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.

Finding the Holy in the world

I love trID-1007559 filtered lightees. Many people do. But I have come to recognize a deeper than ordinary affinity for them. They have in many ways been like guardians in my life.

I didn’t realize how much I love trees, because for a long time I took them for granted. From the time I was about four or five there was always at least one tree somewhere on our property, and I’ve always made friends with them. The first I remember was a huge, ancient willow growing out of the creek that flowed through our back yard. It was a shallow creek filled with minnows, dappled with sunlight, with large smooth stones that made a path across the water to the shade of the huge old willow. I’d step across the stones to rest in the roots of that tree, its old leafy limbs reaching down around me till they nearly touched the ripples in the stream. I played under the shade of that tree nearly every day.

Then there was the tree that stood just outside my bedroom window in the house where I lived in my teenage years — a great tall maple or oak (I was young and didn’t think to ask its label). In the morning I would look out and see it and at night its shadows would dance across my bedroom walls. I remember when Dad said we would be moving and we went to look at houses: I fell in love with one of those houses because it had a tree outside what would have been my bedroom window. It broke my heart when we didn’t move there. I wanted that bedroom with that tree in my window.

When I grew up and became a pastor I served a church in New Jersey where there were two huge maples outside my back door. When I was in distress over troubles at the church I would walk up and down under their branches while I talked with God, seeking wisdom and peace and a clear way ahead.

But it wasn’t until I took a 30-day retreat, in my 40’s, in a hermit’s cottage kept by the Sisters of a convent near Lake Erie that I recognized the deep affinity that had till then been unconscious. My cottage was one of three hidden deep in the woods, invisible to each other and to the motherhouse. Every day I sat under the shelter of those countless trees. It was mostly tulip trees (yellow poplars) with some maples and oaks, with a few spruce and other evergreens that surrounded my hermitage. I listened to their songs by day and by night, their gentle rustling under hot summer suns and their vigorous sighing and singing in cool evening breezes, but mostly I just gazed at them — especially the tulip trees, with their (to me) strangely shaped leaves and their great presence. Something of their peace entered into me, and I never took trees for granted again, or loved them quite as thoughtlessly as I had before.

I have hugged trees. I guess you could call me a tree-hugger. But one day I held a tree as it lay dying. It was one of the big maples outside the manse I lived in, and it had been felled by a storm that swept through in the night. I found it in the morning, and I laid my hands on its bark for a long time, until I felt its energy ebbing. I mourned that great friend’s passing.

I am a mystery to myself. How can I move through the world so heedless, as I am most of the time, of my connection to these living creatures who have sheltered and blessed me in so many ways? So rushed. So busy with things indoors. So cocooned in my house or my car or my office that I miss the natural world that is my real home. I wish someone had taught me as a child to reverence and respect and seek the wisdom of the myriad living creatures – plant and animal – that nurture and sustain us and on whom we depend so much. When I was a child I had the instinct – most children do – to gaze long at grasshoppers and wonder at ants and marvel at every little minnow swimming in the water. But somewhere along the way that sense of wonder and of the sheer significance of such creatures slipped away from me.

For years I prayed with my eyes closed. Then one day the Lord said to me, “Now I want you to pray with your eyes open.”  I’m learning more and more that to experience communion with God’s creation is to pray; that to be awake and aware, receptive and open to the expression of God’s Word that called forth life in all its forms, is to meet God in the world.

I’m still learning to pray with my eyes open. I’m still not very good at it. But I’m getting there.