Holy invitations

Fleur de printemps au soleil

“If nothing fits anymore, if we don’t seem to belong where we are, that’s a call to begin again.
If we have more to give than we’re giving now, that’s a call to begin again.
If the relationships that defined us break down, it’s time to become the rest of who we are.
If something is missing where once everything seemed to be full, that’s a state of holy invitation.”

Years ago I spent a month in a hermitage on the grounds of Mt. St. Benedict monastery in Erie, PA, a guest of the gracious Sisters who live there. That’s where I came upon these words you just read. I don’t recall anymore whether I read them or heard them, whether they were printed or preached, or perhaps illustrated in a piece of art on a wall. But I’m grateful I had the sense to write them down and preserve them so I could stumble upon them again these many years later.

There’s something deeply encouraging to me in the idea that what presents itself at first as a difficulty – things not fitting, relationships not working, a haunting sense of wanting something that isn’t there – is actually a gift, a call from the Divine to re-enter the adventure of living in a new way. These words, “to begin again… to become the rest of who we are,” stir me with a sense of poignancy and hope. I love the idea that not only can I do that, there is already a power at work beguiling me and urging me toward it, ready to assist, loving me with the offer of some wonderful new possibility.

Tonight I’m praying for new possibilities, for myself and for you!

[Photo courtesy of Thierry RYO – Fotolia]

Grist for the mill

IMG_0033Do you ever wish you could run away to live in the woods or in a shack by the beach and throw away your cell phone, your telephone, your computer, your tablet, and your modem? I’m on the edge of considering becoming a hermit to set myself free from all those sometimes fun and useful things. They’re great when they work in the background and don’t get in the way. Today it felt like everything was getting in the way. (Can you tell I’m feeling frustrated?)

This afternoon I hoped to write on a book I’m working on. Instead, I dealt with technology. If only I did not have to deal with misbehaving software, forgotten ID’s and demands for unique 20-character passwords with special requirements from every single internet site I visit, online-only support options when websites don’t work (expecting me to sift through pages and pages of FAQs that don’t apply), and telephones that answer electronically with 10 menus to choose from (none of which cover my particular need at the moment)! On top of that, my landline telephone has turned into a magnet for every sales marketer, scam artist, and charitable-contribution-solicitor east of the Pacific Ocean, so that I sometimes think I’m paying for my phone service just so they can have the benefit of using it for their purposes.

All these things that seem to have hijacked my day raise the issue of time for me – it all feels like they’ve wasted my time. But, I have to confess, once I face this fact I realize that it’s actually a question of patience: my lack of it. If truth be told, my reaction to these things, the frustration I indulge in, reveals to me the hidden bias I have of my own entitlement. How dare they waste my time this way? Why should I have to jump through hoops to get the help I need? Why do these things not work the way they should (which is to say, so that someone as hurried and untutored as I am can operate them without needing an expert’s help)? Why isn’t it easier so that it doesn’t keep me from doing the things I want to do, the things that seem important to me?

And suddenly I’m back in Lent, facing my own faults. Not fault in the sense of blame, but in the sense of a flaw. I am a flawed human being, living in an imperfect world (i.e., one that isn’t oriented toward assuring things are easy for me!). Running away from people and things that test me won’t change that. That’s when I discover (once again — I’ve been here before!) that the world’s imperfections actually can serve a strangely positive purpose. They help me to recognize my own flaws, and that can inspire in me a fresh touch of humility and challenge me to practice the patience with others that I sometimes lack. We rub against each other, and in the chafing of our faults together either we learn tolerance and forgiveness or wither in resentment. Running away from whatever frustrates me – technology, people, situations, challenges – is only running away from myself, and we all know that doesn’t work!

So I guess I need to learn to be grateful for the frustrations of life. They seem to be the gift of God to this rough-hewn stone (me!) that needs some polishing. Surely God is good! In the wisdom and grace of God everything becomes grist for the mill. Everything points in the end to grace. If only I can remember to take the trouble to see things in the right light.

I hope you’re having a decidedly UN-frustrating day today. But whatever the day brings you, I wish you peace — and maybe just a small gift of self-discovery to spice your day!

Happy Eastertide!

Looking but not seeing

Cottontail bunny rabbit eating grass in the gardenOnce many years ago I lived in a house in the country. The field just beside my house lay fallow and overgrown with weeds, giving homes to a variety of wildlife including rabbits, raccoons, hedgehogs, and a variety of other animals that were usually unseen during the day, at least whenever I was around. One day I was out in the yard and noticed a rabbit sitting perfectly still just at the edge of the field, and it struck me as odd that it hadn’t run when I came by. I was fascinated by the stillness of the creature and turned aside to look more closely. I moved slowly toward it, expecting it to bolt at any moment, but it didn’t. The longer it remained still, the more curious I was and tried to come nearer; the closer I got the more amazing it seemed.

I got down on the ground and moved slowly, until eventually I came so close I could have reached out and touched it. I looked directly into the rabbit’s eyes, and it looked back at me. I stared for some minutes, unable to fathom the mystery of why it didn’t move. It just kept gazing steadily at me. Then, suddenly, with a shock, I saw the light go out of its eyes. One moment it was alive, and in the next breath the living creature was gone. The rabbit had died while I lay gazing at it. It was only then that I saw the tendril of weed that had become tangled around its neck. Whether it died of strangulation or terror I have never been sure. But the rabbit that I failed to rescue that day, that I failed to see clearly or to understand its situation, even under my steady gaze, has haunted me ever since. It’s one of the regrets that will follow me to my grave.

fasciaSince that day, more than once (more often than I like to admit even to myself) I have failed to see what I was looking at. It’s a humbling, painful experience to realize that has happened — and how often it does happen! I think many of us actually do this most of the time, looking without seeing clearly. We don’t notice, don’t grasp, what we might have understood better if we’d let go of our assumptions, or maybe if we just opened our eyes a bit wider. I think of the people we only half listen to because we have put them in a box and labeled them in our minds… the husband or wife (or child or friend) who is telling us something but we keep missing the point… the people and things we don’t see because we think we understand already “where they’re coming from” and what their situation is… when we look without giving them our full attention. That day in the field with the dying rabbit, even with my attention fully engaged, I didn’t see what was in front of me.

How many times have I failed to hear what someone was trying to tell me, failed to see what was right in front of me as someone told me their story? It has happened for me again in recent months. My mother, who is blind, has been dropping a lot of things because she misjudges where the table top is. She has told me the story of how she broke at least half a dozen glasses in the course of a few weeks until my sister found an acrylic version she would drink from. She tells us how she has spilled things because she thought her hand was on the table, but it wasn’t, and so when she let go of the dish or the glass (or the pitcher or the sugar jar), she missed and instead it went on the floor. There are the countless times she walked too close to a counter or a table and ran into it, hurting her arm or her hip. Most recently while sitting in a chair she went to cross her legs but misjudged the distance so that the heel of her sneaker caught on the fragile skin of her other leg and tore it open.

It wasn’t until we were sitting in the doctor’s office and I was thinking about this that suddenly I realized it wasn’t her vision that was the problem. It was as if the light went on in me: she hadn’t been able to cross her legs without one hitting the other – something we all can do with our eyes closed! — something she should have been able to do even in the dark. Everything she’d been telling me for weeks fell into place in that moment. I told the doctor about it, and he prescribed a brain scan to see if something more than aging and her vision is causing this “position displacement” (there’s even a name for it!). Until we do the scan we won’t know if there is a larger issue causing this, of course, but it seems obvious to me now that I’d been missing something significant all along, even while I’d been listening carefully and watching her steadily. I just didn’t give it the thoughtfulness that it deserved. I assumed I understood what was going on, when clearly I didn’t.

So we can watch, and listen, and still not “get it.” We can thoroughly misunderstand another’s person’s point of view, or the significance of what they’re telling us, or the meaning of their silence, or the nature of the troubles they’re dealing with, though we may have the best intentions. It isn’t a benign problem, even when our intentions are good and our misjudgments are nothing more than thoughtlessness. Other people suffer unnecessarily when we’re not careful to see them clearly and we don’t strive to understand them and their situation.

There were people in Jesus’ day who looked right at him and didn’t see him clearly. They called him the spawn of the devil. They saw him as an enemy to be defeated. The most religious of his countrymen were suspicious of him. In the end, people who thought they knew what he was and considered him a danger, killed him. Sadly, it isn’t ancient history; it happens today as well. I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and it strikes me that the people who espoused apartheid and who looked on the Africans and despised them – like the people in our country who look at every African-American or person of color in the same way – were more blind to those men, women, and children than anyone can be who is only physically blind.

Jesus said once, “… if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Matthew 6:23 NRSV] He wasn’t speaking of the physical but of interior sight – of our capacity to see what we are looking at, to see it clearly and truly. To look on someone who has holiness inside them and see it. To look on someone in need and understand their need. To see a situation and not brush it off without clear thinking. To look without prejudice and the kind of pre-judgment that edits out possibilities and potential.

Instead, so often we look without really seeing, to this day. We do it in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, and in our homes. We label even those we love, like our children – often to devastating effect (Judy is “the smart, quiet one;” Janie is “the pretty and popular” one)! The minute we do that we stop seeing them as whole persons. We especially label our enemies, or those we think of as enemies, and never see the persons who are actually in front of us.

Sometime read the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s a story of profound blindness, the gift of seeing and of the dangers of not seeing! It’s a call to wake up. It we really listen to that story it will shake us up!

How great is our darkness? That is the question. How much do I not see, while I’m staring right at it? How much do you not see? And how can we best begin to make the scales fall from our eyes?

Blessings to you, with peace and joy, as we open our eyes a little bit wider!

Life in the wilderness


Dramatic Wild Landscape

“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home – dear and familiar stone hearth and garden – and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners…. We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here. It doesn’t seem to be here that we belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge. It is strange here…” [Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk]

“A hard land of exile.” This has been the experience of life for many people, myself included. This is Good Friday, so I think it’s a good time to remember how extraordinary good has come through to me, even in the most desolate times and places.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us how, many centuries ago, the people of ancient Israel were uprooted and exiled from everything safe and known to them. They had suffered a devastating siege and seen their Holy City destroyed and their nation broken. The pain of their almost-total loss was like the stinging of a sword tearing flesh apart – as many swords had done, literally, at the fall of their great city. They were forcibly uprooted and exiled to languish in a foreign land where they were in danger of dying off as a people distinct in the world. There seemed to be good reason to believe they had been abandoned by their God. Yet at that very moment in their history the prophet Jeremiah spoke to them with a surprising message of hope:

Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! [Jeremiah 31:2-4]

Finding grace in the wilderness of life: this is what I want to remember today, not to escape the memory of sorrow and loss, but to remember how I’ve experienced grace in the past, had pain healed and life renewed. I want to remember because in remembering I’m freshly empowered to move through any new wilderness on the strength of that memory and its promise.

Grace is an especially beautiful word. It has the advantage over “love” in our vocabulary in that it has not been trivialized in ordinary language. It holds a fullness of meaning. It gathers up like a fragrant bouquet all the wonders of God’s giving nature. Grace is the profoundly needed but unmerited gift, freely and generously given to us out of love. It is God pouring out on us everything that we need for healthy, wholesome life, all that we can’t create for ourselves, giving “without measure and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Grace names that quality of wholesome, divine Love which is active, outreaching, powerful, freely spent in kindness, giving self away for the good of the other.

Grace is not usually what we expect of wilderness, and we don’t easily recognize it when we find ourselves in desolate places. We are accustomed to look for God in the things that give us joy, peace, or contentment. We have a more difficult time believing that God’s graciousness is with us in the painful times. Our hurt and judgment, attachments, or false desires, all cover our eyes, stop up our ears, and build a wall around the heart, so that we miss the signs of God’s presence and power. Yet God’s grace is the hidden inhabitant of every wilderness experience.

God meets us in the wilderness as in no other place, and leads us as one would lead an obstinately independent but beloved deaf-mute through a difficult terrain to a place she’s not sure she wants to go: firmly, tenderly and compassionately. I know this because I’ve been the deaf-mute, and I’ve experienced the healing and discovered the grace. So I know that whatever we find it to be, and however we get there, wilderness is not just a ground of suffering. It is also the ground of grace because God meets us there, where our lives are most broken. Then wilderness becomes both school and holy ground, a place of re-planting and reform. There we find out what we are made of, and we meet the One who made us, filling up our failures and fears with love and hope, showing us the way home.

The blessing of God to you through all your days, and especially this day, whether of sorrow or joy. May joy come to you in the morning!


What’s hard about telling the truth

Wooden fence on blue sky backgroundI’m an intensely private person. That’s a hard thing to be when you’ve been called to be a pastor most of your adult life, even harder when you have a lifelong calling to write! Both writing and preaching demand a lot of self-giving, expose you to yourself in ways you might not otherwise have looked for, and lay you open to other people’s judgments and demands. But I keep trying to be true to the calling and still be true to myself and my need for some boundaries. It’s been a bit of a struggle. So I want to share with you something I found yesterday that explains why I keep at it. I read the following quote from a young minister who has found wisdom worth sharing. She wrote:

“Our hunger is for words that are real and honest, that evoke our deepest emotions, that name the wilderness in which we live and enlighten us to the truth that we are not alone there…. I am being led to love my congregation – and the world – with words that matter.” *

I want to hang those words on my wall, nail them to my doorpost, and paste them on my forehead. I believe that is what people are looking for (it’s what I look for as I read other people’s work), and that’s what I am trying to give when I preach or blog. Whether I’m successful or not is another matter, but that’s what I always hope and pray will come of it somehow: that some small thing I’ve been able to say will shed some light for someone else – not on me, but on their own feelings and experiences. However trivial or personal the stories I tell, the reason for telling them is only to share something that I believe others might relate to, in the hope that they will find it stirring up some fresh understanding, a common experience, or even some clarifying difference, for their own lives.

So I’m disappointed and troubled when what I get back is commentary and critique on my life. It happens fairly often. What I hope for instead from my listeners (in the parish or on the page) is more along the lines of dialogue or (what I most appreciate) some sign that something I’ve said has resonated with them and been helpful in some way. I’m not looking for praise or criticism. I’m especially not wanting someone to tell me about my life or their opinion of it on the basis of some small snippet that I’ve shared. (I’m always a little surprised when people feel they have enough wisdom or the right to do that.)

The fact is, I have found that neither praise nor criticism is helpful to me. Honest appreciation, simple and real, is a gift. But too much praise is a temptation to pride, and criticism or feedback I haven’t asked for intimidates and makes it more difficult for me to be radical in truth-telling or risky in self-giving. Daring to be radical and risky (at least a little bit), to be thoughtfully observant, and to be personal (hard as that is for me) are all critical to being able to say anything significant at all. So pastoring, preaching and blogging have often challenged me, much as I love doing these things.

Still, I can’t give up. I believe that words are important, that they can carry light into shadowy places and can give hope and a sense of companionship in the journey. I believe I’m called to use my words for good purpose, to “love the world” with them as Pastor Otts put it. So I will continue to dare to do this radical risky thing, exposing my thoughts to a world that may not like or understand them or consider them worthwhile; loving strangers with my words who may not love me back; forgiving people who presume more knowledge of me than they actually have; and being gentle with my fences, letting some light come through. I only hope I can keep getting better at all this as time goes on.

If you are a garrulous type, eager for others to know the inner corners of your life, God bless you! May the stranger you trust always be kind to you. If you are, like me, more careful of what you share of your inner life, God bless you too. May God help us both to share what we are called to share, keep what we are called to keep, and give what we can give, as wisdom teaches us.

Grace and peace to you as we walk through Holy Week, through death, toward Easter’s rising.

*Teri McDowell Ott, “Wilderness Venture,” Christian Century, April 16, 2014, vol. 131, no. 8, p. 11

Listening to the Spirit

prayer beadsI have long believed that there is a purpose to life, to mine and to each other life on this planet. When I think of my purpose I most often think of it in terms of “vocation,” a word derived from the Latin vocatio, which means literally “a calling.” Whether you think of it as God calling, or destiny, or the core of your embodied, inspirited life wanting to realize itself, I believe it all springs from the same source.

I’ve tended to identify my vocation with my work, and in a way vocation is that, of course, but it is also much more. I’ve sometimes lost sight of the “much more” part, but it’s always tugged at me from some neglected corner of my consciousness. For many, many years I’ve poured all my energies into my work and neglected the rest of my living. Now, in this time of transition from being a full-time Christian pastor (my work) to being simply a full-time Christian person (my life) I’m finding myself struggling with being unfocused, scattered in my mind and wandering aimlessly through each day. I find it harder to make myself do what I don’t want to do. I want to do too many things long desired but neglected. My life before was filled with the demands others made on me. Now it’s filled with too many desires I’m trying to follow. It feels like I’m trying to become the person I’ve long wanted to be but left no time for, but it also feels like I’m making no progress in any direction.

I’ve put up a long foldable conference table in my office at home, which is now covered with bins and piles of distinct projects I feel drawn to work on: two books I’m doing prep for; a bin for shorter writing projects ahead; notes for my website; photos and a camera (I want to learn how to create beautiful pictures); notes on sketching and painting (another much-delayed pleasure); books I want to read; a bin for bills, budgeting, and plans for the house; and one for looking for part-time paid work. There is no physical “bin” on the table designated for family, but that’s another part of my life, of course, and another part – a large part – is praying, thinking, daydreaming. Among all these I find myself drifting from one to another at random every day. I constantly plan to take a more orderly and systematic approach, but I end up not following the plan. I am filled with a sense of gratitude for being given this time, these five months of such freedom, but I am also burdened with guilt for not using the time more purposefully, more fruitfully.

So I went to prayer just now, asking the Lord to show me how He sees these five months and how I’ve spent them. There was no answer in the time of praying. But when I got up and began to feel bad for not staying more conscious, more focused, more something… I turned and opened a little book that sits by my prayer chair, The Daily Light (ed. Edythe Draper), and there was His answer: “Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish…. After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort … The Lord will work out his plans for my life … God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him.” (Heb. 12.2 … Gal. 3.3 … Ps. 138.8 … Phil. 2.13)

I admit now that I have had a recurring intuition that, though I’m spending these hours and days in what seems to my ego fruitless and foolish ways, it has all been grist for the mill of God’s intentions. But I’ve found it hard to put my faith in this. Judging myself for not being more productive is more pleasing to the ego. This is the temptation of a lifetime; I’m always accusing myself of being lazy. So this, as everything in the spiritual life, needs to be carefully discerned.

Maybe what feels like “not-working-hard-enough” is really just yielding my life more fully in dependence on God; maybe a bit aimless and wandering is what I need to be for now. Trying to drive myself harder when God is calling me to rest in Him (I have been hearing this!) is just a way to refuse to accept my innate poverty, my dependence, my imperfection and weakness. It takes an act of humility and trust to let God be God; to trust that, even if I hear imperfectly and understand imperfectly, having faith in what seems foolish is the healthy and sane way to behave this time.

Discernment of the Spirit is seldom crystal clear. It’s most often more like gazing into a dim and clouded mirror. The truth of our sense of God’s will doesn’t become clear until we act on it and the consequences begin to play out. Like babies learning to walk, we learn with each firm step we take, but we also learn by each experience of falling down. What matters is that we act in faith and we are willing to suffer correction. What matters most of all is that God is faithful to those who desire to please him and dare to trust him, and whatever happens God will turn to a good purpose.

I guess I need to return to Thomas Merton’s prayer. Here it is, if you should need it:

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 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 you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Peace to you.







Learning to live by grace

orange and green leaves.docDo you ever suffer from performance anxiety? You know, the clutching feeling inside that comes because you are afraid you can’t do something as wonderfully, as perfectly, as you wish you could, or as you think others expect of you. I sometimes have that anxiety in me, and when I catch myself with it I have to work to let it go. I know from experience – and perhaps from the perspective that time gives us – that after all, failing, or “falling down,” is not such a terrible thing. Thank God that, by the grace of God, we get to keep trying. We might even learn something along the way. I’m encouraged by Ellen Anthony, a librarian, who tells us that, like babies learning to walk, it is our job to fall down and get up again. Here in her wonderful words is a moment she recalled from her experience in the library:

“… one young man prepares for a piano concert in the meeting room. He takes lots of breaks, fumes about ‘butchering this stuff,’ and throws away yet another crumpled page of the Liszt that he loves to hate. I resisted saying anything because I know how satisfying self-torture can be. But the other day I broke down and said, ‘Forget how terrible you think you play. Think of your friends who want to hear Liszt. Hear you. Imagine loving them with this music. Do the best you can, and then have lemonade.’ He actually plays very well and loves this keyboard and the delicacy and fury of the Romantics. I wonder how it will go… Fall down, get up, fall down, get up. Drink lemonade. I get to keep trying…” *

So many of us struggle in the same way as that young man, torn between desire and frustration, disappointing ourselves with efforts to be perfect that only cripple our joy. Ellen Anthony’s words spur me to ease up a little on the self-torture and to say to my friends: “Forget how terrible you think you are at this thing you call your life; forget how stumbling your efforts feel to you. Think of the people who only want to love you as you are, none more than God. Imagine loving them with this music that is your life. Do the best you can, then have lemonade.”

I believe that God is not all that interested in finding fault with us. God wants only our best efforts at loving Him and our growing joy in life as we love each other. That’s why we get to keep trying. So – I am going to try to enjoy my life more, free of false guilt and useless despair. I’m going to try instead to love God with my life, doing my best and accepting the mercy and love God gives me. After all, we all live by grace, all the time!

May you experience the freedom and joy of God’s abundant grace today, and share it with your friends!
*from Ellen Anthony’s article, “The Candle Factory,” in Weavings, vol. IX, no. 1, p. 23.