The more I read the Gospels, the more I am convinced that we would be the first to condemn Jesus and pin him to a cross all over again. That, in spite of two thousand years of knowledge, and canon, and religious conversations, and catacombs, and persecutions, and the dawn of “Christ-ianity.”
To read the Gospels honestly is to place oneself in dangerous places indeed. It is the readiness to identify as a sheep or a goat; as a disciple or a Pharisee or a religious teacher or a widow or wheat or weeds. We have so objectified the good news into our neat, neo-Platonic categories that we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of being seekers; the very posture required by Jesus to see – God, others, even oneself.
If the Gospels tell us anything they tell us how easy it is to build an impenetrable club of pretense and walls of preconception around our faith. The Pharisees did it and Jesus was forever pissed off with them. The biggest challenge to conversion is the belief that one is already converted and without any further need. It becomes poisonous to the very humility that would otherwise find us deeper in grace and living more abundantly.
It is the great proclamation of the convinced.
Richard Rohr calls this what it is: idolatry. It is the worship and protection of the means to an end rather than the journey toward the beginning. He tells us, “religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself” (Everything Belongs, p. 51). He believes, and has built a career upon, the notion that all true spirituality is about seeing and letting go in order to see still more.
I have found that it is often to my benefit that I am both A.D.D. and a mystic. That way, when I begin to ramble (a common occurrence!) and someone tells me to “just get to the bottom line,” I can retort with the same refusal Jesus used in such instances. He cared little for such things and besides, it is the misguided idol of a success-driven culture built on information and accumulation rather than instruction and awareness.
I’m aware how much this frustrates my type A friends. For naysayers however, more often than not, they don’t ask again!
Says Rohr, “preoccupation with exchange value and market value tends to blind us almost totally to inherent value…Everything becomes priceless if it is sacred. And everything is sacred if the world is a temple” (Ibid, p. 56). To expect life to produce some kind of “bottom line” is the demand for Jesus to offer a sign. Like the Pharisees, we insist, “just get to the point” and do so in a way that impresses me, asks nothing of me, gives me answers rather than better questions, perpetuates my misguided presuppositions, assures me I’m in and you’re not, and never invites me to step out and journey. Moreover, it promises more darkness and blindness and no actual change. I will still see what and how I want complete with all my preexisting opinions and skepticism.
To see is the one great gift of all true spirituality. Jesus spent a lot of time healing blind people and a lot of time blinding self-proclaimed seers. When all we crave are answers, solutions, and the pragmatics of control, then it is we who stand in need of a raised voice from Jesus. We become the gatekeepers. We become those who, alone, claim to know the Way, the Truth, the Life. We are those possessing the Words of life but in restrictive, mechanical ways upheld in our own Sanhedrins.
And that is what makes us the most ready to feel we need nothing more. We, the converted, stand most in need of conversion. Jesus spent a lot of time in an already protracted ministry window healing blindness. This I believe was no accident. He was particularly drawn to this because of it’s wonderfully metaphorical teaching platform. And I’m sure that someone healed of their blindness would be most deeply grateful; most readily loving.
To see therefore, is to love. And to love is the heart of the Gospel message. Until we love as Jesus loved, we may yet stand in need of conversion. To say otherwise reveals a spiritual smugness, a theological self-satisfaction bent more on winning arguments than whispering prayers.
These days, I rest secure in the knowledge that the same grace offered to the pimps, whores, and swindlers is offered to the converted and the righteous. Jesus spent more time arguing with one and partying with the other.
As I’ve shared elsewhere, I have a “star-crossed lovers” relationship with the written word. A young Capulet and Montague stare with longing at one another from across the room, and wonder what the next step is. We’ve always managed to work things out, but not without long and moody periods of dust and dearth. It’s always advisable, and spiritually healthy, to change up our routines from time to time if only to shake off the cobwebs of inactivity or apathy. But, my relationship with holy writ often stands in contradistinction to their typical handling.
Throughout all ages, the most common topic which has occupied singers, philosophers, poets, and people in general has been…love, of course. The sheer ubiquity of love songs, poetry, painting, sculpture, and pining readily attests to its centrality in our human experience. If you can easily describe your first kiss, the appearance of your first child, the terror of a dead spouse, or pride at the accomplishments of your spawn, you have yet to truly experience love.
Similarly, if you can easily and with absolute confidence ascribe hermeneutical perfection and interpretational clarity to a collection of writings such as the Bible, you are either deluded, or you’ve been reading something else. It is a library with which to contend because, in it, are found treasures worth the battle. The Covenant Community Bible Experience has, for me at least, drawn me to the scriptures in some new and alluring ways; ways that have helped reinvigorate my intention to let them find me and turn me up once more like clotted soil.
We lost as much at the Reformation as we gained. The bible as story is one of those. Against Luther’s best intentions, we ended up with a bible widely available (eventually) but indistinguishable from any other field of inquiry. Bible in the brain, rather than Christ in the soul. The forces set in motion even before the Reformation poured ideological gasoline over centuries of Christian reflection and practice.
To many in contemporary evangelicalism today the church started not at Pentecost, but at the Reformation. Hence, we are given the unfortunate impression that God was somehow completely lost and confused for fifteen hundred years. Suffice it to say, the corrections that needed to be made in the existing church occurred, but in ways impossible to foresee or worse, control. The scriptures came to be seen in ways even they would shudder to contemplate. As the freight train of reforms reached fever pace, it outstripped the ability of people to embed the scriptures into their own lives. Right belief trumped right behaviour. Theology and spirituality parted company.
The Reformed Tradition and, more recently, Evangelicalism, claim that sola scriptura saved the church from the ecclesiastical clutches of a vast hierarchical juggernaut which had all but replaced the bible with magisterium. This has some merit, but they further claim that, with the bible safely in the hands of all, knowledge derived from those same scriptures is readily available and plentiful.
I beg to differ.
The saints of the Medieval Ages and Renaissance knew more, not less, scripture than those who followed. Why? Because their entire lives, their holy-days, their ecclesiastical feasts, their communities, their families, and their places of gathering swam in the stories, prophecies, and songs of the Bible. It was not the absence of the Scriptures in the hands of the common folk that saw them suffer in the almost guaranteed poverty of subjugated peoples. It was that much of the poverty they experienced was because of a church in league with the halls of power.
Merely having the Scriptures in our possession does not guarantee their power in our day to day lives. At times, it may well be the opposite. There is a sense in which familiarity has bred contempt. Or at least apathy. We chose control over wonder, intellectual mastery over mystical formation, trading a holistic library of inspired writing for a flat, rational document for our ownership and dissection. As the church has become increasingly fractured, the possibility of common worship experiences built upon shared and regular experiences of listening and participation in those same Scriptures it so ardently defends has become challenging indeed.
Our buddy Jesus, complete with graphic t-shirt, sleeve tats, skinny jeans, and sideways ball cap points to a similarly cavalier handling of the book in which is enshrined his coming, character, teaching, and sacrifice. We need to recomplexify the Scriptures, not in order to obfuscate, but for the purpose of elevating them to the mystical, existential, literary heights in which it was conceived.
All that to say, I have warmed to the written word once again, largely because of this most recent biblical encounter undertaken by our congregation and denomination. And now that a reintroduction has taken place, we can stop peeking at one another across the Junior High school dance floor, shuffling and coughing. We can take steps across the room toward each other.
Last month we began a conversation; a tête à tête if you will about our relationship to the Bible – something we may not know as well as we think we do. And, because so much is riding on our relationship to this library of writings, it behooves us to dig as deeply as we can.
With the help of Glenn Paauw’s masterful book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well, I have sought to make the case that, in seeking to make the Bible “approachable” we have instead neutered it, making it less transformational. The Scriptures call us to faith, not certainty. Modernity has sought to erase the unpredictability of faith with scientific verifiability. “The bare text is difficult to control. The modernist turn in culture led the keepers of the Bible to transform it into something precise, punctual, calculable, standard, bureaucratic, rigid, invariant, finely coordinated, and routine…This is a Bible that needs to be saved” (p. 37). We have all heard the adage that “less is more.” It holds true in many areas of life. For example, my wife tells me that much of her editing process involves carving away the literary dross from her manuscript in order to leave the best kernels of story that will keep the reader engaged. She wrote her book in under a year, but has spent over three more in the arduous task of proofing, hacking, chopping, and honing. Michelangelo stated that his masterpiece sculpture of David was “discovered” by simply chipping away all that was not David. It has been scientifically proven that the clutter of too many road signs and instructions cause drivers to disengage, the very thing such signs are designed to avoid. Less is more. With the many additions and “improvements” to the Bible, aimed at helping us pay attention, we have ostensibly removed its beautiful “surface simplicity that [could] open up for us the inherent and immensely interesting good complexity that lies deep within…The Elegant Bible will reflect the wisdom that form and content always belong together in God’s good creation. Form is part of the content of things” (p. 39). We must always begin with the questions, what is the Bible and how can we honor what that is? Paauw suggests that we are badly in need of an “extreme Bible makeover” wherein we can undo its fractured format that only leads to fractured reading and commensurately fractured lives. Part of that process will be to learn how to adopt the practice of referencing passages by context and content rather than by isolated chapters and verses. As is apparent in the rather unique Covenant Community Bible Experience in which our fellowship is presently engaging, Paauw advocates for a Bible less encumbered by the artificiality that has been foist upon it by means of chapter and verse numbers that pull us out of a narrative and broad reading of its contents; section headings that are ultimately interpretive by nature; page layouts which hide from us the diversity of literary forms employed in our original manuscripts; and, particularly, study Bibles that can actually mitigate against the deep, transformative, non-agenda-driven reading that can best draw us into the dangerous place of spiritual formation rather than mere information. We need to view the Bible more as poetry, which demands exactitude of form as much as content. What a poem “looks like” is intended to speak as loudly as the words themselves. Form and content alike form our understanding of a thing. We have inherited more of a cultural creation than the Bible that was originally intended. Says Paauw, “to save the Bible from ourselves, we must begin to trust once again its ancient ways of saying things…The path to restoring our Bible begins with chipping away at everything that doesn’t belong there” (p. 50). Our love for God demands no less than an equal love of the Scriptures as they were first delivered. Those with ears to hear, let them hear…
With this new series of posts, I am entering a conversation. I do this for several reasons. It is partly in celebration of a journey recently embarked upon by our fellowship (Yakima Covenant Church) into the Covenant Community Bible Experience. It is an initiative of our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church) to help rattle our scripture cages a bit by placing in front of us a New Testament compiled chronologically and without any of the customary headings, chapter and verses. I trust some of the reasons for this shall become clear over time.
Secondly, it touches on a topic of fascination to me personally: my love for the written word. That, combined with a growing love for the God who could never be contained by it, compel me to share these things.
Finally, it is in answer to various queries following a sermon I preached on this topic a few weeks ago. In these conversations, I’ll be utilizing ideas, and materials spanning decades. Specifically, I’ll be referring often to one particular book from which I’ve gleaned much of late, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well by Glenn R. Paauw. The topic? The Bible of course. More specifically, the terminology, ideas, misunderstandings, projections, additions, expectations – both false and otherwise – that have arisen around it and from which it presently suffers.
The week of my “conversion” I quickly became fascinated by the strange and enigmatic words on the wispy pages of a Bible given to me by my grandmother. For years, it sat, neglected and increasingly dusty, on a shelf in my bedroom. My senior year it began to grow in my mind as something much more significant than that which I had hitherto attributed to it.
The first verse I ever memorized? “The grass withers, the flowers fade; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NRSV)
If we are to give to the Bible the love and respect it deserves we should experience no small discomfort with the words “back to the Bible.” It belies a naïve, even whimsical view of it that has the potential to diminish its depth and complexity and, as such, its impact.
As we shall see from looking at Paauw’s book, we commonly approach this ancient library of texts with a truck load of preconceived notions, pet ideas, personal preferences, cultural parameters, and less than informed expectations. Paauw believes that we have “over-complicated its form while over-simplifying its content” (p. 16).
He makes the case that, over the course of many centuries, Bible scholars and publishers have increasingly added to it what is thought to be helpful – chapter divisions, verses, subheadings, notes, etc. – all in an effort the “make it easier to understand.” The result has been the opposite however and, in the process, we’ve been led to sample rather than feast deeply on the Scriptures. It has led to a narrow, individualistic and escapist view of salvation. And, rather “than being a culture-shaping force, the Bible has become a database of quick and easy answers to life’s troubling questions.”
So then, let us enter a conversation together. Let’s talk about the Bible. What it is. What it is not. The purpose? To develop a truly broad, deep, informed, and appreciative view of this enigmatic collection of ancient writings. Because much of what we understand about God and one another comes from it, I think it wise to do so. Don’t you?
So, with subtle indirection, the toolbox of yearning
wed to oratory, wed to a cloud of unknowing,
expecting nothing more than a tale well told,
comes the bard and we are given –
a road for our story.
Historically, patterns of prayer and devotion that would later evolve into a “Rule of Life” grew out of the monastic tradition dating back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th century CE. There, in the blistering heat of wasteland, they faced down demons, drank deep from hidden wells, prayed unceasingly, listened for the deafening whispers of God, and taught others to do the same. They owned little, but possessed the universe. Over time, their lives, lived small and yielded, but writ large upon the heavens, were lassoed into usable fragments of a living reality.
I suspect most are like me, living pugnaciously crammed lives begging for the breath and space.. But, unless one’s name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, one has experienced little in the way of solitude.
Such an exercise, as useful and meaningful as it is, necessarily leans upon an accompanying acquiescence on the part of the pilgrim – namely, me – to its regularity, rigour, and influence. Frankly, I’m more concerned about that than the Rule itself. Over the years, I’ve developed a deeply satisfying practice of contemplative prayer, gradually learning the benefits of housing shalom in the confines of a thirsty but unpredictable soul. I’ve spent days alone at any number of monasteries, growing and learning with monks and nuns of various ecumenical stripes. I write extensively on the spiritual life, a blog of my own (www.innerwoven.me), and for numerous others as well. In 2011, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadershipfrom Spring Arbor University, Michigan. Since then, I’ve undertaken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was anointed with oil as a lay Jesuit. I’m writing a spiritual memoir. I have studied the life and spirituality of St. Francis (because I’m a hippy at heart) and the Rule of St. Benedict (because hippies lack structure).
Why do I boast in such Pauline fashion? Because, after years of ardent pursuit of the Christian spiritual enterprise, and already possessing a not inconsiderable Rule of Life with more than a few years of practice, I am less skilled in it now than I’ve ever been. Without hesitation, I enjoin myself to Paul whose boast is always in weakness about weakness, and leads to his exasperated proclamation, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Whatever Rule is forthcoming will be more about my openness to what that Rule represents. It must be more a means to an end than the end itself. Like the rudiments I’ve practiced for decades in pursuit of musical prowess, I construct and practice a Rule of Life to forget it. Musicians play scales without thinking about playing scales. They play music, in which rudiments have formed and buttressed, shaped and evolved that music.
Saints live a Rule that is at all times thinking about union with God, which is the end and the beginning of it all.
…in my dream, I looked out over the rocky embankments
still holding my thoughts and, over the tomb where
recently someone left not long after arriving, a placard read:
“Beware, those still trapped in a life safe, and un-ruined.
You won’t get to enjoy the looks of incredulity from those
In early November, I was a participant in a class toward my ordination entitled “Vocational Excellence.” This is part 4 of the paper I submitted, aimed at constructing and presenting a Rule of Life.
In every life, there are (mis)guiding voices. Inner recordings, as it were, play loudly and insistently, often dictating how one goes about the tricky task of living. Put another way, all of us live from somewhere – fear, suspicion, self-aggrandizement, false hope, willing blindness, ass kissy-ness. They cast long shadows upon our spiritual landscapes and pull us away from the perfect centre of our circle.
Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points can become the broad road to ruin the quickest means of personal misanthropy.
Something inimical of the human heart is its apparent willingness to be anywhere other than where it should. The place most required of us is where we least show up. And with so many competing allurements to our deepest allegiance and passions this is a bit like crossing the freeway naked and blindfolded. It seldom ends well.
Better might be the comparison of grade school students. Some, like myself, adored school and never missed a day (I skipped twice and was caught both times…another blog perhaps?). Others reveled in the delicious naughtiness one experiences in going to the mall, or simply hanging out behind it smoking untoward substances (again, what could I possibly know of such shenanigans?).
A rule of thumb for fellow Christ-followers, prone to wobbly wheels but who yearn to embody their Rabbi is to pay heed to Stan Smith’s words from American Dad. When pressured as to why he keeps rubbernecking women other than his wife, he responds: “my eyes may wander, but my heart comes home.”
Instead, I am being directed to return to the quiet, contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work; contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.
Although not a word one might use in everyday life, truancy pictures a life on the edges of things. It is uncommitted – wayward, as in a constant insistence upon finding any path other than the one presently under foot. In gospel terms, to show up is to find oneself amid the delight of Holy Spirit constancy and the hope of a future that will never be cut off.
To eschew truancy in the spiritual life – to abide in the vine, as it were – is to embrace the promise of a rather adept gardener of my soul.
* * *
“God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is.” -Thomas Merton
all counting, forsaken, in the business of nothing –
and watch what yet will come.
Ora et Labora: A New Gestalt
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” – St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18
The Celtic mystic in me, enamoured as it is with a blurring of edges that allow all to fade into a singularity of life and love and lessons learned, squirms at the notion of life in quadrants, or pieces. With that proviso, I submit and share some insights that can help shape a new Rule of Life.
The history of Christian spirituality would dictate a unity of personhood; a whole individual, undivided into constituent parts. It would argue for a centering motif through which a follower of Jesus is made complete by means of consistent focus on the interior life. Buttress the centre of the wheel and the spokes become stronger by default. This has consistently been my experience.
As mentioned previously, a poster-boy 4 on the Enneagram and an INFP on the Meyers-Briggs scale, I’ve made a cottage industry of melancholy. I capably personify inwardness; an artistically-brooding poor-me-ism. The result? A paralyzing self-referentialism that prefers the role of armchair philosopher-poet than street corner pastor or jungle Bible translator. But, as Dr. Robert Mulholland urges in his book, Invitation to a Journey, it is the holistic life to which the Gospel calls us. He suggests that, as a result, where we feel least useful or competent is often where we are most required to be.
Spiritual Directors have played a significant role in my journey for many years. That said, the pain I’ve harboured well and nurtured often, of Sister Alice’s retirement from her ministry with the Sisters of Providence here in Yakima, has left me gasping for breath. Sister Alice played that role in my life for almost 5 years. Every time I stepped into her quaint living room, the presence of God was thick in the place, literally dripping from the walls and windows and oozing out of the carpet.
She was fond of saying that the ways by which God reveals Him/Herself becomes who I am and paves the way for whatever ‘me’ is still emerging. If she is any indication of the ramifications of that notion, then I need to reimagine this journey once again. It is a trip exponentially greater than the sum of the miles involved – it is a foray into the heart of God.
Combined with a compelling need to share my story once more I heed the counsel of my Vocational Excellence peeps and I’m prayerfully scouting out a new Spiritual Director. As in the past, I am submitted to the quietly insistent guidance of God in this.
Lord, have mercy.
Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of inner satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points becomes the quickest means of my personal misanthropy. Instead, I am being directed to quiet, consistent return to the contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work, contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.
Getting Out from Under God’s Feet
I hear some very clear injunctions all week. They crystallize gradually into the plans I am now putting to page. It taps into my love for Celtic spirituality, which teaches a three-fold martyrdom as askesis for the soul. Red martyrdom is death for one’s faith. Green martyrdom is a life of deep self-denial in pursuit of union with God. White martyrdom typifies many Celtic saints, specifically St. Patrick, who chose willingly to leave his native Wales and return to Ireland as a missionary. It is to this idea God calls me, metaphorically speaking. I am often vexed by fear, passivity, and loneliness. Together with the invitation to the silent cave of the heart, I hear God shoeing me out the door to “go play outside.”
“You live too alone, so you live in your head. Get outside of your head and home. Make relationships. Show up so I too may do the same. Learn by doing. Let your prayers be out of needs generated by the work of your hands rather than hiding from your life and escape my redemptive gaze…”
Therefore, my instructions and my plan are to go out and make things happen, trusting in God for whatever results might be forthcoming. A mystic to the core, God has placed a yearning for a chance to hop into the nearest boat to anywhere that might lead me outside my own head. My path of deepest transformation is to move in through the out door: to find God’s presence in the other.
The Blessing of Good Soil
Congruently, my itch to run is met with clear instruction to stay where I am. Far too many uprootings in my wake fueled by a well-honed fight or flight mechanism make me grateful for the stability we enjoy here in Yakima. It’s surprising how God’s vitals become more pronounced when one isn’t always out of breath, heart pounding in the ears. It makes inner silence and listening so much easier. My friendships may barely exceed a decade. But God has planted me in a distant soil to bring me and mine closer to the fattest harvest, that of the heart.
For reasons much deeper than career satisfaction, I choose to stay and use what skills and passions I’ve been given to make Yakima the kind of place in which I’d choose to retire. In Jesus, the exiled alien, I find identification and strength to stay.
Trust Your Own Press
A victim of my own mental gallows, I am hearing quite clearly the necessity of “trusting my own press.” Self-love is strongest not in the proud, but in the humble. “You’ve earned the ear and respect of a congregation. Don’t be afraid to leverage that in pursuit of your desires.” Good advice under my present circumstances.
In sum, my spirituality will strive to be more illustrative of a commitment to move back in by moving out but staying put. It must involve pursuing and engaging with a Spiritual Director who in turn can assist in the accountability and faith required to do so.
The Spokes: Running to Jesus
I have a long and complicated history with a mistress. An insidious lover is she, alcohol once steered me nearly to ruin. Since getting sober in 2002, and again this year, my choice of addiction has changed. It is running. Lots of it. It has translated to a minimum of thirty miles a week and a loss of twenty-six pounds. I’ve run marathons before but a serious accident in 2010 robbed me of rigorous, injury-free movement until recently. Running provides thin place (pun shamelessly intended), incarnational moments of contemplative awareness for me and requires little in the way of accountability. It simply happens. Pounding feet on pavement mesh with pounding heart seeking rhythm with God’s. Here, God saves me.
The Spokes: Rediscovering Me for Others
As outlined earlier, I battle with a certain degree of mental-emotional illness. Historically, it has been both medicated and exacerbated by alcohol. The sturm und drang of the disease pushes and pulls one into places one would never otherwise go. It, together with all its ramifications, has me in regular therapy. Dr. L. has been seeing me now for a little over a year. God has made it clear that, until recently, she would act as my Spiritual Director; one of a different sort. She has helped me to wander down the confusing corridors of my psyche in search of the minefields that destroy and maim. I look for another Spiritual Director. But, this must continue apace as parallel healing. Hence, any kind of Rule will include constancy under the scrutinizing light of her scalpel.
The benefits of this professional relationship have been staggering in my relationships, both personal and professional. Once the misplanted weeds are plucked from my mental garden and lie open for consideration, my family, friends, and colleagues have been more than happy to help me replant. The healing has been demonstrable and satisfying.
I write. A lot. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. For me, writing is prayer; contemplative space – catharsis wed to self-care on a bed of creative spiritual process. I am being urged toward an even greater regularity of this artistic-spiritual process as it relates to spiritual praxis. It brings a peace that translates to all my relationships.
It is apparent that I am under-fed socially. Although an introvert, I have become far too withdrawn and isolated from the warmth and challenge of ministry colleagues. This must change immediately. In the interest of a better self-understanding, I commit to a better developed collegiality and accountability among mutual professional friends.
The Spokes: Serving
“My life mission is to draw people to God through my life and work, which strive to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.”
I didn’t see yesterday and what landed itself full upright
in today’s path, muse-appointed.
There are the moments when, at a
full stride, forehead high and strong,
come words and stories, notes and beams,
high-stepping toes, pointed at heaven;
brushstrokes for love or anger, life or less –
those are the boldest strokes, the highest notes,
the brightest steps…
The sound of music is good wherever notes
find you. Let it be your symphony.
The initial reticence I felt as I warmed a car seat for twelve hours – with all the attendant over-thinking to which I’m already prone – promptly unravelled upon arrival. My penchant for wow-factor uniqueness finds a backseat in favour of the welcome mat of other faith-commoners; like-minded, thirsty-souled, vocationally-curious individuals more like me than I care to admit. It would prove to be one of the most significant weeks of my personal and professional life.
Since God loves the twist-in-the-tale, this mystic-philosopher-poet-dreamer-romantic-idealist-non-pragmatist is ripe to meet the vacuum at the shallow end of his soul. In company with fellow travellers of the Way, I come up wanting every time, albeit with a blossoming knowledge that “all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich, Showings).
Staying true to my “via negativa” modus operandi, the most significant gleanings from the week are found in what I don’t want to be about; who I don’t want to be. I’ve been in professional ministry long enough to enjoy a few tricks of the trade sufficient to dazzle and woo – successfully limping through that ministry for many years. It isn’t the material so much as the context for it. Many words are spoken, good ones. But, it is parsing those same words with other colleagues that distills the broadest reality. It makes for a week of living object lessons of what’s missing most in my experience: the mutuality of friendship, the deeper blessing of stability and sobriety, and a renewed commitment to monastic spirituality: ora et labora – prayer and work.
The intentionality of connection and outward motion is a challenge for a poster-boy Enneagram 4 (The Individualist), INFP (Meyers-Briggs), who loves passive-aggressive self-pity. If seeking a life more patterned after historic saints is what I seek, these ones prove just as good; perhaps better given their physical presence in the room. Proximity makes immediate the holy danger of accountability in the Jesus Way.
Through many words rich with advice and good counsel, it is the relentless voice of God that most unsettles me. God impresses only a few simple things, repeatedly. Repeatedly. Re….It is those things that spin around my head and to which I now turn.
* * * * *
I am twice adopted. In biological terms, this means effectively that I am riddled with fear – of risk, of invalidation, of abandonment, of failure – of success. Pursuant to this is a terrible sense of boundaries, which to one such as I, are not an end, but a means to it.
I suffer from GAD, (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), mild OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and CGEODD (Can’t Get Enough of Disorders Disorder). I live in a veritable sea of worry, and panic, and the over-thinking commensurate thereof.
I’m a recovering alcoholic. Given the first two points, this should come as little surprise.
I have mountains of unresolved pain, grief, and guilt. I grieve poorly.
I am a mystic-contemplative in a culture, drunk on self-important pragmatism, that eats such ones for lunch.
I’m a gifted musician, writer, poet, and liturgist. With these gifts, I’ve been blessed to draw others with me into the shimmering thin places that life can truly be.
I have a deeply intuitive, imaginative spirituality; an abundantly creative orthopraxis, so to speak.
I’m gifted in interpersonal conflict resolution – ironic, given my depth of hatred for the same.
I’m a gifted teacher and group facilitator.
I’m a culture and bridge-builder, finding ways for diverse segments of the church to envision a better way to walk the Way.
I’m compassionate and like to hear travel tales of other sojourners.
I’m very funny. No, really.
I’m a handsome, irresistibly debonair, man-about-town simply fun to be around.
Best of all, with much hard work and prayer, I’ve finally been gifted with self-forgetful humility (superglue tongue to cheek here).
A Rule of Life will, for me, bridge these two lists.
Great Guardian of hearth and horizon, soul and sail,
I have lifted my feet in obedience to an insistent wind.
I have lifted my head up above this tiny-rimmed being.
I have sought again what once was too costly.
I have set out once more upon a wildly restless sea –
and found what was looking for me.
I The End
I leave with too much chaos in the rearview mirror and too much uncertainty through the windshield to find confidence for the journey ahead. The idea of professional development in the city of my birth sounded good at the time. But now, the twelve hours between there and me promises only dead airtime – lots of it – in which to muse the unmuseable; the distance between an overactive head and underachieving heart. An emotional breakdown mere months earlier hangs like a bad smell in the car. The loneliest places are those most familiar, which no longer bring comfort. I think this will be my Gethsemane before the Paschal journey yet to come.
Hours become years in the unsettled mind. But the chronos of crisis never lasts. The familiarity of road spreads before me, rhyming itself with an inexplicable sense of watchfulness. (And, for me, a good playlist always helps). I become aware of something growing in newer soil; something that echoes out of better shadows – hope. It frightens and exhilarates me as day wanes and night fills the windshield with stars. Could this be God, rearranging God’s schedule for the days to come?
When it comes to the spiritual endeavour, I’ve always delighted in the iconic metaphor of wandering – passaging as I like to call it. My best guess is that it most capably represents my propensity for being lost in places even blind people navigate with ease – a hallway to the bathroom, the distance from upright to nosedive, or retracing my steps from mall to parking lot.
One life tributary has led to another, each in turn yielding to something else on its way to waterfall or harbour, estuary or eddy. At times, I get stuck, unmoving; or so it seems. Frankly, to be stuck can be a decision not to decide something. Perhaps it’s a slow, deep spot before being sucked back out in the rapids where I easily lose my sense of direction and the not unreasonable expectation that I’ll fly ass-over-tea-kettle into the frothy spray. At other points, my boat slows to a crawl and I drift lazily along in the enchantment of a Pirates of the Caribbean-style rendezvous with delight.
For good or ill, it is my goal to passage well. In the ever-expanding journal of my circuitous journey, the increased clarity of a breadcrumb path always brings some satisfaction of adequate closure before moving on to another part of the story. It expresses a sense of poise and, ultimately, denouement to this life that those whose eyes are watching for signs of the Divine are longing to see.
At a Jesuit retreat and conference centre, the kinetics of kinship, sublimation of self, and a society of sojourners as inquisitive as I – equally reticent? – are set to begin the holy spin cycle that is Vocational Excellence. The point of this exercise is to wrangle into some sense of tidy usefulness the varied and complex detritus that is our personal-professional journey – a Rule of Life.
I love life. Rules? Not so much.
And so, a trembling lad peers through the shop window otherwise known as ordination, or at least the process thereof, and sees a combination of delights and dares; an invitation laden with perspiration. Inspiration that taunts inadequacies. I come to the end of the beginning, a new hallway of discovery, awaiting what doors may open and which are closing.
What follows is not a statement of political preference – although with little effort one could easily determine my ideology. Nor is this a kumbaya-just-come-to-Jesus plea by someone without convictions who just needs a hug. Nor is it a milk-toast acquiescence to fatalistic non-action. This is a simple exhortation for us to stop living from our heads, perhaps even our hearts.
It is an invitation for us all to rediscover ourselves. Our souls.
Anyone within spitting distance of social media the past few weeks, uh, months…well, years actually, has had to endure the cage match that has become political discourse in this country. Chances are you jumped in to scrap on occasion as well. Come on, admit it, doesn’t it feel positively cathartic to drop your well-reasoned, deftly-articulated, bulletproof opinions into the foxhole and then run back and wait for the barrage of new disciples?
I confess, despite self-promises to the contrary, I too have sparred from time to time online. I too have seen what you have seen – a massive groundswell of support and teary-eyed repentance because someone, namely me, finally spoke the truth.
Yeah, that’s what happened.
Actually, I merely added to the carnage of dry bones philosophizing in the desert of ignorance, that welcomed a never ending explosion of verbal piranha-ism. There was no change whatsoever in anyone’s beliefs. Ever. And, if anything I walked away inwardly disheveled and outwardly grumpy. No one gained anything at all from the exchange, least of all me. My soul was tattered and, worse still, I was beset by a deepening sense of guilt for having added to the seething Gehenna that is Facebook politics. The Twitterisms of twattle. I bred dissension rather than being an instrument of peace (thank you Saint Francis).
Now that the exhausting (and tellingly self-important) process that is the American election cycle has come to an end, I have peace. Oddly. I think it’s a bit like getting a needle at the doctor’s office. The waiting is always the worst part. Well, usually. We’ve endured a two and a half year drum roll, waiting to hear the fat lady sing after the failed attempt to shoot someone out of a cannon.
We can easily get stuck between the clarion call of a golden era, hiding somewhere in our not-so-distant past. Or, we become dilettantes of some visionary Utopia yet to be unveiled. Either way, we miss the sweetness of this moment.
This sound. That smile.
This smell. That embrace.
This possibility. That touch.
This challenge. That kiss.
Listen, I’m not happy that Donald Trump is our President. I’m not happy that almost half the population didn’t even bother to vote. I’m not happy with the entire political process in this country. I’m not happy with the deep divisions that exist among us.
But, I am in fact, happy. Or, in faith language, I’m blessed. I have peace in the aftermath. It is the unquantifiable peace of Christ, whose love is so much stronger than our naïve opinions and murky thoughts.
So, here I share my personal Beatitudes for the coming days of uncertainty, safe in the knowledge that I need neither knowledge nor safety nor certainty, to be blessed.
Dear friends, will you join me in pursuing such blessing?
Blessed is the one who awoke to draw breath for another day.
Blessed is the one who sees him/herself in the eyes of another.
Blessed is the one who appreciates the dare of morning and the hush of night.
Blessed is the one who finds solace in the laughter of children.
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom in the presence of elders.
Blessed is the one who cannot find hatred within, no matter who sits in power.
Blessed is the one whose speech is poetry, whose work is homily, whose life is liturgy.
Blessed is the one who sees past the surface to find the goodness in things.
Blessed is the one whose trust isn’t in flag, policy, or party – but in the Christ of love.