Last summer I was privileged to prepare and lead a class on the Psalms. A big part of the experience was, upon completion of our more “formal” study, we’d write our own Psalm. The class produced some powerfully moving, deeply personal works. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, mine came out as a Lament.
I share here that Psalm and encourage you to share some of your own work in the comments!
O Lord, God of faces, where now is your face?
And why have you hidden from us your gaze?
Where once we walked together,
now we thrash and reel and hack.
Darkness has become our only ally;
and hopelessness our truest friend.
For those of insolence and hatred rule over us;
the ruthless and ragged become our destroyer.
Therefore, falsehood and lies bind us;
and the absence of truth shackles us.
We have become party with wolves and savages,
those without conscience or care for the poor.
They lash out from behind empty eyes
to oppress the widow and orphan,
the immigrant and the voiceless.
All that is good, pleasing, and right is set aside;
truth and love are traded for lies and hate,
victim to the victimizers.
And through their shame have we become a byword,
a cause for mockery among the nations.
We hear them cry out in the streets,
and moan among the people of injustice against them.
But it is they who are unjust,
with lies have they clothed themselves.
How long, O Lord? How long
must we watch our children caged,
our future torn apart?
How much more treachery must we endure at their hands?
Save us, O God, from their filth;
release us from their grotesque machinations.
Turn your eyes toward us for we are weary and broken;
tearful and confused.
Find a place again among us where all that was good
can again be good; where the darkness again is dark.
Rise up, once more, gracious Lord, and be our protector;
I think I’ll call this latest phase of my personal development, “observational spirituality.” It’s not particularly original. Kitschy, I suppose. Cutesy? Melodramatic? Perhaps all of that and more. But, at the risk of sounding dismissive of the apophatic theology or the sometimes borderline morose asceticism of some mysticism, I’m squarely in the “see ‘n say” life program. At least right now.
My prayers are open-eyes, open-hands, double-takes, pen ‘n paper, q & a, and laced-up shoes. Prayer, even contemplative prayer, is on the move, seeking God from a moving center of gravity.
Those who know me well but not normally affixed to the world of spirituality see this is as a return to normal, whatever that might be. God bless them. I think, on one level, they’re likely correct. My guess is what they mean is that Rob has become less esoteric and more fun to be around. Less spiritually obtuse, opaque, and more…reachable.
Nothing could be truer. However, it might not be in the way they think. I haven’t given up on the ocean of mysticism and my belief that the truest theology isn’t what we think but what we perceive and experience and live. But I am on hiatus from a contemplative spirituality that, at times, merely perpetuated my need to run from the sharper edges of a life I couldn’t understand, let alone master.
This has profoundly impacted my poetry and writing. Much less moan ‘n groan, much more cry ‘n sigh. Less sad, more glad. Less whine, more wine (metaphorically, of course). Even my demeanour is changing. I’ve fully re-embraced the extravert who had lain dormant for many years while God messed around in my business.
So, a little exercise. What follows is a short journal entry from last weekend in Portland, Oregon. My wife and I were writing, as we often do. Mine became a simple celebration of what was right before me. It helps amplify in me a favourite word these days: notice.
* * * *
Blocks of mismatched, oddly coloured flats, like leftover Legos, greet me upon opening hotel curtains, themselves an unfortunate retro-seventies error in judgment. I open the window and partake of the wet air. This stuff is made for lungs that appreciate breathing like fine dining more than the dry, git ‘r done Yakima dust.
The cool, soppiness of a Portland sky is a cliff dive for me into a densely soft Yorkshire Pudding of nature carbs. Richly satisfying. Even if I had to pay for it later, it wouldn’t matter. I’m full and the landing is even softer than the jump itself.
The almost preternatural way I’ve always taken to the damp, concrete-smell of mossy earth and sky tells an old story. It is one I’m only beginning to understand. There’s something oddly familiar about wiping this outdoor bathroom mirror sky to catch a glimpse of someone I recognize in no other way.
Not unlike many others, I live for these moments, moments of simple observation. Recognition of what is. Meditations upon the obvious. One discovers that, in discovering whatever lies just beyond our fingers, noses, tongues, and eyelashes provides ample fertilizer for the soul, which remains unseen.
So, in the interest of a better look, I pull down the blue-grey, clouded hat-sky upon my waiting head and tuck into the day.
Here it is, where everything meets, greets, and seats me. I do not need to look any deeper. It is already seeing me as I am. The rest, as they say, is gravy.
A guest post today from my wife, Rae Kenny. Her pen name is Wren Kenny and you can expect to see her debut novel sometime next year.
Easter Sunday 2019 marked my turn to be Liturgist. That’s the person who leads the Prayers of People. It is where we pray for the world, our nation, our community, and needs within our own congregation. Each time it’s my turn, I pray, write, and edit for weeks. Why? Because praying for the leaders of the world, and particularly our nation, is a daunting task in these divided times. Thankfully, my heart ends up in a different place than where I started weeks before.
Without doubt being born in Britain and raised in Canada has formed by views. Every time, God challenges my heart on whether my politics are influencing my Christianity or my Christianity is influencing my politics. Trust me that my spirit was prompted to remove a lot of words my sense of humour found utterly delicious, but were not edifying for congregational prayer! And even after I finished the final draft and my heart had an adjustment, I was sitting at my desk eating my lunch and laughing at political cartoons (from all sides). My co-worker pointed this out and I was embarrassed at how easy I fall into the trap of coping with humour and becoming a mocker.
Below is the redacted version without our congregational needs.
Risen Lord, we thank you for your covenant with all living things, and our obligation to be good stewards of the gifts you have provided. As we care for the Creation, may we make wise choices in the actions we take to care for our planet.
The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 that: “all…petitions, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men: 2 for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In this shifting world order, let us pray for the nations and peoples of the world, that the powers that oppress and destroy may decline, and that justice, peace, and prosperity be lifted up.
Let us pray for the people of Sri Lanka who were killed or injured in the bombings of churches and hotels. Let us also pray for the perpetrators because Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, even those who bring us harm.
At Yakima Covenant Church, it is part of our theological ethos to allow for a diversity of opinions. And, we follow the Scriptures’ directive to pray for our leaders. We live in the red part of a blue state. The people standing next to you might identify as red, or blue, or purple, or not at all.
During the last administration some of you struggled to pray for the Black man from the Blue Party. If you searched into the dark and dusty corners of your heart, you found it much easier to tear him down. Now, in 2019, some of you eagerly pray for the Orange man from the Red party, while others of you haven’t been able to muster ‘thoughts and prayers.’
I have been heartened lately by the words of J.R.R. Tolkien from the Fellowship of the Ring. Gollum is obsessed with the ring of power, and Bilbo struggles with wishing ill on Gollum. Gandalf tells Bilbo, “it is not right to be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over.”
So, let us pray now that God will steady his hand on history and lead our elected leaders in whatever role He will have them play. We pray for President Trump, Governor Jay Inslee, Congressman Dan Newhouse, and State Representative Curtis King. We pray for our county commissioners, our mayor, our city representatives, and members of our school boards. We pray as the Bible commands us in 1 Timothy 2 that they may lead in ways which promote a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. We pray they do not stir up division. We pray they choose truth instead of falsehoods. We pray especially that they govern as if they only have one term to serve and give it their all to leave a legacy of good that benefits all people.
In the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker is encouraged by the Evil Emperor to kill Darth Vader and give into the Dark side. He tells Luke to use his aggressive feelings and let the hate flow through him, because his hate has made him powerful.
Let us remember as we approach a never-ending, constant-spending election season that, on all sides of the political spectrum, cable and talk radio opinion shows and comedy shows designed to mock, exist for the sole purpose of making money and dividing souls. Let us remember they get paid to let the hate flow through them, and they grow more powerful when we allow them to incite our own aggression. Let us choose instead, to read and listen widely to all sides and be unifiers in our homes, our church, and community.
Let us think of the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames and picture ourselves as that vessel of God.
Let us remember the picture of the fire destroying the cathedral is precisely what we do to our witness in the world when we scapegoat the other side and do not love the neighbour who doesn’t look like us, pray like us, love like us, or vote like us. Let us stop tearing down the other side’s goat and choose instead to love our neighbour, as Jesus commanded.
Let us also remember as Easter people the picture of the cross shining among the wreckage, a beacon of hope, persistence, resurrection that Christ can and will rebuild us if we let him.
There is devastation and there is hope. We are sinners and we are saints. We give you permission, Risen Lord, to resurrect the right attitudes and relationships in us.
May all blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits upon the throne. Amen.
Today is, for many, a day without irony. It is a day one can see not just daylight through cracks in tomb doors, but can look back into what was their tomb from the satisfying light of a new dawn.
These patterns of light and dark, day and night, life and death happen so regularly that they’re almost not worth mentioning. Except, they are.
The ancients call it Paschal Mystery. A repeating pattern of living and dying and renewing that, through the eternal Christ, is everywhere present, everywhere accessible.
Faith is merely the God-given sight necessary to awaken to it. And Easter is the primal, archetypal key that opens that door.
Today is Easter. Resurrection. All that was dark, dead, hopeless, and not, is brought back into glorious harmony with God and the cosmos. Through Christ, today, we feel its warmth. Today, we know its hope.
Today is for all todays until all tomorrows are todays.
I recently revealed my struggle with anxiety and depression. For years it created a vortex where living any other way seemed out of place. It birthed a personal industry of what I called “sad-sack sadness.” Impenetrable. Unflappable. Ironclad. Too certain in its uncertainty to be particularly human.
It affected my persona, my personal choices – both good and bad, my relationships, the direction of my pursuits, my spirituality, and basically how I defined the world around me.
It turned me into a desperate person, desperately seeking answers to the desperation while simultaneously spurning those same answers. I thought it my job to make thinking about it my job.
Every time I “figured something out,” another layer yet more complex revealed itself. Of course, I saw that as a challenge and dove right back in. “I’ve got this,” I’d say to myself. “I can sort out these pieces, I’m smart.” Guess what? I am smart. I did sort them out, at least, in part. But, guess what again? I still felt desperate. Mentally unkempt. My spirit like a chaotic, post-coital bed-head, totally unprepared to meet the world.
I’ve taken a lot of poor, unsuspecting souls with me down these rabbit holes. In states of unrest I’d latch on, like a rottweiler on a kitten, to anyone even sniffing around my orbit. It destroyed friendships. Decimated trust. Damaged perceptions. Devalued my own “enough-ness.”
The sadness produced a fog in which the tiniest slivers of light were rejected as imposters. And when they did break through, the habits I’d formed while living blindly in fog rejected them. At times, I’d grudgingly accept suggestions, albeit on probation. Then, too often, I’d just to shoot the bastards.
It was a lonely road indeed.
Has a friend ever kicked you in the shin to help you forget your migraine? Right. Me, neither. The reason? Suddenly the migraine isn’t quite so bad when your shin is throbbing. Um, thanks I guess.
Your “friend” has unwittingly paid homage to an idea I’m exploring: fixing something isn’t always fixing something. She with a broken leg doesn’t just require a painkiller (although offering one is the polite thing to do). She requires surgery. He with a limp doesn’t generally heal so as to avoid it. He learns to walk successfully with a limp and think nothing of it.
Could this be what Paul meant when he couldn’t get God to do much about his “thorn in the flesh?” The best he got was a rather enigmatic response, “my grace is sufficient for you.” I guess that’s what I’m learning (?)
Being human is a complex business. Not only isn’t everything fixable but, sometimes, we do better to leave what brokenness we find and learn to limp. Part of my job is to determine where limping is best and where I’ve been limping already and not really needing to. Where are my limps just cause for self-pity or attention? Are those limpy bits merely a clever cover for what truly ails me?
What if – just consider the possibility that, for a moment at least, conceivably, all things considered, whether I see it or not, I might have more control over this than I’d imagined?
Gadzooks! You mean there’s hope for my hopelessness?
Nothing is as simple as it seems. One issue always feeds some other thing somewhere else. Nothing is completely isolated. When one thing hurts, everything else does.
My mental state sachets with my vanity (secretly in love with my diet), which in turn is carrying on an affair with my sleep patterns, which is on record as screwing with my coffee intake who’s been seen skulking about the perimeter of my spiritual practice.
Well, you get the idea.
Isn’t it strange how interconnected are our issues? Our demons are all inbred. One l’il beast seems always to be a different one’s aunt, sister, and best friend’s boy-friend all at once. We are not as neatly compartmentalized as we’d like to believe.
But, this much I know. Wherever possible, I’m committed to smile when frowning makes more sense. I’m trying to sell my wholesale business in melancholy in favour of a tiny house of healthy practices that make life more livable for me and those around me (even when it feels a little cramped).
By choosing behaviours, little things I can do, I’m learning (despite all evidence to the contrary) to live contentedly. Leaning a bit more each day into the enough-ness of God in me, I see the benefits of my own weakness. I’m discovering light underneath the dark, up tucked inside the down, good hiding in the bad. Slowly (glacially to be honest), I am trading in the trail of tears.
The return? The fail of fears. And, even though I suck at it, isn’t it worth the effort, if only to sleep at night satisfied that I haven’t lost any friends today?
She fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud wring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.
Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare, one she’d seen before. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in…
As promised, this begins a new series of posts exploring major shifts in a man’s late middle-age. Hopefully you find yourself here somewhere.
This post has been a long time coming. Or, to say it differently, I would not have been able to write this until I was able to see clearly what has always been before me.
An unprepared reading of this post title might leave one with the impression that I’m making light of very difficult stuff. I am a person who has suffered the mental illness of anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. Anyone forced to suffer such an insulting fate understands all that is involved.
This has been further complicated by a certain predisposition of personality. An Enneagram 4–INFP–Libra/Virgo-artist-mystic, I possess abundant proclivity toward melancholy. It is, for me, a cottage industry. Those like myself for whom daily life is often a struggle, do so under menacing clouds of grey, besodden with delicious sadness. It is a perfect place to hide. From the world. From others. From further anxiety.
And that last thing is what I’m after. The immense internal struggles commensurate with complex personality produce a cocktail of impenetrability. Nothing gets in. But nothing gets out either. A bit like being always hungry and constipated at the same time. Different expectations at war with one another.
The result? Swirling clouds fall in on themselves further deepening woe and driving others away. I get to be, simultaneously, the life and death of the party! My winsome whimsy, gregarious grandiosity, and churlish charm act as a dare-to-draw-near and a you-asked-for-it at the same time! A bait and switch that leaves others bemused, sometimes hurt, and me, lonely.
One of the many gifts of late middle-age has been self-acceptance. Dare I say it? Self-love. Egad! To give up all that melancholy for the Hallmark brightness of joy would be tantamount to character mutiny. I’m trading Munch’s Screaming Man for anything Thomas Kinkade.
I am positioned for indictment as traitor to the very misery that has drawn so many others here with me!
I am their Captain. I love them. I write for them. I feel for them. I understand them. I am them.
But, what happens when one wakes up one morning to discover that much of the sadness has been, wait for it…chosen. I don’t mean the mental illness over which I’ve had little control and which rarely peeks out from under my medicinal assistance. I don’t mean the vicissitudes of a poetic soul given to flights of fancy and dreaming. Putting words and notes to the hours of a day, promised, unpolished, impolite, but real.
I speak of reaching for something outside the parameters of my own horizon. I speak of faith leaps off cliffs of soggy soil into unknown places. I speak of the Herculean choice to live each day like gift, regardless of emotional fuel to do so or outcomes. I speak of changing behaviours first in a blind hope that experience will follow. I speak here of letting action determine experience, not the endless task of untying mental knots until my world makes sense.
Yeah, like I’ve ever been successful in that.
Anyone who has struggled as I have to even open my eyes some days, let alone prance along to work and be productive, will know what’s involved. My fellow faith friends would likely call this a “return to Jesus.” I love those people. They love me. They help me. They always mean well. And they may well be right.
But it’s perhaps even more elemental than that. Since Jesus dwells within, the need to “return” seems moot. I think it part recognition that I will never untie all the complex chaos sprinting around my brain. It’s far too complex, even for a smart guy like me! I simply stop the endless thinking and ply the trade of behaviour – of doing something a less troubled soul would do under similar circumstances.
Of letting God, and my own soul, sort me out in due time. If this sounds hauntingly akin to “fake it ’til ya make it,” I dare say you are right to some degree.
What if that friend, seeing my confusion, asks me to go for a walk? Instead of politely refusing under the guise of “aw, how trite, you think a walk(!) will cure this?”, I take them up on it. My mind gets to catch a breath while I deepen a friendship.
Instead of isolating myself for days at a time away from the prying eyes of others, I wade into others and let them pry for awhile. Once the lid’s off, good stuff gets poured in. Most days at least.
Instead of succumbing to yet another day of doing nothing, I do one thing on my to-do list. Just. One. Thing. Finish one and two becomes four and a day of forgetting to brain wrestle becomes the greater gift of satisfaction.
Not fool-proof, but dammit, it works! It’s like a slow out-smarting of something too smart to sort out. People who know us, know us because they want to. And, if they want to, it means they’re invested.
I let ’em speak.
Sometimes they’ll come off a bit sanctimonious like Job’s friends. Take the good with the bad I guess. Sometimes their well-meaning suggestions will feel cute next to the towering internal issues confronting me. A bit like offering an aspirin to a guy on fire.
Nowadays, I try to peal what truth I can from those little bananas.
I don’t know how much of this makes sense. All I know is the smell of change. A slow-burn of transformation that is bringing renewed hope. By means of daily choices, behaviours, most of which feel under-nourished with the accompanying desire to do them, I’m seeing a whole new world open up.
As campy as this sounds, I’m sacking the sorry sad-sack sad and slowly replacing it with actions that bespeak contentment.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that my frequency of writing, along with its content, have changed a bit over the past year or two. No, I haven’t switched to decaf. God forbid such heresy! Yes, I am sleeping well and my diet is fine.
In actuality, it is indicative of some fairly significant shifts in my overall demeanour. In a sense, my outlook is changing. I don’t see it as some kind of Hollywood denouement where the old guy shares his tale from his death bed to curious onlookers. Nor do I understand it to be a return to some fictitious earlier time less fraught with daily perils and troubling anxiety. I don’t believe in “good ole days.” Nor will I ever.
But, indeed, certain movements are afoot. Those changes, some of which I understand, most not, have all contributed to something altered/ing in me. They are only partly alterations in ideology. I am still the slightly warped Celtic-mystic-progressive living with unassuageable thirst, contemplative longing, and a bit moody around the edges. I still possess an undying spiritual curiosity. The mysteries of science and the cosmos remain to me as enthralling as ever. I am in love with the same girl who first captured my attentions over three decades ago. My two boys are more amazing now than ever. I am, in a word, still me.
But something is different. Or perhaps, new. Newly different? Or…something.
What is it you ask? Hang tight for a series of posts, soon to come, exploring these things. And, by the way, thanks for asking.
One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.
Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.
He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).
He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.
The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that.
The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.
I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.
But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.
Anticipation of Advent.
Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.
Incarnation at Christmas.
In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.
Revelation in Epiphany.
These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!
Repentance through Lent.
The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.
Resurrection at Easter.
The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.
New life at Pentecost
The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.
The rest of the story in Ordinary Time
We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.
Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.