Monday, August 29, 2016

Words For My Sons On The First Day Of School


Wow, I somehow blinked the summer away and now, here we are, back at the first day of school for the boys.  What do I have to offer them on the year that's ahead for them in their academics and their daily lives with all of the ups and downs that come with navigating their youth and finding their identity? I offer them this:

Pray first. That is how you should start each day and go wherever your prayers lead you because that is where God wants you to be.

Be explorers. The world is bigger than your backyard. Don't let yourself be confined by a narrow vision, but ask questions because the answers may surprise you. Let yourself be open to the question and to questions that don't always have answers. There is tremendous elegance in the mystery and we are to stand in awe of a God who created all of it.

Find ways to serve others, even in the smallest of ways. It may be as simple as a smile or a kind word, as someone else may really need it, including your teachers.

No matter how smart you think you are, there is always someone smarter. Learn from them. And share what you've learned.

Always let your curiosity be sparked and challenged, as all wisdom truly begins with curiosity. People will tell you to follow your passions, but I will tell you to follow your curiosity. Why? Because passions wane, but curiosity doesn't. Curiosity is always an open door to another room, another place and another way of seeing the world.

Be brave. Don't let fear determine your fate. Fear keeps the world small but even in the smallest acts of courage the world grows in size, as will your life. And remember that God did not give you a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Take mindful risks rooted in love. Fear keeps the baby bird in the nest and not in wondrous bright-skyed flight.

Know that life is a glorious mess. Everything isn't neat and tidy but it can be delightfully beautiful.

Joy is a choice not just something that happens to you by accident. Always choose joy and kindness.

Be open as you never know where inspiration will come from, who it will speak from or how it will change you, others and the world.

Failing does not make you a failure, quitting does. Everyone fails and it's how you deal with that failure that determines whether or not you are successful. Every single person makes mistakes and you will, too. Be gentle with yourself when you do because mistakes are often the best teacher and the best way to find the right path to take.

Always extend the amount of grace to others that you would want them to extend to you.

Don't judge yourself by others because you don't know their hurts or their struggles, their fears or their insecurities. Like icebergs, everyone is more than what you see above the water.  Deep down we are all afraid of not being accepted, but strive beyond mere popularity to establish a reputation of real character that people know you are someone who keeps your word and can be trusted.

Know that vulnerability is strength. When you open yourself to others, you will be hurt but don't let that hurt determine whether or not you allow yourself to become guarded and distrustful, cut off from this wild, improbable and great world.

Keep a good and tender heart.

Be a friend to someone who doesn't have one.

No one's an "other" once you listen to their story.

Strive to be a genius of generosity. There is greatness in giving.

There will always be struggles. Know that any kind of progress comes through struggles. Find the beauty in the struggle because that's life. Don't be dissuaded because something is hard because those things which are difficult are the ones that give us our greatest achievements. Dreams cannot become real if you aren't willing to work to make them so.

Never say that work you've done is "good enough," always strive for excellence in whatever you do.

Know that your habits become your character.

What you do is not as important as who you become.

Let your actions be filled with mercy and generosity and graciousness.

In the history of the world, there has never been another you and there will never be another you. How you impact that world will be uniquely in your own way; in a way that God has created only you to do. Your life is precious but that does not mean that you protect it from fear of being broken.

Don't worry about doing great things, strive to do all things in grace.

Listen more than you speak, you just might learn more.

Sometimes it is more important that you be kind than for you to be right.

Spend more time seeking to understand someone than in trying to impress someone.

No matter how bad or inadequate you feel, God is always present. You are not alone in your day.

Let yourself be astonished. The world is full of the miraculous. Remember, if Moses hadn't stopped and looked, he would not have encountered the burning bush. How many do we miss rushing about, not paying attention?

Sometimes you need to be bored. Everything shouldn't entertain and amuse you. It's from boredom that imagination is kindled.

Seek wisdom over intelligence. Wisdom is rooted in God and can be used to help others. Wisdom is not only gaining knowledge but knowing the right and wrong of how to apply it. You can gain facts and information with intelligence, but with wisdom you can gain an understanding of others, yourself and, ultimately, your Creator. Wisdom is limitless.

The most important things you can learn are honor, generosity, gratitude and kindness. They are also the most important things for you to be examples of to every person you come across during your day.

I know you will want to rush through this year and be done with it, but, one day, you will think otherwise. Take time to pause and see the blessing of the moment. See how sacred this short time you are given here really is.

Know that your mom's and my love are not based on merits, or awards, successes or failures, but only on that you are our children and take deep gladness in that you both are.


















Friday, August 26, 2016

Lying On The Grass


Sometimes I like nothing more than to lay on the grass in our backyard and look up at the trees, through the leaves of them, to see the sky. One of my favorite things is clouds. I lay still and motionless, so much so that butterflies have landed on me. I have felt their movement on my arm. Or a bird (a Robin: fat and humorous in his appearance like Dicken's Pickwick) has gotten so close that I could, quiet easily, touch it with my fingers.

Blades of grass tickle my ears.

In that moment, lying there, I do not worry about the thousand different other things I could (or should) be doing. I am content.

My thoughts are focused.

I'm aware of the earth beneath me and the breath within me.

Even though there is the sound of cars whizzing by our house, I find myself forgetting them. Only the sounds of birdsong is heard.

In this moment, this is the whole, beautiful, numinous world.

I dig my fingers into the soil; the dirt getting in my fingernails. I am made from this earth. Humus. Human. "Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed in his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." What an image to envision. Adam. Adamah (earth). We are connected, this earth and I.

I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Breath of God. Giver of life.

Breathing, is it not a beautiful sound? To hear your own? Or your spouse's as they are sleeping. It is one of the most beautiful sounds. Along with silence. And the ocean. And wind. Falling rain. Or a hymn being sung.

How overwhelming it is to realize how God has created all of this connected. To lay there, on the grass, and doing nothing else is a form of prayer.  I feel awe just as many others do standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. I feel reverence for the magnitude of this moment that will make up so many more moments, that make up a life and that my life is connected to those around me (even those I don't know and will never meet).

As I am still, the insects are busy at work in the ground beneath me. A whole world that I cannot see but that is as grand as the universe above me, beyond those clouds I love to watch slowly gather and fold and unfold.

And, in that moment, to understand that there will come a day in which I will lie beneath this earth and return to it and feed the life that lives in the darkness of soil.

Many would quickly leave these thoughts, but to comprehend death is to appreciate life.

So I savor this moment, until one of my sons will come dashing out of the house, calling my name, "Papa! Papa" and, as he stands over me, ask, "What are you doing?"

"Join me," I will tell him and pat the ground beside me, "and hear the voice of God."


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Importance Of Learning To Lament


I have been spending a lot of time reading and meditating on some of the more difficult books of the Bible (Job, Lamentations, the prophets and, of course Psalms). While many view these books with the same distaste as I do kale, I have found that my faith is deepened more by reading them and by understanding the gift that grief really is. There are those who would balk at this suggestion and would prefer to avoid all circumstances that will cause grief, sorrow and lament. They are like children who want every day to be Christmas Day. The real danger to not giving voice to lament is that we take away the voice of the the victim and the status quo goes unchallenged. Neither of those are biblical. By silencing lament, we silence the cries for justice. Biblical lament is both private and communal. 

There are some who might even ask, "What is lament?"

According to the dictionary, lament is a "passionate expression of grief or sorrow." How many of us would prefer to ignore such a topic? Most. I'm sure there are a lot of people who would ask, "Couldn't you blog about a more cheerful topic?" Certainly you're not going to find a lot of Ted Talks on the subject matter. People aren't clamoring to retreats or seminars on the subject. Yet without lament, I think we have a fragmented faith that is ungrounded and can be easily unmoored by tragedy. As believers, I think we need to have a stewardship of sorrow and both the Old and New Testament stress using lament as the sound to trauma and injustice. Lament falls between mourning and anger. 


The book of Lamentions is thought to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah. The title of the book in Hebrew is hkya which means "How" and is commonly used in Israelite funeral dirges. It is to ask, "How? How can this happen?" It is psalmist crying out in the Twenty-second Psalm,"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?" One doesn't hear that sung in the modern American church. Yet over half the Psalms are laments. David wrote more Psalms in the cave than he did the castle. Walter Brueggemann wrote, "It is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, that have given life that empower us to pray, to sing."

In the Beatitudes, Christ says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). Certainly in this culture we do not view mourning as a blessing. We tend to want to avoid it, even in our churches and our worship. We like praise songs. Uplifting and make us feel good. We prefer not to study books like Lamentations or Job that are real downers and are too depressing. Too many congregations want to hear sermons on spiritual success. We long for mountaintops only and avoid all mention of the wilderness or the valley or the desert. Yet, without the wilderness and without lament, we have a juvenile faith that prefers shallow fantasy to the depths of the dark night where so often we truly encounter God. We must step out of our sugar-coated, sanitized notions of scripture and really see what is there within its pages. All of us must sit with Job (both the biblical figure and those around us who are suffering a major loss in their life). We must lament over the sins and failures of ourselves and our nations as the prophets did. 


Jeremiah by Michelangelo

And yet, I cannot help but think that the Church is incomplete until we truly learn to mourn and lament, especially with others. Too often, whenever someone is going through a loss (a divorce, a death, a miscarriage, a failed adoption, depression), they find themselves feeling abandoned by those in the church, which only deepens the wounds of grief they are suffering in silence. Whatever loss they have, it will be as Joan Didion wrote in her The Year of Magical Thinking, "Life changes in that instant. The ordinary instant." For her, it was the death of her husband. She wrote that, "Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expected." I learned the truth of these words with the death of my own mother. In grief, gone is the ordinary, daily life we had led. Instead, we find ourselves caught within the waves of mourning that come like the tide

That's why lamenting is critical: it's a release. Laments often take the formula of remembrance. A good example of this is the beginning of Psalm 42:


These things I remember: 
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of the Lord
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.

The lamenter pours out to God how things used to be. This is not nostalghia. It's not mere memory. It is someone who is suffering a loss and longs for restoration. Lament is not passive. It is not wallowing or looking for pity nor is it self-pity. It is looking for change. It is Jeremiah crying out for justice to roll down like mighty waters. 

Those on the outside, who know about the loss someone else is going through, often feel insecure and unsure about how to approach them and how to respond to the loss. "I just don't know what to do," they say. But we don't have to do anything. Or really say anything. The important thing is to show up and just be there for that person. Sit with them and hold that hurt and sorrow with them. Let them know they are loved and not forgotten by just being present to them. Those hurting are not looking for answers, they are looking for . We only get true intimacy in friendship during those times of sorrow and loss, during those times of questioning and lament. By being present we are helping the sadness not become bitterness. When they ask, "Where is God?" We can hold their hand and answer, "Right here. With us. In this moment." We are being the hand of God as we hold their hand. We are being the physical representation of our Creator's compassion in that moment. By our being there, we are helping create space for the Spirit to enter (where two or more are gathered). This is why Galations 6:2 reminds us to "bear one another's burdens." Laments are to be heard and honored, not dismissed with a, "Cheer up." Nor should we just give them some more time. As the poet Emily Dickinson wrote:


They say that time "assuages," -
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

That is why we must be present, so that sorrow does not become toxic. Lament is a release, a letting go. But we must offer ourself to that process. It's not easy. Or comfortable. To enter into a room where the pain is palpable, where someone is mourning the death of a child, or wailing the shooting of a loved one. Pain and suffering can be wrenching and physically and emotionally draining. It requires more of us than some biblical platitude or greeting card sentiment. It means we have to be Chris-like and be moved with compassion. The Greek for this is splagchnizomai which means to be moved from one's inward parts. or, quite literally, from the bowels. In his groundbreaking book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes, "Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious piece of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?"


Drowning on Dry Land by Eric Ruin

One of the most important things we can teach our children is how to mourn. Many parents try to keep their children from seeing suffering or any type of loss. The damage they are doing is in providing an illusory vision of life that is without pain. When a child, especially one in the Church, then encounters real suffering, they are ill-equipped to handle it. They do not have the psychological or spiritual tools to deal with loss. This can cause an abandonment of a faith that they see as being unable to handle the pain that they are experiencing. They do not have the inner vocabulary to articulate and give name to this suffering within a spiritual context. If all they have been taught is the God of sunshine, they cannot fathom God being there when they are "in the depths of Sheol" as the Psalmist writes.


They must understand that in life there is death, pain, and sometimes suffering we cannot understand (examples being 9/11 or the Holocaust). We have to be able to teach them to sit in those places of not knowing until they can get back to that place of trusting. And what better example can we give them that God completely understands our pain than with Christ himself. Musician and author Michael Card wrote in his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, "Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world. It provides the only trustworthy bridge to God across the deep seismic quaking of our lives." He also understood the lament when he cried out the opening to the Twenty-second Psalm while he was on the cross. When anyone says, "God cannot understand the pain I'm going through," we only have to point them to that moment.

Job's Prayer by Marc Chagall


It is only when we give voice to lamentation, that a person is no longer a victim, but is slowly able to to create within their own heart and soul the place to heal after a tragedy has occurred. God is a God of the mourning, as well as the laughter. God is a God who keeps our tears in a bottle so that they are never forgotten (Psalm 56:8). He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). 

Lamentations show that God is big enough to take our lashing out, our wrestling and our wondering, "God, where are you?" For those who want to sanitize scripture, Psalm 88 lays bare all misery before the Creator. 

O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those you remember no more
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions of the dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.  Selah.

And that is just part of the Psalm. The writer of this Psalm lays bare his soul. This is not the conventional faith we are so often presented with in the Church. We wince when we read such words (if we don't just skip them altogether). Yet it is when we present just such Psalms, that we can show that the life of faith is not always a happy one, a life of ease and that there can be suffering.

Years ago, when my mother was dying of cancer, a long-time friend of hers came to visit her. In the midst of my mother's agony, this woman, like the friends of Job, told her, "You don't have enough faith." This crushed my mother's spirits when they were already low. This woman, in her prosperity gospel sensibilities, saw cancer not as disease but as a curse of one whose faith is weak. I can only wonder what she will believe should darkness come upon her. 


The Psalms and Lamentations show the pain and protest with raw honesty. They help us come to terms with our own inability to understand the hardships we may face. They are examples of what Brueggemann calls "bold faith" because it presents the world as it really is and that nothing is out of bounds in discourse with God. Why? Because God is big enough to take it. He can take our honesty. And we are putting our pain before God, not bottling it up and denying it. There can only come healing when we do and stop pretending that we have it all together.  We have a God who allows us to cry out in our bewilderment and confusion. Lament is the language of the wilderness and it is only in the wilderness that we can truly begin to trust God and to grow in our faith.  

As brothers and sisters in Christ, we then should dare to enter that wilderness to be there with them and to sing a song of lament and, in doing so, sing a song of redemption because we can only be redeemed from that which we acknowledge.


We are a culture of productivity and efficiency that does not know how to deal with lament since it falls into neither of those two categories. Lament is messy and can be lengthy and we would prefer someone just "snap out of it!" In The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton wrote, "The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does the most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most." And we see that in our culture. I think that is why we are so explosive and reactionary.

But we need to understand that lament is more than just personal grief. Biblical lament is also a petition for deliverance. It can either be personally or as a nation. The prophets lament the fallen state of Israel, not only during its times of captivity, but, even more so, in terms of its abandoning the things of God. It is to see the brokenness of the world around us and cry out. It is to lament poverty and injustice and, in doing so, aligning ourselves with those are oppressed. To lament is to awaken ourselves to the suffering of others in the world, as I have been doing for the people of Syria.

In this modern age where we have media coverage 24/7 and it tends to focus on the darkness, we can easily become overwhelmed and apathetic and disconnect. We see tragedies (Syria, the flood in Louisiana, the earthquake in Italy, bombings, and murders) and it can drive us to either fear or fantasy (both of which are a hindrance to faith). But when we truly look at suffering and lament, we are forming a spiritual protest. It is not an escape from but a deeper entering into of the world's pains, but offering them to God. Lament is not despair. Lament is to hope because we are giving up our laments to a God who hears us. That is why I lament what is happening in Syria or Ukraine or when a plane crashes or injustice in our judicial system or lament the brokenness and loneliness that permeates this world of ours. I lament my own sinfulness and fallenness. I see that all of the problems of the world are also problems within me: greed, selfishness, indifference. I cry out to God, "Deliver me from these things" just as I cry out for God to deliver the world.


When I lament for the world, I am connected to it. The suffering and problems of others are my problems. It moves me with compassion when I see images like the one of Omran Daqnee that has so touched the world. When I see him, I see my own child. I want to comfort him as I would my own son. Because I cannot, I pray for him. I lament for him and for his family and for his country. Like Jeremiah in his final lament, I, too cry out to God, "For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, 'Violence and destruction!" (20:8). It's like a fire that is shut up in my bones and must be released because it makes me weary to hold it in. When we lament we name the loss and, by so doing, it does not consume us. Instead, we are consumed not by bitterness but by love. It is acknowledging the hurting before the holy.

This is why we, as believers, must reclaim the practice of lament in our pulpits, our private places of prayer, and in our public square.







Sunday, August 21, 2016

My Best Reads Of Summer 2016


Summer is winding down. This means school will soon be starting and one of my favorite seasons, Fall, will begin. Every summer I have a list of books I hope to read during these few months. Some I read and, along the way, I discovered others. What were my favorites? They include four books on faith, two works of fiction, and a collection of poetry.

At the top of my summer reading this year was:


Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic For A Simpler, More Soulful Way Of Living by Shauna Niequist. What I loved about this book was Niequist's candor about being someone who says "Yes" to too many things until she found that she was burned out and overwhelmed. All of the things she had thought were God's will and what she thought she wanted, weren't really either. In the midst of speaking engagements, to-do lists, and busyness, Niequist found herself disconnected from everything. She was neglecting her family, her health, and her spiritual growth. That's when she began to "remake" her life from "the inside out," as she says. She also learned that saying "No" may be the most spiritual thing one can do.

As she writes:

Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairytale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness.

Her official site is: http://www.shaunaniequist.com/


How To Survive A Shipwreck: Help Is On The Way And Love Is Already Here by Jonathan Martin. If you're going through a difficult time in your life or you know somebody who is, this is the book to read for yourself or give to someone or both. There is a raw vulnerability to Martin's writing about his life after he left the church he started, the failure of his marriage, and being in a place where he was unsure of where he should go and what he should do. His writing is beautifully poetic and profound in his dealing with loss, failure and a crisis of faith. 


This was the book I took with me on our trip to Nashville and I found myself not only moved by his story, but encouraged and amazed at his ability to write about what it's like to find oneself in the depths, feeling like one is going under for the last time and finding himself drowning in pure grace of God. The chapter on sea monsters alone is worth buying this book.

His official site is: http://www.jonathanmartinwords.com/


Roots & Sky: A Journey Home In Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy is a book I have posted about before (hungering-after-beautiful-good.html).  Purifoy writes in a reflective, lyrical manner that draws the reader in and makes you feel as if she is welcoming you into her home. Like Madeleine L'Engle, whose writing Purifoy's reminds me of, Christie is a keen observer of the mundane details that truly make up a life and a home. Into this, she deftly weaves theology that moves us towards hope. This is a book to be savored and enjoyed.

Her official site is: http://www.christiepurifoy.com/


You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power Of Habit by James K. A. Smith was one of the most profound books I've read in a long time. This is not an easy read but it has caused me to rethink my ideas of worship. We live in a culture that is based on the philosophy of  RenĂ© Descartes that says,"I think, therefore I am."  Smith presents a case that this is erroneous and that the more accurate statement should be, "I am what I love." This book is challenging and makes one think and rethink the "whys" of our habits and why we do what we do. It will also make you look at malls in a completely new light.

His official site is: http://jameskasmith.com/


Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo is a book I bought at Parnassus Books in Nashville. I adore Kate DiCamillo's work and have yet to be disappointed by anything she's written. This is easily one of her best novels yet.  It's the story of Raymie Clarke, whose father abandoned the family one night to run off with a dental hygienist. Now she is convinced that if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition then her photo will be in the local paper, her father will see it and he'll realize he has to come back home to his amazing daughter. The story is funny and heartbreaking and wonderfully written as only DiCamillo can write.

Her official site is: http://www.katedicamillo.com/


Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton is one of those classic novels that I somehow had never read before. Set in Apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo who goes to Johannesburg to help his sister, Gertrude, and find his son, Absalom. As the story unfolds, one moves through this lyrical narrative which sheds light on the hardships, poverty and famine that the blacks suffer and the way whites are affected by "native crime." In one part, Paton writes, "The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again." Despite its subject matter, this is a hopeful book that is full of grace and mercy. It will be one of those books that I will return to again and again.


Felicity is a collection of poems by one of my favorite modern poets, Mary Oliver. Like many of the writers that I am most dazzled by, Oliver is one who chronicles place, landscape and nature with such joy that one wants to go outside and be in it. There is a wisdom, hope and peace to her works, even in the midst of turmoil. These poems focus more on love than nature. The writing is spare but the words so well chosen that they have greater impact on the reader. They are bittersweet, as her partner of forty years had died, and she is ruminating on both the love and the loss of their time together. This slender volume is a luminous elegy. One of my favorite poems from the book is entitled "The World I Live In."

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what's wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn't believe what once or
twice I have seen. I'll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.


These are my favorite books this summer, so tell me what yours are. . .




Friday, August 19, 2016

A Vulnerable Messiah


For the last few days I have been meditating not just on one passage of scripture, but one story that is told in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is a well known one that many of us have read and heard to the point that we find it over familiar that we kind of skim over it without truly seeing what is on the page before us. It is the passage where Jesus calms the storm. I'm sure that many of you can already picture the series of events as it unfolds and we tend to rush through the story to the miracle. Like the disciples, we read this passage in scripture and want the storm calmed, never focusing on what is always central: Christ.

Certainly, pastors and teachers make their sermons and lessons on Jesus calming the storms in our own lives or about fear and doubt. They tend to focus on his question, "Why were you afraid?" I have yet to read or hear anyone talk about Jesus being exhausted. I mean, this was not a nap or a rest but a deep heavy sleep. This is Jesus being wiped out. He was sleeping during a tempest. This isn't just a rain storm but one where the disciples (some who are experienced boats men and fishermen, believe they are going to sink and drown beneath the waves).


Like others, I, too, have been guilty of reading what I believe to already be there and, thereby, glean nothing from a passage. It becomes stories we tell children in Sunday school. Cleaned up and sanitized. Jesus calming the storm is like magic from a fairy tale. It has no relation to our daily lives and experiences so we do what we usually do and connect the dots to, as I mentioned before, applying this to our own storms, fears and doubts.

Not too long ago, I began using the Ignatian form of contemplation that is called imaginative prayer. What this means is quite simply:  I read passages of scripture and then begin to imagine the scene in detail: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings. I place myself in what is happening. I realize that there will be some who read this and become distrustful of such practices and fearing that it will allow one's imagination to run wild and add things that aren't in scripture. This has not been the case for me but, instead, has allowed me to see the Bible in a new light.

When I came to the passages of Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25, I found myself drawn to something I never paid attention to before: the vulnerability of Jesus. All three of the Gospels' accounts have Jesus teaching and healing the crowds before he tells his disciples, "Let's cross to the other side." Most likely this is the Sea of Galilee. In each of the three accounts, Jesus falls asleep and a great storm arises. Both Matthew and Mark mention that the boat is being filled by the waves crashing over the sides of their boat. The disciples, afraid that they are about to die, awaken Jesus and he gets up, calms the sea by simply speaking to it, and then asks them, "Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?" We hit that bullet point and start application.

But I didn't. Not this time.

Instead, I closed my eyes and pictured the waves lapping over the rocks of the Sea of Galilee.

Christ is getting into the fishing boat with some of the others. Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, and James push the small boat off the shore and into the water. When the get waist deep, they are pulled into the boat.  We set out on the cornflower blue sea. I look back at the shore where the crowds are still standing there in the tufts of grass along the beach. Slwoly they begin to leave. I wonder how many of them are already planning to meet Jesus on the other side.

Off in the distance there was a trace of a dark cloud, but nothing to be too concerned about. While the disciples and I are talking amongst ourselves: some over what Jesus had been teaching and the three fishermen about how good it feels to be on the water again. And why not? We can smell the sea and taste it on our lips, and there is the lingering smell of fish in the boat.  It's warm with a gentle breeze.

There is some joking and some bragging about who's caught the most fish. Peter's the worst about this. He always has to be more of a man than the rest of us, especially those of us who were tax collectors. The only thing worse than his bragging is John's constantly referring to himself as the "beloved." We all just roll our eyes.

Off in the distance are the hills that look almost pink. Overhead some Whiskered Terns, white as the clouds, gracefully fly past and, like the Rabbi said, I smile as I do stop to consider them.

At first I find myself just looking at the beauty of it all and then it dawns on me: all of this was created by the very one who's in our boat. It's then I stop and look for Jesus.


I discover that he's  asleep. He was so fatigued to the point of exhaustion that he is asleep in the bow of the boat. I feel tenderness for him. I wish I had a blanket so that I could cover him like one would a child. How vulnerable he appears, sleeping there, unaware. His head resting on a net as though it were a pillow with one hand underneath his dark hair with its short, tight curls. I watch the rhythm of his chest as it rises and falls with each breath like a silent prayer. How much we ask of him. I cannot imagine what it's like to have so many people wanting so much from you and seldom having a moment's peace. 


This moment of peace is soon broken when a storm suddenly arises. My attention shifts from Jesus to the storm. Waves begin to batter against our small boat and waves crash over the sides, causing the bottom of the boat to fill around our sandalled feet. It does not take long before my clothes are soaked and sticking to my skin. Inside, my stomach is churning from the boat being violently tossed to and fro. I look around. All of the men are filled with terror, even Peter now.

At first they debate waking Jesus. I look at him. He's still sleeping. How much does his preaching and teaching and healing and all of the crowd pushing in and wanting to touch him take out of him?

The others are mystified, "How can he sleep during this?!!?"

But I see him there. He's soaked and water is all about him, but he just sleeps on, with a such a weariness. His strength depleted. I want to stop them. I want to stand him and the rest of the disciples and say, "STOP! Let him rest! Can't you see how exhausted he is?"


It does not matter, for James and Andrew are shaking him. It takes Jesus a moment. He's groggy and he wipes the sleep from his eyes. He has not fully come out of his dream. What does he dream about? His Father? The kingdom he left but talks about in parables? Then he sees us. He sees the fear in us before he even notices the storm. "Why are you afraid?" he asks.

"Look around you, Lord. Really?!!?" I know we think it, but none say it. Not out loud.


Then, someone speaks up. Some later say it was Judas, but they like to blame him for everything.

"Rabbi, do you not care about us? That we are perishing?"

With gentleness, he sighs and shakes his head, "O you of little faith." It's as if he is as if he is saying, "You are still such little children. When will you grow up?" Slowly he sits up and then, putting his hands on the sides of the boat, lifts himself and, though the rest of us are having a hard time standing, he does not. "Peace," he says. "Be still!"

Jesus Calms The Storm by Laura James

I realize he is not just talking to the waters. And I am. And I'm scared because the storm obeys him.  I see that the others are all afraid. They whisper among themselves, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?" I can hear the awe in their voices.

Yet I see, that for many reasons, he is still tired.

How many times have I read this passage of scripture and never, ever taken in the fact that the Son of God is now a man who is so exhausted that he sleeps during a violent storm. He probably collapsed into sleep as soon as he got on the boat. I found myself in tears seeing him there sleeping. We are unprotected, unguarded when we sleep. That vulnerability is so childlike. It's why, as a parent, I love to check on my boys as they are sleeping and kiss their foreheads. In that moment, I wanted to kiss Christ's. I loved him with a tenderness. I felt protective of him as I am my sleeping sons. It did bother me that the disciples could not see past their own fears and needs to see the need of Jesus to just sleep. In the past, I might have been like them. I might have been angry with Jesus for not being there when I needed him, but not now. In this moment, as I saw him sleeping, I was moved with compassion for a God who made himself so vulnerable as to take on flesh and become one of us to show us just how much the Father really does love us.

And Jesus is vulnerable so many times in so many different ways throughout the Gospels. Think of when he has returned in his resurrected body and he confronts Peter. There is a tenderness in him asking, "Do you love me?" He asks us that just as he did Peter and we can answer, "Yes" or , "No." In that moment, he allows himself to be either accepted or rejected. I can see both he and Peter weeping as they embrace. Peter sobbing into Christ's chest. Jesus placing his hand on Peter's head, like a father would a child, like the Father did his prodigal son.

Or that passage in Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock." Think of that. The Creator of the universe is knocking. He is not beating down the door. God is knocking and waiting on us. The Maker of heaven and earth, is waiting on us. "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."What a beautiful image. God is knocking and if we answer, then we will share a meal, share intimacy. This is the picture we see of Jesus throughout the Gospels. Sharing a meal and himself with people. His vulnerability is the vulnerability of a God who so desperately loves us and longs to have communion with us, so much so that He bent down and became God-and-man to show us.

This is why I have embraced this way of meditating on scripture because it invites me in, asks me to take a closer look without my preconceived ideas, my misconceptions, and my assumptions. I see passages afresh and with new eyes and glimpse greater meanings because of I am not outside the text but approaching it from within.

How do you see these passages?

Perhaps, because you're going through something, you, like the disciples, ask Jesus, "Rabbi, do you not care?"

What does God show you?

What does He reveal to you that you've never noticed or considered before?

What does what you are shown reveal about you and where you are in your spiritual life?


Here is James Martin, SJ explaining Ignatian Contemplation:


If you decide to use this form of prayer, let me know how it has impacts your own faith. If you are already using Ignatian imaginative prayer, share how it has deepened your understanding of the Bible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Encountering the Holy In the Humdrum


Do we gaze into the screen of our technology more than we do our spouse's face? Or our children's? Or our friend's? 

So often when I'm out, I cannot help but see so many people with their attention given solely to their smart phones (either on social media, playing Pokemon Go, texting). And if it isn't bad enough already with our smart phones, tablets, laptops, and computers, scientists are creating virtual reality. While I'm not going to write about all of the potential dangers of that (we already have people who starve themselves to death because they cannot stop to eat and leave the world of the video games they play), I cannot help but see the problems that lurk in such technology. It also makes me concerned about how they will no longer be able to see actual reality.

The more and more we become disconnected from others, from community, and from our environment, the more we become disconnected from the sacred. 

How many people easily become bored with the ordinary, with the daily mundane that surrounds them and do not realize the holy in all of them?  



In the liturgical year of the Church, many celebrate what is known as "Ordinary Time." This is the period that begins on Epiphany Day and ends on the day before Ash Wednesday. In Latin it's known as Tempus Per Annum (Time throughout the year). I love the idea of celebrating "Ordinary Time" though. Of paying attention to the daily, routine stuff that fills our lives. How many of us find God in the folding of clean sheets? Or in the small shafts of sunlight that comes through the leaves of trees? Or the taste of an orange whose juice gets on your fingers? Of hearing your children laughing together in another room?  Or that first cup of coffee in the morning?



One of the books I have returned to again and again throughout the years is The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. In it, he notes how to develop the awareness of God in the quotidian activities of our day (cleaning, fixing a meal, making a bed). All are to be done as a form of prayer. I'll admit, I am not always so great at that, especially in the chores I dislike the most (cleaning the bathrooms). Yet I have noticed, that when I am present, really paying attention to washing a cup under the cold water of the sink, and I am aware and I am listening to the sounds of that activity, I find myself not hurrying to go on to the next task. Instead, it takes on meaning and, in its simple way, a form of worship. What if we viewed our daily errands or duties not as a burden but as a holy vocation? As a way of ushering God into our ordinary lives? A way of seeing these small routines as touched by grace?

Brother Lawrence writes, "There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than the continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it." And how did he do this? By working in the kitchen of a priory in Paris. By repairing the sandals of the other brothers in that community. Neither sounds like a very spiritual activity but one that would grow tiresome day after day after day after day. I mean, the idea of repairing dirty, smelly sandals of others has no appeal to me at all. Yet Brother Lawrence found in that act a way of growing closer to God. As he said, "We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed." Do I approach my job or the housework or raising children in this light?

Another writer whose works I deeply cherish because they so deeply nourish me and have taught me to slow down, be present and take notice is that of Kathleen Norris. She wrote, "The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry."

Do I view doing the laundry (I don't mind the washing or even the folding, but the putting away . . .) as a way of looking thoughtfully at what I am doing in the same manner I would a prayer or meditating or studying scripture? Prayer in the perfunctory. Daily rituals and routines as offerings before God.  Teresa of Avila said that, "Love turns work into rest" (I haven't achieved that state of mind or soul yet, to be honest).

To do this is to realize that the commonplace is a gift. As I was washing my coffee cup, I held the moment inside me and happened to notice an orange and black insect on the windowsill. I watched as it moved slowly along the wood and its antenna twitched with life. Then I opened the window and let it fly away.


After the insect was gone and I closed the window, I thought about my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, and how much of her poetry dealt with the mundane but in a way that made us see the ordinary as extraordinary. How much of her poetry would we have lost if she had modern technology when she lived? Most would see her world as so small, but she mined such depth from it because she was so present, so alive to it, so aware of something like a bee or a spider. As she so aptly wrote, "I dwell in possibility." She did. She was alive and aware of all the possibility that the moment held, that there was. "Forever is composed of nows." she wrote and every time I read that small statement, I become aware of just how complex and thrilling and mystifying it really is.  Saint Emily, as she is to me, makes me want to be open and aware and available to my surroundings, to what is before me at that moment in time, to find joy in the simplicity of an action like chopping a pepper or dusting our furniture (taking a moment every now and again to reflect on the memory of that object: where I purchased it, who I was with, what was going on in my life at that time. Perhaps if I have no real connection to that object then I should get rid of it). "Find ecstasy in life," Dickinson wrote, "the mere sense of living is joy enough." 

"Her Garden" by Catrin Welz-Stein

I love that line, "The mere sense of living is joy enough." How exuberant such a line is, especially if it is lived out. To not need constant entertaining but to find joy simply in the living. In watching birds in the yard as I'm washing a pan. Walking outside and hearing the birdsong or the music of the cicadas. To find peace exactly where I am, doing what I'm doing in that moment. To be content. As Teresa of Avila said, "Thank God for the things I do not own." I am slowly coming in to the realization of that line, as I am attempting to simplify my own life (and I've started with getting rid of books. Yes, I can hear the gasps now of those reading this). 


This requires the doctrine of discipline. Of literally practicing being aware of God's presence (as He is always there while I am not always so). It means that I have to turn off the background noise, whether that be the radio or television as I do my menial tasks around the house and to not view them as menial but meaningful. When I am folding my kids' clothes to be not only thinking about them but praying for them. To find the theology in everyday life. It means being awake and not just doing things rotely. We should not find the beauty in such actions only when our bodies no longer allow us to perform them as we used to (something we learn as we grow older and find it easier to pull muscles or to feel the aches and pains of doing simple tasks). 


It means being aware of my breathing: inhaling and exhaling. What a gift! And to think it was breathed into us by the very lungs of God.  As the book of Job says, "The Spirit of God hath made, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life." I love how in Hebrew the word rauch means wind, breath, mind and spirit. "The rauch of God is in my nostrils" (Job 27:3).  Rauch Elohim (the Spirit of God). Yet how we take that simple action that gives us life for granted. Do we use our breathing as prayer? Breathing in and out the name Yahweh. Breath as a form of communion.

Or the beating of our hearts. 60 to 100 beats per minute. Do we allow the external rhythms of our actions to move to our internal rhythms?  Or to appreciate the ability to see light coming in the kitchen window? Or to hear the sound of the birds in the shrubbery? Or to feel the coolness of the water on our hands? Or to appreciate all of the different types and colors of flowers? Or to focus on just one? To really see that one flower as if one is appreciating a painting by Van Gogh. 

Be intentional. As children we sang, "This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad in it," but as adults, do we? Do we rejoice in the day? In the dull and mundane? In the routine and the rote?  Replace complaints with communion. Pray. Worship. Be silent. Be present.


How much of this will be lost the more and more people focus so much on their technological gadgets? 

While I'm not saying we should get rid of all of our technology, I am asking that we turn them off and interact with the person who is at the table with us sharing a meal. I asking that we not turn every moment into an Instagram photo or a Facebook post. Enjoy the meal without comment. Enjoy a concert and hear the music and see the performance in place of looking at it through the small screen of a smart phone as you record it to post it on social media. See the poetry in your daily life. Truly see the glass of water and the way the sunlight plays on both.  Or taste the sweetness of wine on your tongue. Savor a meal instead of hurriedly devouring it to get on with life when that is life. So much of Jesus' ministry was simply sharing a meal with someone. Ask your child a question and just listen. And, as you listen, watch their expressions and the life in their eyes and gestures and mannerisms. See yourself and your spouse and your parents in them. Capture that moment in your heart and not you phone.


The poet Mary Oliver wisely wrote her "Instructions for Living" as:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

So now I am going to end this blog and practice the life I wish to live and I pray that you will join me in doing likewise.









Monday, August 15, 2016

The Holy Act Of Listening


Listen to the thunderstorm.

Listen.

Really and truly listen.

Or to birdsong.

Or to the wind.

Too often we hear selectively and think we are listening, but we are not. We do not listen to what is actually occurring and not what we think is.

Listening is intimacy.

Listening is being present, either with another person or our environment.

I love what Henri Nouwen said on the subject, "Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you."

How beautiful is that notion of listening being a form of hospitality? It is saying to the other person, you matter, what you have to say is worth hearing without my need to interrupt or comment or I'm just waiting to say what I really want to say. To listen to someone is a form of blessing or sacrament. It is an offering to die to self, in the sense of letting their voice be important. It is a way of serving them in an expression of not having our own agenda or getting out what we want to say. As Paul Tillich wrote, "The first duty of love is to listen."

Do we view love through that lens?


How much of our relationships to others would be deepened if we listened more than we talked? How much would our public atmosphere, which is so toxic with opinions, be different if there was more listening and less expressing? How much we would learn that we didn't already know if we stopped and truly listened to others? The book of James extols us to, "Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters; You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry" (1:19).

I have heard numerous composers, musicians, playwrights and actors talk about how silence can sometimes be more important and powerful than the words or notes. Handel used this brief moment of silence in his Messiah right before his rousing "Hallelujah" chorus and that moment gave it greater impact. Beethoven used silence as a motif in his works. Jazz musicians understand that to be an artist in improvisation means knowing how to use silences. They know that by being silent for a few beats can raise the listener's expectation about what's to come.

Recently, as we were getting in the car to go the store, I told my boys, "For the ride to Publix, we are all going to be silent. No talking. No radio. Nothing."

Distrustful, Benjamin asked, "Are you trying to get us to play the quiet game?"

"No," I admitted, I was not trying to use that old parental trick to keep kids quiet and in line. "We are going to practise a very old spiritual tradition. It's no gimmick or game or trick. We are just going to be silent and listen."

"To what?" Cava was confused.

"To whatever. To the life all around us, To our own lives. Just listen and let's see what we hear."

Needless to say, neither boy was really thrilled. There is that awkward quiet where one shifts nervously that took place at first. But then, they settled into it. We heard the sound of the car's engine. The sound of traffic. The boys pay closer attention to their surroundings. In the silence, there was peace. No arguing. No complaining.

When we pull into the parking space and get out of the car, they immediately ask me, "Can we do that again on the way home?"

Why?

Because they had space for their thoughts. They weren't inundated with noise, which we are in so many places that we are during our days. And they have asked many times since that first one.

It is important to view silence as a precious gift, which it is because there are so few places where we can in our modern society.  In our own lives and those of our families we need to nurture silence so that we can be nourished by silence. I love how the Sufi poet Rumi wrote about it, "There's a voice that doesn't use words. Listen!"

When we stop and listen to silence, we are forced to really pay attention to all of those things that we drown out, especially our own lives. I often think the reason so many people are averse to silence is that they don't want to face their real selves. We have so often constructed an image of our self that we display to others that we do not want to go past that, even when we're alone. But image is an idol, nor reality.

Noise also keeps us from hearing the still, small voice of God who most often whispers like a loving parent to their child. How much more my kids love it when I lean in close to them and gently whisper in their ear, "I love you" as if it were a secret. Thomas Merton once said, "Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how." I am attempting to teach my children and myself to have the courage to take the time to sit in silence and listen. How many of us do as Samuel did and say, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening" (1st Samuel 3:10). And then say nothing else? But just listen? For however long it takes for God to speak to us.

Listening is a holy act. The prophet Isaiah said, "Listen that you may live." Do we view listening as necessary for living?

It's not easy, especially with children. I cannot even count the number of times my time of silent prayer is interrupted by one of, if not both of, my sons. But I've begun to realize those aren't interruptions but also ways that God can speak. It is a way to listen to their needs. It's often a way that I am being taught patience. Even as I write this, one of my kids keeps wanting my attention and asking me question after question after question. It begins to test and strain one's listening skills to the nth degree. It always makes me want to change my name so that I can reply, "Nope. Sorry. No Papa here" and walk away. Thankfully God is never that way with us. When I find myself snapping at the kids or at wit's end, I go somewhere, off by myself (even if that just means going out into the backyard) to be in silence to recalibrate myself.  Often God teaches me that to teach my children to listen to me, I must also listen to them.  I have to ask myself: What is the ratio of how much I react to my kids then how much I relate to my kids? Too often there can be a time where reacting far outnumbers the listening.

How much do our churches incorporate silence into the worship? Do we even think of silence as worship?

If the pastor got up in front of the congregation and said only, "We will now sit in silence" and said nothing else for the rest of the service, how would people respond? There would probably be a lot of shifting and glancing around at each other. Yet this kind of worship is often a staple in Quaker services, not speaking until God speaks. In fact they have a saying that works in any situation, "Try to listen carefully that you might not have to speak." When we develop close relationships with someone, we find we can trust them enough to be silent with them and not need to fill that empty space with chatter. Why then should we not do the same with God?


When we listen to someone else, we might begin to see things from a different perspective.  The Bible says those who don't listen are "fools." As Proverbs 18:2 states, "Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions." How much of this do we see in the world today as opposed to active listening? How much suffering and hurt is caused my speech that is not mindful or compassionate? Do we cultivate this in ourselves? In our kids?

One of the most important things Jesus did was listen. He listened to people and heard them. He heard not only what they were saying but what was unsaid. Christ asked them questions and listened to their answers. He was a discerning listener. And by listening, he found out what was important to the person speaking and, by listening to them, he made them feel not only heard but important themselves. The Son of God, the Messiah, the Word made Flesh gave them his undivided attention. When we think we are too important or too busy to stop and listen, we need to think about that. Jesus took the time, went out of his way, to find the person who needed him to listen (such as the Samaritan woman by the well). Is it any wonder then that she responded to him as she did?

How would people respond to us if we listen as Christ listened?  How much of an impact would that make in another person's life? If we listened with full attention, without judgment, and with compassion? Especially those who society doesn't listen to (the powerless, the poor, the people on the fringe of society). "Only when we have learned to be truly silent are we able to speak the word that is needed when it is needed," as Richard J. Foster understood. Our lives need less commotion and more communion.

"If you want to be listened to, you should put time in listening." as the poet Marge Piercy accurately assessed. I find myself asking: Have I? Have I put in the time listening? Did I really listen to what someone was saying verbally and non verbally? Did I listen to what it was they really needed? Or did I focus on myself and was I just waiting to give my response? Did I listen to not only the words but what was behind them (the underlying emotions, feelings, wants and needs)? Mother Teresa understood that "We need silence to be able to touch souls."


We live in a world with a deficit of silence and an abundance of noise. Again and again, in the midst of this cacophony and chaos, I find myself being drawn back to, "Be still, and know that I am God." Notice how that is written. "Be still" then the comma to mean we are to pause and not plow through that statement. To know that He is God, we must first be still and be present. Stop the noise. Stop the busyness. Stop the idle chatter and the TV and radio and the iPods and all of it. Be still. Only God and not society tells us to do this. The world is full of pragmatism and utility. Being still is not an option. Be multitasking. Fill our calendars and our days. Once again, the kingdom is contrary to the culture. Be still. Know that I am God. That reminds me of a great saying the Jesuits have. "I've got good news and I've got great news. The good news is: there's a Messiah. The great news is: it's not you." We need to remember that. But to remember means we have to step out of our schedules (one more task, one more thing that needs to get done) and be still and know that God alone is God and we, thankfully, aren't.

When we are fragmented then we only have small fragments to offer others and to God. We cannot listen when we are too busy, too tired and too frantic. We will be run rugged and scraped raw until we stop, be silent and listen in the stillness and quiet. To not "Be still, and know that I am God" means that I am running in order to avoid knowing God. My busyness is building a wall to avoid holy intimacy. Is it any wonder Eugene Peterson calls busyness a "spiritual illness?" Yet it's in silence we will find substance. In silence we find healing and wholeness.

Listening is an attitude of the heart. Listening is a spiritual act. This means that listening isn't easy. It means I have to humble myself, I have to remove so much of the noise and distraction in my daily life. This can be in the morning commute or out running errands. Turn off the radio. Turn off the distractions. And let the silence speak to us and into us. The soul will only speak in quiet solitude, which means I have to make and take time to practise both of these each day. By first listening to silence, then I can listen to my kids, my wife, others, the world around me and ultimately God.