Monday, November 7, 2016

Take Up The Cause


"Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow."
- Isaiah 1:17



To find out more:

Friday, November 4, 2016

Happy 12th Birthday, Cava!


Twelve years ago today one of my personal heroes was born. While I was not present for his birth or for his first eight birthdays, he is no less my son than the boy who was born to us. When we adopted Cava, I had no idea of how profound an impact he would have on my life and that of our family. Sure, from the moment we first met him there was no doubt in our minds and hearts that there was something special about this boy with the big smile and even bigger hugs, but we did not grasp how much so. As I have watched this amazing child develop in the, almost, four years since he arrived in America, what has struck me is that he is how truly brave a kid he is.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to, at only eight years old, choose to start a new life with a new family in a foreign country where everything from the language to the rules to the sights and sounds and smells are unfamiliar. I cannot begin to comprehend all of the things he has overcome in the eight years before we ever met him. I cannot grasp all of the hurts and wounds he has suffered through no fault of his own and yet, to do so while still retaining a compassionate and loving heart. He has a real sense of fairness and will stand up for other kids if they are left out or made fun of. 

Cava's bravery and his deep drive to better himself has caused him to strive and achieve goals that I never imagined possible in so short a time: going from being unable to make it a week of school without getting suspended to making the honor roll for all of last school year.  Or to be elected to student council. Or decide to play soccer. One of the things that I loved most was when, before one of the soccer games, he went off to play with some of his teammates (not an easy thing for him to do since he is still wary of playing with other boys). When I see him trying and putting himself out there for possible success or failure (and being able to now handle the latter with grace and kindness), I want to be more like him. 

In so many ways, Cava and I are very similar. As a child, I was short, skinny and shy (all of which made me a target for being bullied). At times, I was and still am very solitary. Too often I have allowed fear to control what I did or didn't do in life, but as I watch Cava navigate the world with our love and affirmation, he makes me want to put myself out there more, to take more risks, to be more like him. It's because of his bravery that I have opened myself up, let down my guard more, and allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to share parts of my life to others (such as writing about my struggles with depression). Because of my own pains and loneliness, I not only have empathy but understanding of Cava and he has helped to make me a better parent. I have had to rethink parenting and how my own actions and reactions can affect his (or Benjamin's). He is teaching me patience and gentleness always have the greater impact. 

Cava has made me see the world with new and fresh eyes, with an appreciation for what is simple and meaningful. I cannot see a bird without thinking of him (and the same is true for a good many other people). 

People who know Cava love Cava. You cannot help but love his enthusiasm and his joy. He greets those he knows with that big smile and even bigger voice (The boy can be loud).  I have never seen people react to a child the way they have to him. There is something so special in Cava that he draws you in. I cannot go anywhere without someone wanting to talk to me about him. 

Those who have seen the progress he has made in such a short time are astounded by it. We were just at the library this week and the children's section librarians all remarked on what a remarkable kid Cava is and how they love to talk to him and listen to him talk, especially about his love of reading (something else we have in common). 

He has made my life and my family's life so much richer. It is as if he has always been one of us. We cannot imagine our family without him in it. Not a day passes that I don't thank God that He was so loving to us to allow us to be a part of this boy's life. 

Cava has come through so much and I know there is so much more that he has to go through, particularly in regards to coming to terms with his past, but I would go through the depths of hell for my son. 

Ever since he saw the movie Aladdin, he likes to ask me what would I wish for if I could only have one wish. Without missing a beat, I reply, "That you had always been with us." He grins and says, "Oh yeah, me, too." Of course, he also adds, "And for Legos." He loves to hear me say that answer because it reminds him that he's deeply loved and wanted now. Just like he also wants to hear me tell the story of the treasure chest (Treasure Chest) because it's the story of how he is of great value and worth to our family. I like, as he gets out of my car to go to school each morning, how he turns and smiles at me whenever I call out, "Have a great day, treasure." But he is. I cannot imagine a greater treasure than the gift that he has been to my family and I.

Whenever I see him, without even thinking, my heart inwardly says the simple prayer of, "Thank you."

Happy twelfth birthday to my hero, Cava.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Treasure Chest


How many of us fail to grasp our own self-worth?  Too often we are shaped less by who we really are and more by who others perceive us to be. We allowe their criticisms and comments begin to define us from an early age. The German poet Goethe once wrote, "If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he out to be and could be." This is sage advice that I try to remember in my parenting and in my interaction with others.  Too many of us hear negatvie things about who we are when we are young and that shapes and defines so much of how we perceive ourselves. This is especially true of children who have grown up in abusive homes or situations. 

Oftentimes, it can be hard for Cava to accept love and that he is of value and great worth.  His identity and self-image has been shaped by hearing only negative things about himself. Those cold, harsh words reverberate in his soul and those voices echo in his mind whenever he struggles, so much so that he becomes plagued with self-doubt. As his Papa, I try to help him see who he really is: an amazing kid who has so much to offer the world.  Knowing that he has a hard time understanding the abstract, I gave him this image.

Once upon a time, there was a treasure chest in the middle of a village. People passed by this chest, but thought nothing of it; after all, it looked neglected and forgotten. Because the chest was unprotected from the sun and the rain, the chest did not appear special or of any worth. Weeds grew up around this chest. Then, one day, a family came to the village. They noticed the chest and inquired about it from the people of the village. Nobody who they asked gave the chest much thought. "Can we have it?" the family asked. "What do we care," the villagers replied, "it's just an old beaten chest."  So the family picked up the chest and took it back to where they lived. Once inside their own home, they slowly began to pry the chest open and when they did, they found it filled with treasure. Gold and jewels and riches like they had never seen before. They could not believe that the villagers never thought to open it themselves. Oh how their lives were changed by that treasure they found.

Cava loved the story and he talked about what he'd do if he found treasure (buy books, Legos, a bird). Then I revealed to him, "You are like that treasure chest. Nobody had noticed what was inside of you before. They didn't take the time to even see. But we adopted you and we began to see what an amazing, awesome and special kid you were. We saw that you had so many wonderful things inside of you: your intelligence and your kind heart. Each day that we spend with you, we see something new and valuable about you. There is such great worth and even you did not see it before. I cannot wait until you begin to grasp what a treasure you are. In all the history of the world there has never been and never will be another you. God created you uniquely you. He made you special and others now see that as well - at your school, at church." He smiled his big, warm Cava smile. That, too, is treasure.

How many of us need someone to tell us that we, too, are great treasures? That we have value and worth? How different would the world be if more people heard that? To know that they mattered. That they were seen and not forgotten? 

Just think of all the unopened treasure chests there are in this world. Maybe we should each take the time to notice.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Baptism, Armor, & A Papa's Blessing


Before the start of his ministry, Jesus went to the River Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. As he was coming out of the water, the Spirit of God came down like a dove and a voice from heaven spoke, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." Before Jesus could start his ministry, he needed his Father's blessing. He needed affirmation from God. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke this baptism and God's blessing of His Son is followed by the Spirit leading Christ into the wilderness. The Greek word for "led" is more correctly translated as "impel," which has much more force behind it. Jesus is impelled by the Spirit to the wilderness where he will fast for forty days. During those forty days, he will be tempted daily by Satan, though we are only told specifically of three. Why did God need to bless and affirm His Son's identity? Because that would be the very thing that Satan would come to question in his temptations of Christ. "If you are the Son of God," he always begins. But because Jesus had His Father's affirmation, He understood who He was in God and that is where His identity lay.

How many sons and daughters never received such a blessing from their own fathers?  How many became lost in identity because they did not understand whose they were or that their father blessed their identity?

When Benjamin was born, the first thing I did upon holding him was to whisper a prayer of blessing in his ear over his life. Then, each person who came to visit us in the hospital or when we first got home, before I ever handed Benjamin to them, I asked them to do the same. This is a Middle Eastern custom I had read about that I wanted for my own son. I wanted everyone who came in contact with him to bless him.

A father blessing their son is seen throughout the Old Testament, but when God does so for His only Son then how can I not do likewise with my own sons? Is this not a model I should follow?

Too many fathers don't. Their children grow up without hearing those words they so desperately crave, "I'm proud of you." I cannot even count the number of times Benjamin has heard this over his sixteen years or Cava now has since we adopted him almost four years ago.

Another image from scripture that comes to my mind when I think of this, is when David is told to go and take food for his brothers, who are fighting in Saul's army. It's a humbling task for David, who probably longed to be in battle himself and, during the long, boring hours spent in the field with sheep, probably imagined himself a soldier in battle. Yet he is an errand boy taking his brothers their meal. Yet when he gets to the Israelite camp, he finds his brothers, all of the other troops, and even the King hiding from the taunts of the Philistine giant, Goliath.

What happens when David offers to fight Goliath?

Saul tried to put David in his own armor.

Though Saul is not David's father, I could not help but get a picture of so many parents, including myself sometimes, when we try to mold our children into who we think they should be instead of who God is wanting them to become. We cannot put our children in our armor (or our ideas of who we think they should become or what they should do).  One of the hardest prayers I have ever prayed was in giving my sons completely to God: for His plan for their life.

As their Papa, it is my job to guide and instruct, but it's also to affirm who they are becoming. This is especially true of Benjamin, who will be going off to college in two years. I tell him how proud I am, not just of his accomplishments, but, more importantly of who he's becoming in terms of his character and his walk with God.

When I affirm who he is and who he's becoming then what I am doing is putting his future into the light of God's perspective. "Who you are and what you do," I remind him, "should all be for the glory of God." It is helping him to see that success is not to be viewed through the lens of our culture. True success is not the amount of stuff he has or money he makes, but the amount he loves and gives himself to others in order that they might see the love of Jesus through him. I am preparing him for when he leaves us so that he has a better sense of who he is in Christ. Blessing and affirming him is rooting him in where his strength will come from when he faces trials and tests and failures.  Just as Satan came to Jesus in the wilderness, he will come to Benjamin when he is out of our home. When he hears that sly whisper of suggestion, I want him to know that he is not who the world says he is, but who God says he is; redeemed through the blood of His Son, of great value and worth, precious and righteous.

Also, when I bless them it shows that I know who they are and about their dreams, goals and desires. I see their uniqueness in the way God created them differently from myself. I see their strengths and their weaknesses. I see their gifts and their talents. I see them as individuals. By affirming them, I am letting them know that I notice, I understand and that I bless their identities in Christ. I do this for my sons and would do the same if I had daughters.

I pray this blessing over Benjamin.

I will pray his own blessing over Cava.

They will not be the same prayers because they are not the same kids.

How much time I have with them on this earth, I cannot say. But in that time, I want them to know that their Papa loves them, is proud of them and blesses the men they will become.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A New Direction



After investing so much of myself into Snapshots From Our Journey for the last four and a half years, I have found myself at a crossroads. What originally started as an adoption blog has undergone a metamorphosis and covered a wide variety of subjects all rooted in a biblical perspective: social justice, Black Lives Matter, the refugee crisis, and this current political election. At times, it has been isolating and exhausting. I know that the blog lost readers in this shift, perhaps feeling betrayed that I had changed the focus.

As I have previously written, I realized that I could not keep writing about Cava, his struggles and his life because it was his story, not mine, to tell. For me to continue to do so now would be unfair and voyeuristic. He deserves his privacy.

Will Snapshots From Our Journey continue?

Possibly.

I may, from time to time, return to post stories about the life of our family.

However, I am grateful to all of you who have embraced and loved our family, even when we have never actually met. It's been surreal to go somewhere and be recognized for what I thought would only be read by family and a few friends. It has been an amazing journey.

It has been overwhelming to have so many follow our day to day lives ever since we started the adoption process. We have appreciated your prayers and kind words.

Do I think I will lose readers?

Probably.

But for now, I am finding myself being moved in a new direction. What does God have in store for me? I cannot answer, but I have begun a new blog entitled Begin With Wonder that will embrace the Mystery and the question.

As Saint Emily (Dickinson) wrote:

The Lassitudes of Contemplation
Beget a force
They are the spirit's still vacation
That him refresh -
The Dreams consolidate in action -
What mettle fair.

I am at a new threshold and, for those who would like to come along for that new journey as well, here is the link to the new blog:





Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Five Great Films Of Faith


For as long as I can remember, I have loved going to the movies. When I was a child, one of my favorite places to eat in Charlotte was a pizza parlor that showed silent films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Along with Disney films, I also watched classic films movies my parents loved, so I got exposed to lots of musicals (Singing in the Rain, Sound of Music), comedies that ranged from slapstick to screwball to romantic, as well as great dramas (Casablanca, 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird). Some of their favorite movies became some of mine and, as I got older, I developed my own favorites and began to embrace foreign cinema. 

One category that I have struggled with the most are films listed as "Christian." Typically, these are heavy-handed tracts that bludgeon the audience (predominantly those who already believe what is being espoused on-screen) and I cringe just watching them. They always make me ask, "If I weren't a Christian, would I watch this?" The answer is typically a resounding, "NO!" These movies are too simplified, cut and dry, and offer no real struggle or complexities to what it means to have faith and, especially, to have that faith tested.

Once I went to film school, I came across these films that are both great cinema as well as deeply nuanced and complicated stories with strongly developed characters, plot and are amazing to look at. 


My first choice comes from a director who struggles with God in all of his films. Born the son of a strict, cold and authoritarian minister, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman wrestled with what he saw as the silence of God. While he has many great movies to choose from, I picked The Virgin Spring (from 1960).  Based on a thirteenth century folk song and set in medieval Sweden, this is the tale of a young girl who is raped and murdered. Her father, played by the amazing Max Von Sydow, decides he is going to take revenge on those who've done this to his daughter. While this is not an easy film to watch, it deals with the complex issues of justice, morality, the nature of evil, questioning of religious faith, and, ultimately, redemption. Bergman once said, "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight of the soul." One experiences the truth of that statement watching this great work of cinema. 


The director Ingmar Bergman once said that his discovery of the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky were like "a miracle." He considered Tarkovsky the greatest filmmaker because he thought Tarkovsky "invented a new language . . . as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." High praise from a man who was lauded as a genius of cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky was the son of the poet Arseny Tarkovsky.  Unlike most directors today, Tarkovsky saw cinema as a spiritual act, much like prayer. "Modern mass culture, aimed at the 'consumer,' the civilization of prosthetics," he wrote in his meditation on film and faith entitled Sculpting in Time, "is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being."

All of Tarkovsky's films strives to portray the spiritual nature in a poetic manner in order to reveal the truth he has seen "even if not everyone finds that truth acceptable." Each one is his attempt to express the Infinite. "Substitution," he said is necessary because, "the infinite cannot made made into matter, but it is possible to create an illusion of the infinite: the image."


Like with Bergman, it is difficult narrowing down Tarkovsky's movies to just one, but after much debating, I settled on his 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev. It is a biographical film about the life of 15th century icon-painter Andrei Rublev. This is set during a violent and turbulent part of Russian history and its themes are artistic freedom, as well as religious and political identity (all of this drew the ire of the socialistic and atheistic leaders of the Soviet Union of that time who saw it as a condemnation of their own regime). 


Regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Andrei Rublev places us in this world amidst the muck and chaos that resembles the paintings of Brueghel. Not interested in cause and effect, Tarkovsky is far more concerned about asking questions about the artist in regards to society and his religious beliefs, while not seeking to answer the questions he's asked. "In cinema, it is not necessary to explain, but to act upon the viewer's feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought," he said.  Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction. Creation with the fallenness of man. With the films final moments, we see that creation wills out in a grand flourish of color as we see Rublev's paintings for the very first time. 


My third choice is a more more accessible film than the first two. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for 1987, Babette's Feast. Based on story by Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa), this movie tells the story of two elderly and pious sisters Martine and Phillipa. Their father, a pastor, founded an austere sect that his daughters preside over once he died. The sect is dwindling as the congregation gets older and does not draw any new converts. We are shown the sisters' pasts and the choices they made to stay with their father in their strict faith. Then a French refugee, Babette, shows up on their doorstep with an offer to work for them without pay. 


What unfolds as Babette enters their lives and, over the years, gaining their trust and respect. Then, one day, Babette wins the French lottery of $10,000 francs. She uses that money to prepare a feast for the sisters and people from their past. This sumptuous, exotic feast takes on spiritual meaning, almost like a Eucharist, as those gathered at the table begin to find redemption and forgiveness as they come to terms with their pasts and their choices. After the meal, a tearful Martin tells Babette, "Now you will be poor the rest of your life." Babette replies, "An artist is never poor!" Philippa says, "In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be."


My fourth choice is a series of films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski based on the Ten Commandments, entitled Dekalog. These short films were what drew attention to Kieslowski and led to him becoming one of the world's premiere filmmakers (going on to make The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours series BlueWhite and Red based on the colors and the three political ideals of France: liberty, equality and fraternity). At the time of his death, he was also working on films about both heaven and hell.  When asked about the crisis facing Western Civilization, Krzysztof Kieslowski said, "We are clearly going through a cultural crisis at the moment. It's a phase where we are trying to distinguish values of life. People are looking for a solution and perhaps they will find it. But the radicality of the search will change their view of life."


I had come to Kieslowski's work through the dreamlike film The Double Life of Veronique. Having never seen anything like it, I became a huge fan of his work, so much so that when I found out they were showing Dekalog at a film festival in Washington, DC, Danelle and I drove there to see them. I was amazed by the originality and depth he brought to the subject. Dekalog is not a film about rules, offering only mere illustrations of those who do or don't live by them, but stories that involve real people caught up in the complexities of their daily problems. Throughout the films is a single male figure. He's a young man who looks sadly on at what is taking place around him. He never speaks a word, but there is a sadness to him. Is this Christ with his pure, wounded gaze looking at the weakness and failures of humanity? 


These are not philosophical abstractions but concrete stories with real emotions. Stanley Kubrick (director of such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey) said, after seeing Dekalog, that Kieslowski "has the very rare ability to dramatize (his) ideas rather than just talking about them." How many of today's "Christian" movies can that be said of? These are films that will leave the viewer filled with questions and wanting to discuss them. 


Along with Bergman, Tarkovsky and Kieslowski this last choice is by another of my favorite filmmakers: Terrence Malick. I have loved his films from Badlands to Tree of Life (was not able to embrace his To The Wonder). All of his works have a spiritual element to them and references to biblical stories. With Malick, I was torn between three films (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life). The last one I have already blogged about Awe & Meditation On The Tree Of Life, so I went with Days of Heaven. Malick is an artist and the frames of his films are like master paintings. Throughout this film, I couldn't help but think of the work of Andrew Wyeth. The film is visually gorgeous to look at.


The story is almost Old Testament in its telling. Set in 1916, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are lovers. After knocking down and accidentally killing his boss, they flee to Texas where they pretend to be siblings to prevent gossip. When they are hired on by a shy and wealthy farmer (played by Sam Shepard), he begins to fall in love with Abby. Discovering that the farmer is dying, Bill encourages Abby to marry him so that they can inherit his money after he dies. What Bill does not expect is that Abby will fall in love with this farmer. As the film unfolds, complete with plagues like locust and fire, so too does its story of ambition and love. This melodrama works because Malick is more meditative about his subjects and fills them with religious imagery. His contemplative style makes his films transcendent in its being elliptical and evocative. He does not feed the audience the answers but makes them work to understand the connections and depth of what's unfolding onscreen. There is a conscious deliberation to his films, rooted in his faith and his love of philosophy. His movies deal with the fundamental questions of man's existence (creation, the fall of man, the existence of good and evil - within the same person, light and darkness, human and divine love, the eternal and the natural world). 


As with the other great directors I've mentioned, Terrence Malick is not interested in easy answers but in the complicated messiness that we all struggle through in our faith to find meaning in the suffering and the joy, the heartbreak and the hope. 


All of these films portray faith as something that is tested and tried. They show the reality of the wrestling with life and with God. Each director portrays that, no matter how hard the struggle is, in the end there is more, there is hope, there is something far greater than ourselves. Their artistry opens us to awe and wonder and the daringness to ponder. Like any great art, they don't offer us the answers but, instead, help us to ask better questions.


These are my five choices for great films about faith, what are yours? Comment or e-mail me. I would love to hear your thoughts on my choices and your own.

Other recommendations:


The Mission
"If might is right, then love has no place in the world," Father Gabriel tells
Rodrigo, "It may be so,  it may be so.  But I don't have the strength to live
in a world like that."


Chariots of Fire
"I believe God made me for a purpose," Eric Liddell says to his sister,
"but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."


Diary of a Country Priest


Tender Mercies

Monday, September 12, 2016

Go Into The Stillness

Rowing a Boat by Emmanuel Zairis

"Be still, and know that I am God."

"Be still, and know that I am."

"Be still, and know."

"Be still."

"Be."

This is contemplation.

I have been practicing contemplative (or centering) prayer for almost a year now.  First I start by reading scripture (usually a Psalm) and meditating on it. Then I have a word (grace, mercy, compassion, holiness, awe) that helps me refocus when my thoughts begin to wander. As St. John of the Cross wrote, "Seek by reading and you will find by meditating. Knock by praying, and it will be opened to you in contemplation." Contemplative prayer is not an intellectual exercise. It is not an act of the mind, but of the heart for the heart is where it gets to.

It does not get easier. There are times when I go in to silence for thirty minutes and it feels as if no time at all has past. Then, there are yet other times, where it feels as if I am attempting to move a huge boulder. I push and I shove and I work against and exhaust myself.

There are those who would ask, "Why in silence? And for thirty minutes?"

Isaac the Syrian wrote, "The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God." He understood that to avidly seek God one had to do so in quiet and stillness. "We pray with words until the words are cut off," he said, "and are left in a state of wonder." Reaching the wonder first means walking through the wilderness of our pains. Stillness and silence dredges up all of that which we would prefer to ignore and we mostly do by our activity and our busyness and the noise and entertainments we fill our days with. But when we overcome the fear that we will face ourselves, only then will we come face to face with all of our unhealed hurts, unresolved resentments, our anger, judgments, disillusionment, and all of those things that have injured our egos. Yet you cannot heal what you will not recognize is really there.

During one of my recent times of contemplation, I found that there was a deep rooted anger within me that would not allow me to enter into the silence and stillness. Instead, the anger kept me agitated. No matter how much I tried to focus on God, this anger kept welling up within me. The longer I sat there in the silence, the more this anger gnawed away at me. The more time I sat there in silence, the closer I examined this anger and realized that the reason I could not focus on God was that I was angry at Him.

Then an image came to mind.  I was in a wooden boat in the middle of a body of water. Off in the distance was an island. I was trying to row out to the island. The harder I rowed, the further it seemed like I was getting from the island. Somehow, I knew this island was God. Why was He keeping Himself so far from me?

"The awful rowing toward God" as the poet Anne Sexton called it.

I was angry at this island God.

But then, in that silence, God spoke, gently to me.

"I am not the island," He said, "I am the water. And wherever I take you I am."

Upon hearing that, I stopped all of my rowing and put down my oars. At rest, I allowed the water to carry my boat along.

"For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," Jesus said and continues to repeat to me whenever I try to put the burden back on my own shoulders and try in my own effort.

Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love that, ". . . the goodness of God is the highest object of prayer and it reaches down to our lowest need."

In those moments of silent contemplation, God did just that. He knew I had the anger there, but I wasn't so aware of it. Only by being still and being silent, could He, in his infinite and compassionate attention, show this to me. That hidden anger was keeping me from communion with Him.

If I had not allowed Him to show this to me, that anger would have manifested itself in being angry with those around me. Psychologists say that 90% of our desires are unconscious. Anytime we become angry, we are coming into contact with that unconscious and unmet desire. Maybe it's a desire to have authority over our children so that they would listen to us. Or maybe we become upset with our spouse or a friend over some slight or comment because of some deep-rooted insecurity. Fear is so often at the base of our reactions and is why there is so much anger in the culture and society around us.

But, after the wilderness, when we go into the silence and the stillness, we find a greater sense of peace, humility and charity that will then manifest itself in our daily lives.

"Truth sees God," Julian of Norwich wrote, "and wisdom contemplates God, and from these two comes a third, a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love."

When we find ourselves resting in God, we no longer need to go about justifying or defending ourselves and getting upset with those who disagree with us. "Having come to deep interior silence," Thomas Keating said, "helps us to relate to others beyond superficial aspects of social status, race, nationality, religion and personal characteristics."

Why?

Scripture tells us that "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray" (Luke 5;17).  Again and again and again, he sends his disciples away and goes off to a place that is quiet where he can be alone.
If he did this, why do we think we aren't supposed to?  This does not mean we go off to a desolate, lonely spot in the wilderness, but we do withdraw to somewhere that's quiet and we can have solitude and peace.

Like Christ, when we spend time with the Father, we can then be with others. We aren't arguing to be heard. We aren't pushing our opinions. We move past self. Too often we do not see others as they are but, instead, as we are. Contemplative prayer takes the focus off us and readjusts our inner selves to being in God, so that as we spend time with other people, we can truly hear what their needs are because we aren't centered on our own. Jesus understood that silence, stillness and solitude were necessary to be a part of community. You cannot have one without the other, but there must be a healthy balance. I am very good at solitude, but God is moving me out more into community.

In silence, we are surrendering ourselves, our whole beings, to Christ. Returning to Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich said, "Prayer is a new, gracious lasting will of the soul united and fast-bound to the will of God by the precious and mysterious working of the Holy Ghost." Only then will we stop rowing and allow ourselves to be guided by the living water.



Sunday, September 11, 2016

Grieving


C. S. Lewis once wrote, "There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind."

Psalms 34:18 reminds us that, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."

My wife's Aunt Diana passed away last night.

Please be in prayer for her family. Pray that the Holy Spirit gives them peace and comfort during this time of grieving.



Saturday, September 10, 2016

Soccer Cava


We have now joined the legions of soccer parents.  When Cava expressed a desire to play soccer, we were thrilled. One, because we were excited at getting to watch our child play a sport so we could root and cheer for him and, secondly, because it will help to not only build his self-esteem but also help him relate and play with other kids his own age.

The league that he's playing in have their teams by different countries' names. And what was Cava's?

Team Ukraine! Slava Ukraine!

After a couple of practices, they had their first game today. Before it even started, Cava spotted hawks circling in the sky. "Pay attention to the game," I told him, "not the birds of prey, okay?"

"Okay," he replied, though clearly not happy about it.


I love that they started with both teams gathering in the center of the field, taking each others hands and someone led them in a prayer.

Then the game began: Ukraine versus Scotland.

Cava started off as a defender.


As someone who'd never played soccer before, he was a bit hesitant and unsure, but then he got into the thick of the action.


Scotland scored the first goal. 

But then Ukraine came back to score their own.

Cava came out to rest a bit but he was all red-faced and smiles. Since it was in the 90's, he chugged down Gatorade and waited (not patiently, since he kept asking "Coach George" if he could go back in).


When he was sent in to replace someone else, he got to play midfield.



I was one proud Papa watching my boy out on that field. One of the things I love most about Cava and he inspires me on is his willingness to try new things. 



By the end, Team Ukraine scored four goals to Scotland's one.  


Once the game was over, the boy was ready to eat. And he was happy because he got to pick where we ate. "I want chicken," he declared and, since he got to choose where we went, it was Popeye's. Choosing is something that Cava's still not used to and it's important that he realizes how he matters (what he feels, what he likes, what he wants) and so he gets opportunities to pick things, like where we go out to eat.  


Whether his team wins or loses, I cannot help but be proud of my son. I love his attitude and his willingness to try no matter what.  He truly is one of my heroes. And our family is most certainly always Team Ukraine!


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Meditations On Clouds


My kids don't understand my fascination with clouds. They are baffled why I want to take so many photos of the sky. "Another cloud picture?" Benjamin asks as he shakes his head in the same disapproving way a parent would a kid who's brought home another bad grade on his report card or like I'm bring home stray cats constantly. But I don't care because I love looking at clouds and watching the sky.  Doing so calms me just as watching fish does or meditating. In fact, I often find myself meditating or daydreaming as I watch them. Clouds have a ruminating and reflexive effect on me. I see clouds as introspective and almost dreamlike the way they are constantly changing  and evolving. 


Clouds inevitably remind me of Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now" (my favorite version is the one she rerecorded in 2000 with a lush orchestra and was used in the film Love Actually). There is a mature self-awareness to the song as she sings:

I've looked at clouds from
both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's clouds illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Love, like clouds, has two sides: one is of beauty and tranquility while the other is of storms or bad weather. At times, the song is a rumination on life and relationships, loss and loneliness. The song is beautiful in its vulnerability and its delicateness (much like a cloud itself).

The first time I ever heard this song, I was riding in the backseat of my mother's Carolina-blue VW Bug. I was staring out the window at the clouds and this beautiful, melancholy song came on the radio. I don't remember if it was Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins singing it. What I remember was my mother singing along and, as the song progressed, I could hear a sadness that I did not understand in her voice. When she got to the lines, "Tears and fears and feeling proud / To say "I love you" right out loud" her voice cracked and she stopped singing. From the rear view mirror, I could see a tear running down her cheek, but I didn't say anything, I didn't ask why she was crying. I just turned away and looked out the window at the clouds.


Listening to Mitchell's song or simply gazing at the clouds myself, I cannot help but see the mercurial nature of them as they fold and unfold, their shapes shifting, not in a harsh or sudden manner, but in slow and gradual way. Tenderly, almost. As children we played games guessing the shapes of the clouds. Seeing a turtle or a dog or a sheep. Clouds are a thing of wonder and hope. They are the subject of paintings. Of course, I cannot help but think of Bob Ross painting his "happy clouds." (Side note: I still watch reruns of his PBS show because it also helps to calm me whenever I'm stressed. All it takes is good old Bob talking about cadmium blue and a glass of wine and I'm good no matter how many times I hear the word "Papa" being repeated over and over by my kids). Another painter who loved them was Georgia O'Keefe wrote, "Tonight I walked into the sunset - to mail some  letters - the whole sky - and there is so much of it out here - was just blazing - and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it . . ."

There is a holiness to them. When one stops and truly looks at clouds in the sky, that, for that moment, is the whole world. If I allow myself to just stop and watch them, I am being. Not doing. Not busying about, but simply being. I am present to that moment and I'm not focusing on anything else. I forget my phone and the computer and social media. There is only this moment and all else falls away. Perhaps their impact is their transient and ephemeral nature. 


I'm clearly not the only one who appreciates them, however, as there is a Cloud Appreciation Society. No, I'm not making that up (Here's the link to their site: https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/).  I could easily become a member. Someone else who would join me, if he were alive today, was the English painter John Constable. He loved clouds so much that during a single summer in 1822 he painted fifty oil sketches of them, with notations on the backs of the sketches about atmospheric conditions, as well as the direction and speed of the wind. 


Constable was so proud of his cloud paintings that he boasted to Archdeacon John Fisher, a friend of his, "I am the man of clouds."  This was not an empty boast.


His paintings show his love of his elusive subjects, as does his letters and journals. He once wrote, "It would be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment." Constable even presented  his observations in lectures at the Royal Institution in 1836. He hoped to show his profession as "scientific as well as poetic" and that painting landscapes were as much a part of "natural philosophy" and that pictures were "experiments." Though not popular during his own lifetime, Constable's paintings would go on to influence Impressionistic painters like Claude Monet. 


Something else I learned is that the study of clouds and cloud formations is called nephology. It's described as a daydreamer's science, which may be one of the reasons I love it so much.

Another daydreamer who became known as the "father of modern meteorology" was an Englishman by the name of Luke Howard. He was a British manufacturing chemist who originally had an interest in botany, but by 1802, wrote to the poet Goethe to tell him about his "passion" for clouds. He began to study them more closely. so much so that he went from taking notes to sketching and painting the clouds he saw.


Soon he began to classify and it was he that first identified three principle types (cumulus, stratus, and cirrus). In December of 1802, he presented his findings in a paper entitled "On the modification of clouds" to the Askesian Socitey (a London debating club for scientific thinkers). In it, he said:

Clouds are subject to certain distinct modifications produced by the
general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere;
they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of
these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind
or body.

Howard was accurate as scientists are beginning to grasp the importance of clouds in understanding how the atmosphere behaves, as well as its effects on climate change and global warming. There was an article in the Scientific American by Umair Irfan in which he wrote:

Clouds are especially important in understanding how the atmosphere
behaves. They reflect sunlight back into space, trap heat and carry moisture,
all of which can have contradictory impacts. Varieties like puffy, cottony cumulus
clouds; wavy stratocumulus clouds; and tall, thundering cumulonimbus clouds behave
differently as well.

Luke Howard is responsible for this understanding in that it was he who identified seven cloud types (those would be expanded to ten by other scientists later on). Because of his studies of clouds, Howard was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on March 18, 1821 and joined the British Meteorological Society on May 7,1850. He would carry on a correspondence with the poet Goethe that would inspire that poet's interest in clouds, as well as the painter John Constable, the writings of John Ruskin and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote his monumental poem "The Cloud" because of his reading Howard's work. (Here's a link to the poem: Shelley's The Cloud). 


As a child, I remember lying in tall, wild grass of the woods behind our house. It was summer and I was only wearing shorts, so I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. It felt like God's pleasure. I lay there, looking up at the sky and the clouds, with a sense of awe and wonder that I did not understand as pure theology. Then, as I'm lying there, it begins to rain. The sun is still out. The sky is blue, but the rain suddenly comes down on me. I delight in its coolness and get up with arms outstretched in gratitude for this momentary gift. Even now it gives me joy to think of this boyish delight.


The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote:

Summer ends now; now,
barbarous in beauty, the Stooks
arise Around; up above, what
wind-walks! what lovely behavior
Of silk-sack clouds! Has wilder,
wilful-waiver Meal-drift molded
ever and melted across skies?

Like Constable, Hopkins' journal shows his own fascination with clouds.


Clouds are ever changing, merging, rising, falling and spreading across the sky. When I truly stop and watch them, linear time falls away. In "De Profundis," Oscar Wilde wrote, "We think in eternity but we move slowly through time." I think of that line whenever I see clouds. During these moments all else slips away. They remind me: Living life is not in the hurrying.

A quietness settles over me. I am content. 


Upon seeing the painting "Nocturnes" by James McNeill Whistler, the French composer Claude Debussy began writing what would become known as his "Nocturnes." The first movement was entitled "Nuages" (Clouds). Of this piece, Debussy noted that the piece, "renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white."


One of my favorite times and places to reflect and watch clouds is in the car line at Cava's school. With the car turned off, I watch them shift and materialize into different forms before my eyes. Slow down, the clouds seem to say. I love them because they invite me in to silence and solitude. Watching them, I focus on being and not doing. I do not look for answers. I do not ask questions. I am at peace.


Certainly I agree with John Lubbock who wrote in The Use of Life, "Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time."


As a child, I played t-ball. I can recall standing in the outfield with my attention more on the clouds than the action taking place around me (probably one of the many reasons I tended to be in outfield). Clouds allowed me to daydream. They were also the reason why teachers learned not to seat me near a window in school. How many report cards came home with the note "Prone to daydreaming" written on them by the teacher?

It's true.

To me, school was more like a prison, but the sky with its clouds offered freedom. They called to me to be outside, to be in nature, to walk in the woods. They never spoke of math or penmanship or diagramming sentences. The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer wrote, "A horizon is something toward which we journey, but it is also something that journeys along with us."

When I gaze up at the sky, I understand his words and I desire nothing more than to be a bird in flight. How I envy those hawks that soar overhead with such ease.


Our parents used to take us on a yearly Fall drive through the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the leaves changing in all of their autumnal glory. I remember how, as my father navigated the winding mountain roads, how my sister and I would roll down our windows to reach out our hands to grab the clouds. We would laugh as we did so, only to be disappointed to find our hands were empty and that the clouds always evaded our grasp.


"What can poor mortals say about clouds?" the naturalist John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, "While a description of their huge glowing domes and ridges, shadowy gulfs and canons, and featheredged ravines is being tried, they vanish, leaving no visible ruins. Nevertheless, these fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up and die, and in God's calendar difference of duration is nothing."


When my mother was dying of cancer, I would sometimes leave her room in the hospice wing, and go, not to the hospital's small chapel, but to somewhere I could be outside. I would just stand there in the cold of winter and stare up at the sky. I was heavy with the burden of her suffering and I needed to see those insubstantial clouds. The clouds were like prayers to me then. 

Towards the end, she told me she began to see bright colors - brighter than any on earth - the bluest sky with the most beautiful clouds she had ever seen. "They are like nothing you can imagine," she whispered. "And there is such light." 

Had the veil between this world and the next thinned so much for her that she had caught glimpses of it?

In that moment, all anxiety had been replaced with tranquility for her. She felt peace.

God, in His infinite tenderness, was giving my mother what she would need to make that journey.

That moment was sacred.

For me to be there felt like a sacrament. A holy gift. 

I looked outside her window at the clouds and the sky and tried to imagine the one she had just seen. Clouds are a reminder to me of just how close the eternal world is to our natural one.


So when I see clouds in the sky, my mind turns to what the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "Higher yet and higher out of clouds and night, nearer yet and nearer rising to the to the light - light, serene and holy where my soul may rest, purified and lowly, sanctified and blest."


Hopefully you, too, now will look at clouds differently and with a greater appreciation. May you now stop to ponder this beautiful gift our Creator has given us and see how clouds, like ourselves, will continually be transfigured and transformed. All is grace.