The blessing of a snow day...

One of the many joys I experience in living in this part of the woods is something called a "snow day." Say what you will about being in the perpetual sunshine - and I loved every minute I was in the desert Southwest (and plan to make a winter pilgrimage part of my new rhythm of life) - there is nothing more serene and meditative than the hush that falls on the earth during a huge snow storm. It is, in very real ways, truly heavenly - and with predictions of 10-20 inches arriving by tomorrow morning that's a LOT of heaven.
Like much of our community, we closed up shop at 12 noon today both to get off the roads and to keep the streets safe for emergency traffic. So I will be home in the safety and warmth of our little house for the next 24 hours. We may sneak outside later on our snow shoes to take in the quiet of the woods - and to watch Lucie frolic in the snow. She is another delight on snow days because she can't get enough of playing in fresh snow. We already have about a foot of snow on the ground so today's romping will be a real treat!

Yesterday was filled with a host of small blessings - and I am deeply grateful - not only because they help me put ministry into perspective, but also because they bring a measure of balance to the hard parts of this calling. Fr. Keating speaks of them as "consolations" - those small events or feelings that are all about encouragement. To be sure, there are seasons without consolation - the dark night of the soul is clearly a time without much emotional refreshment - and the challenge in that season has something to do with finding rest in the absence of encouragement. Like Rumi's poem, even the emptiness can be a subtle sign of the Sacred presence.

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing
you express is the return message."

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Fr. Richard Rohr has recently written about this absence like this:
Alcoholics Anonymous would call Stage Six the First Step! Stage Six is: I am empty and powerless. Almost any attempt to save yourself by any superior behavior, technique, belonging system, morality, role, strong ideological belief, or religious devotion will not work. It will actually lead to regression. What the saints and mystics say is that some event, struggle, relationship, or suffering in your life has to lead you to the edge of your own resources. There has to be something that you by yourself cannot understand, fix, control, change, or even begin to deal with. It is the raw experience of “I cannot do this.” All you can do at this point is wait and ask and trust.

This is where you learn real patience, compassion, and forgiveness. I don’t know how else you learn to forgive other people until you see seventy-times-seven your own brokenness, your own incapacity to love and, in this stage, your inability to do anything about it except throw yourself into the arms of mercy and love (Luke 7:47).
This is the darkness of faith, and now you can trust that this darkness is a much better teacher than supposed certainty or rightness. God is about to become very real. Some even call this “God’s Waiting Room!”

When you finally accept your own powerlessness, you learn to plug into a different outlet and draw upon a Deeper Source. This is conversion. This is radical transformation. It is like an identity transplant. St. Paul describes his own conversion in this way: “I live no longer, not I, but I live in Christ, and Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). You will experience a much larger sense of self, and it is not all about “you” anymore!

At Stage Seven, you have a qualitatively different sense of your self. “I am so much more than I thought I was!” you might feel. The false self has died in a significant way and the True Self is starting to take over. But because you are not yet fully at home here, it will first of all feel like a void, an emptiness, but hopefully an okay emptiness. You begin to act for the sake of the action itself because it is true, because it is good, because it is beautiful, and not because it is popular or even because it works! 

There is no felt consolation most of the time, and there is lessening social reward. Yet there is great peace. You are being weaned of your reliance upon your feeling world, which means very little at this point. Because you are living in the Larger Self, all is okay. You know Another is now holding you. You do not need to hold yourself. You are at the heart of faith, and in a certain sensetrue spirituality only begins at this point! (Most of Jesus’ teaching proceeds from this level or higher, which is why much of the church has not been ready for Jesus.)

I think that one of the gifts I was given from my time wandering in the wilderness of the dark night of the soul has to do with gratitude. These days I find that I want to return thanks to God for all the little consolations that I notice even in some of the most ordinary events. Yesterday, for example, there were a lot:

+ The day began with a meeting focused on our upcoming 250th church anniversary. More and more I am regularly stunned at how meetings can become holy ground. Not all meetings, of course; some are so filled with bullshit that I can barely endure them. But some become sacred - and that was true for this one as we talked about enduring outmoded New England protocols, finding gentle ways of moving forward when others seem obsessed with the past and so much more. There was a lot of laughter about who we are and who we are becoming as a church - and it wasn't harsh or judgmental laughter - but rather a humble realization of our humanity.

+ No sooner did that meeting close when I had a chance to visit with a young person who is new to our community.  In a matter of minutes we were talking very tenderly about brokenness and the dark ways we have tried to block out the pain and emptiness. There were tears and prayers, confession and absolution - and more tears. There was also an awareness that in the womb of our dark night, we can truly be born again although there is nothing gentle or sentimental about this rebirth. It is always humiliating, frightening and oh so humbling. And it is also a blessing.

+ From there it was midday Eucharist - with friends who haven't been able to gather returning in what felt like a homecoming - along with a few others who were aching in grief. There was more laughter and hugs, prayers and tears and the sharing of the bread and wine. As I have noted before, this small gathering is very simple - not a lot happens - and that is the beauty. We just create a little quiet and safe place to be open to Christ's love and wait quietly as the Psalms encourage.

There were a few other meetings - planning among pastors as we build a local justice organization, conversations with artists for a new sculpture to be used during Lent - and then a new member orientation in the evening.  And that, too, became holy ground as we talked about how it is we came to find ourselves in this strange little community of faith.   One family was trying to get into another downtown church and couldn't find an open door (symbolic on so many levels, yes?) so they followed a young woman in what was "clearly a Sunday hat" into our Sanctuary - and they've been with us ever since. Another person said, "I wasn't planning on joining. Just coming and seeing what went on. But one Sunday I had a mystical experience in the Sanctuary that connected me with a loved one who had gone home to God - and I just couldn't ignore the sign!" Others came because of our Open and Affirming commitment - or our combination of tradition and innovation - the music and the preaching - as well as the way we welcome children.

As I was driving home, all I could think of was that the whole day was one beautiful collection of small consolations. It was just what I needed - and just what I had been praying about - as we move into our 250th anniversary events. We are NOT the church as it was in the past. Rather, we are a pretty broken and scruffy collection of real people who want to learn how to love one another and ourselves like Jesus. I rather like the way Diana Butler Bass puts it in A People's History of Christianity.

Trying to understand why and how Romans embraced Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark states:" Conversion to a new religion involves being interested in new culture - indeed, in being capable of mastering a new culture." He argues that people converted initially, not because they found Christianity philosophically persuasive, but because Christianity was "efficacious." In other words, it worked.

And it worked in some very particular ways. During the second century's great epidemic, known as the Plague of Galen (165-180), in which hundreds of thousands of people died in the streets, Christians proved their spiritual mettle by tending to the sick. As Bishop Cyprian of Carthage would later claim, that plague was a winnowing process, in which God's justice was shown by "whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsfolk as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted." Because they did not fear death, Christians stayed behind in plague-ravaged cities while others fled. Their acts of mercy extended to all the suffering regardless of class, tribe or religion and created the conditions in which others accepted their faith.

As I went about my work yesterday, I kept seeing signs that more and more of our folk were grounded in humility, hospitality and hope. And after seven years here, that was a wonderful gift to realize - a deep and encouraging consolation. So now, it is off to the snow with my honey and our puppy... thanks be to God.
NOTE:  No sooner did I post this than I got a call from the local hospital that one of our dear friends was back in the ICU.  I spent some time slogging through the blizzard to pray and listen to both partners.  What a hard journey - so much love, so much pain - and now more waiting. It is always and honor and privilege to be with these folks. Yet another small gift in the midst of real suffering, too.


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