I have discerned that one of my spiritual practices for the coming months - I don't really know how long that is going to be - is to write a book for my grandson based on what I am calling "a spirituality of tenderness.". Back in 1988, the late Henri Nouwen published a small volume he called Letters to Marc About Jesus. Nouwen shares with his nephew some of the riches - and challenges - he will encounter if he chooses to live a life of Christian faith. In 1998, Douglas John Hall, chaplain emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, wrote a postmodern apologia to a "composite (character comprised of) undergraduates, graduates, clergy, working people and his own children on the edges of Christian faith" called Why Christian? And, of course, the incomparable Marilynne Robinson created a Pulitzer Prize winning work of art with her 2004 Gilead.
These mentors sensed the value of speaking clearly about their own experience of faith both in
the hope of answering questions raised but not addressed by contemporary culture, and, as a way of being vulnerable with their loved ones. At this stage of my journey, I don't pretend to be in the same league as these writers. Such hubris would be untrue and thoroughly unattractive. Rather, during my years of ministry I have incrementally discovered myself moving towards a set of practices intended to enrich personal and corporate tenderness. I want to distill my understanding of this discipline and then summarize it in a way for Louie that, should he some day want to know more about his grandfather (and my take on the Christian faith), he would have a resource to consult. When I am ready, I will simply self-publish it for him with a few other copies (mostly for my own vanity but perhaps to share with my daughters.)
Over the course of my sabbatical not only was I drawn to such writing, but I regularly found hints of other respected writers referencing tenderness. Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen in particular resonate with my awareness that the spiritual life of compassionate Christianity is nourished by: 1) acknowledging the truth about our lives - their joy, despair, wisdom, confusion and all the rest; 2) learning where our lives fit within "the inner polarities of the human psyche" - the heart and soul in Nouwen's parlance - "the personal center where our physical, mental and emotional lives come together" (Spiritual Formation, eds. Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird); 3) consciously practicing ways of living that gently heal and transform our broken or rough places; and 4) sharing tenderness with those closest to us incrementally but authentically.
In his work at the Menninger Clinic in the 1960s, Nouwen learned that "actively reflecting oun our lives as a living document... clarifies the inner polarities of our human condition and points us toward a greater wholeness. In gaining knowledge of the heart, we find that what is most personal is also most universal."
This spring and summer while on sabbatical I wasn't a pastor. Few people knew I was a pastor, I never identified myself at any initial introduction as a pastor and almost no one ever spoke to me of an interest or need in what I would call the expertise of pastoring. It was liberating - and revealing. What I saw and heard was simple: in our thoroughly secular world the old words and many of the old ways of addressing the human condition are not even on the table for discussion. Yes, many are searching for a way to live authentic and loving lives - that has not changed - but they no longer need (or even know) the language of faith. It is, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, the arrival of his prophetic "religionless religion." A time to embrace what is truest in the Christian faith - compassion grounded in the inward/outward journey of grace - and let everything else slip away.
Now, I knew this was true intellectually both in Tucson and Pittsfield, but until we traveled to NYC, Nashville and Pittsburgh - and then took up a three month residency in Montreal - this truth remained an idea. Now I get it in my heart and even in my own soul. This is a time when all our metaphors born of the market place have shown themselves to be incomplete and often vacuous. This is a time when the quest for awe, reverence and tenderness is urgent albeit quiet. This is a time for embodied faith born of Christ's compassion.
So, I want to write, clarify, revise and then share what I have discovered so far on this journey with the one who is the essence of tenderness in my life: my grandson. As I have noted at other times, Psalm 131 is my guide:
Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
nor have my eyes looked too high,
nor have I striven for great things,
nor for things too wondrous for me.
But I have calmed and contented myself
like a weaned babe on its mother -
like a weaned babe I am with myself.
Wait, O Israel, wait for the Lord,
now and forevermore.
Robert Alter writes about this lovely, little Hebrew prayer/poem: "The evident image of a newly weaned baby embraced and comforted by its mother is therefore calm...the Hebrew is cryptic, it literally says 'like a weaned babe I am on myself.' The idea that emerges is quite touching: the person content with his lot, who does not aspire to grand things, is able to give himself the kind of reassuring calm that a loving mother gives the weaned child whom she comforts. .. the speaker evokes a sense of beautiful self-containment, an embracing of one's self like a child."
And it is all grounded in tender and trusting waiting...
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