Monday, May 18, 2015

As the Dawn Pierces

Waiting and watching

anticipation ripens

As the dawn pierces the eastern sky

hope pierces my heart

the night can be so long and lonely

few linger to feel it

and taste the dewy darkness;

But when the sun is born anew

and breaks through the horizongate

Those made ready are able

to receive the tardy embrace.

The earth is flooded


drenched in golden joy

this is how days start.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The Gift of Aloneness

"Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find our selves alone or to be left alone is a deep, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously, deeply afraid." (David Whyte, "Alone" in Consolations)

Being alone is a requirement for becoming human. Whether we call it “solitude and silence” or “being alone,” we have a particularly desperate need to quiet ourselves and separate ourselves from other people, activities and all the noise that comes from both. This is especially true in our day when we live and move in a noisy carnival of masks where “we are what we do” and “we are what we have” and “we are what others think of us.”

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with realities outside and above us. When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve. It must therefore die. There is no greater misery than to mistake this fruitless death for the true, fruitful and sacrificial ‘death’ by which we enter into life.

The death by which we enter into life is not an escape from reality but a complete gift of ourselves which involves a total commitment to reality. It begins by renouncing the illusory reality which created things acquire when they are seen only in their relation to our own selfish interests.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 19, emphasis mine).

If we're never willing to be alone with ourselves, to quiet our hearts and minds for extended periods, we shall never learn that in our aloneness we are never alone, for God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Not even our aloneness can separate us from the love of Christ! Very few people are willing to discover this, convinced by fear that if we get alone and quiet we shall discover the worst thing of all – there is nothing to us but emptiness. We must persevere in pressing through our unrest, anxieties and fears; if we do, we will find that in silence we can be safe and solid as we are upheld by God alone.

This is one reason why the desert has held such a place in the history of spirituality. The desert epitomizes the emptiness of being alone and the great gift of what this brings us in our relationship to God.

“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself - that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.” (Thoughts in Solitude, 21)

It is good to occasionally retreat from our familiar geography and re-locate ourselves in a quiet secluded spot for extended periods. We can also create little “mini-retreats” throughout our day as we break apart for 2-5 minutes and seek to be alone with God (e.g., The Daily Office). I tend to simply hijack what I’m already doing (like restroom breaks) and make them into “desert time” where I simply become aware of God with me and in me and seek to surrender afresh. Slowly, gradually, I am finding my life taken up into the life of God as I do so.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Two Ways the Heart is Broken

I have been thinking a lot these days about what suffering does for us in our relationship with God and others. I am aware of times when I anesthetize emotional and physical pain with lust or food (I did it again last night); I am also aware of times when suffering ushers me into the wounds of Christ, like stepping through the narrow wardrobe into the vast world of Narnia.

The difference for me is found in the “bent” of my will; either I am angrily pushing back against what feels like assault, or I am broken to the point of surrender or despair. Usually I’m some place in-between. One thing I have found to be true is that if I linger in despair, shame is always right there, which leads me into further degradations of my soul as I inevitably seek to numb myself. I am learning from Jesus (the Man of sorrows, remember) how to direct my heart toward surrender instead of despair, because I have confidence that he holds me and every aspect of my story, even (especially) those parts even I cannot yet hold.

In the end, when I seek to numb the pain I am diminished. When I follow the suffering into conversation with God and others, I am enlarged.

Parker Palmer says it better than I can when he says,

Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

What can I do to make my tight heart more supple, the way a runner stretches to avoid injury? That’s a question I ask myself every day. With regular exercise, my heart is less likely to break apart into shards that may become shrapnel, and more likely to break open into largeness.

There are many ways to make the heart more supple, but all of them come down to this: Take it in, take it all in!

My heart is stretched every time I’m able to take in life’s little deaths without an anesthetic: a friendship gone sour, a mean-spirited critique of my work, failure at a task that was important to me. I can also exercise my heart by taking in life’s little joys: a small kindness from a stranger, the sound of a distant train reviving childhood memories, the infectious giggle of a two-year-old as I “hide” and then “leap out” from behind cupped hands. Taking all of it in — the good and the bad alike — is a form of exercise that slowly transforms my clenched fist of a heart into an open hand.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Surviving Easter in an Evangelical World

Easter, alongside Christmas, is one of the highest points of symbolic reflection in the Christian year. We appropriately reflect together with other believers on the work accomplished on the cross and empty tomb. We create space and time for celebration and joy! These are all good things from our Father who gives good gifts.

My experiences of Easter in my 26 years of Christian pilgrimage have often been a bit discouraging, unfortunately. Easter celebrations, in my limited experience of the Evangelical world, present a shallow triumphalism that has little continuity with Good Friday or the life that Jesus continues to live as the Risen Lord. Too often the unspeakable suffering of Good Friday and the gut-wrenching silence and shameful failure of Holy Saturday are lost in the rush to celebratory shouts of Easter Sunday. What does this say about us - about what we value? What does this say about the gospel we actually live by?

As one who is often in some kind of physical or emotional pain, honesty permits me to say that this weekend doesn’t bring me much hope. The places where I can take my pain, suffering and mind-numbing confusion are eviscerated in the attempt to present “our best face” for visitors on Easter Sunday morning. What’s up with that, by the way? Why is it, that in order to feel welcome at Easter Sunday, I have to go visit another church? The guilt and pressure to serve and “make space” for visitors is quite overwhelming at times. I feel like I’m part of an effort to make a good impression on a first date. 


Now, I realize that I’m probably over-reacting a bit here; that there are things being “triggered” in me that are provoking an emotional response stronger than what is probably fair. But, does that make it any less real or important? I bring these things up in the hope that Jesus can heal these things in me and in his church. I love the church and long for the day when suffering and glory are not two disparate bookends to a fragmented story, but lovers intertwined in the mystery and intimacy of relational union and communion. This is what it means to know Jesus, folks. Intimacy with Jesus creates capacity to hold suffering and joy easily and naturally.

All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life. (Philippians 3:10-11 GNT)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

What Theology is About

“Theology, I would now say, is about saving lives, and the work of theology, to use Rebecca Chopp’s phrase, is saving work. First, it involves learning to see the ways in which false images of God, ourselves, and the world have bound us and taken away the life God intends for us. Second, it involves learning to know God as God is, as a healing God, and learning to know ourselves, individually and communally, as people who correspond with that God in whose image we are made. Third, it involves imagining a future that is consistent with the God we come to know.” (Roberta C. Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life.)

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Receiving Interruptions as Grace

If we can receive interruptions and setbacks as invitations from our good Father for interactive conversation, we shall quickly undermine one of Satan’s foulest and most common devices. Obviously, this requires a serious “vision overhaul” in which the surrender of the care of our lives is truly and consistently given over into the good, strong hands of the Trinitarian God.

Screwtape outlines a fundamental deception:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters)

Facing Our Fear of Emptiness

Henri Nouwen writes,

We are afraid of emptiness. Spinoza speaks about our "horror vacui," our horrendous fear of vacancy. We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, "But what if ..."

It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God's actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let's pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love. (Bread for the Journey, Feb 28 reading)

Our lives are consumed with preoccupation, desperate attempts to keep ourselves focused on anything but the emptiness that we feel underground. We fear, I think, that if we slow down and listen that the emptiness will overtake us and consume us. Scripture comforts us here, presenting our God as one who hovers over our emptiness, pregnant with promise.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty,darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 NIV)

Silence and solitude are two of God’s appointed means given to his people to bring our emptiness before him in a covenant relationship of trust, surrender and hope. Dallas Willard is a good guide here.

By solitude we mean being out of human contact, being alone, and being so for lengthy periods of time. To get out of human contact is not something that can be done in a short while, for that contact lingers long after it is, in one sense, over.

Silence is a natural part of solitude and is its essential completion. Most noise is human contact. Silence means to escape from sounds, noises, other than the gentle ones of nature. But it also means not talking, and the effects of not talking on our soul are are different from those of simple quietness. (Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, 357)

My most important rule for any discipline is to start small, think baby steps. At all costs, avoid the heroic. Starting small offends our pride, opening the way for God to work. It also starts from where we actually are, with what we’re actually able to do, with God’s help. In this case, if silence and solitude are new to you, start small, maybe 3-5 minutes a day. The point is to start small and do it daily. Turn off your smart phone and make yourself unavailable for a time; surprisingly, the world will keep spinning without you! Once you feel comfortable with that amount of time, build on it until you’re able to do 20-30 minutes a day.

This probably sounds like a profound waste of time, and it is, and that’s the point! Our surrender of time and space erode the roots of spiritualities of control that emphasize what we say and do and bring us back to our proper position of responding to God. Eventually, this posture can fill much more than just this devoted space and time. Our days are filled with many more “empty moments” than we realize. It is possible to learn how to fill these moments with God.

Emptiness need not be feared because it is the womb of our souls where God is at work knitting together new life in Christ.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4 NIV)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Remembering Leanne Payne

I received word today of the passing of Leanne Payne, founder of Pastoral Care Ministries (PCM) and a huge influence in my life and thought. She taught me how to practice the presence of God, especially in broken places needing healing. In addition, she helped lay out a biblical vision of how God can use guided imagery prayer to heal the soul.

Rather than a long post on aspects of her life and ministry, I wanted to share some key quotes that have been meaningful to me as I remember her writings. She made other authors like C.S. Lewis and Clyde Kilby accessible to me in ways I’ve not found elsewhere.

“Saints of all ages have made it their business to be present to God, and out of this has sprung their truest vocation. They become, therefore, the ones who blaze spiritual trials for others. Every generation of Christians must courageously face dark wildernesses, peculiar to the time in which they live. These “perilous woods” through which a path must be hewn are made up of the choking undergrowth and dark flowering of the sins and blindnesses of generations past, and they always stand as formidable roadblocks to the next generation of Christians. The saints who make it their full intention, therefore, to practice the Presence (however they term this) become the courageous pathfinders, whether for the many or the few. And in the doing of this, no matter how much they suffer, they are to be accounted doubly blessed, for they have discovered what they were born to do.” (The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul Through Union with Christ, 34).

“It is all too easy for us moderns to regard the supernatural world (e.g. the Holy Spirit, angels, demons) and activities as somehow less real than the world we behold with our senses. As twentieth-century Christians, we live in a materialistic age, one in which our systems of learning have long based their conclusions on scientific truth alone. The presuppositions of such systems have misled many generations of students, blinding them to the truths of God and the Unseen Real, whether more or spiritual. Because of these intellectual blocks, we moderns have more difficulty with invisible realities and perhaps a much greater need for the discipline of practicing the Presence than did our forefathers in the faith. In the very beginning of the Christian Era, however, St. Paul spoke of the practice by saying: “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18) The practice of the Presence then, is simply the discipline of calling to mind the truth that God is with us. When we consistently do this, the miracle of seeing by faith is given. We begin to see with the eyes of our hearts.” (Ibid., 26).

“If broken lives and souls are to be healed, I must begin with teaching the practice of the presence… To abide in the presence of the Lord is to begin to hear Him. To follow through on that hearing is to find healing, self-acceptance, and growth into psychological and spiritual balance and maturity.” (Listening Prayer, 131).

“The renunciation of self-hatred is a deliberate (volitional) step we take, and we keep our eyes on the Source of our salvation, not on our subjective feelings, which are unreliable and even ‘diseased’ due to the habitual attitudes we’ve formed. As we do this, God honors our transaction and showers His grace upon us. We then do battle with all the diseased and negative thoughts and imaginings, lifting them up to Him as they arise in our hearts and minds.” (Restoring the Christian Soul: Overcoming Barriers to Completion in Christ Through Healing Prayer, 21).