Saturday Musings

Be Still, My Soul

Be still…

Be silent…

Rest in the Presence of Yahweh.

How hard it is to be silent. To turn off the chattering of the Monkey Mind. It does not like being shushed. That mind wants to flit among the branches yelling and screaming, demanding attention.

Be still…

Be silent…

Rest in the Presence of Yahweh.

God is not in the chattering.

God is not in the flitting about.

God is not in the clamor for attention.

Where, then, is God?

God is in the Quiet Breeze that barely ruffles a leaf.

God is in the gentle, flowing brook as it winds thru the meadow.

God is in the Morning Glory as it opens its blue face to greet the Sun.

God is in the Silent Heart as it stands gazing into God’s Love.

Be still…

Be silent…

Rest in the Presence of Yahweh.

 

Spiritual Discipline, or Disciplined Spirit?

I recently read a devotional written by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. I’ve read Willard’s other works on Christian prayer and have found it to be insightful and quite helpful. The excerpt that I read was from a collection of devotional readings produced by Richard Foster entitled, “Devotional Classics.” This particular reading was taken from Willard’s, “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” While I appreciate where he is coming from, I have some reservations. For those Pentecostal type folks out there, I had a ‘check in my spirit.’

I wondered why those feelings were present. It was a simple reading. No big doctrinal discussion. Something to contemplate. Then it hit me. The term ‘disciple’ smacked me upside the head. Why, though? That word is used throughout the New Testament to describe the followers of Jesus. Hey! I’m one of those! Then I realized what triggered me. Willard coupled the word ‘disciple’ with the word ‘obedience.’

Now, many in the Evangelical traditions may ask, “So what? Disciples are obedient to there Master.” Nothing out of the ordinary with that. That’s true. Regardless of the tradition, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, fill in the blank, disciples follow a Master. Christians are followers of their Master, Christ. Or, so the saying goes. The last time I checked Jesus was nowhere to be found. At least not so we can see Him on T.V., or something. And that presents a problem. Who decides what Jesus would say or do in the 21st century?

Back in the early 1970’s I was part of what has become known as the ‘Jesus Movement.’ We were for all intents and purposes a rag-tag bunch of hippies who professed faith in Christ. I believe to this day that God was active during this period. It was exciting! We thought that we had somehow been called by God to reclaim and rebuild the original spirit of the Church that existed in the 1st century. We believed that what had happened in the book of Acts was happening again in our time.

We gathered together to worship and sing and hear brothers teach about the scriptures. Some of us moved into common households so that we could ‘hold all things in common.’ There were a few men who assumed positions of leadership. We believed that they were anointed in the same way that Timothy and Titus and the elders of the early church had been. And, we were taught that we were to be obedient to these men as ‘unto God.’

Now, I want to make it clear that there was no subterfuge involved. We, all of us, were truly trying our best to follow the words of the Bible as faithfully as we could. The only thing was, we were NOT the Church of the first century. We were not wrestling with what it meant to follow a dead Messiah in a pagan culture. We had 2,000 years of developed theology to follow. And, we lived in a culture unlike anything that the first church would have understood. Basically, we were privileged white kids trying to emulate a movement that began as an oppressed minority.

To return to the devotional, we were taught that discipleship has as its root the idea of ‘discipline.’ Physical, spiritual, and emotional discipline. We began to see the Bible as a User’s Manual. It had all of the answers on how to live a vibrant and successful life. That is, if one would follow all of the rules faithfully. And, the elders were there to make sure that we did follow them. In effect, we became disciples of those elders, who we trusted were disciples of Christ.

Alas, experience has taught me something else entirely. The Christian Bible is a collection of writings by many, many people from many, many different time periods. It has inconsistencies and contradictions and holes in it. For instance, there’s nothing in the Bible about water on Mars. The fact that our Sun is actually a star somehow got past the Biblical writers. What to do about global climate change isn’t addressed. Shoot! Global climate change itself missed the writers’ cut. The fact is that the Christian Bible does not, it CANNOT, have all of the answers for people to live vibrant and successful lives. And, it truly was never meant to fill that role.

So what? What does any of this have to do with my devotional? Willard made the statement that obedience, by  itself, was sufficient for a person to live the so-called ‘abundant life’ promised in the Gospel of John. In a way, that may be accurate. But, because of the manner in which it is taught to so many poor, unsuspecting people, it is not. In so many fundagelical churches people are taught that they must grit their teeth and press forward in order to reap the benefits of discipleship. They even have a saying, “Fake it til you make it.” Pretty cool, huh? No! It’s not. This is another link in a long chain that binds people. They try. They fail. So, they try again. They fail…again. All the time feeling inept, unloved, strange, or an anomaly. After all, didn’t their spiritual elders tell them that this would work? But, it didn’t. They think, ‘It must be my fault, my lack…my sin.’ So, the link is forged. From my perspective the link is forged in the fires of Hell.

The Psalmist wrote, “Be still and know that I am God.” I think that is pretty good advice. Truthfully, until we can rest and be still we cannot be transformed. No amount of sweat and grit will suffice. We can batter and bruise our bodies. Yet, we will still be lacking. In more than one place the writers of Scripture mention a ‘still small voice,’ or that God isn’t in the tempest and flame, but in the gentle breeze.

As I have walked, (maybe, crawled is a better word), along this spiritual path, I’ve found that the more I work and strive, the less I progress. It has only been in the last 6-10 years that I have learned that the Spirit of God doesn’t need our outward help. The Spirit needs us to shut up and listen. In the quietude of silent contemplation the Spirit, Ruach Elohim, chips and sands and refinishes. It is ALL grace and ALL God!

Perhaps, the most important insight for me is that I no longer have the shame and guilt that comes from FAILING to keep all of the rules. There truly is ‘no condemnation’ in following this path.

Please, if you’ve been troubled or weighed down by trying to follow all of those damnable rules; trying to force obedience; faking it hoping that you’ll make it; Take heart! Sit back! Relax! And, turn your heart toward the true lover of your soul. You’ll not be disappointed.

Just A Thought From Thomas Merton

Anyone who knows me knows that Thomas Merton is a major influence on how I understand prayer and contemplation. So, I offer a small bit of his to you all. This is where I am.

When The Road Ahead Is In Darkness – Thomas Merton

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone.

 

My Journey with Loyola

lectioAs promised, I want to take a few moments to share a bit about my journey with Ignatius Loyola. First, however, I think that it’s important to explain a little about my expectations. Loyola first introduced the Spiritual Exercises to aid people in discerning God’s purposes for their lives. Particularly, those who were considering entering religious service…priests and other Religious. Over the years they have also been employed by people who simply desire to deepen their relationship with God. I have a little of both stirring within me. Not so much considering religious service, but certainly career options. As I wrote in my previous post, my current job is leeching the life out of me. So, I have an expectation that somewhere in this process I will either find peace where I’m at, or will discover another option. Secondly, I desire with all of my heart to know my God deeper and more profoundly. Attending seminary helped me to deconstruct much of the religious crap that I had been floundering in. My life reeked of it. Once most of that was shoveled out and disposed of, I found that I had to rebuild my belief, my faith, in God. Through prayer, reflection, relationships and spiritual disciplines new revelations and understandings have begun to fill that void. As I continue to grow as a spiritual person, Loyola’s Exercises seem to be a next logical step. Most importantly, I believe that God has enabled this desire to grow. I have confidence that I am not on this journey alone. The Spirit of God has joined with me as companion and guide.

This first week is a week of preparation. It is simply labeled, “A week of prayer.” My Spiritual Director explained that many people who begin the Exercises need to learn how to pray. They may not have specific time allotted for this practice. Many may not have been introduced to the particular way of prayer that the Exercises employ. So, the purpose of this week is to familiarize people with the process of prayer.

The primary practice of prayer this week is a variation on Lectio Divina, or literally, Divine Reading. The Exercises approach this as “Praying with the Scriptures.” The purpose, as one writer explains, “it, [Lectio], is undertaken not with the intention of gaining information but of using the texts as an aide to contact the living God.” Theological understanding and exegetical practice are not the focus of this kind of reading. Allowing oneself to be drawn into the text, to participate in the story, is what is important. In this way one can experience the drama, the sights and smells, and, hopefully, the presence of God.

Where will this path lead? I’m not sure. I am trying not to allow preconceptions to cloud the way or prejudice me toward one outcome or another. Openness to the gentle breeze of God’s breath is my goal.

Walking the path of Ignatius Loyola

ignacio1Today I am embarking on a new spiritual journey. My Spiritual Director is going to lead me through what are known as the Ignatian Exercises. For the next 36 weeks, or so, we will travel a path first explored by the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. Born into the feudal culture of northern Spain, Loyola dreamed of being a part of the grandeur that courtly love and knighthood could provide. He very nearly realized his dream when he was severely wounded in a battle against the French. During the time in which he recuperated from his wounds he read books on the lives of Jesus and the saints. He discerned that people described in these lives exhibited many of the same heroic and chivalrous characteristics that he admired. At the same time, however, he continued to dream about life at court. As he continued to reflect on and examine his thoughts and feelings he noticed that as he contemplated the lives of Jesus and the saints, he felt inner peace and satisfaction. When he thought about life at court, feelings of dissatisfaction predominated. This awareness inaugurated his life quest that culminated in the development and propagation of the Spiritual Exercises. Loyola realized that through prayer, study and a process called examen, perhaps the cornerstone of the Exercises, one could “detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.”

Ok, so why am I even considering this process? After all, I’m old and feeble. My life has been lived according to the standards and expectations of our culture. I’ve worked hard at a vocation to provide for my family. All of the requisite activities of parenthood and marriage have been accomplished. Yet, like Loyola, I continue to strive with feelings of dissatisfaction and restlessness. I have labored for 40 years in an industry that creates in me anxiety and a great sense of helpless entrapment that eats away at my soul. Even family life does not completely fill the void in my heart that our culture, particularly the evangelical culture that I was a part of, claims that it should. There are those who would say that all I need to do is surrender to God’s will and all will be well with the world. But, that begs the question…what is God’s will? And, I’m not really that interested with all things being well with the world. Occasional happiness and satisfaction would be quite alright. I’m not hoping to experience any profound theological insights. Nor, am I envisioning some kind of neo-monastic lifestyle. The Exercises are about self-discovery. They are a tool for discernment and direction. They are a way to know and experience God’s presence in one’s life. That is why I am forging ahead with Loyola.

As my Spiritual Director and I follow Loyola’s footsteps, I hope to write about the experience here. Perhaps any who read this blog will have insights that can help me and other readers. Please share these in the comments. Do I think this process will be a panacea that answers all of my life’s questions? Not at all. But, even at this stage of my life I must have some direction about my vocation…my calling…in life.

Who Knows the Wind…

HolySpirit

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”

Yesterday, I met with my spiritual director. We get together about once a month and talk. When I first started to meet with him, I voiced a great deal of frustration about where my life had been and where it appeared to be going. I did not see a great deal of God “working” in my life. I had completed seminary and felt that God would somehow open opportunities for me use that education. The months passed, and…nothing. Well, not entirely nothing. I had a heart attack. But, that’s a different chapter in this story. When I shared my feelings with my director, he listened carefully. (I appreciate that in people.) He did not offer answers.

 “Sometimes we don’t see what God is doing unless we look back,” was the gist of his response at that time. By this he meant that transformation and maturity usually happens in bits and pieces over time. In our busy-ness we don’t see this happening. We are not ‘mindful’ or present to the way that the Holy Spirit encourages us and draws us ever nearer to the heart of God. “The wind blows wherever it pleases.”

I’ve begun to take his advice and have been reflecting on some things recently. I guess that’s what old, feeble people do. We look back over our lives, the decisions we’ve made, the people we’ve known and loved, (and some we haven’t loved too much!), and consider the legacy we’re leaving. Much of that reflection for me has revealed a long track filled with many train wrecks. Don’t get me wrong, there has been much joy in my life. But, for me, personally it’s been difficult.

I began to realize that not all of who we are as people is revealed in what are referred to as ‘outward’ attributes. Things like relationships, financial stability, jobs and the like. Perhaps, the greatest light shines on our ‘inner’ selves. These are the things that can drive our outward responses and actions. An example would be the frustration and anger that rise to our middle finger as that other idiot on the road cuts us off. I started to look inwardly, into my heart, to see what was there. What I found has encouraged me.

Over the past half dozen years, or so, there has been a growing compassion and empathy for others. Especially, for those who are not like me. Many evangelical churches encourage their members to make ‘unsaved’ friends. The reason for that is so that they can cultivate relationships that would enable them to share their message and, hopefully, get that person ‘saved.’ Well, I’ve found that I have more friends and people I communicate with who would not fit into that ‘born again’ demographic. And, I like them. They are wonderful people who care about others. They laugh and share and enjoy life. I have no intention of ‘preaching’ to any of them. I am, and have, been ready to share my experience with God when the subject comes up. But, there is no pressure on them or me for anything more than simply being together. I’ve found that I can empathize with them. My heart fills with compassion as I listen to them. And, I have the freedom to just be with them. No agenda or ulterior motivation. We are fellow humans, spinning through God’s Good Universe on a big rock. It is good.

Ten years ago, the story would have been much different. I was much less tolerant of others’ differences. I accepted a ‘black and white’ reality that had no room in it for the rainbow of God’s grace. I was angry and my life was a mess. But, God has been faithful and good. In my reflections I see hope. Hope that somehow our good God will continue to walk at my side, guiding me ever-so-gently, into a closer relationship with God and all of God’s Good Creation. “You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”

Behold, Lord, Your Servant

There has been a lingering question among Christ followers ever since the earliest days after Jesus rose to sit at the Father’s right hand. That question has driven people to take some rather bizarre actions. Jesus told his followers that, in some unexplained way, he would always be present with them. “Abide in me, and I in you,” Jesus told them. In another place he said, “As you are going on your way, make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe the things that I have commanded you; and look! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The question is a simple one…“How”?

This question is difficult to answer. Well, actually, there are probably as many answers as there are people asking. Some of them better than others. I have read many ‘How to…’ books and articles. They pore over the Scriptures and try to glean whatever tips they can. The Psalms are a favorite field from which they harvest seeds that sprout into various methods and procedures. A few years ago someone ripped a process out of context and made a lot of money on something called The Prayer of Jabez. There seems to be no lack of people who try to distill some easy, painless way to touch the heart of God. But, in my experience, our Western ‘have it my way…right now!’ mentality will not work.

There were people in the early years of this era who also searched for God. Some of these were called Anchorites and hermits. Men and women would go into the wilderness in order to separate themselves from the distractions of society. The wilderness served as a metaphor for the realm of the devil. This idea came from Jesus’ experience after his baptism. He was taken to the desert where he was tempted. Anchorites desired to follow his example. They spent hours each day in prayer and contemplation. Many reported receiving ‘consolation’ or a special grace from God during these times. God was present with them.

Throughout Church history there have been people who have experienced God’s special presence. These ‘mystics’ practiced many different ways of prayer. In the 16th century St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila offered their lives to God through prayer and service. They worked to establish a lay order called the Discalced Carmelites. (Discalced meaning ‘without shoes.’) Prayer and contemplation were their food and drink. Later, another monk named Brother Lawrence learned how to live in the presence of God through diligent practice. He spent his days serving his order in the kitchen. Nothing glamorous. But, he continually brought his thoughts and mind to dwell on God. These are but three examples of people who sought for God’s presence and found God to be a gracious friend.

As I have studied the lives of people like these, I have found that there is no simple method. There is no ‘Users’ Manual’ that provides step-by-step instructions with exploded diagrams and footnotes. I began my own journey in the inward life by realizing that being present with God was the first step. I took 3 words in Hebrew to describe this: hineni Adonai avedka. “Behold, Lord, Your servant.” These three words were the first ones out of my mouth each day as I prayed. They became a declaration to myself and to God that I was present. I worked hard to focus my heart and mind on being present. It is a discipline that takes time to learn and more time to practice. Please note the words ‘worked hard’ and ‘discipline.’ Evan as the days became weeks, then months, and I began to notice the task becoming more and more a natural part of my day, I had to work at it. After awhile, I realized that God had been providing the necessary grace for me to even begin. What had seemed like my own idea and practice was actually God fulfilling the words that Jesus had spoken to his disciples. Jesus was ‘with’ me. He was present. Maybe, he was just waiting for me to join him.

On Being Vulnerable

I’ve begun work on a story that I think should be told. This project requires that I dig deeply into my mind. I search for memories, sights, smells and experiences that I can use as structural support for the story and its characters. As I reflect and remember, I realize that there is one thing that I’m really pretty good at. It’s not my job. It’s not playing guitar. It’s not writing. Although, I am pretty good at all of those. No, what I’m best at is something much darker. I am really good at breaking relationships. From my earliest memories I find I have a knack for hurting people. I don’t know why. Perhaps, I’m self-destructive and can’t allow anyone to get too close. I have a constructed a safe zone that no one is allowed to enter. When someone tries to get a bit too familiar, Bam! Explosions and gunfire erupt.

At one time in my life I would put myself out there. I shared my deepest thoughts and feelings with people. Maybe, this was to encourage them to do likewise. Usually, they didn’t and I felt naked and ashamed. Over the years I learned to cope and hold back. If I don’t place my life on the altar of Relationship, then no one can take a knife and cut out my heart.

I envied the Mr. Spock character on Star Trek. Emotionless. I could not be hurt if that emotion was eliminated. But, I’m not Vulcan. Crap! Green blood sounds so cool!

I found that the only safe place to be was in solitude. There, I don’t have to deal with and interact with other people. I don’t have to live up to whatever expectations they have for me. I don’t have to be anxious about not meeting those expectations. But, in a social construct like a community or a family there is always going to be stress and tension. Especially, for someone like me. Yeah, there are times when I like being with others. But, on my terms. I know, this is really a selfish way to live. I should have to wear a sign, “Alert! Narcissist Walking!” At the end of the day, I’m left feeling ashamed and guilty.

In this place, this ‘life’ I’ve built, there is a glimmer of hope. You see, even when I’m alone, I’m not really alone. There is One who knows me intimately. One who is always present. One who sees me at my worst. This One, let’s call him Jesus, understands. He has experienced what I have. He knows failure and forsakenness. When he was murdered he was left naked and exposed. As he offered his final, tortured breath to God, he failed to have faith and felt the reality of being left alone. At that moment, God learned what it’s like to be human. This is a person that I can trust.

So, over time I’ve begun to allow myself to be a tad more open. I try to ‘pull back the veil’ that conceals who I am. It’s hard, to be sure. Vulnerability is dangerous. But, nothing that can happen to me compares with what Jesus experienced. And, nothing can separate me from his love.

Vulnerability…how do you look at it? Is it important? Why? Why Not?

A Date with Ladyfinch

Sitting in my backyard on a warm, summer evening. A good book in my hands and my favorite potent potable on a table next to me. The sun was warm, but not too hot. There were clouds building to the West, harbingers of storms moving in from the western Great Lakes. At this moment, however, all seemed good and right with the world.

As I read, I kept one eye on the bird feeder in the yard. It’s not much. An iron post with two hooks. On one is an Oriole feeder filled with home-made nectar. These beautiful orange and black birds are like so many people, they have an insatiable sweet tooth. One cup of white granulated sugar in six cups of water. Put it out and watch the fun!

On the other hook hangs our seed feeder. A not quite cylindrical glass container with a ‘roof’ and a seed tray into which the seeds flow from three openings under the glass. We get many visitors. Besides the ‘regulars,’ the Sparrows and Grackles, (I can’t get these folks to stay away. They show up and throw the seeds all over the ground), there are Cardinals and Blue Jays. Occasionally, I’ve seen Flickers and Red-Headed Woodpeckers. And, of course, there are the Finches. The two varieties that frequent or buffet are the Goldfinch and the House Finch.

Of these two, the House Finch is the most regular visitor. They usually show up in small groups, a male or two and two to three females. The males have red-hued feathers on their heads and necks. Many times they arrive and bless us with a song before they jump onto the seed tray and collect their wage. Having been a practicing musician, I know how that works. You show up, play and collect your money. These pipers, however, work ‘cheep.’ The coloring of the females is rather non-descript. Browns and grays with some darker streaks. They don’t seem as vocal as the males. But, I’m no ornithologist. My observations are somewhat limited.

On this particular evening, I looked over the top of my book and pulled my readers down on my nose, the better to see the feeder fifteen feet away. A female was sitting in the seed tray looking rather comfortable. This struck me as unusual. Birds commonly land on the feeder and stand on the edge of the seed tray, grab a snack and fly off to enjoy it. Sometimes, they stand in the tray. But, always, they stand. All of these birds are a bit on the skittish side. Standing, they can quickly escape any threat. This female was sitting! Well, at least as near as birds can sit. She quietly nestled herself into the tray and leisurely picked away at the shelled bounty around her. For no less than five minutes we enjoyed the evening together. I, in my lounge chair, she lounging in the feeder. We were like two old acquaintances gathered in a living room. No words were spoken, but communication took place. She told me that she was grateful for the snacks. “This café provides some of the best black sunflower seeds in the neighborhood. Oh, and the millet is to die for!” I told her that she was more than welcome. “I am delighted,” I said, “to offer you the hospitalitie du maison, my dear Ladyfinch.” My still, quiet presence soothed her apprehension and fear. Her presence and posture told me that she felt secure. Even with a human in the room!

In those few moments I experienced a small taste of Creator’s blessing. I imagined a time before time when the Native People roamed this Turtle Island, a world where all of Creator’s children lived in harmony. Ours, however, has become a world of dysfunction and destruction. Fear has leeched into every cell; every molecule. We even fear and war against the sun, moon and stars. The small creatures of the world fear humans and each other. We humans fear the small creatures…and each other. We are afraid that the economy will falter, or worse. Some are paralyzed by a fear of stepping out of their homes.

Has it always been this way? Some say no. They say that there was a paradisiacal garden very long ago. However, humanity, attempting to grasp at the Divine, brought ruin and destruction. Others say that the cosmos has always been a dangerous place. The fears and phobias that we strive with are deeply ingrained in our very DNA from tens of thousands of years of trying to survive. I’m not sure. One thing I am sure of, for about five minutes on a warm, summer evening Ladyfinch and I shared peace and contentment.

What experiences have you had interacting with God’s good creation? What kinds of things cause you to fear? Feel free to comment without fear.

Grace…the Real Power of God

A couple of days ago during my morning time with Yahweh, I read from Acts. In chapter  4, I read the following:
            v. 33b – And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them All
            34 – that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who     
                    owned land or houses sold them brought the money from the sales
            35 – and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
I found this interesting. The writer, presumably Luke, starts by writing that God’s power was evident among the community of Christ followers. When I think of God’s power I think of healing and deliverance and other acts of power. But, he described the activities of the people as evidence of God’s powerful actions. It seems as though God’s grace and power were revealed through the love and generosity of the people. Lives were changed, i.e., transformed, in such a way that it was visible through these gestures of love a care.
As I reflected on God’s work as we read in the entire Bible, I see most of it deals with this kind of caring for one another. We spend so much time in so-called ‘deep’ theology that the simple acts of devotion go by and are missed. Our church leaders spend so much time trying to build fences to keep the sheep penned up that they give us neither time nor opportunity to simply live and love. But, these couple of verses in Acts shows that the leaders were distributors of God’s grace. Grace that enables people, all people, to detach from the cares and worries and false security offered by this world’s systems. Grace that causes people to develop empathy for others. Grace that is reflected back to the Giver through acts of service and kindness.
Nothing deep. No creeds. No doctrine. No magic beams. Just simple love. Jesus did leave that to us as a command. He never said to go and believe orthodoxy. He said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’