Wednesday, February 28, 2018

that your joy may be full...

This observation by Henri Nouwen has increasingly become important to me. I have heard visual, musical and dance artists say much the same thing: when they reveal their most intimate truths, it touches the most people.

We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, “Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else’s business.” But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life. (Nouwen)

During Lent, I am reading Nouwen's journal re: how he discerned his call to the Daybreak Community of L'Arche Toronto. It is candid and clarifying as I, too celebrate my deepening connection with L'Arche Ottawa. In a reflection called "Feeling the Pain," Nouwen speaks of celebrating Eucharist with the community of Trosly on Tuesday nights. 

I have noticed that these people have little desire for dialogue or discussion, though they do like to pray together, sing together, be silent together, and listen together to a reflection on the Gospel. The assistants are often tired from a long day of work... and they want to be nurtured, supported, and cared for. I must learn a new style of ministry. Few of those who participate in these Tuesday night liturgies need to be convinced of the importance of the Gospels, the centrality of Jesus, or the value of the sacraments. Most have moved beyond that stage. They have discovered Christ; they have made their decision to work with the poor; they have chosen the narrow path. (The Road to Daybreak, p. 57)

Nouwen found himself gently surprised at the difference between those who gathered for worship at L'Arche, and the students and faculty he worked with at either Yale or Harvard. "I (used) to spend much energy convincing them of God's love, calling them into community and offering them a place to experience the peace of Jesus... That kind of ministry is appropriate in a secular university where students are fully caught up in the race for achievement." 

These words hit me with a thundering wallop! How long and hard have I worked to encourage people in my various congregations to trust God's grace rather than their shame over perceived holy judgment? How many different ways did I pitch the idea of finding 10 minutes - 5 minutes - even 1 minute each day to bask in the light of God's love? To seek out space for silent refreshment? To let go of doing long enough to rest? To be sure, there have been those who took the risk and opened their hearts to the path of contemplation. But rarely over those nearly 40 years was it ever more than a handful. Not so at L'Arche: my experience has been that those who attend liturgies want to go deeper. We are not dealing with fundamentals but the company of the committed so there is no need to persuade anyone. Nouwen amplifies my experience when he writes:

Here there is no urge to success; here time is filled with dressing,
feeding, carrying, and just being with those in need. It is a very demanding and tiring way, but there is no rivalry, no degree to be acquired, no honor to be desired - just faithful service. This is a new challenge for me. It requires me to develop the art of "spiritual companionship" with these fellow travelers. I now realize that the gospel of John was written for men and women like these. It was written for mature spiritual persons who do not want to argue about elementary issues, but who want to be introduced into the mysteries of the divine life. 

This is exactly what I have felt! In this context, authentic horizontal worship can take place organically. Indeed, when I celebrated Eucharist at L'Arche last week it was literally horizontal. On the floor. Just like Taize at its best. Small wonder that Jean Vanier has written a commentary on the Gospel of John and that I used it for the evening's gospel lesson. 

The invitation in Scripture that night was to abide in God's love so that Christ's joy may be in us and our joy may be full. And that's what we talked about: experiencing Christ's joy, sharing this joy in acts of simple respect, opening our hearts to this joy even when we are apprehensive, and strengthening this joy in community. 

Vanier calls the cultivation of Christ's joy within and among us "letting Jesus take up residence in our hearts." And he is clear that there is a connection between loneliness, love and joy: "To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefor unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain." (Vanier, Becoming Human) Indeed, he understands that the fundamental calling of those who have chosen to let Jesus take up residence within their hearts is to encourage one another in the ordinary ways.

Each one of us is called to bridge the gap between the capable, rich person within us and the broken and fearful person who is also in us but whom we hide away. That means that those of us who have power, capacities, and wealth allow ourselves in small or big ways to be pruned, to be called from fear and egoism to love and truth, to share our lives with those who have no hope. The weak, the broken, on the other hand, are called to rise up, leaving their despair as they discover they are loved and respected. It is not always easy to accept hope and to receive help. (Vanier, Letter to My Brothers and Sisters)

This, is what I have experienced. At this moment in my journey, it feels liberating to be at rest with those who do not need persuasion. Rather, our calling is to encourage, support and love one another right in the moment.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s command-ments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

the wisdom of our wounds (continued)

Let me amplify what I wrote yesterday about living into the wisdom of our wounds and what I have discerned as an old, bourgeois, over-educated, straight white guy. When my buddies in AA told me "You're too smart for your own good," they were on to something big. But I didn't understand - and for over a decade I thought it was bullshit. That's the trap of coming of age inside the dominant culture of a consumer society. We are trained to work hard, practice self-reliance and trust that "God helps those who help themselves." This is, of course, the real motto of the United States, not "Out of many, one." Most residents actually believe it comes from Scripture rather than Ben Franklyn and construct their lives upon this heresy. 

We work our asses off in school - now more so than ever before - sacrifice body, heart and soul to get into the best colleges and nourish ruthless avarice as the center of our careers. We despise patience. We disdain mystery. And we have cultivated a way of being that celebrates striving as the crown of creation. Even if we encountered religious formation as children, it remains the minority report for we worship at the altar of winning. Most of us who practice Christianity have no frame of reference for the Cross. We do not know how to embrace our brokenness. We have no context for integrating the wisdom of our wounds into our everyday existence. And we are terrified and ashamed of failure. Further, because the Cross has been eradicated from popular Western Churchianity, Sunday morning is more about the practice of pop psychology, or the gospel of wealth, than the journey from Easter's fire into the ashes of Lent on our way back into Easter.

Richard Rohr and others have spent the past few decades reclaiming what ancient male initiation rites might mean for contemporary culture. One of their conclusions is that all men must learn to spend time in the pit. As a rule, men are full to overflowing with hubris. We don't organically know how to channel our exuberance into strength for the protection our communities. This must be learned. In other words, male passion has historically been disciplined through acts of humility - rituals of imposed humiliation by wise elders who love men (and women and children)- knowing that "warriors must learn to dance before they can use a sword." Scarification, for example, take young men down a peg as limited physical pain exposes us to our own mortality. Vision quests, tattoos, time alone in the desert fasting, and cultivating acts of bravery that provide and protect the community rather than harm it, all move young men beyond themselves. Robert Bly speaks of this as "time spent living in the ashes" - an intentional season of learning about life from the bottom of the heap rather than the top - so that our fire and passion is transformed into wisdom and compassion. This is not a time for winning, but rather for listening and waiting without control. Without it, men too often turn to pathological outlets like gangs, misogyny, homophobia and addictions of all types including workaholism (one of my personal demons.)

Women learn humility through their bodies: they bleed and hurt by design. Their rites of passage are necessarily different from a man's. Men must be taught that they - and others - bleed before reverence and respect rise up from within. Rohr says: "Men and women are most alike at their most mature and soulful levels. Men and women are most different only at their most immature and merely physical level." In our culture, however, there are precious few ways for men to be trained in the rites of humility and maturity. Sam Keen used to say that what passes for rites of passage for most young, white men in a consumer culture are all about getting a license to drive, getting a condom to screw and getting a paying job to document our worth. We are schooled in the ways of acquisition, not relinquishment. And the results do nothing to harness or transform our wildness into responsible acts of love.

Small wonder that Rohr has devoted so much of his later work to teaching men and women the ways of contemplation. "Contemplation is an alternative consciousness that refuses to identify with or feed what are only passing shows. It is the absolute opposite of addiction, consumerism or any egoic consciousness." Indeed, his Center for Action and Contemplation has become a master class in reclaiming the mystical path of inner healing. And it is saturated in the wisdom of our wounds, the way of the Cross and the gifts of silence. Rohr has become convinced that until we experience (and practice) an alternative consciousness that is grace-filled and loving, our activity in the world will continue to increase pain rather that heal it. "If our pain is not transformed, we will pass it on to the third and fourth generations."

One of the reasons I continue to cherish Henri Nouwen is that I see so much of my journey in his own. He had a big heart - and a massive ego. He kept trying to fill the hole in his soul with other people, even as he knew that only God could satisfy him. And, he kept making the same mistakes over and over until he was truly broken. I've been there and done that in spades. Still do from time to time, too:

We all have our secrets: thoughts, memories, feelings that we keep to ourselves. Often we think, "If people knew what I feel or think, they would not love me." These carefully kept secrets can do us much harm. They can make us feel guilty or ashamed and may lead us to self-rejection, depression, and even suicidal thoughts and actions. One of the most important things we can do with our secrets is to share them in a safe place, with people we trust. When we have a good way to bring our secrets into the light and can look at them with others, we will quickly discover that we are not alone with our secrets and that our trusting friends will love us more deeply and more intimately than before. Bringing our secrets into the light creates community and inner healing. As a result of sharing secrets, not only will others love us better but we will love ourselves more fully. (Nouwen)

During his year-long retreat at L'Arche Trosly, France, after he had left Harvard in grief, however, Nouwen experienced an inner safety that allowed him to trust God more deeply. It also empowered him to find comfort in community. In this peace, he was able to confess:

There is much emphasis on notoriety and fame in our society. Our newspapers and television keep giving us the message: What counts is to be known, praised, and admired, whether you are a writer, an actor, a musician, or a politician. Still, real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive. It is not easy to trust ourselves and our actions without public affirmation. We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility. Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love. (Nouwen)

I felt this, too the very first time I visited L'Arche Ottawa. Their hospitality and authenticity was real. Knowing that my soul had finished doing traditional pastoral ministry, I found myself returning again and again to Ottawa, mostly just to share suppers in community. Sometimes I was able to share a bit of music, too.  And over time, like Nouwen and hundreds of others before me, I realized I had found the home I was aching for. Jean Vanier's words resonated with my own discoveries:

So many in our world are seduced by technology, power and a craving for security. So often we have forgotten the essential: love, a heart-to-heart relationship, kindness, goodness and an openness to those in need and in pain. We tend to deny our own shadow side and weakness. We do not cry out for help, for healing and for God. We often think we can do it alone. (Jean Vanier)

These days I rejoice (mostly) that I cannot do it alone. That is why I am writing these reflections. Like brother Henri before me, I have tasted a little of Christ's peace born of the way of the Cross. I am learning to trust it. So often in the past I have confessed that in God there is no sacred and secular - God is one -  and now I am experiencing that this is true even in my own heart as well as my head. 

We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, "Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else's business." But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life. Jesus says, "No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house" (Matthew 5:14-15). The most inner light is a light for the world. Let's not have "double lives"; let us allow what we live in private to be known in public. (Henri Nouwen)

Monday, February 26, 2018

moving into the second week of lent...

About 17 years ago, in the midst of a meltdown/burn-out/dark night of the soul, I began a journey into a spirituality of tenderness. I didn't use those words at the time. Nor did I understand this descent to be an invitation of grace. It felt like Hell. But over time - with prayer, patience, perseverance and professional counseling - I began to embrace my broken self. As Jung often counseled, the wisdom of Matthew 25 had to be cherished internally as well as externally: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."  This led me to study Ernst Kurtz's A Spirituality of Imperfection, Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel, Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner, the later books of Henri Nouwen as well as the poetry of Rumi and Robert Bly. The wisdom of Richard Rohr re: male initiation and both Falling Upward and Breathing Underwater became trusted allies. Like Dante wrote in the opening Canto of The Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,

So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way

Like many over-educated, bourgeois white men who collide into their shadows,  I discovered that I was "too smart for my own good." That is, I believed I could think my way into salvation. My friends in AA smiled knowingly saying, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." My spiritual director encouraged me to listen to my dreams - and learn how to interpret them. "The soul knows what it wants," he told me repeatedly, "and it will get it whether you want to participate or not." Although I never said this out loud to them, I thought I was the exception. I could think my way through the pain. I could out stubborn the confusion. I could master my self-destructive desires. 

But I was wrong. And I had to become so sick and tired of being sick and tired to try a new way:  falling upward. Embracing my brokenness. Honoring the wisdom of my wounds. In time I began to comprehend this change - the essence of both the Serenity Prayer and that attributed to St. Francis - as a spirituality of tenderness: relinquishing control and trusting a love greater than myself. I still hungered for words to understand this new way of being - I didn't quit my pursuit of knowledge - but now there was a better balance between head and heart. Trust was growing as my core rather than ideas, words and theological constructs. Like St. Paul wrote: "Now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face... Three things abide: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love."  Three writers began to help me grow in trust: Diana Butler Bass, Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier. As the second week of Lent unfolds, I return to these words Henri Nouwen wrote during his year-long retreat at L'Arche in Trosly:

I feel a burning desire to preach the Gospel, but I know in my heart that now is the time to pray, to read, to meditate, to be quiet and to wait until God clearly calls me... It makes no sense to preach the Gospel when I have allowed no time for my own conversion. This is clearly a time for hiddenness and withdrawal from giving retreats, courses, seminars and workshops. It is a time for being alone with God. I feel a tension within me. I have only a limited number of years left for active ministry. Why not use them well? Yet one word spoken with a pure heart is worth thousands spoken in a state of spiritual turmoil. Time given to inner renewal is never wasted. God is not in a hurry. (Nouwen, p. 20)

Nouwen had just left his appointment to Harvard Divinity School. He was down-hearted, uncertain about his calling and filled with questions about how to follow Jesus authentically. Nearly ten years earlier, Jean Vanier had sent Nouwen his "greetings." Nothing more but nothing less; a simple invitation to get to know one another. Sometime later both men participated in a silent prayer retreat together. But Nouwen then returned to his frantic quest for pastoral clarity: he spent a few years in Latin America trying to fit in as a liberation theology priest only to leave disappointed. When an offer came from the elite of Harvard Divinity School, he convinced himself that being a shepherd to society's leaders was what God wanted of him. But this soon went South, too. He was disdained by Harvard's self-important thinkers as too religious. He felt marginalized in Cambridge's sea of relativity because of his love for Jesus. And he was both over-worked and lonely. In this despair, Nouwen began to realize that he had been flailing about furiously without ever settling into the "rest" Jesus promised to those who "abide" in him. So he took Vanier up on an offer to spend a year at L'Arche - and it changed his life. 

Two insights are worth noting: 1) it was the collapse of Nouwen's professional career that saved his life; and, 2) it was the tenderness and grace of L'Arche that revived his soul.  Jean Vanier put it like this:

So many in our world are seduced by technology, power and a craving for security. So often we have forgotten the essential: love, a heart-to-heart relationship, kindness, goodness and an openness to those in need and in pain. We tend to deny our own shadow side and weakness. We do not cry out for help, for healing and for God. We often think we can do it alone. (Letter from Jean Vanier to My Sisters and Brothers at L'Arche,
1996) When Nouwen hit bottom - and let himself spend an extended season at L'Arche for rest and renewal - he was reborn. His own writing in The Road to Daybreak puts it like this:

Your pain is deep, and it won't just go away....Your call is to bring that pain home. As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others. Yes, you have to incorporate your pain into your self and let it bear fruit in your heart and the hearts of others. This is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth.

Like most of us, Nouwen didn't get it all together at once. He relapsed into anxiety. He experienced a nervous break down too when he let out the love in his heart only to experience rejection. In time, however, these wounds led him to greater trust and deeper grace. Such is the journey of Lent: moving towards the Cross with Jesus in this season is not only about remembering the sacrifice of Christ. It is about moving closer to our own brokenness and trusting that God's love is greater than our pain. (I learned this song last week at L'Arche Ottawa for Eucharist and it speaks to this journey of Lent.)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

a small and often hidden gift to the world...

The deeper I go into my connection with L'Arche Ottawa the better it feels. Earlier this week, I spent the morning with L'Arche members, assistants and some students from both Carleton College in Ottawa and St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia. This was their "introduction" to L'Arche before spending the day in one of the community homes. Three truths bubbled up to the top of my heart during the four hours we spent together:

+ First, there is precious little that is inflated about L'Arche: their call to mission is simple, their charism of community is humble and both the words and activities they share are carefully ordinary. L'Arche is a faith-based collection of God's people from all over the world - young, old and in-between - invited by the Spirit to "live together." Period. They are not out to change the world in ways that are obvious, although the love they nourish incrementally brings healing and hope to individuals and families. In this, they are like the wings of a butterfly that flutter gently yet change  all of creation. Neither are they working to take on traditional structures of power. Rather, like Jesus in his everyday living, they feed one another at a common table. They work and play. They listen carefully to one another's joys and sorrows. Individuals are NOT taken for granted: they are bathed in compassion. They make mistakes and ask for forgiveness. They laugh and cry, eat and work, come and go, get angry and move towards reconciliation. Sometimes they find partners or remain solitary as the Spirit moves them. And regularly they grieve, die, honor one another with reverence and then move on to continue the festival of living together. In my experience, L'Arche is always tender but almost never sentimental. 

+ Second, L'Arche pays attention to the heart: Jean Vanier, the founder of the community, has regularly written that intellectual advancement without a maturing heart leaves a person unbalanced and unhealthy. This is one of the counter-cultural gifts L'Arche shares with the world. They give maximum attention to the core of each individual. In ways that are stunning but simple, this community carefully strives to meet each person where ever they are on the journey of life: not as they could, might or should be, nor with any expectation of what one might "do" for another. Rather, like the old hymn puts it, they gather, "just as I am without one plea..."  It is a spirituality of being rather than doing. Listening with the heart instead of judging. Embracing the moment as precious so that its holiness is honored before moving on to another tasks. In the world as I have known it - even in the church - too many treat others as a means to an end. We become cogs in a machine, robots without faces or souls. L'Arche models an alternative in the way of the heart. This has long been deep calling to deep within me. I rejoice every time I join this small and quiet collection of God's servants.

+ Third, L'Arche has come to recognize that our brokenness is often the font of our deepest healing, too. In the pop psychology of contemporary culture, we tend to talk about honoring paradox in our lives without honestly paying attention. We're too busy. Too addicted to productivity. And too afraid of our own shadows - particularly our inner shadows that expose our wounds to everyone but ourselves. At L'Arche, however, each participant is invited to both notice their fears, angers and wounds, and, attend to them. They are gifts evoked within us so that we might live with greater joy and love. Jesus told his friends in St. John's gospel, "I have come so that your joy may be full." But the joy of God's grace is costly. Like the Cross of Jesus, accepting our fears, shames and failures - owning and honoring them as upside-down treasures - hurts. 

To truly enter the paradox of this brokenness is humbling. It asks us to become saturated in the full truth of who we have become, for it is only this truth that can set us free. Like the spiritual masters of AA learned, when we can accept our wounds, we can practice turning them over to God in trust. This is the wisdom of our wounds, but these gifts are agonizing to embrace - especially for those of us who have been in control of our existence for so long. Everyday, then, becomes a chance try practice and try again. Like Mary Chapin-Carpenter sang: "Sometimes you' re the windshield, sometimes you're the bug." 

Last night, about 45 of us gathered in the small chapel at La Caravane to celebrate Eucharist. We sang and sat is silence. We talked together in English and French about the joys and sorrows of "living together" in the love of Jesus. And then we took, blessed, broke and shared the body and blood of the Lord in community. I am so very, very grateful.

photo credits: Henrietta Kelemen

Monday, February 19, 2018

a little bit of wilderness time...

Last week I learned again (or maybe it was for the first time) that the Hebrew title for the fourth book of Torah, what I know as Numbers, is בְּמִדְבַּר‬ or Bəmiḏbar: in the wilderness. The word wilderness speaks to me at a deep level not only because in Christianity it is now Lent, the liturgical season grounded in Christ's season of fasting and prayer in the desert; but, because wilderness is what the early days of retirement feels like. Being alone in the world without obligations, guideposts or expectations. Discerning new ways of walking within the world beyond the confines of habit. 

For most of my adult life I have sensed Lent to be a time of wandering into reality without a clear sense of destination. Real desert time, of course, is harsh. The land is barren. The food is limited. And the extremes of hot and cold can be life threatening. A spirituality of the desert is a kinder and gentler wilderness. Still it invites us to strip away our certainties, spend time in the silence and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. It is also, I was reminded by a friend, the time when the Tempter takes on Jesus. "Follow and serve me," Satan coos, "and all of this shall be yours." Without clear lines of authority - beyond the contours of an established community - our shadows take on greater significance that can easily feed our inclination towards evil.The wilderness is, therefore, always a place of freedom alongside illusion. 

Clearly the early desert fathers and mothers recognized this tension: Fr. Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, regularly wrestled with demons in his quest to live as a man of peace. A story of Abba Poemen puts it like this: 

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said. The old man said to him, ‘Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’

This is a little of what I have discerned entering Lent without a traditional spiritual home. As much as I cherish wandering, I need grounding, too. Henri Nouwen was clear in his Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

From the heart arise unknowable impulses as well as conscious feelings, moods, and wishes. The heart, too, has its reasons and is the center of perception and understanding. Finally, the heart is the seat of the will: it makes plans and comes to good decisions. Thus the heart is the central and unifying organ of our personal life. Our heart determines our personality, and is therefore not only the place where God dwells but also the place to which Satan directs his fiercest attacks. It is this heart that is the place of prayer. The prayer of the heart is a prayer that directs itself to God from the center of the person and thus affects the whole of our humanness.

It will be good for my soul to reconnect tomorrow with L'Arche. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

horizontal spirituality...

Spiritual direction comes into my life these days in the most unplanned manner. Yesterday, visiting with a friend of wise heart and deep sensitivity, we were talking about our respective journeys toward the holy. As I was rambling on, she paused and smiled, saying, "Listen..." The house sound system was playing the Stones singing, "you can't always get what you want... but if you try sometime you just mind find: you get what you need!"

With pathos and verve, she introduced me to the practice of discerning our "soul curriculum." Isn't that perfect? A sacred path towards deeper integrity and tenderness shaped by the ordinary experiences of everyday life. It is spirituality beyond dogma, a path into wholeness without doctrine. My mind immediately went to Dorothee Soelle's book, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. And Richard Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation as well as the prayers of the late Ed Hays, Pray All Ways: A Book for Daily Worship Using All Your Senses. But I think the practice of soul curriculum cuts deeper. It certainly sounds earthier to my ears. And as I start to let go of being "on" - the contemplative intellectual pastor whose job is to be present for others - this new/old way of befriending creativity, compassion and the counter-cultural calling of the holy in the midst of my humanity resonates deeply.  

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

One of the maturing commitments that continues to take root in my heart is what I am starting to speak of as a horizontal spirituality. In previous posts I noted the way Taize worship in Montreal awakened my heart to the "geography" of worship: with everyone who could be seated upon the floor ( and there were provisions for those who could not), there was no hierarchy in worship. There were song leaders who gave shape and form to our shared music. But there was also abundant silence. Neither sound nor stillness dominated; it was always both/and together. I left worship that night feeling stiff but grounded in a new experience of the holy. 

Author Diana Butler Bass has written about horizontal spirituality like this:

After 9/11, I began to notice that at times of great social crisis people were not necessarily asking, “Why did God allow this to happen to us?” Instead they would ask, “Where is God?” And the fascinating thing is, people would almost invariably say the same thing — that God was present with the suffering. And that is so different, historically, than the way in which Americans talked about God over the last few generations. We had always asked questions of the intentions of god, not the location of god.

But Western culture has organized its religious, political, economic life in what I call a set of vertical relations, where the richest and most powerful people are on top and the poorest and people without any power are on the bottom. There’s an echoing of the idea of a god in heaven with the idea of the richest, the holiest, the most powerful people being at the top, closest to god. That whole vertical structure is changing. It’s a dramatic time, because we all know that that can’t be sustained any longer. There’s a flattening of culture and of economic systems. Our institutions are caught in the middle of that same fight. It’s happening within every denomination.

Small wonder that for almost three years this encounter has informed my journey. It helped me discern why I was being called out of pastoral ministry. It gave me a clue about what God may have in store for me next. And it clearly guided me to my emerging connection with L'Arche Ottawa. Horizontal spirituality - along with tenderness, table fellowship and some more wandering in the wilderness - is part of my soul's curriculum. So, tomorrow we leave for a few more days at L'Arche Ottawa. Deep continues to call to deep within - and I am trying to listen.

Friday, February 16, 2018

the intimacy of the table...

One of the experiences that opened my heart to L'Arche Ottawa was their gentle and unforced hospitality. It is quiet, authentic and grounded in everyday life. And one of the basic expressions of this generous spirit takes place each day around the table. Whether it is eating a simple supper in one of the homes, a community night with refreshments, Eucharist, or the monthly intra-house suppers, I have experienced the heart of L'Arche Ottawa around the table. Henri Nouwen once offered this insight that resonates with me:

The table is one of the most intimate places in our lives. It is there that we give ourselves to one another. When we say, "Take some more, let me serve you another plate, let me pour you another glass, don't be shy, enjoy it," we say a lot more than our words express. We invite our friends to become part of our lives. We want them to be nurtured by the same food and drink that nurture us. We desire communion. That is why a refusal to eat and drink what a host offers is so offensive. It feels like a rejection of an invitation to intimacy. Strange as it may sound, the table is the place where we want to become food for one another. Every breakfast, lunch, or dinner can become a time of growing communion with one another.

That is one of the reasons I keep trekking back to L'Arche Ottawa: my soul is nurtured every time we break bread together. This connection has been ripening for a few years; and now that I have moved into retirement from ministry, I find my heart saying, "This is your community now." I pray for them daily. I look forward to the regular email messages from Jean Vanier. And I am starting to construct my new life with them at the core. Today's message from Vanier is illustrative:

It would be dangerous to deepen a spirituality that did not have a good anthropological basis. We have a treasure in L'Arche, people with intellectual disability reveal important elements of our human nature that are often hidden in people who have developed their intellectual and manual capacities. We have to reflect on these elements that show what it means to grow and develop as a human being, and what we need in order to live and deepen our humanity.

It makes me think of St. Paul's insights to the church in Corinth. The apostle was clear. Letting his friends know that often the key to living by trust in God's grace comes from owning our deepest wounds. Most of the time, we cultivate lives that hide this brokenness from others and ourselves rather than honor it. God's love keeps returning to us - inviting us deeper - no matter how often we run away. But we remain afraid. Ashamed. Divided against ourselves. Fr. Rohr suggests that most cultures and traditions encourage this deception for the first half of life: in order to be successful, we must be strong and productive. All the while we know that our wounds are crying out for attention and wearing us out. This duplicity often becomes exhausting in the second half of life. "Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give ye rest," Jesus promises in Matthew 11. And that's precisely what God's blessings and wisdom feel like when we start to let go of our lies, shame and illusions. No wonder St. Paul wrote: 

we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Later this weekend we will head north to Ottawa once again. I will sup with my friends, join them for study and prayer, celebrate Eucharist and participate in Taize prayer. We'll be looking for different housing options on this trip, too: L'Arche, family and music with Hal are becoming the heart of a new, earthy and rewarding sense of call.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Today I took a car drive through gentle rolling hills, brown dairy pastures and tall trees of pine to play music with my "brother from another mother." Not only do I cherish playing his music, but I love this guy. Sixty minutes each way in the Subaru gave me time to sort out some of my thoughts. One hundred and ninety minutes of making music gave me food to fill my soul for another week. I am so grateful. These are trying times: fearful, perplexing and discouraging. Simultaneously they are grace-filled and compassionate, too.

Another friend recently quoted Dickens to me noting: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. When our music stopped today and I was loading up my various basses for home, my friend said, "You can almost smell the mud. Spring is just around the corner." Yes, totally true - and so much more as well. Yesterday, my lover gave to me a small book of poetry for Valentine's Day. In one poem, "Doubt," Jennifer Wallace gets it right when she writes:

I look at it this way: either you exist or you don't. I don't think -
in your case - that there's an in-between, a "sort of" God. And the
point seems to be not to think about it or to reason about it. But
here's the thing: If I am to believe in what others say (these others
being agents of yours), then I was made by you in your image. And
since I am predisposed by nature to questions everything, it would
see you wanted it this way. That you are also "this way." That you
sewed into me a weak thread that you hoped would unravel. . .
setting me off-course with respect to you. It's an odd strategy. But
the same one who invented oxygen invented doubt and I guress
that sort of variety keeps things moving, which you are a fan of.
No doubt about that.

The more I thought about it, I realized that the music we played today spoke of a world where threads unravel, personally and socially, and where beauty awakens the possibilities of healing, too. It is also where tender mercies are all we truly have to share. There were sweetly crafted original compositions mixed with a few covers. Here's one new to me. It gives shape and form to what I feel in my heart. I am so grateful.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

ash wednesday...

Ash Wednesday 2018:  a season for letting go and emptying out in order to be open and filled by new and unexpected blessings whenever they ripen. I have literally been throwing away hundreds of pounds of old papers over the past two weeks - recycling when possible - and shredding when necessary. This is simultaneously sobering and liberating. I have coveted these documents for decades only to discover that now I have no need to ever gaze upon them again. There are a few jewels to savor, like my maiden voyage into teaching the classical spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting for Lent; but mostly my labor looks more like compost to me than anything else. 

This was not, however, time spent in vain or folly.  Rather it was rehearsal for letting go - practice,if you will - the repetition of words, prayers and psalms shared over and again until I could confess honestly that they were of the Lord's making, not my own. As the liturgy for today proclaims: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." There has been a liberating sense of freedom in all of this sorting that comes as a surprise to me. The old pictures have been the most fun - and I have saved most of them. But who cares about past annual meeting reports or sermons long past their expiration dates? Not I, and if not me, certainly no one else. 

Two long buried treasures were reclaimed: my odd collection of crosses, and, my battered copy of Frederick Buechner's daily devotional, Listening to Your Life. So I added the crosses to a wall in my study and let these words from St. Fred sink in:

Because the word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word - a word spelled out to us not alphabetically in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and the movies we see - the chances are we will never get it just right. We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that however faintly we may hear (God), God is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, God's word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling. In that sense autobiography becomes a way of praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a call to prayer.

After midday Mass, I will return to my cluttered study and continue adding books that matter to me to the shelves. I will clean out the CD closet, too and discard songs that have now grown stale.  In addition to discarding excess baggage this season, I will be joining an on-line reflection re: Henri Nouwen's book, The Road to Daybreak. With a tender irony that is unmistakable to me, this text is about Nouwen's journey into L'Arche.  The introduction to this study includes these words: "Before us is the story of how God, responding to Henri’s prayer, led him to a very specific place and vocation. Henri, despite many fears and questions, responded in obedience. And the journey bore much fruit." Next week I will be at L'Arche Ottawa to join in conversations and sharing with my new friends. And at midweek, to celebrate Eucharist with them.

Lent has come in all of its humbling earthiness - and I rejoice.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

the feasting must end for the fast to begin...

My life has been guided, shaped and formed by the ebb and flow of the liturgical seasons of the Christian Church. And now that I am no longer an active member of a congregation, that loss resonates profoundly within my soul. This is the first time in over 40 years that I have not had a church home during Lent. Don't get me wrong: I am not lamenting retirement. Not at all. But I am feeling a unique emptiness without sharing the rhythm of the sacraments in community.

Sharing the seasons of feasting and fasting, singing and silence, action and contemplation is a holy gift. I don't need to be in leadership, clearly that era of my life is over; but I do need to be in relationship with other people of faith. So after a morning meeting I will slip into a Roman Catholic Mass. I will listen to the lessons. I will come forward for the imposition of ashes. And I will open my hands and heart for the Eucharist. Ash Wednesday is not something I can do alone. T.S. Eliot wrote:

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Lent - or Easter - or Advent, Christmas or Pentecost is not all about me. It is about God's movement among God's people in history. Eliot's poem concludes:

The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labor, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

Today we feasted on pancakes slathered in butter and maple syrup. Tomorrow the fast resumes. I am ready.

Monday, February 12, 2018

one of the joys of unpacking as a lenten discipline...

Yesterday, after sleeping well beyond the normal start of Sunday worship, Di and I slowly greeted the day. After tea/coffee and the Sunday paper, we spent much of the day doing our respective "things" - she working on photography and me writing. Later we chopped ice from the drive way and then I unpacked 10 boxes of old files dating back to the start of ministry in Saginaw, MI. Among the treasures unearthed in this sorting was the first Lenten series I ever led at Trinity United Church of Christ in 1986. It was typed on my old IBM Selectric with additional hand-written notes.

Two facts struck me - and compelled me to keep this bad boy rather than tossing it like so many of my other old files. First it was the beginning of many classes I led into what is now known as the classic spiritual disciplines. This five week conversation emphasized centering prayer meditation, fasting, confession, personal prayers of petition and learning to wait on the Lord in trust. It will be fascinating to reread this knowing that it has been a life-long commitment.

Second, I am still a beginner when it comes to authentic prayer. That is a humbling fact, but true. I have seasons of intensity and laziness, intimacy with the holy and boredom, months of clarity mixed with years of uncertainty. This is one of the reasons I have loved Henri Nouwen: sometimes he was rock solid and other times he was adrift and uncertain. Nevertheless, he was certain that God was gracious and loving even when he felt wounded or bereft. He knew at some fundamental level that God was greater than his feelings. I, too have come to know this - trust it and count on it - given my fickle and undisciplined heart. 

The closing words to my first Lenten invitation read: "As we prepare to undertake this journey into the spirit, please know that we journey as compatriot's and fellow pilgrims. The Lord is calling to us, we are asked to listen and then answer with our hearts and minds." I ended with this prayer from brother Henri.

O Lord, sea of love and goodness, let me not fear too much the storms and winds of my daily life, and let me know that there is ebb and flow, but that the sea remains the sea. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

eucharistic living part three..

As people of Christian faith inch closer to Ash Wednesday, I am keenly aware of my new reality: I do not yet have a faith community in which to share this (and other) holy days. Given my recently retired status - a gift I cherish - I must remain apart from my former congregation for a full year. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. What complicates matters is that over the past 7 years the Reformed churches in our town have started celebrating key holy days together. It is a beautiful shift: as the Psalmist sings, "how good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell in unity." But it means I must be absent. So, I will likely attend noon Mass at one of the Roman Catholic congregations in order to be with God's people on Ash Wednesday. Maybe one day we can see the face of Christ in one another, but that is not going to happen on my watch.

A useful and insightful article came across my desk yesterday: "I bring my kids to Ash Wednesday"@ There are a number of important points made but the two that speak loudest to me have to do with sacramental living. Derek Olsen writes:

With the topics we don’t feel comfortable talking to our kids about—let’s just call out death and sex as two of the biggies—we can cling to the illusion that if we don’t bring them up, our kids will never know about them. But the combination of pop culture and conversation with friends make this a losing strategy in the long term. If you don’t do the educating, the entertainment industry will. My preference has always been to have brief periodic age-appropriate conversations about big topics like these. Clear and honest conversation on difficult topics is way better than glossing over them in silence and praying for ignorance.

Thus, Ash Wednesday services and the resulting questions provide an opportunity for clear, honest communication with your kids to clear up misunderstandings about life and death—or sin—they may have absorbed from movies, TV, or friends. However, another major piece of parental uncomfortability with Ash Wednesday is all about sheltering but isn’t focused on the kids. It’s about us. We’re trying to shelter ourselves.

If we don't help our children learn to see and live sacramentally, the culture will
fill their heads with magic, illusion and lies. Further, avoiding the hard truths of sacramental living is really not for our little ones; it is to keep us from wrestling with complicated mysteries. It is a naive way of practicing magical thinking rather than eucharistic formation.  As I wrote yesterday, the Eucharist teaches us to live as those who have been chosen, blessed, broken and shared by God to be as Christ to the world. At Ash Wednesday Eucharist, what can be more honest and sobering than imposing ashes on the forehead of a baby just six months old? Or a 95 year old woman kneeling in humility to the words, "Remember, from ashes you came and to ashes you will return. Embrace the grace of the Lord and sin no more? 
Henri Nouwen links this together well in With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life:

The beauty of the Eucharist is precisely that it is the place where a vulnerable God invites vulnerable people to come together in a peaceful meal. When we break bread and give it to each other, fear vanishes and God becomes very close. The Eucharist is the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable. That is the truth of Jesus. So human, yet so divine; so familiar, yet so mysterious; so close, yet so revealing! But that is the story of Jesus... It is the story of God who wants to come close to us, so close that we can see him with our own eyes, hear him with our own ears, touch him with our own hands; so close that there is nothing between us and him, nothing that separates, nothing that divides, nothing that creates distance. Jesus is God-for-us, God-with-us, God-within-us. Jesus is God giving himself completely, pouring himself out for us without reserve. Jesus doesn't hold back or cling to his own possessions. He gives all there is to give. 'Eat, drink, this is my body, this is my blood... this is me for you!"

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday celebrates our vulnerability - the very tenderness of God in Jesus Christ - without illusion or romance. Olsen continues:

The Gospel calls us to open up our lives, to live honestly in light of what the world is and who God is. The truth of the Gospel means wrestling with truths that we don’t like. There’s a natural inclination to hide them from our kids–and from ourselves. But, through the practices of the Liturgical Year like Ash Wednesday, the church calls us to an integrity about ourselves, about the world around us, and about God. Only if we’re willing to tell the whole truth about sin and death are we able to tell the whole truth about resurrection. 

Lord, may it be so among us.

1)Jennifer Balaska,

Friday, February 9, 2018

living into the eucharist continued...

As my reflection on living a Eucharistic life ripened - inviting Jesus to come into my home as Jean Vanier puts it - two additional insights are worth considering. I came across both in the writings of the late Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, who found his deepest calling within L'Arche Toronto. They strike me as gentle correctives to the Reformed tradition's tendency to intellectualize the presence of Jesus in our lives.

First, Nouwen reclaims the charism of sacramental theology for all people of faith. That is, he emphasizes that the Word becomes Flesh. That the holy embraces the human. That there is no real distinction between the sacred and the secular because all of creation is saturated with God. As the United Church of Canada puts it:  in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone. Specifically, Nouwen writes:

Sacraments are very specific events in which God touches us through creation and transforms us into living Christs. The two main sacraments are baptism and the Eucharist. In baptism water is the way to transformation. In the Eucharist it is bread and wine. The most ordinary things in life - water, bread, and wine - become the sacred way by which God comes to us. These sacraments are actual events. Water, bread, and wine are not simple reminders of God's love; they bring God to us. In baptism we are set free from the slavery of sin and dressed with Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ himself becomes our food and drink.

Since the 1970s, North American Christians have been searching for ways to integrate the call of Christ's Spirit into our ordinary lives. We know that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are crucial and foundational for embodied faith. We also know that they are profoundly counter cultural. Without a sacramental world-view, however, the challenges of Jesus can remain abstract. Or compartmentalized. Small wonder that thousands have sought correction in Roman Catholic monasteries and retreat houses. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:

Jesus says that the people who live the happiness of the Beatitudes will be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). For ancient people, salt was an important preservative, seasoning, and symbol of healing. What does Jesus mean by such an image? First, he’s not saying that those who live this way are going to heaven. He is saying that they will be gift for the earth. We think of Jesus’ teaching as prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them). Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life.

Rohr's point is that Jesus gives us a gift - in this case salt - asking us to hold and embody it with our lives. "As light or leaven it will do all the work and God’s purposes will be achieved. (We must simply hold it in our flesh, heart and mind.) What a relaxed and patient trust Jesus has in God! Jesus is quite content, it seems, with such a humble position. He enters the imperial city from a place of powerlessness. His Sermon on the Mount has to do with an alternative understanding and strategy of power. Jesus is leading us to participate in God’s power which to us feels like powerlessness." (Rohr)

To my understanding, this is one of the blessings of sacramental theology: it assures us that even in our brokenness - even in our humble being - God has placed a gift. It isn't up to us to transform the world. That is God's job. Our calling is to trust that a gift has been given to us. To believe that God is at work bringing healing and life to the world even when we cannot see the evidence. Learning centering prayer, sitting in adoration of Christ's body, renewing an ordered life through the Benedictine liturgy of the hours is one of the ways that sacramental living has returned to the Reformed tradition.

The second sacramental insight of Nouwen is that there are four inter-related practices believers can utilize to nourish faithful trust. Not surprisingly, these practices not only shape the life of Jesus but form the heart of the Eucharist. "Christ was called, blessed, broken and given. By responding to God as he did, he made these four words, these four events, treasures for us, and, if we respond to them as he did, they need no longer be hidden treasures.” (Nouwen)  One of the formation blessings of the Eucharist, beyond the mystical presence of Jesus in the bread, is the opportunity to practice responding to God as Jesus did himself.

Jesus was chosen - you are my beloved the Spirit proclaimed at his baptism - he
was claimed by God as are we.  As Jesus lived into his calling - as he practiced and matured in faith - he was blessed: filled with God's assurance and grace. This, too, is the consolation that comes to each of us. Throughout his life, and clearly on the Cross, Jesus was broken, too. Not only did he give away his ego but his very flesh was pierced as part of his commitment to living into God's love.  All of which means Jesus was given to the world: by his love, by his teaching, by his sacrifice. At Eucharist, this is what we rehearse in the liturgy, a Greek word meaning "the work of the people." We choose the bread and wine from the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. We offer prayers of blessing upon them - and one another, too. Then the bread is broken and the wine is poured for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the world. And the ordinary gifts of bread and wine are taken, shared and become for us the very source of God's grace.

Like the Lord's first disciples on the Emmaus Road, our eyes and hearts can be opened at Eucharist, too. Nouwen teaches that Jesus makes the love of God so clear and ordinary that it becomes our food. It nourishes us from the inside out. And is as close to us as the air we breathe.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...