Tuesday, November 27, 2012

living

They were two conversations that I will remember for a long, long time, even though they were separated by seven years or so.  The first was with a friend sitting over breakfast at Chick-fil-a one morning.  We had both been assaulted by a season's worth of busyness and hurry and chaos, and somewhere among and amidst the conversation a question arose.  I'm not really even sure who asked it.  In fact, now that I think about it, maybe it asked itself.  Wherever it came from, or more probably Whoever it came from, it ended up on the table between us.  Are you living the life you really want to live?  It is a question that needs to be understood before it can be answered.  The essence of the question has nothing to do with houses and cars and money, or even success and ease and comfort.  At its core it is really a question about the inner quality of our lives: the life of God living inside of us and how that expresses itself in the significant relationships in our lives and world.  In fact, maybe a more appropriate way of asking the question is: "Are you living the life God wants to live in (and through) you?"  And if not, why not?  So there it was, on the table for us to answer.  I don't exactly remember what my answer was that morning, but I do vividly remember the deep, rich conversation that followed as we dreamt together about what that life really looks like.  It made me come alive inside.

The second conversation was actually seven (or so) years earlier.  I was sitting at lunch with a dear friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer and told that he had (roughly) three months to live.  I remember asking him what it felt like to hear those words, and what went on inside of him as a result.  His answer amazed me.  He said that he had always imagined that when he heard those words that he would immediately start making a list of all the things he wanted to do and the people he needed to see before his time was up.  "But," he said, "that's not the way it was at all.  As a matter of fact, what I found out was that I had been living the life I most wanted to live."   He had lived a life of depth and quality with his family, with his friends, in his work, and most of all with his God. He had lived a life of majoring on the majors; of being about the things that he (and God) most wanted to be about.  There were no regrets, there was no frenzy, no long list...just peace.  What an incredibly powerful thing to realize!  What an incredibly powerful thing to be able to say!  And,  needless to say, I was deeply impacted; both challenged and overwhelmed. 

How do we go about living the life that we most deeply long to live?  That life of depth and quality with our God that leads to a life of depth and quality with our families and our friends and our world?  Apparently it doesn't just happen, say the saints and the poets, it takes some reflection, and intention, and desire.  We fool ourselves if we think that such a sacramental way of living is automatic,” wrote Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline.  “This kind of living communion does not just fall on our heads.  We must desire it and seek it out.  We must order our lives in particular ways.”  Call it christian practice, call it spiritual disciplines, or call it means of grace, but somehow we have to prayerfully consider how to move in the direction of the life we think God most wants to live in us.  The church fathers called that somehow a Rule of Life.  St. Benedict's rule would be the most famous example.  It involves identifying what we most want our lives to be about--in St. Benedict's case prayer--and then figuring out, as best we can, how we will move in the direction of making this life a possibility...of creating space and time for this life to be able to happen.  The happening of it is ultimately up to God, but making the space and the time is our part.  It is where we must listen and pray and plan and order our lives in certain ways, so that at the end of our days we don't find ourselves wondering how we've somehow missed it.  Therefore, St. Benedict wrote a rule to order his life and his community around the practice of prayer; for in his heart and soul he knew that everything else must revolve around that.  That everything else would involve the things that were necessary to make prayer possible: in order to pray we must eat, and in order to eat we must work, and in order to work we must rest, all in order that we might pray...spiritual, physical, vocational, relational.  It was the simple rhythm his community lived by.

And if we are serious about living the life that we most deeply long to live, it must be the same for us.  It won't just fall on our heads either.  We must begin to live our lives purposefully and intentionally.  What is the old adage?  "If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time."  We must begin to live by a thoughtful and prayerful Rule as well (in actuality, we all live by a Rule whether we realize it or not).  In order to create this Rule of Life--in the words of my good friend Robert, the Rule of Whatever Your Name May Be--we must listen and reflect and dream with God about the life we most deeply long to live (or the life He most deeply longs to live in us).  And once we begin to get a vision for what that life really looks like, we must begin to reflect on the life we are currently living and ask, "What am I currently doing that is fruitfully moving me in the direct of the life I long to live in Christ?  And what am I currently doing that is not moving me fruitfully in that direction?"  In the words of Robert Benson: "Only by taking our life apart from time to time and examining it carefully, and then putting it back together thoughtfully and prayerfully, only then can we have some measure of confidence that we are living the life that we were meant to lead."  After recognizing the fruitful and unfruitful parts of our current "practice," then we begin to ask God, and dream about, what things, or practices, or disciplines, or means of grace might actually help make space for the life He longs to live in me.  And I begin to consider how to make those things a part of my daily routine?  What will I do daily?  What will I do weekly?  What will I do monthly?  And what will I do yearly?  All in the name of making space for God to speak, and to move, and to act.  And we also must ask questions like: What is the fruit that I seek from this Rule?  And who will hold me accountable?  And when will I reflect and re-evaluate?  And thus, a Rule of Life (and hopefully much, much more) comes into being.  Thanks be to God!!!



Here the deeper meaning of any rule in the spiritual life becomes visible.  Instead of giving us methods to control and direct and determine our own life, a spiritual rule wants to offer an open and free space within and among us where God can touch us with God’s loving presence.  It wants to make it possible for us not so much to find God as to be found by God, not so much to direct our life towards God, as to be directed by God, not so much to love God, as to be loved by God.
     This might sound quite passive.  But the contrary is true.  It requires active spiritual work to keep space for God.  Why?  Our ever-present fears keep trying to fill up every bit of free space with countless thoughts, words and actions that can give us the illusion that after all we are in control.  Even though we have learned the hard way how little in control we really are, and even though we continue to suffer from the consequences of a life built on illusion, it remains very difficult to let God be the director and guide of our lives.  ~ Henri J. M. Nouwen (from the Foreword to Rule for a New Brother)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

retreat

there is a certain
gravitational pull
that must be broken
when you go on retreat
not by might or power
not by trying
but by untrying

we cannot control
or contrive
we can only make space
we cannot determine
or demand
ours is only to surrender
and wait

there is a certain  doing
that must be abandoned
and a certain being
that must be embraced
a spinning
that must come to rest
a chaos
that must be stilled
a foldedness
that must be unfolded

a breath to be received
an embrace to be welcomed
a laying of a weary head
in the lap of God
eyes to be opened
ears to be unstopped

find rest o my soul
in God alone
my hope comes from him

Monday, November 12, 2012

flowers

“I must make my office with great care. It is my daily offering of fresh flowers to the Beloved Spouse.” ~Charles de Foucauld


Lord open our lips,
     And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.

New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in your world.  Stir up in us the desire to serve you and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior Jesus.  We praise you with joy, loving God, for your grace is better than life itself.  Once again you have sustained us through the darkness and blessed us with life in this new day.  Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we might sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Let us bless the Lord.
     Thanks be to God
Thanks be to God--Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.
We go in peace to love and serve the Lord, and to live our lives so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends.  Amen.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

preparations and prayer

Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. (Luke 10:40)


My life, especially this new life that I have been living for the past year and a half, is absolutely filled with preparations.  It seems like I am always preparing for something, and oftentimes many somethings all at the same time: small groups I am leading, retreats I am facilitating, events at which I am speaking, etc., etc., etc.  It is really easily if I am not careful, because of all of this preparing, to allow it to interfere with my prayer--the life of God that desires to grow within me.  In fact, if I am not very careful the two (my preparation and my prayer) can get easily enmeshed and entangled.  Now, on the surface that might sound like a good thing, and I am sure it can be, but I am not talking about a good enmeshing or entangling.  I am talking about the kind of enmeshing and entangling that causes me to lose sight of the voice of God in me and to me.  I recognized it again this morning as I was reading this very passage.  God was speaking to me, He had a word for me, and before He knew it I had rushed off into preparation-mode about how this might apply, or be used in the lives of the people I would be sitting with or standing before in the days ahead.  I had missed it.   I had once again taken something that God was trying to say to me and converted it quickly into a lesson for others.  I had once again skimmed over the surface of God's word to me in order to figure out how and why it might also be God's word to someone else.  And all of the sudden His word to me, and ultimately and ironically His word to them, was lost or diluted or skimmed over.  It was not listened to and reflected on and savored and prayed in like it was given to be.  And the funny thing is, that because I had run so quickly from prayer to preparation, everybody loses. 

I simply cannot allow my prayer to get diverted or waylaid or sidetracked; I can't allow it to become enmeshed and/or entangled with my preparation if I ever want God's word to have any lasting impact and power in my own heart and soul.  The flow must always go the opposite direction.  Preparation cannot determine my prayer, my prayer must always determine my preparation.  The natural flow of the Spirit is that God's word and my prayer speak to and impact my life, and then whatever things I am preparing must flow out of His life and His voice deep within me.  Only if my preparation flows out of my prayer will it ever have the power and the value it was intended to have.  It takes great attention to keep these two distinct because they have a tendency to grow side-by-side within us and get easily entwined without us even recognizing it, until we begin to become dried up or burnt out or overwhelmed within and start to ask ourselves, "What is going on within me?  Where is this coming from?"  It is one of the great and subtle tensions (and dangers) of ministry, therefore I must keep watch.

Lord Jesus, help me.  Help me stop preparing and start paying attention.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

planting and watering

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:7)


At times it is so easy to overestimate our own importance, particularly when it comes to the Kingdom of God.  We get the feeling from time to time, or should I say we deceive ourselves into believing from time to time, that if we don't make things happen for God, them no one will.  What a great reminder from Paul that God does very well on His own, thank you.  We are not a necessity.  Ours is not to make the seed, or person or church or whatever may be before us at the moment, grow.  That is God's job, and done in God's time I might add.  The salvation or growth of people is not something I can make happen no matter how hard I try.  Ours is a much simpler task, to plant or to water...or in the case of some of the other parables, to scatter the seed.  What happens from there is the important part and fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it--the part we cannot control . 

I planted some seeds by my front door at the beginning of the summer, hoping that one day they would turn into beautiful flowers.  The container they came in warned me that nothing would likely come of the planting until the next spring or early summer, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to speed up the process.  All I could do was to plant them and then consistently water the soil and let the soil, the seed, and the sunshine do its work.  It was a slow and hidden process that would need to occur.  And as I faithfully watered each day, I secretly hoped (but never told anyone) that somehow the flowers would miraculously appear any day.  No Luck.  Nothing.  In fact, I became so impatient and so filled with doubt that there was anything really going on under the soil, that I was often tempted to dig them up just to see if, indeed, there was any growth taking place at all.  Of course that would've been a ridiculous thing to do, and would certainly damage or delay the process, but I have to admit that I was tempted nonetheless. 

But planting is just that way, there is a letting go that is a necessary part.  There is a trust.  There is a knowledge of our role...and God's.  There is a patience necessary, as well as an attentiveness.  But also, there is a lot of waiting.  Waiting on the soil and the sun and the water and the seed to all do what they were made to do.  You just can't make a lot happen.  We can just work to make sure the conditions (the space, if you will) are right and make sure the seed is well planted--by means of conversation, relationship, writing, reading, or whatever your means of planting might be--and leave the rest to God...and to the waterer of course.

Watering is another proposition altogether.  It's a little more involved.  It's a little more constant.  There is a little more attention necessary, and a little more work required over the long haul.  Last summer I planted a flowerbed in my back yard, in a spot I love to sit and enjoy the silence and the beauty of God's creation.  I made sure the flower bed was in a good spot for sun, and had good rich soil, but I didn't really think through the watering process.  Actually, we don't even have a water supply to that part of the yard.  Unless of course you use a hose, but in this case the flower bed was so far from a spigot that 3-4 hoses joined together wouldn't even reach it.  I thought of running the water line out to that part of the yard.  I thought of rain barrels.  I even thought of trying to use the water produced by the condensation from my air conditioner.  And after I shot all of those ideas entirely full of holes, I just decided to dip a bucket in the creek that runs along the back of our property line and do it by hand.  So, every day of the summer I took my 10 gallon bucket, dipped it in the creek several times and watered my flowers.  It was a pretty labor intensive process, especially when the dry season came. 

It reminded me of Teresa of Avila and her thoughts on prayer as the way of watering the garden of our souls.  She mentions that prayer comes in seasons: some when you must use a bucket and get it by hand, some when you use a waterwheel to help bring it from its source, some when you can water by means of a stream or brook where the water flows more freely and easily, and lastly when it comes from the rains of God's Spirit as it falls from the heavens and drenches and soaks the ground.  Well, in my case, in absence of a waterwheel or irrigation system, my method was to continuously carry the water from the creek...and pray for rain.  For most of the summer the bucket was a necessity, but O the joy for several weeks toward the end of the summer when the rains fell about every day (for at least some period of time).  And on those days when it rained I rejoiced, and really began to understand what St. Teresa was talking about...rejoicing in those days and those seasons when God takes over and prayer just comes like rains from the heavens.

But now back to the point of the whole passage: So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  We should never take ourselves too seriously, or think of ourselves as too important in this process.  In fact, we are nothing.  We can produce nothing.  Fruitfulness only comes from God.  He is the One who makes things grow.  Mine is to plant or to water, to pray and to pay attention, to trust and to wait.  And watch what He does...and rejoice.  Thanks be to God!!! 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

don't just do something, stand there

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
            “In repentance and rest is your salvation,
               in quietness and trust is your strength,
                     but you would have none of it.

                                  Isaiah 30:15
 
 
I made a realization not too long ago, and the more I think about it, the more significant it seems to be.  It involves a shift deep within me, one that has to do with the age-old tension between doing and being.  For most of my life--and even more so, honestly, in my Christian life--I have constantly felt the pressure to try and make things happen.   It is a mode of operation (a way of thinking and believing) that is very subtle, and seems noble and right at first glance, but one that is incredibly deceptive, and has an enormous effect on how you go about living your life--particularly your life with God.  At its heart, it says: "Everything is up to me." 

But recently I have noticed a change, one that has shifted me from the pressure of doing to the freedom of being.  A realization that I do not have to make things happen, in fact I cannot make anything of true value happen, that is all up to God.  He is the One in charge of salvation and growth and transformation, not me.  He is the One that causes the heart to change, the seed to grow.  

What I have noticed is that when I finally let go of the need to make things happen, somehow mysteriously (and miraculously) things just begin to.  Things just come to be.  These days I often find myself looking around in amazement and surprise at the fruitfulness and the beauty springing up all around me (and deep within me) and ask myself, "How did that happen?"   It is simply extraordinary.

So what are we to do?  Sit idly by and never do anything?  Not at all.  What we are to do is to try and learn the lesson God was teaching Israel in Isaiah 30.  You see, Israel was the same way we are.  In fact, as Isaiah 30 unfolds they are under attack, their world filled with fear and chaos.  But instead of turning to God--the One who knows them best and loves them most, the One who longs to save them--they panic, they take matters into their own hands, and they run off in another direction altogether, trying to insure and/or secure their salvation.  In fact, they turn to Egypt (of all people) and beg Pharaoh to come to their rescue.  Because when it came right down to it, when they were desperate for something or someone to set their world right again, their true beliefs came out.  Instead of turning to God, they try to make things happen for themselves. 

So God comes to them and reminds them of what life with Him is really all about.  Your salvation will be found in returning and rest.  Don't try to take matters into your own hands, don't carry out plans that are not mine (Isaiah 30:1).  Turn back to me: once, twice, and always again.  For when you turn (or return) to Me, you will find rest, because I am the Sovereign God, the only One that can truly save you, the only One worthy of your trust.  Find rest in Me, trust quietly in Me, for I am in control.  So a shift is required, in them...and in us.  A shift very much like my own.  A shift from trying to make things happen, to turning constantly to God and trusting Him to work and to act.  A shift that helps us begin to understand that the significant elements of life with our God are not do this and do that, but returning and rest, quietness and trust.  Those are the bricks to build our spiritual house (lives) out of.  Because when you turn constantly to me, I will be the One to make things happen...like you never imagined. 

So don't just do something, stand there.