Saturday, December 3, 2011

Suffering Is Central to Christianity: Meditation on 1 Peter

First Peter makes it clear that suffering is central to Christianity. After the standard greetings of “grace and peace,” the writer begins right in discussing suffering. Every time he moves on to discuss other things, he comes right back to suffering. In fact, he bluntly says that when we suffer, we should not “be surprised” “as though some strange thing were happening.” Suffering is basic. Suffering is Christianity 101. It is little wonder that our primary symbol is a torture instrument: the cross.

The letter, then, says quite a bit about suffering. To begin with, it is “necessary” for us to be “distressed by various trials” because these trials will result in good things, as they are connected to our faith, to glorifying Jesus Christ, and eventually to “the salvation of [our] souls.” After all, suffering is central to the life and work, even the very identify, of Christ. Indeed, it is by his suffering that he was revealed to “the prophets who prophesied of the grace.” So in turn, “for the sake of conscience toward God,” we too are to “bear up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.” We are not to return abuse for abuse. We are not to give back evil for evil. Suffering in this way is our debt, the example set for us in Christ, and our calling. We are called to suffer. It is a blessing to “suffer for the sake of righteousness.” Moreover, sometimes our suffering will lead to righteousness, especially when we suffer in our struggles to be more like Christ. Moreover, we are not alone in our suffering. Not only has Christ suffered before us, but those all over the world who follow Christ share “the same experiences of suffering.” Also, after we “have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace” will grow us. Because of all this, the writer even goes so far as to say that “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.”

But this is a lot to accept. Rejoice in our suffering? Bear through our suffering with patience? Not return abuse for abuse? If this is possible, it is only so because of the deep spiritual insight that is the heart of the epistle, a beautiful truth: “Those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”

The gospel of suffering is good news only in a world where everyone suffers already anyway. Our suffering is not relieved for following Christ—in some cases it is made worse—but it is given meaning. Moreover, we are given examples of how to suffer well, we are assured of companions in suffering, and we are shown glimpses of what good can come out of our suffering. Most importantly, our suffering becomes part of our life in God. Read it again: “Those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.” Our suffering is not relieved but it is transformed.

The basic movement of prayer is surrendering to God—letting go of everything we are holding on to and accepting everything that God has for us. At times, this is pure joy. Usually, it is not. But my prayer is that, in our suffering, we will entrust ourselves to God.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Collaborative Contemplation

Greetings fellow sojourners! I would like to ask if I could begin some dialog with you about this odd juxtaposition of terms: collaborative contemplation. I have been asked to talk about contemplation at a contemplative retreat in January, and after talking with the leaders, we noticed that there was a strong concern for the communal dimensions of contemplative prayer. Why do we come together to do this "individual" practice? I found the discussion inspiring because I was making connections between it and the book I'm currently reading: Cathy N. Davidson's Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Learn. The book deals with "attention blindness" -- a state of unawareness which is a process of learning that begins in pre-infancy. We are culturally nurtured to "pay attention" to certain things and disregard others. While this is a necessary skill for survival, it is nonetheless a limiting agent in the observation of reality. Thus, Davidson argues that collaboration is a much needed factor in the lives of communities.

With this idea in mind, it seems that centering prayer (and other contemplative practices) may be viewed as a "tool" to help one's attention blindness by training the brain to take a break from its conditioned patterns of "paying attention." My question is, "Can the idea of collaboration work somehow with contemplation to add a new dimension of spiritual awareness to not just an individual, but also to a community?" I don't mean to imply that "two heads are better than one, and with more we'll figure out the Mystery." But can we come closer to the Mystery and be enriched in the process of viewing "it" in a form of collaborative silence that is not possible in isolation?

Do you know of writers that tackle such a perspective? Scripturally, I'm looking at the story of the Transfiguration and other instances of Jesus taking a few of his disciples with him to retreat in prayer as a springboard into the discussion. I would appreciate any advice, or corrective suggestions this idea inspires! By the way, it's interesting that this talk will be held during Epiphany.....

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Faithful Presence

In the last third of his 2010 book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World James Davison Hunter develops an alternative approach to our dominant secular culture, one that is not adversarial. He advocates “faithful presence” and argues this is the model most appropriate for our current historical context—which he calls exile. He cites Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding the Babylonian Exile as relevant to us. I would also point to Joseph’s service to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Like those Israelites we must seek to bless those of the dominant culture while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of our own spiritual calling. Hunter develops and emphasizes the concept of shalom, drawing on both the Old and the New Testaments. We are to be representatives and transmitters of the shalom of God—the harmony, wholeness, beauty of God—seeking and sharing God’s shalom with all others to the fullest extent possible.

To effectively develop and share God’s shalom, we must first be faithfully present to God and then faithfully present to fellow Christians. Only if these first two sets of relationships are real and active can we be effectively present to those outside the church. All these relationships need to be incarnated in genuine, actual practices.

Clearly the first and foremost relationship is with God. If this relationship is not vibrant, then all our other relationships will not be as they should. To practice being faithfully present to God, Hunter identifies these kinds of disciplines: “participation in the sacraments, collective adoration, repentance, contemplation, intercession, devotion, and service” (244). In terms of individual devotion, he specifically mentions “prayer, meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, and solitude” (244). Unfortunately many of these practices are not emphasized in contemporary circles. Enthusiastic worship and eloquent preaching are often promoted, but meditation, solitude, interior silence, and the like are given only lip service at best, at least in most circles, perhaps piously encouraged, but if so, only in vague, non-specific ways that fail to challenge and/or actually help most believers develop in-depth spiritually.

But in fact these practices are central, core. As Hunter says, "It is important to remember that Christianity – in its beliefs and practices – is defined from the center out" (281). If instead of making God and relationship with him the center, we make “a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, [then] the source of the good – God himself and the intimacy he offers – becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective” (285). When this happens, as it has numerous times in Christian history, the results always include the tragic and grotesque. In contrast, our lives both individually and as Christian community, need to be expressions love, beauty, and harmony. My prayer is that God will indeed help us to be faithfully present to him and to one another in these ways.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Complex Combination

John 1:39: Jesus said, “Come along and see.”

Psalm 34: Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see— how good GOD is. Blessed are you who run to him.

In my Ecology, Theology, and Literature class we have just finished reading For the Beauty of the Earth by Steven Bouma-Prediger. Among the many things I’ve learned two stand out: I’m not at the center of things, and I’m certainly not in control. Annie Dillard’s biting quote makes this stunningly important point, “…(at church) we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares…the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” Dillard's words have a forbidding air. God isn’t tame. He’s wild and unpredictable. This needs to be noted and remembered. But I know I didn’t sign up for this Christian life because I was afraid or wanted to win arguments (although I appreciate and value clear, strong reasoning). I joined the family of God because I was drawn by God’s love. I saw God’s love in people I could hang out with, just like Andrew did with Jesus when he asked, "Teacher, where are you staying?" Jesus replied, "Come along and see for yourself." And Andrew ended up spending the day with Jesus. In fact, the first thing Andrew did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, "We've found the Messiah.” He immediately led him to Jesus. And we know how that connection ends: Simon is renamed Peter and becomes a rock Jesus can build on.

That’s what I call a solid foundation, but God’s been in the drawing-us-to-him business for a very long time. For example, Psalm 34 directs me to open my mouth and taste, open my eyes and see how good GOD is. This is where His love tugs at me in a different way, and I’m happy to spend time appreciating God in the taste of rain; ripe, red strawberries fat with rain and sun; His rainbow over the soaked strawberry field and over the wet workers in the strawberry field; and God’s warm kiss on my lips when I say his name with thanksgiving in my heart for it all.

There is a lot of value in recognizing that God is wild and unpredictable. But it is crucial to also remember that God is Love. It’s a complex combination, but I’m not confused. “Come along and see,” he says. I’m full of hope and running toward him open, open, open.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Must Be Healing

I walk often, although I’ve put it off for about two weeks because I hurt my right foot tripping over a curved chair leg, sticking out like a giant comma. (Obviously I missed my cue to slow down and pause.) Well, I’ve missed my regular morning walks--the way they help me start my day with quietness and confidence, strengthening me with every step. I’ve missed seeing the way the sky looks when it’s still dark and dotted with starry colons and periods and a capital O of a glowing moon. Or at first light when a growing grayness creeps slowly across the papery horizon defining the familiar landscape of trees, houses, and an old pasture where I frequently experience the cows rising stiffly to greet me. And I bow, smile, and tell them good morning in return. And I've missed seeing when the sun is rising and clouds are strewn haphazardly in ever changing purples and reds. This morning the sky was one of those skies--an artist's messy palate that's somehow beautiful before a single stroke meets a waiting canvas. Later I expect the clear definition of white, puffy balls of vapor filling an endless blue space punctuated with a powerful yellow period, declaring God is in his heaven and everything I’m getting ready to face—the anxiety of traveling in traffic, meeting deadlines, paying bills, and washing dirty laundry—everything will be manageable. I’m celebrating my walk today, and I’m happy to know I’ll be back treading the neighborhood again tomorrow because my foot isn’t hurting too much. I must be healing—hurray!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Rubric for Measuring Your Spirituality

"But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God" (I Corinthians 4:3-5).
The categories list indicators of spiritual progress.
Raw Score
Score yourself in each category on a scale of 1 (sinner) to 10 (saint).
Some indicators of spiritual progress are more important than others. Multiply your raw score by the weight factor given for each category to get your weighted score.
Weighted Score
Add all of the weighted scores together to get the true measure of your spirituality.

x 0
Church attendance

x 0
Tithe and offering

x 0
Prayer and worship

x 0
Control over external sins

x 0
Missions trips

x 0
Control over internal sins

x 0
How close you feel to God

x 0
How much others look up to you as a spiritual person

x 0
Any other category by which you might try to measure your own spiritual progress

x 0
God’s view of you

x 100
Total Spirituality Score:

After being on the spiritual journey for some time, we may feel that we've really made some progress. But then we may slowly or suddenly run into a patch where we feel that that progress was all an illusion. For instance, I get so irritated when my two-year old daughter cries and whines over the slightest things--she's always crying! and whining!--I can't stand it! But then, I think, Where did the fruit of the spirit go? Wasn't I more patient than this a year ago? Shouldn't I be even more patient than ever by now?

The wisdom of St. Paul in the passage quoted above is very useful here. He points to an authentic humility, neither inflating nor deflating one's sense of one's self but rather giving the whole matter over to God. There are no meaningful measures--church attendance, feelings of holiness, amount of giving, time spent in prayer--by which we might rightly judge our own progress. What seems like a slump might be a time of hidden growth. What seems like regression in one area might be a time when one is growing in another area. What seems like great progress may be in fact only a little progress. Only God has an accurate perspective. 

Constant self-assessment is counterproductive, as it takes time, adds worry, and is bound to be inaccurate. Students learning to write often lose control over skills that they had already mastered while they are working on new skills. For instance, their grammar may become sloppy for a time while they are working on critical thinking. In such cases, they may seem to regress while in fact they are making significant progress. The same seems to be the case in the spiritual life. 

What I think the answer is is this. Seek God's perspective the best you can. But don't worry about how far you have come or not come. Instead, gently--though sometimes also fervently--keep on practicing, practicing the spiritual disciplines, practicing the presence of God, practicing the fruit of the spirit. And leave the results or lack of results to God who knows and loves us more than we know or love ourselves.

May we do this.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A New Contemplative Seeker and A New Book

Greetings all,

I just wanted to drop a note about some of the things going on in my world in relation to contemplation. I have been meeting with a fellow United Methodist pastor for about a month doing some lectionary studies and discussion. Last week the topic of contemplation came up, and he informed me that he was interesting in mysticism and was reading some books about it. He told me that he had just started reading Richard Rohr's The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. I immediately order a copy of the book, and we are meeting in the morning to talk about it and the core practices of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina. I can't begin to express how excited I am to have a local colleague that is inquiring about this type of spirituality! Just when you feel like a lonely Elijah, you learn that the Spirit is actually at work in many, many places!

I'm only a third of the way into Rohr's book, but it has been very intriguing so far. Here is one quote that has jumped out at me: "Yes, the mind welcomes education, but it also needs to be uneducated, to learn how much of what it 'knows' is actually mere conditioning and prejudice." p. 56, I'm humbled by the realization of just how much unknowing I lack!

Peace sisters and brothers,

Thursday, August 4, 2011

At the National Cathedral

Ever since I got back from visiting with my daughter Cristin in D.C. in July, I’ve wanted to share about my experience at the National Cathedral. I tried to tie it in with all that has occurred this summer, which is a lot. But what I wrote wasn’t coming together, so I’ve decided to just keep it simple and tell about one hour in one day--the Sunday folk Eucharist at the National Cathedral.

This service was held in the basement of the grand cathedral in a small chapel and led by a woman priest. Rickey had read about her on the web site--she is in charge of the music and she leads a centering prayer group. I found her to be warm, welcoming, and humble. The refrain of the morning was "This is the folk service and we are the folk," which, translated, meant we were all invited to be active participants. We were asked to volunteer for the readings. Cristin volunteered to lead the prayers of the people and was directed to read from a simple notebook where the prayers were freshly written specifically for that day. Also, "the folk" was the choir, so we practiced the songs before the service began--the instruments were acoustic guitars. Communion was served to us as we formed a circle.

But the most meaningful part of all was when the priest announced there was no sermon, but rather a discussion. It was typed in the bulletin: in place of "Sermon" was "Discussion." She asked us to be relaxed about sharing what "struck us" (doesn't that sound familiar :-) from any of the readings. We weren't to worry about connecting to each other. She said in her experience the Holy Spirit did the connecting for us. She made some opening remarks and opened the floor. Without any dominating personalities and with relaxed politeness, about six people responded, one at a time. If they had small voices, she repeated what they said for the rest of us. With gentleness and sincerity, she added, clarified, or merely accepted what was shared.

Before we started communion, she told us she would be leaving immediately after her part because she was going to be participating in the "big service" upstairs in the main sanctuary. She said the guitar leader would finish leading us, and then there would be announcements. I loved this part-- during the announcements about four or five different lay leaders popped up and shared briefly about how we could join in a variety of social justice projects--feeding the homeless, donating food for the poor, donating personal hygiene products for the homeless, donating socks for the homeless. We were offered the opportunity to give money, but the emphasis seemed to be on how to be directly involved. Rickey's sister, who had traveled to D.C. with me, made an offering and picked up a small brochure about reaching the homeless.

When I read the brochure later, I was impressed how it began by giving specific directions for connecting people with serious needs to helpful programs—food, clothing, shelter, counseling, and jobs. God was mentioned, of course, but it seemed to represent more his open hands than religious or reprimanding words.

Before I left, I briefly toured the huge cathedral. It is an amazing structure, and I was impressed by its grandeur and beauty, but mostly I came away encouraged, inspired and moved by my experience sharing the Eucharist in the basement with other "folk," who I recognize as other livingstones.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Salt and Light

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

I once heard a funny exchange between two Christians about airplane travel. The one said that before he flies, he always prays for some unsaved soul to sit next to him so that he can serve as a witness for Christianity to that person. He loves doing this because the unsuspecting person is trapped next to him for the duration of the flight. The other’s travel prayers are quite different: before he flies, he always prays for an empty seat next to him so that he can stretch his legs and sleep.

I’ve always identified more with the second person and with the less combative and less demanding faith he embodies. Don’t get me wrong, I make no secret of my spiritual life and have no problem talking about it--in fact, I enjoy doing so when there are appropriate opportunities. But I don’t like feeling pushy or violent. I’ve never known quite what to do with the salt and light metaphors Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought of them as very assertive, demanding, domineering, and dualistic, as if the darkness stands in stark opposition to the light and fights against us. But reading these verses a few weeks back, I thought about the metaphors differently.

First, we are the salt of the earth. Salt is something that brings out the flavor that is already in the food. No one would want to eat a dinner of pure salt. To me, this metaphor speaks of going into the world and being aware of and making known the beauty of that world, of God’s good creation. That beauty is already there in God’s creation and in God’s people. Being salt is not a call for violent, pushy Christianity but for a life attuned to the good “flavor” that is already in the world. In the same way, light is something that makes it possible for us to see what we encounter in the world. Staring at pure, bright light is not a pleasant experience; in fact, it blinds us. But when the light is right in a room or in a natural setting, we barely even notice it. Rather, we notice the things that it allows us to see. I think that being like light is about reflecting the goodness and love of God, being aware of how others participate in God’s love, and inviting everyone to a deeper awareness of that love.

I pray that we might all be salt and light.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reflections on Community


The other day I was able to put language to something I had been experiencing for some time without realizing it: loneliness.

To be sure, I have several people with whom I regularly have deep spiritual dialogue, which is more than many people have. But mostly I am alone. Teaching is a lonely profession. Even when I am constantly with my students, I am only sometimes really with them--only sometimes do we break through into human connection--and even if that happens often, it only happens for a short time. Also, my marriage does not provide me with the sense of community that, before I was married, I thought it would. Much of the time my wife and I are more doing life near each other than with each other. This is not unusual, of course. Also, Living Stones has provided an important sense of community. We've been together now for more than three years! But we a community in a limited sense, in a real but small way. 

Now, I want to be careful to emphasize that none of what I'm saying is fault finding. I love my close spiritual friends, my work, my wife, and Living Stones! I'm just sharing and reflecting on this condition of loneliness. My reflections are not even evaluative but descriptive.

Also, I'm not asking for sympathy or commiseration for myself. I'm just using myself as an example. Most people are lonely, probably. Billy Joel conveys this when he sings in "Piano Man" that "Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness / But it's better than drinking alone".

Moreover, I'm also not talking about loneliness in order to talk about loneliness--but rather to talk about community.


People are designed to be in mutually edifying relationships. Spiritual friendships within the body of Christ are essential for the spiritual journey. Members of a spiritual community support each other in their spiritual walk through accepting each other as they are, through being mutually committed towards growing together, and through praying together. Communities with God at the center can serve as positive presences within the broader culture and can slowly transform the world. Community—in the highest, most human, and most spiritual sense of the term—is the end purpose of the spiritual life. Our aim is never to become more like Jesus for our own sake, but always in order to love and be loved more deeply, more purely, and more wholly.


Here are some poignant statements by Thomas Keating on community, taken from the end of Open Mind, Open Heart:

  • Progress in the spiritual journey is manifested by the unconditional acceptance of other people, beginning with those with whom we live.

  • A community of faith offers the support of example, correction, and mutual concern in the spiritual journey. Above all, participating in the mystery of Christ through the celebration of the liturgy, Eucharist, and silent prayer bind the community in a common search for transformation and union with God. The presence of Christ is ministered to each other and becomes tangible in the community, especially when it is gathered for worship or engaged in some work of service to those in need.

  • The moderations of the instinctual drives of the developing human organism for survival and security, affection and esteem, control and power allows true human needs to come into proper focus. Primary among these needs is intimacy with another or several human persons. By intimacy is meant the mutual sharing of thoughts, feelings, problems, and spiritual aspirations which gradually develops into spiritual friendship.

  • Spiritual friendship involving genuine self-disclosure is an essential ingredient for happiness both in marriage and in the celibate lifestyle. The experience of intimacy with another or several persons expands and deepens our capacity to relate to God and to everyone else. Under the influence of Divine Love the sexual energy is gradually transformed into universal compassion.

  • The spiritual radiation of a community depends on the commitment of its members to the inward journey and to each other. To offer one another space in which to grow as persons is an integral part of this commitment.

I'm grateful that I know enough of true community to feel lonely. I am grateful for the sense of community we've had through Living Stones for over three years now. It's been small, real, good thing. I have no expectations to put on this community for its future. We may grow into something more than we are. We may continue as we are. Either would be a blessing. We may become less of a community. If that is the spirit's leading, that would be okay as well. But I pray that God will guide us all more and more into community in those places where God calls us to be.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Introduction to Centering Prayer

Our small centering prayer group has been meeting for most of four years now. Our circle sometimes expands, sometimes contracts -- we may have three or four who pray on a Monday night to or perhaps eight or ten. This Lent, our priest, who has tried very hard for all of four years to avoid centering, has been led to join our group as a discipline for this season.

As might be expected, this has generated quite an interest in the group throughout the church, and we have had various visitors over the last several weeks. Some have merely appeared for one week, and some have returned to sit again. We are glad for the new life, but an unintended consequence has been that our leader, Gus, has given the "Intro to Centering Prayer" speech every single week since the first Monday of Lent!

Of course, it is a bit awkward to those of us who have heard said speech many times before, particularly to sit through it multiple weeks in a row. But, in the spirit of the centering prayer group, I have been trying to be more present, more aware, and find what the Spirit would have for me in this time.

I realized, as I listened, how deeply centering has become woven into my life. I remember those first hesitant days as I tried to center my first five minutes after reading Fr. Arico's (I think that is the correct name) description of the prayer. Something tugged at me.

And I remember thinking that perhaps the somewhat fundamentalist-leaning people at my (former) church would find out what I was doing and condemn me to whatever happens to people who become involved with deeper spirituality. And perhaps, I thought, I would just stop (and avoid that danger). But somehow, I could not.

I think about my on-and-off experience with centering for (can it be?) 6 years and how much of an unpracticed seeker I still consider myself; how I was drawn to the silence for the first time during RC's seminar on Lectio Divina.

I never thought this thread would be woven over and under so many pieces of my life. I did not see the windings on which this path would lead me. I do not know how I came from there to here. I only know I cannot but reach deeper into the silence of His presence.

I think, after all, it is good to review.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Seen or Unseen

From Elk Rock Gardens - Mount Hood

I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
Tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill. I've boasted I would not care,
I'm London-born. And I won't. I'll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen.
-Denise Levertov

I’m spending the day at a Centering Prayer retreat in a beautiful setting that’s owned by our Episcopal Diocese. The chapel and gardens overlook the Willamette River, which runs right through the middle of Portland. From the west side of the river, there are breathtaking views (on a clear day) of Mt. Hood, the highest point in Oregon and only about fifty miles east. (The above picture is taken from these gardens, borrowed from someone's Flickr.) I’m a little jealous today, for there is nothing to be seen but clouds east of the river. Regardless, I consider myself lucky to have found a sunny bench in the midst of tall trees on this cloudy day in order to journal my thoughts. Portland, it seems, is cloud-trap, a deep valley surrounded by mountainous terrain. Still, we have our clear days, days when mountains that are hundreds of miles away in the Cascade range seem close enough to touch. Not to give cloudy, coffee-shop days a bad rap, but those crystal clear days are really quite something. Of course, it’s a package deal. Perhaps this is why I’m especially drawn to Levertov’s poem; this is the agreement I have made with beauty. “Grey is the price…of knowing a mountain’s vast presence, seen or unseen.” And if you'll forgive the extended metaphor, perhaps this is why mountains are helpful for understanding our relationship with God, however common and familiar the analogy may be.

Back in the chapel, I sit in silence in a circle of fellow pray-ers. By faith, I know that we are in the midst of God; in a sense, we are in God, yet we may only catch a glimpse. Maybe there are days, those rare days when God’s love is especially felt or sensed, but today (and probably most days) shrouded by clouds, only knowable by a faithful prayer that says, “I will sit.” Or, as the speaker of the poem declares, “here to live, not to visit.”

It is my prayer to continue to know God in this apophatic way, with greater sincerity and fidelity… and maybe just a glimpse here and there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gritty Ashes

Last night, I conducted an Ash Wednesday service to start our community's Lenten journey toward Easter. As I placed the sign of the cross on each person's forehead, I sensed that we were in a different realm of time for those few minutes. Then as the last person placed the ashes on my forehead, I felt the grit of burnt palm leaves and heard the traditional refrain: "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return." With a thumb against my brow I sensed a welcoming peace in the midst of my contemplation of death and mortality -- a reminder that in silence and no/thing, I am never alone.

Those gritty ashes are calling me to the secret prayer closet this Lent. I hope to continue being met in my moments of solitude with assurance -- assurance that my sisters and brothers here are with me and that Emmanuel is with me as I am tempted to question my identity in Christ, the Church and the World.

Lenten Blessings to You All,

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tree as Spiritual Metaphor

Jomon Sugi Japanese Cedar in Yaku Shima, Japan

As I've shared before, I've come to appreciate nature both in its own right and as a site for developing my awareness of God. I've been taking meditative walks outdoors (see "Our Sister Mother Earth," 22 April 2010). I've been learning about the ecology of the watershed I live in (see this cool website on Peace River Watershed). I've also been reading in environmentalism (most recently Eaarth by Bill McKibben). And I've been reading nature poems (especially Thirst by Mary Oliver). So when I came across a passage where Thomas Keating uses a tree as a spiritual metaphor, I paid particular attention.

Thomas Keating writes: "Take the image of a growing tree. At first you see the trunk and the branches. Later come the leaves. This makes the tree beautiful, the stage of growth that comes when you first learn how to enter into interior silence. After the leaves come the flowers, another moment of intense satisfaction. But they quickly die and fall to the ground. The fruit comes only at the end of the season, and even then it takes a while for it to ripen on the tree. So don't think when the leaves appear and the flowers come, that this is the end of the journey. The spiritual journey is a long trip." "Moreover," the spiritual life works in seasons so that "your experience will seem to recycle . . . You seem to be returning to the point from which you started, but in actual fact you are at a higher level." In other words, though you may find yourself bare of leaves for a time or though your leaves may start again growing from buds, your roots will be a little deeper, your trunk a little wider, and your branches reaching out a little farther. 

The tree in the picture above is between two and seven thousand years old. As Keating says, "The spiritual journey is a long trip." The photographer, Rachel Sussman, has taken on a project of photographing the oldest living things on the planet. I recommend her blog or her 14 min. talk on TED as a way to reflect on this metaphor and the spiritual life.

My prayer is that we keep growing, that we have patience with ourselves and each other as we grow, and that we will produce more and more fruit of the spirit.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

To Avoid Falling

We meet every Monday evening for centering and prayer with a group of older people. Rickey and I are the youngest members of the group at 58 and 61 respectively. Our liturgy for the evening has evolved to include three parts: centering for 20 minutes, reading and discussing short passages from Thomas Keating's "greatest hits" (we use excerpts from The Daily Reader), and intercessory prayer. Last week our intercessory list included the names of five elderly people who had fallen and hurt themselves. Just as we were wrapping things up, one of our members, a woman who is a physical therapist stopped us. She pulled back the coffee table and said, "I'm going to show you an ankle strengthening exercise which will help you prevent falls." We all obeyed, laughing and enjoying the simple exercises. Our prayer partner directed us to do these short exercises regularly for good results. There are no guarantees we won't fall, of course, but there is a good chance we'll be in better shape to avoid falling.

It seems to me that the practical direction for strengthening ankles was a pretty good example of how the prayer works. We center regularly, giving ourselves to God’s presence and action in our inmost being. That's the strengthening part. And I like that the ankle results, like prayer results, are mostly invisible. You can tell you are making progress because you aren’t falling as often. Grace in action--amazing!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Creation Spirituality @ Trinity UMC

I'm reposting the following from the website of Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, TX, because it seems worthwhile for us to reflect on.

Trinity’s Statement Regarding Creation Spirituality
Trinity’s clergy support Creation Spirituality, a movement that draws on ancient spiritual traditions and contemporary science to awaken authentic mysticism, revitalize Christianity and Western culture, and promote social and ecological justice. Creation Spirituality teaches that God permeates all things and that humanity is created blessed, not tainted by original sin. In this paradigm, Christ is God’s liberating and reconciling energy, transforming individuals and society’s structures into conduits of compassion. As we embody God’s love, we become the Creation that God intends.
Creation Spirituality draws on the earliest traditions of the Hebrew Bible and has been celebrated under various names over the centuries, most notably by the Rhineland Christian mystics of medieval Europe. It is an eclectic tradition that honors women’s wisdom and the cosmologies of indigenous cultures around the planet. Creation Spirituality seeks to revitalize contemporary worship by asking what would happen if, instead of requiring artists to conform to established worship practices, Christian worship adapted to the creativity of artists.
Ten Principles of Creation Spirituality
  1. The universe is a blessing, that is, something God created and we experience as “very good.”
  2. Humans need to relate to the universe as a whole as we are a microcosm of that macrocosm.
  3. Everyone is a mystic, born full of wonder and capable of recovering it at any age and of not taking the awe and wonder of existence for granted.
  4. Everyone is a prophet, a ‘mystic in action’ who is called to interfere with what interrupts authentic life. We are called to the margins of the status quo to interrupt systems that marginalize other humans, creatures and our Mother, the Earth.
  5. Everyone is an artist. Art as meditation is a primary form of prayer for releasing our images and empowering the community and each of us. Art finds its fulfillment in ritual, the community’s art.
  6. Everyone and everything expresses divinity. All humans are all children of God; therefore, we have Divine blood in our veins and the Divine breath in our lungs; and the basic work of God is Compassion.
  7. Divinity is as much Mother as Father, as much Child as Parent, as much Godhead [mystery] as God [history], as much beyond all beings as in all beings.
  8. We experience the Divine in all things and all things are in the Divine. This mystical experience supplants the experience of the Divine as separate and unattainable.
  9. Humans have to dig and work at finding the deep self, the true self, the spirit self. This is the spiritual journey. It is not so much about “adding on” as it is “letting go.” If we do not undergo the spiritual journey, we live superficially out of fear or greed or addiction or someone else’s expectations of us.
  10. The spiritual journey is an ever-expanding spiral encompassing four paths: Via Positiva: Befriending Creation – wonder, delight, revelry. Via Negativa: Befriending Darkness – emptiness, sinking, suffering. Via Creativa: Befriending Our Sacredness – creating, awakening, birthing. Via Transformativa: Befriending New Creation – coming home, doing, justice.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

After Christmas

From W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being”

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

This excerpt from the end of Auden's long Christmas poem is particularly appropriate for this time of year. It gets at the mix of nostalgia and hope and often disappointment that attends the holiday season. The speaker meditates on missing it, yet again, by not being fully attentive to the “promising child.” His best intentions to love both his relatives and his God have once again been derailed by distraction and by the reality that love is not easy. He is disappointed to return to “the time being”—the time of going to work, scrubbing the table. On another level, Auden's poem speaks to me about my journey in prayer, because I have higher intentions and hopes than are actually realized. Another year gone by and I'm not as committed, centered, mindful as I had hoped I would be. My prayer life has been, for the most part, a series of misses. Just like the speaker of the poem, I catch a glimpse of something beautiful and life-changing, only to be drawn away to my own distractions and shortcomings. It is difficult to retain a sense of God's presence and love, in spite of my best intentions.

But this might be the wrong way to think about it. The shattering of my idealistic expectations about the Christian life is not a failure. Prayer is not easy. Even one glimpse of God at the stable where “Everything became a You and nothing was an It” is enough to leave one changed, reborn. This insight takes root and changes us from the inside out. The final line that I've quoted invokes Buber, who suggests two primary modes of existence: I-It and I-Thou. We primarily move in the I-It dimension, in which we see ourselves, God, other people as objects that can be known, used, and perhaps exploited. There is nothing inherently wrong with the I-It, but it is severely limited. With God's help, we become aware of the I-Thou dimension, by which God, ourselves, and other people are recognized as infinitely valuable persons to be in relation with but never fully known, because to know fully would render the Thou an It. The encountered Thou, Buber writes, "has no borders." The I-Thou is relation without the violence of objectification. Contemplative prayer helps us to recognize God as Thou. Our moments of insight—whether at Christmas or at other times—can move us in this process of awakening to the infinite God. Even as we must return to the concerns of the time being, prayer helps us to slowly grow in the awareness that God is infinite Thou, as are God's creatures. It is this beautiful vision of love and connection with God, with other people, and with myself that sustains me in prayer even when I seem to miss it (again).

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Our Calling

As this new year of 2011 begins, I have been reflecting on our community. Below I mix in some of our website statements of who we are with a few comments.

We take our name from the metaphor of living stones in I Peter 2:5 because we are committed to being the kind of spiritual community pictured in this section of Scripture and throughout the New Testament. We find meaning and support in belonging to one another in a simple but explicit way. It provides us a sense of identity and mutuality. Ours is a “little way,” and we don’t seek to draw energy or resources toward ourselves in a demanding manner.

As a Christian community, we seek to support the work of the church of Jesus Christ and the growth of God’s Kingdom through supporting one another in our individual families, churches, and daily work. Daily life is the proving ground of our spirituality.

In his book Where God Happens, Rowan Williams wrote, “The church is always renewed from the edges rather than from the center.” As I understand the intent of our “little way,” we seek to be part of what God is doing in our time to renew and develop the church. I am grateful and excited to be part of this process with you.

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