a spirituality of tenderness - part six...

NOTE: Today I continue trying to flesh out some of the specifics of a spirituality of tenderness. I close with a summary of seven polarities for our consideration - and will give more attention to this list over the next few days - as I try to unpack the ways these polarities might serve as authentic spiritual practices. I suspect, however, that my list is both incomplete and evolving, so please know at the outset that I am not implying definitive wisdom  here nor a monopoly upon the truth. This is a work in progress, so let me know your reactions from time to time, ok?

As I discern some of the distinct practices of this emerging spirituality of tenderness, let me put forward this hunch: the core of this spiritual discipline begins with an acceptance of the eternal inward and outward polarities of our lives and ripens as we come to trust that God is helping us harmonize them. It is a practical mysticism that honors the movement of wisdom, energy, faith, hope and love in our lives without harsh judgment. It also acknowledges the ups and downs of our hearts and minds in a way that surrounds them with grace.  I think of Psalm 131:

 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
 like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

The Psalmist recognizes the reality of anxiety, but moves towards rest. She knows that there is mystery beyond human comprehension and so chooses trust. She also grasps that hope is grounded in nourishing an embodied calmness born of God’s loving presence - and that it is elusive - real but never fully realized, satisfying but never under our control.

Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Jim O’Donnell, Kathleen Norris and Gertrud Mueller-Nelson are all clear that authentic spiritual wisdom is fluid and always in transition, too. In To Dance with God, a book of sacramental practices designed to help faith communities experience and embrace the rhythm of each liturgical season, Mueller-Nelson asks us to learn to “dance with God.” That is, to live into the flow of life changing truths that include the quiet fermentation of Advent, the gentle joy of unexpected gifts at Christmas, the somber sorrows of Lent that are often prelude to the ecstasy of new hopes on Easter as well as the bold presence of the Holy Spirit in times, places and truths that often shock and mystify us all. When we learn that our spiritual lives are forever in motion – even when they do not correspond correctly to the rhythm of the liturgical year – then we are alive and open to the blessings of  the Spirit. In her book, Here All Dwell Free, she puts it like this:

When you can only do—nothing—you have arrived where healing begins. For us to grow, it takes waiting. In our culture this is the hardest part—patience and waiting. For when we allow a process to unfold in its own rhythm and to grow at its own mysterious pace it often feels as though everything has come to a halt. We mistake it for total stagnation.

Vanier invites us to learn how to journey “from closedness to openness, from the illusion of superiority to vulnerability and humility.” And Nouwen amplifies this awareness of our polarities when he writes:

To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.

This is the paradoxical journey of faith: we never fully arrive and yet we are never completely absent. Jesus pointed to the wisdom of trusting our inner polarities as part of God’s presence in us when he spoke of the nearness of God’s kingdom: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within and among] you.” (Luke 17: 20-21) 

To attempt to achieve something some have called a lasting spiritual balance of thought, word and deed is simultaneously cruel – such a goal is always beyond our reach – and dishonest – as we are always in motion until death (and maybe even then, too.) So rather than sink to the acquisitive and punishing metaphors and worldviews of a crass, bottom-line religion of the marketplace, a spirituality of tenderness invites us to “dance with God.”  Ours is a life in motion – a journey – not a goal or a destination. Our spiritual lives are not about achievements or winning and losing, but acceptance and trust no matter where we are on life’s journey.

The Hebrew Scriptures can be helpful in giving us images of what this "dancing with God" looks like in our lives. From the creation stories of Genesis 1 – the on-going movement of God’s Spirit in the world that includes both chaos and community – the Exodus journey – that takes God’s people through the wilderness into civilization – to the wisdom literature of the poetic sages and prophets, we are shown how God's people are called to enter into a journey towards balance that honors the polarities of life as we currently comprehend them. That is to say, there is never perfect understanding – It is an illusion - for now we see as through a glass darkly. Our task  is to trust what has been revealed, discern God’s still small voice along the way and join the flow of life that is always in motion. As the wise old preacher of Ecclesiastes 3 puts it:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

To the end, please consider these seven polarities involving the ebb and flow of God’s invitation to us in our real lives. They offer us assistance in seeking acceptance, a measure of serenity and a way to nourish tenderness.

·         Birth and death
·         Sound and silence
·         Giving and receiving
·         Contemplation and action
·         Rest and play
·         Community and solitude
·         Sorrow and joy

I like the way Reinhold Niebuhr has articulated this in what we know as the Serenity Prayer:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, a
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Over the next few days I will take a shot at clarifying how I have experienced using each of the seven polarities as a spiritual practice.


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