Month: September 2016

Uncategorized

Practicing Silence

It happens like clockwork. Thursday rolls around and that checklist in my head starts to flash red. So many tasks to be completed, so many things to write, and read. So many people to visit and call. Class to attend, work to be done. Each week, right about now, I start to breathe a little quicker, my eyes begin to dart and my heart rate kicks up a notch. For some people it’s the start of the week that causes the most stress, for me it’s the end. On Monday, I usually feel organized and prepared. By Thursday, the wheels have come off and I’m playing a dangerous game of organizational triage. It’s so dang predictable.

This is when I need to remind myself that there is a peace to be found in the chaos, and its name is silence. I don’t mean simply turning off Spotify while I write a paper or clean the house. I mean silence inside and out. Silence that fills my entire being, body and soul. This is my antidote.

Silence is part of nearly all spiritual practice, because the ancients and mystics of all faith backgrounds understood that peace is found in the silence. St. Benedict had very strict feelings about silence in the monastery, saying, “Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk” *. Benedict reminds us that a flood of words most often leads to problems. Gossip, slander, complaining. Thus, when we refrain from speaking we build up sturdy walls against such dangerous floods. This is true also for interior silence. When we allow our minds to spin wildly around the business and negativity of our weeks and our days, our work and our relationships, we find that we are unable to know inner peace. We simply spin out of control. This is what happens to me on Thursdays around 10 A.M.

Joan Chittister speaks of silence in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, saying:

“Monastic spirituality says it is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to consciousness. Monastic spirituality says it is the cry of our own passions that mute the cry of others. Monastic spirituality says people who cannot live comfortably with silence can never live comfortably with noise.

But silence is a frightening thing. Silence leaves us at the mercy of the noise within us. We hear the fears that need to be faced. We hear, then, the angers that need to be cooled. We hear the emptiness that needs to be filled. We hear the cries for humility and reconciliation and centeredness. We hear ambition and arrogance and attitudes of uncaring awash in the shallows of the soul. Silence demands answers. Silence invites us into depth. Silence heals what hoarding and running will not touch.” (Chittister **)

This is the healing I need, and I am fully aware of the ways in which I hoard and run in my own life. Running for me often looks like procrastination. It offers moments of relief in a world too full of tasks and relationships for me to manage. I feel so overwhelmed that I just turn on Netflix for an episode…or two…or a season. But eventually the world snaps back into focus and I have less time maneuver it than I did before. This is where I start to say “I have no time for silence”, which is a complete cop-out, but an effective one nonetheless. However, all the practitioners of silent or centering prayer that I have read; Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, they suggest something in the area of 40 minutes a day. 20 in the morning, 20 in the evening. If I have time to watch one episode of Ancient Aliens, I can manage 40 minutes of silence a day.

This is not simply a spiritual notion, as the science of silence has started to back up the claims of the desert fathers and mothers, the yogis and mystics. An article on Huffington Post discussed the number of ways that noise and distraction harms our physical and mental health. Studies have shown that noise pollution can raise blood pressure and risk of heart attack, and create a greater sense of stress. A 2013 study, focusing on the effects of noise on mice, found that silence might actually lead to the creation of brain cells in the hippocampus. This Psychology Today article links to a number of studies that illustrate the benefits of silent meditation, with results like decreased pain, decreased anxiety and stress, and an increased sense of compassion and empathy. The mystics have had it right all along.

We live in a world that values production and hard work. We see people who work themselves to death, and we celebrate their dedication and come to believe that this is what success looks like. But this is a dangerous way to live. When we don’t take the time to settle our bodies and minds we soon find that we lose whatever sense of control we were aiming for in the first place.

Ultimately, silence is a settling into the experience of God, into the Ground of All Being. It heals us because this presence is itself healing. Thomas Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart, says:

“The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. We do not resist them or suppress them. We accept them as they are and go beyond them, not by effort, but by letting them all go by. We open our awareness to the Ultimate Mystery whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing – closer that consciousness itself. The Ultimate Mystery is the ground in which our being is rooted, the Source from whom our life emerges at every moment.” (Keating ***)

This freedom to settle into the experience of Mystery and silence is one that offers us peace and healing in a world that demands certainty and offers cacophony. It is a way for us to care for ourselves, and to claim our identity as Beloved, and to extend that love out into the world. Whether we enter silence as a way of being good to our own bodies and minds, or as a way of resting in the presence of the Mysterious God, it is clear that it is a wise thing to do. So, now I’ll shut up, get up from this desk, and start taking my own advice. Peace.

*The Rule of St Benedict

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily”

***Thomas Keating “Open Mind, Open Heart”

Uncategorized

On Being Ordinary

A while back I came across a blog called “Glory to God for All Things”, written by Fr. Stephen Freeman. One particular post stood out to me, titled Simply Living. In it Fr Freeman reflects on 55 Maxims written by a Fr Thomas Hopko. These 55 maxims or rules seemed to me to be so simple, so practical, and so wise that I printed them out and hung them on the wall above my desk. I look at them each day and try to really focus on one or two during my morning prayers. Some of my favorites; (1) Live a day, and part of a day at a time, (2) Pray as you can, not as you want, (3) Be merciful with yourself, and with others. But, there is one maxim that continues to catch my attention over and over again. Be an ordinary person.

My initial reaction to this was dubious. I’ve been told my whole life to be all that I can be, to never settle, and that I can be anything and anyone I want to be. We live in a culture that values those who distinguish themselves. We praise the achievers and the winners. There is a whole mythology in the U.S. about those people who refused to be ordinary, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and made something of themselves. We don’t often praise the ordinary folks.

This eagerness in our culture to be the best, the wealthiest, the most in shape, the most creative, has a shadow side. When we find our value in our ability to distinguish ourselves from everyone else, we often begin to feel as though we simply are not good enough when we are unable to distinguish ourselves in the ways we expect. If success is being extraordinary, then the ordinary folks must be the ones who fail. This myth has created an epidemic of perfectionism.

As a perfectionist myself, I can attest to the overwhelming power of feeling not good enough, not worthy enough, not attractive enough, not smart enough, and a plethora of other lies. Brene Brown, the well-known shame and vulnerability researcher, has done a lot of work on perfectionism as well. In fact, her first book was called The Gifts of Imperfection. On her website’s blog she defines perfectionism as “…a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.’” *. This definition rings so true for my own experience. One of the things I have found with the help of my therapist, is that in my head lives a critic as odious as any small handed politician, who sits on my shoulders and whispers in my ear “Not good enough”. I have found that this critic of mine involves himself in every facet of my life, even criticizing the way I pray, or how I practice self-care. If I make a mistake at work, he tells me I’m bad at my job and everyone knows it. If I forget to call a friend or family member back, he’s sure to make it known that I am a bad friend, brother, son, or husband. If I don’t know something, or say something stupid, forget someone’s name, or fail to make it to the gym, this critic of mine will beat me down until I feel absolutely worthless.

This is where the wisdom of this maxim rings true; Be an ordinary person. For me it doesn’t mean don’t try or settle for mediocre. It is a reminder that I am ordinary in the way we all are. I am imperfect. I am not superhuman. I would not expect of another person the kind of perfection I expect for myself. Brene Brown gets at this by saying “Perfectionism is defeating and self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect” *. It simply doesn’t exist.

To be ordinary seems to me to be linked to the Benedictine value of humility. In The Rule Benedict asks the reader to consider Jacob’s ladder from Genesis, “…we must set up that ladder on which Jacob saw angels descending and ascending. Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility” **. Benedict then lays out the twelve steps of humility including finding contentment in the face of suffering, controlling one’s tongue and speaking modestly and gently. Obedience and accountability to the community, and manifesting “humility in his bearing, no less than in his heart, so that it is evident at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else” **. This identity of humility is what being an ordinary person looks like. It’s leaning into our imperfections, not so we can batter ourselves with shame, but so we can learn to be compassionate to ourselves and to others. Joan Chittister says it beautifully:

“Humility is simply a basic awareness of my relationship to the world and my connectedness to all its circumstances. It is the acceptance of relationships with others, not only for who they are but also for who I am. I do not interact with others to get something out of it; I make my way with all the others in my life because each of them has something important to call out of me, to support in me, to bring to fruit a vision of God in my life.” ***

As I have reflected on what it means to be ordinary, I have tried to discern what a practice of ordinary might look like. How can I embrace this identity in my daily life? For me, it begins with learning to be merciful to myself. When my critic rears his ugly head, I try to consider what I would say to my ten-year-old self. Would I ever let anyone talk to a child the way I let my critic talk to me? I’ve even been known to speak directly to my critic. I have found that anthropomorphizing my own critic gives me more freedom to shut him down. It becomes something I can observe, and something I can attack. I’m certain many people have observed me arguing out loud with my critic while stopped at a red light, or walking the dog. (This is where my critic wants me to feel embarrassed about arguing with him in public. I have two words for him.) I remind my critic that I am not perfect, that there is no such thing. I remind myself that I am loved, and that there is nothing in this world or the next that can separate me from that love. Once I can see this reality for myself, I can begin to see it clearly for those around me. I can affirm their belovedness and worthiness, in spite of and because of their imperfections. When I forget this, and when my critic sneaks in, I often repeat Matthew 17:5 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”. I keep repeating it until I can’t hear that stupid critic anymore. It’s the first rule of the internet; Do not feed the trolls.

To be ordinary is to simply be. Not as a way of resignation, but as a way of embracing that identity of Beloved and worthiness for ourselves and for others. To be ordinary means that we learn to practice an appreciation for the ways we have fallen, and for the ways we have gotten back up. It says to the other “I accept you as wholly and completely yourself, flaws and all”. It says to ourselves “I am worthy of love and of acceptance”. It tells that critic of ours to piss off, because we are enough.  You are enough. Let us embrace our imperfections, our very humanity. Let us remember that we are loved not because we are perfect, or because of our achievements, we are loved simply because we are. Claim it, and know it, and let us be ordinary.

 

*http://brenebrown.com/2009/03/18/2009318perfectionism-and-claiming-shame-html/

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

***Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

 

Black Lives Matter, Uncategorized

Terence Crutcher

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In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet onto the road of peace. – Benedictus

This morning as I read the Psalms and the Benedictus, I kept replaying in my mind the awful video footage of Terence Crutcher being shot and killed by a Tulsa police officer. No weapon, arms held in the air, and still he was killed.

Defend me, O God, and plead my cause
against a godless nation.
From a deceitful and cunning people
Rescue me, O God.

In the video of the killing, taken from a helicopter above the scene, an officer is heard saying, “That looks like a bad dude too. He might be on something.” Think about that for a moment. From a helicopter many, many feet above the ground, Terence Crutcher is deemed a danger. A man with his hands up, who’s only crime was that his car stalled on the highway.

Since you, O God, are my stronghold,
why have you rejected me?
Why do I go mourning
oppressed by the foe?

How many more of these videos do we need to watch before we as a country say enough? Inevitably, the purposeful denigration of Terence Crutcher’s character will begin, as we try to justify what has been a regular part of life for African Americans in this country, and what white Americans have only recently been forced to witness. This can not continue.

O send forth your light and your truth;
let these be my guide.
Let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.

This senseless death is magnified by the fact that Ahmad Kahn Rahami, the man accused of setting off a pressure cooker bomb in New York City, was taken into custody, alive. Rahami was armed and dangerous, and engaged in a shootout with police officers. And yet, law enforcement was able to take him alive. They took him alive, because they wanted him alive. They had a vested interest in his survival; hoping to question him about possible ties to terrorist organizations. If a wanted and dangerous man can shoot at police officers and still be taken alive, why in the world did Terence Crutcher have to die? In what way was he a greater threat than Rahami? It seems to me that what made Crutcher a danger in the eyes of the officers was the fact that he was a black man.

And I will come to your altar, O God,
the God of my joy.
My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp,
O God, my God.

White Christians in this nation have a responsibility to stand against the oppression and violence that are killing the African American community. Our voices need to be heard crying out, demanding justice, and an end to violence. We need to remember that we follow a Christ who was himself, a victim of state violence. We follow a Christ who forfeited his life, and refused to ignore or forget about, those people whom the world had declared unfit for dignity and acceptance. We are not called to do less, or to decide that the world is simply broken and we have no power to change it. We are called “To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Our silence is unjust. Our inaction is unjust. Justice is not borne of silence, nor is silence merciful. We can have compassion for the African American community and law enforcement while still demanding that justice be done.

Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise God still,
my savior and my God.*

Talk about this today and tomorrow and the next day. Have this conversation with your family, friends, and worshipping community. Pray for the victims of state violence and for their families. For Terence Crutcher, Tyre King, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, and the ever growing list of names. Find out how to support those organizations in your community that are seeking to end police violence. Our voices are powerful and they are needed. Enough is enough. Be heard.

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*Psalm 43

Black Lives Matter, Uncategorized

Renewing our Minds

Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. – Romans 12:2

This morning it was reported that the family of Sandra Bland has reached a $1.9 million dollar settlement in a wrongful death suit against Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Bland was pulled over in July of last year for failing to use her turn signal, and was arrested after refusing to put out her cigarette. The arresting officer, at one point, threatened her with a taser, saying, “I’ll light you up”. Officer Encinia accused Sandra Bland of assaulting him, but dash cam footage refuted this and he was later indicted and fired. Three days after her arrest, Bland was found dead in her cell, from what the autopsy determined was a suicide. The family’s lawsuit claims that the Waller County Sheriff’s Office failed to do appropriate and timely checks on Bland while she was in custody. All of this of course could have been avoided if Bland hadn’t been harassed and arrested in the first place.(1)

Compounding the impact of this news, is a story reported this morning, of yet another black teenager shot by police in Columbus, Ohio. It seems there is not a week that goes by without the news reporting the death of a black person at the hands of police. In July we all watched the graphic videos of the police shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, and according to Mapping Police Violence, 168 black people have been shot and killed by police in 2016.

Honestly, I have no idea how to react to any of this. I vacillate between anger, sadness, frustration, shame, and fear. As a middle class white man, who travels in overwhelmingly white circles, and works in one of the whitest church denominations in the country, I often feel completely immobilized by my distance from the reality of life experienced by African-Americans in this country. I want to support the movement to end police violence, and I have challenged myself to take part in direct action, and to learn as much as possible about systemic racism, our broken criminal justice system, and the ways in which my life might be contributing to these systems of oppression. But, all of this feels woefully inadequate. More often than not I am left feeling disheartened and cynical, and the temptation to throw my hands in the air and say “There’s nothing I can do”, is always floating around me.

Coincidentally, when the news of Sandra Bland’s family’s settlement, and the shooting death of Tyree King came across my news feed this morning, I was reading Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr (This is an assigned book for a class at seminary, so I don’t say this to show how forward thinking I am, or to stroke my own ego. I was told to read this book.). I’m grateful for the way Dr. King appeals not only to the responsibility of the citizen in the fight for equality, but also to the responsibility of the Christian.

“In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists. The Apostle Paul, who knew the inner realities of the Christian faith, counseled, ‘Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”(3)

These words by Dr. King stuck out to me as I considered my own cynicism and frustration. Am I not conforming to this world when I back away from my feelings of outrage and give into my feelings of apathy. King reminds us that as Christians we follow a Christ who was anything but apathetic, and the very height of nonconformist. Should we aspire to less?

This call to live differently is not a call to the individual Christian alone, but to the Church as a whole, and it is leadership in the Church, especially predominately white church bodies, that we need most right now. As a white member of this church body I need help. I don’t know how to support this movement effectively, or how to talk with family and friends about such an important issue. I have no idea what my own capacity is for action. I need the Church (2) to see this for the dire situation it is and to refuse to be stifled by the status quo or the fear of divisiveness. Dr. King reminds us that the Church has struggled to take a stand for justice before:

“Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution that should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.” (3)

Midnight persists, and as the Church we need to refuse to conform out of the fear of divisiveness, lowered church attendance, personal safety, or expediency. As followers of Christ we need to step out in courage to support and stand with those in the world who are crushed under the weight of injustice and oppression. This will require more than just our prayers, our liturgy, or our sermons. It will require us to take visible direct action, to learn to listen and follow, and to refuse to give in to the temptation of cynicism and privilege. So many churches are taking on this responsibility, and are beginning to understand that justice requires more of us than sympathy, and I applaud those efforts. However, there remains an enormous silence, where the Church’s voice desperately needs to be heard. WE are the Church, and as such it is up to us to be that voice.

I don’t want to give into cynicism anymore, and I don’t want to continue to rest comfortably in my own privilege, knowing that I will never have to face the kind of abuse that African-Americans face on a daily basis. I want to repent of my own silence, and my own indifference. I want to repent for all the times I have scrolled past a story of violence and oppression with dispassion. For not challenging the racism I witness, and for not truly listening to the voices that need to be heard. I want to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. I can do much of this inner work for myself, but at the same time I’m really counting on the Church to help me.

  1. CNN Sandra Bland’s Family…
  2. When I speak of the “Church” I am referring to the white church in America, of which I am a part of, understanding that the black church has always led this fight. 
  3. King, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 
Uncategorized

Lost Sheep and the Sacred Community

Luke 15:1-10

This past Sunday’s Gospel reading has always been one of my very favorites and also, one of my least favorites. I suppose it depends on the day that I encounter it. It’s a familiar story, and a familiar setup. Jesus is doing something that the religious elites don’t like, they call him out for it, and he drops one or two of his famous parables on them. This time, Jesus is welcoming all the wrong kind of people and the Pharisees start to grumble about it. So Jesus asks them:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”. (NRSV)

Jesus continues with similar parables involving a coin and a prodigal son. Each of these parables contain the same elements; something lost, something found, and finally, a community rejoicing.

Generally I like this parable right up until Jesus starts talking about the repentant sinner. So much of the mud that gets thrown about by the Christian right is intimately linked to personal sin, and the kind of quid pro quo that says “Stop sinning, then Jesus will love you”, that I’ve developed a bit of a gag reflex when I hear the words repent and sinner. It’s completely Pavlovian at this point. But I understand that repentance is an important aspect of this parable, and some may even say it’s the central concern. When I take the time to consider what repentance is and why it is so important I often think of Paul Tillich’s take in “The Eternal Now”. In this small book about the presence of the Eternal in the temporal, Tillich says, “Genuine repentance is not the feeling of sorrow about wrong actions, but it is the act of the whole person in which he separates himself from elements of his being, discarding them into the past as something that no longer has any power over the present” (Tillich*). Tillich’s understanding of repentance, for me, has been incredibly helpful. Repentance is an embrace of a new creation, not simply the act of feeling badly about sins or transgressions. Not only that, but it has the nature of a reaction to something, rather than the requirement for something. That is one of the things that stands out to me in the this parable. The shepherd doesn’t require anything of the sheep before it goes looking for it. The shepherd simply starts looking, and is so determined to find it that he’s willing to leave ninety-nine perfectly non-lost sheep standing in the wilderness to find the one lost.

What really struck me from this passage this week was the language of lost and found. I transitioned employment this week from one congregation to another, and as I said goodbye to my previous church on Sunday I was struck by all the various ways that this congregation has made me feel truly found. My wife and I were welcomed in from the very first day, and we were struck by how intentionally people sought us out to introduce themselves or to just say hello. As we became more involved our friendships grew and we really began to feel a sense of community that neither of us had experienced before. This was highlighted for me a few years ago in worship on Sunday morning. I was in the midst of a very heavy dose of depression and something about the hymns and the lessons struck a chord and I began to weep. I struggled to keep it in, and I didn’t want to walk out and draw attention to myself, so I sat staring at my lap and cried. It wasn’t long before I felt the first hand on my shoulder. Then another one, and another. People in the pews around me just held me in a way that made it clear to me that I was seen, and known, and found. It stands for me, still, as one of the most profound experiences of sacred community I have ever known. Isn’t this one of the very ways that God finds us? In the very hands and feet of our beloved communities? I know that is where I always seek it first.

This parable also stuck with me this week as details emerged about the discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains. In 1989 Jacob was kidnapped from St. Joseph and his family diligently kept up the search for 27 years. I remember having conversations with my parents when I was young about where I could ride my bike, when I needed to be home, and what to do if I was approached by someone I didn’t know. I imagine most children in MN had this conversation with their parents, and so much of it started with the abduction of Jacob. The Wetterling’s story has had such a profound impact on the state of Minnesota. We all held out hope for Jacob and were heartbroken by the news last week. Thousands of people all over the state left porch lights on in a show of support for the Wetterling family.

This was not an uplifting story of someone lost and found. There was no rejoicing, but rather mourning. I have to imagine that this story might be incredibly painful for parents whose children have been abducted or have gone missing. I think of the Wetterling family, or the girls abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Where was God in the midst of all this horror and all this tragedy? What happens when the shepherd can not find the lost sheep? I have no idea how to answer this. I’m not going to even try. But, I have hope that just as the sacred community rejoices together, we can also find it in us to mourn together. To say that you who mourn for your lost ones, you are seen, you are known, you are found. It’s such a meager offering, but it is all that we have. Maybe we’ll find God there. Maybe not, but at least we’ll be together.

*Tillich, Paul. The Eternal Now. New York: Scribner, 1963.

Uncategorized

Beloved and Broken

The thing I am looking forward to most about attending seminary is all the incredible books I am going to have the opportunity to read. This is the material I love to read about, think about, and talk about and I love the fact that I will be exposed to authors and topics that are new to me, and also authors and topics that are already dear to me. This anticipation has been well rewarded in my first week, as my first assigned reading was Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. Nouwen has been one of my favorite writers for a couple of years now. The Return of the Prodigal Son was very formative for me, and I was thrilled when I saw his name on my assigned reading list. Not surprisingly, Nouwen’s words in The Life of the Beloved have been affirming and challenging and I wanted to reflect on one of his major points at the end of his book.

Life of the Beloved was written primarily as a response to a request by one of Nouwen’s friends that he write “…something about the spiritual life…” (Nouwen) for he and his friends who did not consider themselves Christians. Nouwen endeavored to do just that, though his friend felt that the completed work still felt firmly Christian. Nouwen encourages his friend, and the reader, to affirm their identity as Beloved. He says, “We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself” (Nouwen). For Nouwen, this is simply a given; it is the starting point for the spiritual life. We start by claiming our identity as Beloved. For the rest of the book Nouwen reflects on how we claim that identity, centering his reflection on four words; taken, blessed, broken, and given. Mirroring the language of Eucharist, Nouwen suggests that these four words describe the processes by which we become and live as the Beloved. The last of these words is the one I’d like to focus on.

In the chapter “Given”, Nouwen discusses the way in which our identity as Beloved is only fully realized when we are given to others. This chapter was simultaneously affirming and challenging, and raised issues for me about love, service, selflessness, and boundaries. Not only that, but I was challenged by the way Nouwen suggests that our brokenness and our ability to give are intermingled.  Nouwen, in his gentle way, invites us to befriend our brokenness and place it under our blessing, so that we may “…discover how much we have to give – much more than we may have ever dreamed” (Nouwen). My instincts have always been to fix my brokenness first, and then to give to others out of my mended and healthy self. However, Nouwen suggests that it is the very fact of our brokenness that allows us to give without reservation. For me, that can be a scary proposition. I have found that my ability to embrace my own brokenness or to allow myself to be vulnerable with another person or persons, depends so heavily upon who it is I am giving myself to. It may feel safer to give freely from our brokenness to a friend rather than a family member, or a spouse rather than a church community. And it is this safety, or lack thereof, that often determines if and how I am able to embrace and befriend my own brokenness. I think Nouwen might suggest that I have it backwards, and that is what challenged me most from this chapter. By deciding there are some communities and relationships where I will befriend my brokenness, and others where I will not, I may be hindering my ability to realize my own identity as Beloved. And, he contends, it is this realization that makes us truly able to give ourselves to others. This is quite the cycle.

This topic is one that has often come up in conversations with friends, and I find myself wrestling with it as I engage with Benedictine spirituality. In the Rule of St Benedict, Benedict reminds his monks to deny their own will, to serve each other selflessly, and to compete in obedience. Rule 72 states “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else” (RB). For an introvert like myself, this rule sounds like my absolute nightmare. Am I required to blow up all of my personal boundaries? Do I throw away my own needs for the sake of others? Can I keep just a little of my quiet alone time? Or is that pursuing what I judge better for myself? Christ often recites similar, stark commandments that sound too heavy to bear. Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me. I read these commands and I think, “How the hell do I do that?” What does it look like to give ourselves to others? Is it really as daunting as it first appears?

Nouwen says no, and as always has a way of gently reminding us not to be too hard on ourselves. He says “As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being” (Nouwen). Nouwen’s giving is not a call to abandon our own health and boundaries for the well-being of another, it is a participation together with another in our mutual brokenness and our identity as the Beloved. This, to me, is why the Church continues to be such an incredible gift. The worshipping community is that place of safety where we can lay bare our brokenness, embrace it as part of our identity, and reach out to each other in hope and mercy, realizing that in giving we receive. I hope that the Church can be a place where we can learn to carry this identity as Beloved and broken into our other relationships and interactions. We may encounter a more gentle and honest political landscape, a renewed sense of love and mercy within our family and friends, and a fuller sense of self that resists the urge to define ourselves by our failures and our differences. We are Beloved. That is our identity first. Know it, claim it, and may we never forget it.

lifeofthebeloved

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. 1992

The Rule of St Benedict. The Liturgical Press.

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The Stability of Prayer

I don’t like change. There, I said it. I am a big fan of routine, of things staying the same. It’s comforting to me. It makes me feel like I have some kind of handle on life. If I know what’s coming I can prepare accordingly. I know what to look out for. I know what might make me anxious, and what might distract me. I do not like change. Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks have been rife with change, transition, and disruption. All of it has been positive, but change can be difficult, and a lot of change at once can be downright terrifying.

Last week I started classes at United Theological Seminary. I have been looking forward to seminary for years, and being able to sit in my first class felt like a real accomplishment. It’s one of those few moments where I’ve really let myself feel proud of all the work I’ve done. That being said, graduate school is no small task. A few days in and my head is already swimming with syllabi, assigned readings, and upcoming papers and assignments. I’m writing out lists and putting dates in my calendar in hopes of keeping myself organized. I’m doing my very best to switch back into school mode and stay focused.

Adding to this challenge is the fact that I begin a new job at a new congregation this month. I am leaving the congregation that has been my worshiping community for about six years. This one hurts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly excited for my new role, and I took the job because I know it will be a better fit and a step forward, but when I imagine Sunday morning without the people I have grown to love so much, it makes me very sad. I have a sense that this transition will be the most difficult to adapt to in the coming weeks.

When life transitions or changes, it can be difficult to find stability in the chaos. It has certainly been difficult for me. But this, I believe, is where daily spiritual practice earns its medal. The Benedictines take vows of stability, conversion, and obedience when they enter the monastery. Oblates do the same, and endeavor to carry these vows into their daily lives. For me, so much of this work is done in the discipline of prayer.

When I first began visiting St. John’s Abbey, it was the practice of praying with the brothers that truly drew me in. It was clear that the Daily Office was the central focus of their time together. Regardless of the many distractions and ever changing tasks and duties, the brothers met at the same time every morning, afternoon, and evening to recite the Psalms and pray for their community and the world. It seemed to me that it was this daily routine that ensured the stability of monastic life. Joan Chittister, in her book, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, writes:

“It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer even remember why we set out to do them in the first place.

But regularity in prayer cures all that. Regularity harnesses us to our place in the universe. Morning and evening, season by season, year after year we watch the sun rise and set, death and resurrection daily come and go, beginnings and endings follow one another without terror and without woe. We come to realize that we are simply small parts of a continuing creation, and we take hope and comfort and perspective from that.” (Chittister *)

This is what the practice of daily prayer has offered me. It has given me a constant in the midst of a world that changes, often suddenly and violently. It has helped me to let go of my need to control the changes in my life. It reminds me each day why I do the things I do. My daily practice is my stability, and it centers me each morning, and each evening. In the morning I ask for guidance; O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. In the evening I offer praise and thanksgiving. I pray the Psalms, that so beautifully convey the range of human experience and spirituality. I pray for the Church, the world, and all of creation so as to exercise a discipline of empathy. As I pray, I am aware of the people all over the world who pray these same words, recite the same Psalms and hymns, plugging me into an immense community of prayer.

So often the Daily Office provides the wisdom I need to hear, at the moment I need to hear it. This morning the canticle was taken from Isaiah, and spoke so eloquently to this time of transition.

My home is pulled up and removed like a shepherd’s tent. Like a weaver you have rolled up my life, you cut it from the loom.

 It is you who have kept my life from the pit of nothingness. (Isaiah 38:12 & 17)

It is this routine, this daily practice, that creates in me a sense of stability. It provides for me a refuge in the midst of transition, and challenge, and chaos. It is a reminder to let go and settle into the Church’s steady stream of prayer and devotion, to be comforted by its rhythm and its goodness. I have found that when I maintain this practice I find peace and centeredness even in those times where I think there can be none. I think this must be what grace filled stability looks like, and I am so very thankful for it.

breviary

  • Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled From the Daily” Harper Collins 1991.
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Where, O death, is your sting?

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? – 1 Corinthians 15:55

An opinion piece written in the New York Times came across my feed the other day that really piqued my interest. The title read “Why We Never Die”*, and in this piece the author Gabriel Rockhill describes his own childhood fear of death, and his attempts to talk with his son who is now experiencing the same fears. I was drawn to this piece because of my own childhood preoccupation with death, and because I find myself so very interested in the conversations we have about such an integral yet unknown part of life. How do we talk to children about death? How do we talk to ourselves about it? What are the stories, and beliefs, and theories we create to help us cope with what, for many of us, is the most fundamental terror?

My own fears began somewhere around second or third grade. I remember my mother and I were watching a television show about ancient cultures on the History Channel. The host was exploring Mayan ruins in Mexico and Guatemala, and talking about the beautiful cultural heritage of the Mayan people. The show discussed Mayan architecture and agriculture, spiritual beliefs, and their stunning knowledge of astronomy. This last focus is what really caught my attention. The host described the way the Mayan people were able to use this astronomical knowledge to calculate incredibly precise lunar months and astronomical events such as solar eclipses. The Mayans used this knowledge to create a very exact calendar that has fascinated archaeologists and anthropologists for years. This calendar was the subject of some hysteria a few years ago when a misinterpretation had people believing that the calendar implied some kind of cataclysmic event in December of 2012. It was this misinterpretation that forced me to first acknowledge my own mortality. As the host of this History Channel show discussed the Mayan calendar and its precision, he pointed out that many people believed that it may actually predict the date of the end of the world.

The end of the world. These words didn’t seem to hit me at first. The show ended and it was time for me to get ready for bed. I got up and went to get my bath ready. As I sat in the tub these words rattled around my head. The end of the world. I wondered what this would look like. Would the Earth just explode? Would we be hit by a meteor? What would happen after that? Slowly it began to grip me. Would I be here to experience this end? And if not then where would I be? Would I simply not exist? Would my family and friends cease to exist? Tears welled up in my eyes and before I knew it I was sobbing uncontrollably. My mother burst in after a few moments, I’m sure afraid I was hurt or something.

“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?”, she asked.

“I don’t want to die” is all I could get out through the tears.

My poor parents. What a difficult conversation it must be to have with a child. Wanting to console and comfort, yet understanding that death is a reality that can not be denied. For many months I struggled to fall asleep. Rockhill’s experience as a child was nearly identical to my own. He says “It was often in the twilight hours, between the moment of lying down and the imperceptible instant of slipping off to sleep, that the terror would arise”*. The routine was always the same for me. I would lay down, close my eyes, and just at that moment where you feel yourself falling asleep, the fear would grip me. It felt like nearly falling off the edge of a cliff. The dark pit in my stomach and the adrenaline racing. It seemed to me that this moment was what nothingness felt like. As if I had experienced a brief moment of non-existence. I didn’t like it.

Many therapy sessions and years later, I still find myself experiencing these moments from time to time. Always the same. The difference now is my willingness to lean into those moments, and to wrestle with the uncertainty. I agree with Rockhill that religion and spirituality could not offer me the certainty about life after death that I wanted. As I grew into Christian community and spiritual practice, I never found certainty, only more questions. I’ve always envied people who have such a strong belief in heaven or the afterlife. I often wish I felt so sure. That being said, I have found that so much of the meaning I find in the words of Christ and the tradition of Christianity, has everything to do with my willingness to live now, in spite of the reality of my own death. I really appreciate Rockhill’s assessment that:

“There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had — for better or worse — on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world…This should not be taken as a form of spiritualist consolation, however, but rather as an invitation to face up to the ways in which our immanent lives are actually never simply our own” *

Is Christ not saying the same when he is asked to explain which commandment in the law is greatest? Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” **. Your lives are never simply your own. To love your neighbor as yourself is infinitely more than some simple act of service. It has the ability to reverberate beyond your very existence. It is in this intimate and often messy experience of community that our lives find persistent meaning beyond our own biological death. I know for myself, the moments of terror almost always appear when I am alone (either physically or mentally), and it is always the love of family, friend, and neighbor that offers the greatest solace. Of course, I may struggle with this fear for the rest of my life, but thanks be to God for those communities where we can find love that persists even when we cease to.

 

*Why We Never Die

**Holy Bible NRSV