Oh well...

One of the truths about serving churches for 35 years (including my internships in seminary) is how so few have been shown the beauty, power and promise of nourishing a contemplative life. To some I may seem like a broken record (and if that is true let me refer you to the song below by Peter Green) but this missing element in our spiritual formation not only robs us of Christ's "peace that passes understanding" but keeps us distracted, adolescent and obsessed with living in our heads. As one of my colleagues says: this has always been a missing tradition and must always be rediscovered by each generation.

Here's the deal as articulated by the spiritual masters since the start of our Christian  tradition:

+ First, without tasting the grace of God in our souls, we cannot see the goodness of the Lord.

+ Second, without nourishing and strengthening the inner blessing, we rely upon our own strength, wisdom and generosity - and that is always limited and inadequate.

+ Third, Christianity has a profound mystical tradition that is equal in power and zest to anything offered in the East but has largely remained hidden in monasteries and small retreat houses rather than shared with the full Body of Christ.

+ And fourth, one of the ways to offer a healing and hopeful antidote to the madness of culture is to invite and assist individuals and congregations in the way of the heart that contemplatives have long celebrated. Then others will have both the peace and the fortitude to stand up to evil, hatred and fear in the wider world.

When we practice deep listening and inner solitude, "we encounter a God who cannot be fully
understood, we discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden not in the possession of power, but in the confession of weakness." (Henri Nouwen) As I continue to take the time, space and quiet to sort out the blessings of my sabbatical - refusing to to turn this gift into a product - I realize three things:

+ First, I have more patience, love and presence than ever before for those who truly want to experience inner freedom. Over the past few days I have sat silently in conversation with a variety of hurting souls who ache for a break. The essence of spiritual direction is always listening and letting silence become our friend. So the more I can listen, the more I can open up in a love that is "born from above." To say that there are a multitude of hurting people all around us is to state the obvious. To go further and confess that there is also "a balm in Gilead" is to celebrate a way beyond and through the anguish into something we can only call peace. I genuinely have nothing to offer another if I cannot share with others the love of God that I have first experienced in my heart, soul mind and strength.

This is very hard to do since we are so fearful and insecure. We keep hiding ourselves from God and from others. We tend to present to God and to others only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer life becomes very selective and narrow. It is clear that the discipline of the Heart calls from some direction to allow us to overcome fears, to deepen our faith and realize more of who God is for us. (Nouwen)  

+ Second, I am baffled at those who take offense at wanting to help others go deeper into God's peace. But they are real and ever present - within the church and beyond. In the gospel for this week, Jesus says (via Luke's text) You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding.You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

Well, it may be blessed but it doesn't always feel that way, right? But that's what the paradoxical wisdom of "losing it all... the hunger and emptiness" is all about.  Nouwen regularly reminds me:

The discipline of the heart makes us aware that praying is not only listening TO the heart but listening WITH the heart. Prayer helps us stand in the presence of god with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wanderings and most of all who our family, friends and enemies - in short, with all that makes us who we are. With all of this we have to listen to God's voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being.

+ And third, listening to the Lord in our bodies, culture, time and hearts is hard work. It isn't a magic bullet that makes everything immediately better. It isn't a new drug that solves our anxieties, fears and shame once and for all. Our spiritual ljourney is NOT a problem to be solved. It is a sojourn. A walk. A journey. And none of this wandering towards the blessings happens quickly. Early on in ministry I was saturated in the contemplative way but over time I slowly slipped away. I would return for a season, but then get distracted and disconnected yet again. With over four months of solitude and practice, however, I sense that something has been reborn - and I am grateful.

In ways I cannot fully express, I believe the possibilities of this renewed focus upon contemplation, compassion and community action make my heart sing because they are a bold but tender alternative to the culture of greed and busyness that rips us all up and spits us out in ugly, mean-spirited ways. The closing of Sunday's gospel cannot be any clearer:

It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself, your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular. To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person.


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