This morning I sat at my local auto tire shop and listened to the folk talk. I was waiting for two new tires, a tire rotation and a spare tire repair. These guys - and they were all guys - are fast, reasonable and honest. I like to go there even though I am like a fish out of water. The conversation centered on our shitty weather, pot holes in the roads like unto the Grand Canyon, and the culinary distinctions between Dennys and TGIFridays. (Apparently, Denny's is the local favorite but we're not getting one where the old Country Kitchen Buffet now stands empty.) It was good to get out. The car needed it and I did too: Breaking out out of my bubble puts me in touch with a world I rarely experience.
Think about it: I was sitting there reading Henri Nouwen listening in on a running commentary about Taco Bel's "spicy fries!" NOBODY I know talks about spicy fries. And, given my proclivities, this led me to a consideration of Nouwen's three-layered spirituality: prayer, worship, engagement. He uses the words "communion, community and commission" by which he means: 1) nourishing an inner journey, 2) making time for worship and acts of caring, and 3) going into the world to share acts of healing and hope. As a mystical Trinitarian, I resonate with this three-in-one and one-in-three spiritual practice. His organizing words, however, don't resonate with me. I prefer something like solitude, solidarity and service. They seem more direct. Regardless of your preferences, each category holds a wealth of implications.
+ Solitude: Setting aside time for silence is essential for a mature spiritual life. In the quiet, there is space to listen and feel. There is time to study and reflect. There is a chance for our fears and shame to rise to the surface above our busy distractions long enough for us to maybe realize that we ache for God's grace just like everyone else. Spicy fries or sushi, Jean Vanier got it right when he wrote: "We all have a deep fear of our own weaknesses, because my weakness is what makes it possible for someone else to crush me. So I create mechanisms of defense and compulsion to protect myself. We all have protective systems designed to prevent people from seeing who we are." A regular and disciplined practice of solitude creates a time and a space for us to own our weaknesses. Over time, and very slowly, its possible to learn how to relinquish them, too. Solitude also allows us to cultivate practices like meditation, centering/walking prayer, deep breathing so that we tap into the "love that will not let us go." Nouwen learned that there can be no spiritual maturity without a regular soul care. Call it solitude, communion with the sacred, or prayer: it is the non-negotiable vertical beam of the Cross that unites our hearts with the heart of God.
+ Solidarity: A faith community is essential, too. It is the horizontal bar of the Cross that keeps us in connection with the Lord of Life. Community is where we share worship. It is where we learn how to care for others and let them care for us. It is a place of safety and challenge, a collection of hearts joined together beyond race, gender and class, in what St. Paul called "the Body of Christ." As in the body of Jesus after the Cross, it is always wounded. Vanier insists that "there are three activities that are absolutely vital in the creation of a community. The first is eating together around the same table. The second is praying together. And the third is celebrating together. By celebrating I mean to laugh, to fool around, to have fun, to give thanks together for life. When we are laughing together with belly laughs we are all the same." Whatever its form - church, synagogue, mosque, ashram, AA - there is a gathering that is structured for the sharing of joys and concerns. Community is where we learn to get over ourselves and welcome others into our bubble.
+ Service: Someone once told me that "mission - that is, engagement in the world through acts of compassion and justice - is how God saves the church from itself." Our communities of faith can quickly become soul gymnasiums, morality museums, or burial societies if our only purpose is to care for ourselves (or our building.) Back in the day, it used to be said that the community of faith was called into existence by the holy to "find a hurt and heal it." In our 21st century, post-Christian world I sense faithful service is all about partnership with those beyond the confines of our comfort zones. And by partnership I mean radical and humble silence in the company of others so that we might listen to the cries of another's suffering; and, sharing our gifts in ways that enflesh justice and hope for all. Bonhoeffer came to understand during his opposition to the Third Reich that we are to live the love of Jesus without calling attention to ourselves. We are to be the flesh of love beyond the ubiquity of "charity" work. Our efforts are not to self-serving but socially sacrificial.
I am discovering a new balance of solitude, solidarity and service for myself. And one key, I learned today, is simply getting out of my bubble and being in reality as it exists. I like this prayer for the Fifth Sunday of Lent from Vanderbilt University:
Sisters and brothers,
as Jesus, in the days before his passion,
offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears,
let us pray for those who suffer, those who are in need,
and those who seek reconciliation.
God of compassion,
you know our faults and yet you promised to forgive.
Keep us in your presence and give us your wisdom.
Open our hearts to gladness,
call dry bones to dance,
and restore to us the joy of your salvation. Amen.
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