,
that we may enter such intimacy.

                                                                Loretta F. Ross

Once a group of Western theologians traveled to the East to speak with a group of Buddhist monks, and asked, Will you tell us how you do theology?

 The monks thought for a while and then responded, I do not think we do theology.

 We dance.

Here is another post from The Praying Life on the Trinity: https://theprayinglife.com/2010/05/30/a-god-who-dances/

Caring for Souls: The Call and the Cost

I entertain myself by spying on the hidden mystery of how the Holy Spirit shapes, purifies, and refines souls for holy purposes. This work of caring for souls has been my focus for over thirty years. I figure I have spent several thousand hours listening to people tell me about their lives in God.

In some cases I have been privileged to walk with individuals for many years, observing periods of suffering, impasse, joy, and growth. Trained in the practice of spiritual direction, I offer my presence, love, and attention to those, who share with me the intimate and profound desires of their hearts.

I have learned a lot about the way of God in a person’s soul and the way of a human being as he or she struggles, resists, and seeks the One beyond his or her control or manipulation. I have seen the common traps and temptations, and the unfailing grace of Christ. I have learned to recognize  patterns of deepening spiritual maturity. What I have to give, which seems the most important at this point,  are my prayers and my faith.

In this poem I explore Jesus’ final words to Peter on the shore on the Sea of Tiberius (John 23)  and some of what I have experienced in feeding Christ’s sheep.

CHILDREN,  HAVE YOU ANY FISH?

Just after daybreak,  Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them,  “Children, you have no fish, have you?”  John 21:5

After breakfast –

did they push back the plates
brush away the crumbs
and leaning on their elbows
drain the last of the coffee?

when they had finished breaking
the fast
that knot that moored them
to the earth –

did they hear the crack
as lack was smashed
and denial strewn in shards
all round their dawn drenched faces
while Fullness rose before them,
a grinning fry-cook,
presiding at the flame?

So when they had completed that shattering
that breaking of self-imposed want
and self itself
and tasted, savored, chewed, digested
that Fish
who had eluded their nets all night

then Feast asked:

Do you love me?

Peter takes the bait
Yes, Lord.
Do fish swim? Is the sea wet?

 Feed my lambs.

 A second time Feast casts the net:

 Do you love me?

 Yes, Lord. You know.
Peter turns, twisting in the webbing.

Tend my sheep.

And then the charm:

 Do you love me?        

Flailing, inextricably caught
flesh straining, tormented –

I am putty in your hands.  You know me.
Why press me up against the edges of this love
to lie gasping, gills seared by sanctity
on the far shore of heaven?
You who have lured me here,
you know, you know.

Then quick
the deft Cleaver
a swift slash of blade
and he is flayed open
on his soft underside
from gullet to dorsal fin.

And it comes:

Feed my sheep.  Again.

O Peter, Peter
once you swam where you would
through silent green darkness
in and out of rotting keels among the stems
lying in wait for your supper
to enter your heart’s snare.
Now you are trawled
where you do not wish to go
where you will be filleted
in the bright morning sun
for someone else’s breakfast.
O Peter,  Peter there may still be time
run
run!

In some nook
you will lean across a table
called remember
and another’s hunger will tear out your entrails
and you will wash down your cheerios
with each other’s tears.

The line is forming, Peter.
Hear their cries.
See them coming,
heaving themselves out of the waters
like great sad whales
beached on this foreign strand.

Tend them, Peter. They are mine.
Be gentle with their wounds
the raw red
festering places
seeming so incurable.
Teach them to clean
to wrap
to bind up the hurt
with these stained winding cloths.

Give them a poultice
for drawing out the poison,
a potion for a contrite heart.

Wipe their tears.
Sing their lament.
Carry their ache in your heart
long after they leave
and wake to it when you rise.

You will not wish to meet such suffering.
You will look for ways to turn its tide
to swim back to your ancient watery grave
where life eased slowly into you once removed
through gossamer wings you wore waving on each side.

Now your lungs screech
as the air
the air
slams into you
immediate
as this picnic breakfast, Pete.

You have seen me
known me
loved me
now you will be food for them to eat.

                            Sheep

A woman stops on her porch at dusk.
Sifting through the branches
Grace greets her.
Dare she kneel?
What will the neighbors think to spy
her caught in prayer on the threshold?
Grocery sacks spill down the stair
crispy critters, wonder bread,
instant breakfast fill the air.

The man searching for peace
having lost his love
now paces through the word
hunting for the key.

Another flops over and over
trying to get her bearings.
Which way is up?

The shy awkward magician
in a dazzling burst of courage
pulls out the hidden emerald of her heart
and bows triumphant
while drums roll and rabbits scamper all around.

The one who never stops talking
weaves his fear in rambling fables.

The one, awakening, sings possibility and promise
and perches on the edge of wonder,
enchantment, waiting to be opened.

All beached, scarred, encrusted with barnacles
thrust up against each other in the hush of dawn,
gasping, lungs laboring, gulping at the Spirit.

Carried

 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”  This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.” (John 21: 18-19) NKJV

In accompanying others on their journey into the heart of God –
making our way together through the clotted underbrush
the heavy growth of jungle foliage
trekking across the endless stretches of barren tundra
waiting out the storms in bus depots
napping in the meadows –
what seems most apparent now
is the oneness
the mutuality of laughter shared
joy celebrated
and anguish felt.

I have seen myself hesitate on the frontier
holding back
keeping myself in reserve 

Let’s have a nice holy talk and then we can all go home.

But Jesus never was much on talk alone
and like some mother determined to get her children off to a good start
fries up some fish for breakfast
and sees we must take in,
consume redemption
carry it in our bellies,
eat the pain of one another
feel it ease into our blood and bone
and, tasting theirs, so we embrace our own.

Fish out of water,
our task is learning how to breathe in two worlds
to walk the treacherous path
that cuts an ever widening swath in our hearts,
the gorge of sorrows where compassion feeds.

You there singing in your prayer
weeping, screaming,
I do not know where the way leads
into what dark forests, what caves, what dizzy peaks.
I only know I go along
and where once I went alone,
swam girded solitary in the reeds,
charting a course myself
now am lifted
swept by this net of love
and carried
carried
even as I carry you in me,
carried into bright and alien lands
carried toward the One
who ever holds our breakfast
in his hands.

 Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of  Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you.  I have made, and I will bear;  I will carry and I will save.   Isaiah 46: 3-4

Reflection questions:

  • How do Jesus’ words to Peter in John relate to you as you care for the souls of family, friends, clients, and others Jesus sends to you, or sends you to?
  • What have you observed about how people develop their faith and love for God? What seems to be your role in that process? How do you feed Christ’s  sheep?

 

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Thank you so much!

Exploring Solitude: Leaving Solitude, Gone to Galilee

“Don’t be afraid.  I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross.  He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer.  You can see for yourselves that the place is empty.  Now—on your way.  Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee.  You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming.  Stunned, they said nothing to anyone. (Mark 16: 6-7  The Message)

Contemplation is the world becoming luminous from within as one plunges breathlessly into human activity, wrote paleontologist, and priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Eventually, that which calls us into solitude will also send us out of solitude. Communion with God by ourselves leads to communion with God with others and everything that is. The longing to connect with God returns us to all that is in God.  As Jesus prayed:

 I pray that they will one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us…I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. John 17: 21-22 

 

Solitude deepens our appreciation and concern for all that is in God’s creation. Thomas Merton wrote that it was in solitude where he became capable of deep love for others.

I do not mean to imply that entering solitude means that we are without companions there. A jostling, rowdy, crowd of the saints and angels may join you from time to time. I believe the saints approve of our going off alone to pray and will show up to share their love, make wise cracks, and steal our cookies. Or – maybe it is the mice you hear in the night, muttering and munching your Cheetos. Yet other energies come and go – ancestors, spirits, the great chorus of prayer lifted night and day throughout time and space, the Trinitarian exchange of love that holds the stars in their courses.  Call it what you may. We are never alone. Yet one day, an angel of sorts will intrude on your cozy peace and tell you to go back to the crowds of Galilee.

Time to Go?
Many of us may live for long stretches with little major change in our lives. We complain and fret about the way things are, but we are comfortable in our complaining. Some kind of restriction, suffering, or limitation has become as familiar and predictable as on old friend. Or perhaps, we have grown beyond a wineskin, which once served us well, yet we continue to conform to it, cramming and squeezing ourselves in something which no longer serves us well.

Ways of living end. Even the lovely gifts of solitude come to an end. And it is time to go back home, or wherever home will be for us now. I have come to recognize an organic sense within me, which sits up, looks around, and begins to think of the world beyond my solitude. New energy, clarity, and purpose quicken within me. I know it is time to go back to the world. I am ready – rested, realigned, and serviceable for God’s good pleasure.

Or perhaps we wake one morning, rub our eyes, and say, “Well this is enough of this!” Maybe it’s the cross we are stuck on, clutching at our suffering, reviewing, blaming, nursing resentment, and bitterness.

So, we put down our fork and decide to stop eating sour grapes. And we go out to see if there is somebody who needs a hand to help them climb down from whatever they are hanging from or hanging onto.

Or maybe, you are stuck, numb, and passive in the tomb, playing out some kind of death drama. Then one day you sit up, look around and say, “Oh Rats. Guess I better get up. This is just plain silly. The door has been wide open for days. And I am missing out on all the fun.”

The Summons to Life
The Word of the Lord goes out to the mountains, the lake shores, the forests, and deserts. The Word of the Lord seeps under doorsills, writes itself upon your mirror, and grabs you by the throat in the doctor’s office.

Come, come! Follow me. I am not here. I have risen! Come plunge into the heart of the world, the hurly burly, the bustling shove and rush of life. Come, dive into the chaos. Let go of the death in your life. Follow me down the main streets crying, “Life is winning! Love is winning!”

And you, once basking in the silence and beauty of your Love, now ignite, burn incandescent, and, running with fire, immerse yourself in the midst of the darkness, blossoming like the night sky on the Fourth of July.

Isn’t this why you have been made, to be a rag, soaked in God, burning hot with truth and molten laughter? What good is all your suffering, your losses, and solitude, if they do not thrust you into the throng, wearing the fragrance of God?

People can tell you know, that fragrance, that scent of holiness, that wafts from you, when you have been spending time with God. Dogs and children will follow you. Birds will sing for you. And love-starved souls will line up at your door.

The world does not need your knowledge, your money, and competence. The world does not need your fear, your anxiety, your worry, your pitiful soul sagging from a cross, and your grim tales of death and woe.

The world needs your faith. The worlds longs for one authentic God-smitten soul, who can no longer hold back the Spirit, rising like an orange sun, like a soaring bird, like a great flag unfurling, shouting from every cell, “He is not here. He is risen. He is gone. Gone. To Galilee!”

Get over yourself. Stop sniveling and cringing.

Be a flame in the darkness, faith in the unfaith, hope in the despair, love in the hate, laughter in the gloom.

Go ahead. Rouse the dead! Stomp your foot, and cry, out, “Live!”

Pass out roses. Prepare a feast. You have died and risen with Christ. Nothing can stop you now from bearing grace into the world with every breath you breathe.

So good is this Good News.

So good is this raucous community filled with light.

 

 Solitude Practice:

  •  In a world full of fear, anxiety, and efforts by many to amplify that fear, how and where do you convey a different message?
  • Have you noticed ways in which your solitude practice helps you to love others more?
  •  What has you sniveling or cringing? Is it time to let it go for faith and trust in Christ?

 

This is the last post in the Exploring Solitude Series for now.  I am sure I will take up this topic again in the future.  Thank you for all the likes, shares, retweets, comments, and emails. You are each a beautiful treasure to me!

 Next post:  Something You Do Not Want to Miss   :  )

___________________________

 Praying Life Readers,

I am leading a workshop this month here in Topeka. Hope to see you there!

Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer

Saturday, April 21, 2012
8:30-12:00
$20.00
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS  

www.embracethequestions.com

Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; info@embracethequestions.com

 Related articles

Exploring Solitude: Tomb Time

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still, because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. 

 – from an ancient homily on Holy Saturday used in the monastic tradition

 

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is one of my favorite days of the church year. I want to savor the richness of this day, but our rush to Easter Vigils, Easter Sunrise Services, Easter Breakfasts, Easter Cantatas, Easter Dramas, and Easter Egg Hunts does not give one much opportunity to enter the soundless, solemn peace of Christ asleep. I want to halt the parade of Easter soirees to discover the grace of this moment in the story of saving Love.

Such a pause doesn’t seem to be in our nature.

Over ten years ago US News and World Report solicited readers’ answers to the question, “Does America have ADD?”  According to the article, “Since 1965, the average news sound bite has shrunk from 42 seconds to just 8. The average network TV ad has shrunk from 53 seconds to 25. Fifteen second ads are on the rise. Multi-tasking is in. Downtime is out.” Millions of children and quite a few adults have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, a brain imbalance that is thought to be the root of unusual hyperactivity, impulsivity, and poor concentration. Wired magazine calls ADD the “official brain syndrome of the information age.”

What does it take to sit us down, stop us in our tracks, and shut our mouths? When have you been brought to your knees and cast face down, prostrate, by some overwhelming mystery of suffering love? Have you been able to stop the frenzied round of your life’s demands without feeling guilty, lazy, or neglectful?

What is alarming to me about our culture’s distracted, harried quality is that, as I understand redemption, transforming love requires a lot of focus and concentrated effort. I really cannot participate with Christ in his death and resurrection, and simultaneously answer my E-mail, pick up the dry cleaning, plan supper, and listen to my teenager.  Not that any of these activities cannot hold saving power, but servants of transforming love need to be able to act with attentive one-pointed concentration, and a wholeness of mind, heart, and body that require our doing one thing at a time. What is implied in such loving attentiveness is that this task, this person here, now, is worthy of my entire attention. As I am able to set aside or die to other competing calls for my concern, greater love and healing may pour through me.

Rest

Tradition holds that after Jesus died on the cross, he went to preach to the souls in hell and retrieve Adam.

16th century Russian icon of the Descent into ...

I certainly hope not. Hadn’t he already done enough preaching, enough sacrificing?

I’d rather think he rested. After all it was the Sabbath. Surely his ministry and the hard saving labor of his passion and death had worn him out. What  wondrous grace then to be placed in a soundless chamber safe and secure from all alarm – not to mention, answering machines, faxes, cell phones and pagers.

Not all silence is the graced silence of Christ’s tomb. Silence is the expression of a multitude of experiences: embarrassed, sweaty-palmed pauses, numbed shock, dissociated trauma; dull tedious droning; the excruciating stillness of shunning, loneliness and betrayal; the thick pouting silence of blame and resentment; the angry choking silence of the oppressed; and the isolated silence of the deaf.

In contrast –

The silence of the grave has a solemn feel.
After great pain a formal feeling comes-
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs, wrote Emily Dickinson.

The solemnity of Holy Saturday carries a weight that presses us down to the earth where we are no longer able to flit and flutter away from truth.

The flimsy props we use to hold ourselves upright slide to the ground and we along with them. Like sheets stretched across a sagging clothesline until the wet and windblown linens drape upon the earth, the weight of death drags us down, lays us down in a voluminous sweet surrender.

The Resurrection Power of Truth Telling

Truth is a friend of this silence. The silence of God reveals what is false, what words confuse, conceal, deny, or destroy. I love how Jesus just stands there when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”  Truth is right before us, standing in this present moment. Truth simply offers itself. It does not argue its case, defend itself, or plead. It just gives itself to us in love for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to know. As I embrace the truth of the present moment with love, the next moment is redeemed.

“The power of the kingdom is the spirit of the Risen Christ seen in the strength of truth as it continues to break through human limitation and sinwrites Jacqueline Bergan. The Risen Lord enters my world with his redeeming grace and power through the door made my truth telling. What truths have I entombed in silence? I meet the Risen Lord as I speak truth as best I can moment by moment.

Freedom

The silence of the tomb is full of freedom. One feels a releasing and relaxing throughout one’s whole being – like taking off your shoes, loosening your belt, slipping into comfortable old clothes. You are not in charge. You do not have to make things happen. You do not have to figure things out. This silence is the celebration and sanctification of being itself – your being.

So how do we get there- off the cross and into the tomb? How might we enter into such a silence and know its sweetness and its eternal freedom? I do not think we do a very good job of teaching ourselves how to surrender. We may move through lent and Eastertide watching and reflecting on Jesus who dies for our sins – trying to figure out just what it really means and what difference it makes, working up an appropriate attitude of contrition and sorrow – yet somehow distanced from it all.

Lent and Easter become a sort of mythic cardboard backdrop to our lives as unreal and one dimensional as a child’s drawing. What we may miss is that the paschal mystery played out before us in scripture, hymn, and ritual is simultaneously going on in our own lives and hearts. Jesus is dying and rising in the circumstances of your life. Knowing that, believing that transforms your every act, every thought into something holy with sacred potential to give new life.

So to what do we surrender? Evil, sin, death – a rabid crowd roaring for someone to crucify? We surrender to Love – to how Love is having its way with us in our lives – through the tedious, joyful, painful days of getting up in the morning, fixing breakfast, setting out to do what needs to be done. I know many saints who quietly surrender to love and love’s inscrutable purposes day after day, until spent with loving in the simplest, most unassuming ways they are drawn into Love itself.

Home

A freight train sounded its mournful whistle as it rattled past my father’s window at the nursing home. Sometimes a light behind his eyes would ignite and for the briefest second he remembered trains. Love had hallowed him out. He was getting ready to enter the final tomb. Every time I see a hawk I remember when he told me how he loved to lie in the fields as a boy and watch the hawks ride the currents of the wind.  My mother called the place where my father waited for God, the “rest home.” Its actual name is Pleasant Manor Care Center. We have modern names for these places – skilled nursing facilities, residential care, assisted living. I rather like rest home myself.

The tomb of Holy Saturday is a kind of rest home where we wait to be lifted into resurrection.

Go ahead.  Surrender to Love.  You have nothing to lose, but death.

 

Images in this post are from Liturgical Art, Meinrad Craighead, 1998, Sheed & Ward

Solitude Practice:

  • Look around the tomb. What truths have you hidden away?
  • Do one thing today slowly, attentively, mindfully. Perhaps you prepare a meal, listen to a child, take a walk or a shower. Open yourself fully to the task with loving generosity. What do you learn?

Next post in this series –  Exploring Solitude:  Leaving solitude, gone to Galilee.

______________________________________

  Praying Life Readers,

I am leading a workshop this month here in Topeka. Hope to see you there!

Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer

Saturday, April 21, 2012
8:30-12:00
$20.00
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS  

www.embracethequestions.com

Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; info@embracethequestions.com

 

Exploring Solitude: Meeting the Crucified One

God is simplicity and one-foldedness,
inaccessible height and fathomless depth,
incomprehensible breadth and eternal length,
 a dim silence and a wild desert.

So wrote John of Ruysbroeck in the 14th century.

God is also a man, whose name is Jesus,

born in a middle eastern city,

of a woman named Mary.

Firmly anchored in time and space,

he walked the paths of Nazareth,

ate,  and laughed,  and loved.

God is also this same man,

now beaten,  bleeding,  and dying,

executed on a cross.

For in Jesus

the Inaccessible Height and Fathomless Depth

had inserted

itself into

the messy specificity and limitation

of humanity,

and consented

to occupy

suffering,

injustice,

cruelty,

fear,

defeat,

and death.

So now,  all that suffers,  loses,  messes up,  and bleeds finds welcome in that dim silence and wild desert of the cross.  All that is lost or broken is gathered and folded into the height and depth and breadth and length of God. Every precious particle of God’s making  is held with infinite tenderness in the simplicity of love.

There are moments,  days,  even years for some,  where the work of solitude involves suffering.  Alone with God,  we are presented with painful truths. We are refined and purified.  We gradually learn to be present to God,  not on our terms,  but on God’s terms in the context of our own specificity.

This is the work of letting go and letting be. This is the journey of ever deepening faith and radical trust. This is the door that sets us loose to roam forever free.

During the observance of Holy Week,  the specificity of God made known in Jesus,  enters into the lonely anguish of surrender to the terms of his Father.  The one who has been surrounded by crowds and encircled by his chosen disciples,  makes the solitary journey into death to return to the heart of all being.

We find an account of this journey in the gospel of Mark.  Mark’s gospel is characterized by a simple,  direct,  unpretentious style.  The gospel has an urgency about it.  Mark’s  frequent use of the dramatic present tense contributes to the immediacy.  The emphasis is on the action – the deeds and words of Jesus – as he confronts and responds to the religious establishment,  the disciples,  and the crowds.  This action moves compellingly to the crucifixion.  The story unfolds in a hurry,  as though the very presence of Jesus has set in motion forces which lead inevitably to the cross.

Then at the cross,  in striking contrast to the preceding scenes,  Jesus becomes the receiver of the action in total surrender.  The syntax changes from active voice to passive voice,  as the Greek word,  paradidomai,  appears more and more frequently.  Paradidomai means handed over,  or to give into the hands of another,  to be given up to custody,  to be condemned,  to deliver up treacherously by betrayal.  This is the same word the gospels,  as well as St. Paul, use repeatedly to describe the crucifixion.

As the resurrected Jesus tells Peter on the lake shore,  there comes a time when we will be carried where we do not wish to go. (John 21: 18)  Then we find ourselves being handed over to our life circumstances,  the limits,  sins, injustices,  and frailties of human existence.

At the cross in Jesus the Limitless,  Inaccessible,  Unfathomable God makes things very plain, very simple:

Watch me. Trust me. Do it like this. All is forgiven. Surrender. Allow yourself to be carried into darkness. There is a place beyond your knowing or naming, where I am and you are. Follow me.

All transformation,  all redemption require moments such as these:

the passivity of the seed buried in the earth,

the passion of love poured out to the last dregs for the beloved,

the prostration of oneself in the dim silence and wild desert,

where all things are born anew.

The moral revival that certain people wish to impose will be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure.  If our present suffering ever leads to revival, this will not be brought about through slogans, but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery and terror, in the profoundest depths of each person’s  spirit.      Simone Weil

 

Solitude Practice:

  • What do you need to surrender, let go of, or let be this week?
  • Not all, but much of our suffering may be tied to our defiant resistance to letting go and refusal to accept the suffering of self denial. Do you agree with Simone Weil that broad social change could be gained, not by imposition of morality, but through the struggle in the depths of individual souls?
  • What is it like for you to shift from being the prime mover and actor in your life story, to becoming the receiver of the action of others? How might God be handing you over this Holy Week?
  • Is there a relationship between your consent to being carried where you do not wish to go and experiences of healing and redemption in your life?

Next post in this series –  Exploring Solitude:  Leaving solitude, gone to Galilee.

______________________________________

 News for Praying Life Readers!

I am leading a workshop in April here in Topeka, KS. Hope to see some of you there!

Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer

Saturday, April 21, 2012
8:30-12:00
$20.00
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS  

Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; info@embracethequestions.com