Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Journey with the Wise Men

Today I’m going to St. Leo’s for a half day retreat with my friend Sherry. I’ve just finished choosing and printing the lectio reading. I chose the official Advent reading for today, Matt. 2:9-12. It’s the part about the 3 wise men following the star. I like the context—the guys following and noting when the star “came to rest over the place where the child was.” They were finally there, and “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Maybe they were smiling (singing?) and back slapping as they went“into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.” These wise men weren’t confused at all by a baby in regular swaddling clothes in the arms of a simple country girl,“They fell down and worshiped himoffered him gifts….” And after such a long, hard journey, I bet they didn’t just hop back up on their camels after one night. I bet they hung out together for a while--Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and 3 wise men, eating together, telling stories, taking turns holding the baby. When they felt rested, they slept once more and dreameddon’t return to Herod. Joseph was a wise man too, and he had some pretty valuable dream experience, so perhaps they all discussed their dreams. Finally, the 3 men “departed to their own country.”
And what happened after they got back? Was there a lot of drama and hype about the journey? “It was astonishing! Let me tell you….” Well, there may have been some of that, but I don’t think it dominated. My guess is that because of their openness to encounters with the mystery of God’s presence in all that wisdom, joy, worship, and gift offering, space was created for more grace in their lives. Perhaps that grace simply enabled them to be kinder, gentler, less pushy persons, perhaps with more patience for those closest to them. Perhaps as we continue the journey together it can be that way for us, too.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Reflection on Evensong

Last week I heard Hereford Cathedral Choir lead a Choral Evensong service. It was a solemn, high church affair, with incense and bells and the classical liturgical language, full of ‘Thou’ and ‘Thine’ and ‘and with thy spirit.’ It was a beautiful and stirring service.

After most of the prayers were completed, the choir sang an Anthem: Benjamin Britten’s ‘Rejoice in the Lamb.’ (You can read the full text of the piece here.) I was not familiar with Britten or with the poem by Christopher Smart on which it is based. Smart’s poem was written in an asylum, and it is strikingly--but delightfully--odd. It’s a bit like high liturgy meets Samuel Beckett. In ‘Rejoice in the Lamb,’ Britten/Smart rejoice in the lives of a cat and mouse, flowers, letters of the alphabet. Some of my favorite lines describe musical instruments and words that rhyme or sound like them:
“For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.”

It was a bit off-putting to hear these strange words sung by a world-class choir in the midst of a solemn service, but as the work progressed, I began to really appreciate its playfulness and the contrast between its reverential themes and its weird tone. Finally, I decided, why not sing about cats and letters of the alphabet? These things are aso beautiful and as much part of life as are the loftier topics of most other Psalms and hymns.

Embracing the oddities in life is, I think, enlightening, and important for a balanced spirituality. We can get so rigid and dour, set in our ways and sure that we are always right. Light-hearted playfulness reminds us not take ourselves so seriously and often allows us to be confronted by old truths under new garb. It reminds us that all of our theologies, our prayers, our words are, at their best, pointing toward something beyond themselves (God), but are not themselves the point at all. Playfulness helps us let go of the trappings to retain the things that really matter.

So today I am grateful for things that are playful, odd, humorous: for my face caught in a photo at an awkward moment, contorted and squinting; for sloths and duck-billed platypuses and narwhals and chihuahuas; for funny-sounding words (cattywampus, derring-do); for my bus-driver's floppy, fuzzy hat. May I be open to learning from these odd and unexpected teachers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

God Breathes Forgiveness

God breathes forgiveness, and so can I. With each breath I take in all that I am aware of, the beautiful along with the broken. I say Yes! to all of this because "God is coming to me disguised as my life."

With each exhale I forgive all that is disappointing, fearful, and broken, even myself and my reaction to reality. This includes my feelings of despair, my impatience with the impatient; it includes everything in me that resists reality as it is and even my limitations which blind me to reality as God sees it. The vision that delights and rejoices, weeps and embraces—endlessly joyful and utterly free to love unceasingly in the face hatred, fear, and ignorance.

I wonder if forgiveness isn't more powerful than the desire to change, and perhaps more likely to bring change. The Passion of the Christ and God's ongoing forgiveness seem to suggest that forgiveness is the only plan. Even the final judgement can be seen in this light: A last call, so to speak, on the liberating nectar of forgiveness.

David Norling

Monday, October 14, 2013

Don't Settle for an Uninspiring Story

Speaking truth to yourself is fine and good, but telling yourself a story that opens your heart, fires your imagination, and inspires a new way of seeing is far better. Don't settle for an uninspiring story.

Created in God's image, we are story tellers. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are composing narratives all the time. We can't help it because we bear the image of the divine story teller. The question is not are we making up stories, but how good and true are those stories?

We are tempted to defer to those who are gifted story tellers, creative types—poets, novelists, clowns. Certainly, there are some who are called to tell our collective story, to reveal truths that can only be told with the poetic imagination. But we put ourselves at risk if we forego the God given gift and responsibility of story telling.

First of all, we make sense of the confusing and often contradictory facts of life by placing them in the context of a story. If we are passive and fail to actively co-author our story with God, we are stuck with the meta-narrative that we received from our family of origin and the society within which we were formed. In fact, the better the story we tell, the closer we are to the truth. The truth I'm referring to here is not simple scientific facts, which can be stated outside the context of story, but the meaning and significance of one's life.

(The truth of God's presence and activity in history could not be told in simple propositional statements, tempted as we have been in our scientific age to reduce "the mysteries of the faith to objects of affirmation or negation when they ought to be the object of contemplation." (Weil) In scripture the truth is revealed in a myriad of metaphors, symbols, parables—some told, some lived. The power of the kingdom of heaven lies not in force, but in being an alternative to the story of empire.)

Secondly, we come to be known by the telling of our story. Which has the double benefit of saving us from loneliness and from self delusion. The more authentically we tell our story to those who have proven worthy to hold it, the more truly we are known—which is itself profoundly healing—and the less likely we are to have delusions about our motives and capacities.

Lastly, if we are to obey the primary commandment to love God with our whole heart, and our neighbor as ourselves—and not merely act as if we love—we must see ourselves inside the greater story of God, the good news of God's presence and activity in everything, especially God's image in our neighbor, who, as often as not, because of our poor vision, looks to us like "the least of these." My story in your story, your story in mine, our story inside the good news of God's story.

David Norling

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Homily on Mary and Martha

Last month, I had the opportunity to preach at our church. The lectionary Gospel reading was on Jesus' visit with Mary and Martha, obviously a favorite passage of contemplatives. I wanted to share my sermon with this community as well. It is longer than our usual blog posts, so rather than posting the text here, I've made it available on Google Docs for anyone who is interested. The link is below. Peace.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Not Accomplishing Anything

It’s easy, at least for me, to get caught up in the need to be doing something useful, to be accomplishing something. All day long I strive to be productive and to check things off my task list. Even on weekends, I like to feel that I’ve gotten something done -- cleaned the house, taken a long walk, read something worthwhile. Even most Christian religious practices aim at some culminating point of accomplishment, the Eucharist for example.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been practicing once a week with the Nashville Zen Center. Their practice of silent meditation is very similar to centering prayer. The main difference for me is the sheer amount of silence in their weekly gatherings, longer than any centering prayer groups I’ve been a part of.  We do almost a full hour of silent meditation, with a short period of walking meditation in the middle.

Though more is not necessarily better, there is something about these longer sessions that has challenged me in a new way. Specifically, they have challenged me to learn to be okay with not accomplishing anything. Throughout my time there, my mind returns to the myriad other “useful” things I could be doing. At the end of sitting for so long, I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything. How could you even evaluate whether a silent  prayer period has been successful? I haven’t earned any spiritual points. I haven’t become any discernibly closer to God. (How could I become closer to God who is always with us and in us, anyway?) I don’t even feel less stressed or more mindful.

But, I’m beginning to realize that’s okay. To want a certain thing from prayer -- a certain feeling of closeness to God, etc. -- is to make an idol of our own ideas about what prayer should be. In the end, God is in control, and we must learn to let it be. There’s certainly a time for accomplishing things, but I hope that I can learn to let go of the attachment to the need to always be achieving, accomplishing, moving forward. I hope that I can learn in both prayer and ordinary life to work with peaceful purpose, rather than frenetic drive. I hope that I can learn to be okay with not accomplishing anything.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Play, Prayer and Presence

Rickey and I just returned from a 13 day road trip. We traveled over 2,700 miles, and I am happy to report we traveled safely and overall we had good visiting with friends and family along the way.

We loved the changing geography. Leaving familiar flat Florida behind us, we embraced the hills and mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Or maybe I should say I felt embraced by the hills and mountains. I found myself smiling and drinking in peace as I enjoyed the site of slow moving cows loping across uneven fields in Greeneville, Tennesse. But the full experience of watching the light change on the trees and water in North Carolina, listening to the Toe River talk and sing as it danced downstream, stirred me deeply. 

We visited two days with my brother Fred, who lives in Celo, North Carolina on the side of a mountain.  Both days he took us down a steep hill to his "sweet spot" by the Toe River. We sat on huge rocks and talked the first day. The second day we took turns riding with Fred as he paddled us round in a kayak. I read aloud some great poems by Marie Howe (current New York Poet Laureate). Rickey read to himself. I played with stones by the river's edge, and I centered when I was left alone.  I think perhaps this photo of one of my stone sculptures captures some of the spirit of play, prayer, and presence that was God’s gift to me that day. What a gift!