On her website she self-describes in the following way:
“Laura Jean is an Atlanta based writer, itinerant chaplain, and amateur mystic. She lives and writes in the in-between places of queerness, loving Jesus, and rediscovering the Bible after fundamentalism.”
She’s becoming a favourite blogger/human of mine. She’s smart, insightful, brave, witty, and honest. I hope you like her as much as I.
We never come to the same place twice. Either the place has changed, if only a little. Or, more likely, we have. The hiraeth of soul that has so often dogged my steps has reemerged of late. But the hound on my doorstep isn’t the one I kept around for many years while waiting for something else to show up.
I’ve received the gift of self in recent years. The much more confident, goof-ballish, boisterous extraverted-introvert I was as a boy has reasserted himself into a picture that had become a bit smudgy. I’d gone from an emerging oil painting of youth to a broody graphite sketch with too little detail to offer much picture to anyone. Especially myself.
I make no apology for the change in myself. In my writing. My demeanour. It is part and parcel of the journey with a God who refuses to let us stay too long in places we’re tempted to think are entirely who we are. Once we begin to feel a bit too comfortable, God steps in to f**k up the status quo and help us carry on the search.
We are found in the seeking. It is the looking itself that defines our spirituality. Once we think we’ve ‘found’ God, God will dive into a new game of hide-‘n-seek, if only to remind us that God is God and we are not.
The great hope is that, he or she to whom we are ever returning is one to whom we might actually want to return. So, with a few of these things in mind, what follows is a brief journal entry from last Sunday, July 7th:
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“Oh soul, my soul, where have you gone? Oh life’s pericope, trope of being, lattice of heaven. God’s bathroom mirror. I can see God shaving for work through the tiny crack in the door. It brings such comfort and reminds me that, more than anything else, God is a friend. Ruler of the normal and unexceptional. Lord of the forgotten and easily missed. Master of ‘meh.’ All the more remarkable for his/her unremarkability.
Son of man. That’s how Jesus loved to describe himself. Of all the venerable, honest, or descriptive titles he could have used, this was the one to which he was most drawn. He used it more than any other. That alone tells me all I need to know about this God I pursue. Who pursues me.
This is no pagan god more interested in f***ing my wife than helping me in any way. This is not the tribal god of some prehistoric people, full of fear and terror of the great, dark world more attributable to earth than heaven. The God I serve is the God I love. Who loves me.
Why should God and love be together in one entity? God has no responsibility toward love of any kind. By definition, God could be merely a passing, disinterested peripheral glance. He/She could be a fearsome, destructive, despair-inducing monster bent on nothing more than her/her own pleasure and aggrandizement. A despot. Self-centered and terrifying. Wait, that’s more us!
Instead, this God holds in his/her arms the leper, the cheater, the whore, and the little child. He/She rebukes the great and restores the sinner. God breaks those who declare themselves unbreakable and repairs those they have broken. Today, I grasp again this familiar hand of this familiar God. (S)he never let go of mine. I’ve merely rediscovered the playground. (S)he’s been watching me/us from the sidelines, encouraging me to run, take risks, try new things, learn the feel of the cosmos in my hands.
America loves its Independence Day. Any country born through the birth canal of revolution would say the same. But, instead of bemoaning the cognitive dissonances inherent in such a celebration, especially this year, I give this space to the far better thoughts of uncle Tom, Merton that is.
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.
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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.
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?
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.