Spiritual Formation Implies “Waking Up”

At this juncture between Martin Luther King’s birthday (January 16) and International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27) — and the open-mindedness and sensitivity and justice they mutually engender, I find myself drawn to the notion of “waking up” and affirming its place in vital Christianity and spirituality.

To be sure, it is a concept that is not as popular or accepted or welcome as one might think or hope.  The “Right” has weaponized the word “Woke,” a headline in the Guardian declares.  Originally, the article points out,  woke meant “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” That’s the definition you will find in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The article continues…

Headline from a Guardian article, Jan 21, 2020

Today we are more likely to see it being used as a stick with which to beat people who aspire to such values, often wielded by those who don’t recognise how un-woke they are, or are proud of the fact…  Criticising ‘woke culture’ has become a way of claiming victim status for yourself rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status.”1

The debate is not just "out there in the culture" but in the Church as well
(as this Oct 2021 YouTube video from Mark Driscoll demonstrates)

At the expense, then, of provoking some angst and probably concern among some of my more conservative friends and family, I nonetheless feel the need to affirm the place of waking up in our spiritual formation.  In tandem with the kindred concept which is “deconstruction,” becoming “woke” appears to be a most logical and indispensable part of our being converted from the narrow and short-sighted perspectives of this lesser world we currently inhabit to the higher purposes, perspective, and presence of God.

Here, the words of Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello (from his book, Awareness), come to mind – defining, in many ways, the my position in life and my posture in ministry:

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up…

Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It is irritating to be woken up. That’s the reason the wise guru will not attempt to wake people up. I hope I’m going to be wise here and make no attempt whatsoever to wake you up if you are asleep. It is really none of my business, even though I say to you at times, “Wake up!” My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance.2

Celebrating Mary Oliver… and the “Means of Grace” Which is Poetry

Celebrating Mary Oliver…
and the “Means of Grace” Which is Poetry

Remembering the life and legacy of Mary Oliver this week (on the anniversary of her death on January 17, 2019) has me celebrating the means of grace which is poetry. 

Mary is just one of the poetic muses  I have encountered through the years – thanks, in large part to Jerry Webber, a friend and spiritual director-teacher whose use of poetry in his work is most meaningful. In addition to Oliver, Jerry has introduced me to William Stafford, Wendall Berry, David Whyte, and Rainer Maria Rilke – to name just a few.

Lattimore, Mary Oliver Icon

The power of poetry – indeed, all art including paintings or music or cinema – is captured for me in words of Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Brilliant as it is, Dickinson tells me, Truth needs to be delivered and caught indirectly (or slant) – say, from the corner of our eyes — lest it blind and overwhelm us in a direct, unfiltered, frontal assault.

Art does that for me.

Truth sneaks up on me in a movie – catching me, surprising me. 

Poetry, too – where a few words can stir profound truths and questions at my core.

“Tell me,” writes Mary Oliver, for example in the closing lines of “The Summer Day”…

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

My first encounter with Mary pre-dates poetry sessions with Jerry.  Ten years ago, in a season of real exhaustion, disorientation, and beleaguerment, I found myself engaged in work with Parker Palmer’s “Center for Courage and Renewal.”  During one of the retreats that constituted that work, the slant and not-so-slant words of “The Journey” were – and still are — a call to courage and a basis of renewed life and living and ministry.

They were among the seeds that encouraged my taking a new path in life and ministry — even as they serve to convey a sense of our hope and mission in that ministry (now entering its fifth year), Zoe-Life Explorations.


The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Vincent van Gogh, Avenue of Poplars in Autumn

Celebrating the Patron Saint of the Menial and the Mundane

Celebrating Brother Lawrence:
Patron Saint of the Menial & Mundane

Today (January 11) is the feast day of Brother Lawrence.  I’d like to think of him as the patron saint of the mundane.

Born in 1611, Nicholas Herman of Lorraine entered the Carmelite Order in Paris as a lay brother at the age of 26.  There, he learned the art of “practicing the presence of God”–even amidst the mundane chores of working first in the monastery’s kitchen and, later, its leather shop.

Peeling potatoes?  God is there to be found and enjoined.

Mending a pair of broken sandals?  God is there, ready for conversation.

No task too menial to not be a center of contemplation.
No place too obscure to not be a sanctuary.
No moment too common to not be a time of holy communion.

“The time of business,” he’d share in the collection of his letters which would become the classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”

Several poets come to mind and heart as I think of Lawrence:

There’s the powerful lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her “Aurora Leigh”:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries

Or again, there’s Gerald Manley Hopkins (“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”):

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

Less refined are the words that I remember from one of my professors in Systematic Theology at seminary.  “Even a mannequin in a shop window or a dead dog in the middle of the road has something to say to us about God and Grace and Life.”

When I have shared that quote with folks across the years, I have consistently been met by a mix of laughter and/or quizzical looks–so much so that I have wondered if I ought to keep it to myself.

But, then, Brother Lawrence, the patron saint of the menial and the mundane, enters the scene.  He, who practiced God’s presence in all times and places and things: he encourages me to believe that, perhaps there is more to mannequins and all sorts of ordinary things (even, dare I add, dead dogs?!?) than most folks are able to see or willing to admit.

On second thought, I’m thinking that I still oughta keep the “dead dogs” stuff to myself.

Immersing Ourselves in “The Baptism of Our Lord”

Immersing Ourselves
in “The Baptism of Our Lord”

Prefacing Note:
Over early drafts of this post, I have streamlined the discussion for a faster read.  Those wanting a fuller immersion in background considerations are encouraged to view the footnotes.

As I move from a more informational approach to the Gospel texts surrounding the baptism of our Lord (commemorated this coming first Sunday after Epiphany)1 to a more formational engagement, I am haunted by the message that I am the beloved of God, called to a life of redemptive suffering. It’s a distinction (i.e., informational vs formational) that I have unpacked in various courses – including BeADisciple’s Certification in Spiritual Formation program.  In a nutshell, I might suggest that “informational” approaches have me reading and engaging the Scriptures to the end that I “master” them.  While a more formational approach has the “Word” reading and engaging me to the end that I am more fully mastered by the Divine.

From an informational or “head” standpoint, an engagement of Matthew 3:13-17 [this Sunday’s Gospel reading] can see me arriving at a message and affirmation that, in his baptism, Jesus is heralded as Messiah and “Suffering Servant.”2 (Not real earthshaking for us today but it was scandalous beyond description in Jesus day.  [cf, I Corinthians 1:23])

“Baptism of Jesus” (Bonnell)

From a more formational standpoint, though, the message becomes more personal and intimate.  As Jesus is not just the revelation (or “epiphany”) of God but of our full humanity, His baptism reveals and conveys that we – you, I —are the beloved of God, that we are anointed by the Divine, that we are called to a life of redemptive suffering.

It’s at this more personal and intimate level that the aforementioned “haunting” sets in…

    • Most times, you see, if I am really honest, I don’t see myself as being that special to God. Through the years, I have yearned for a more personal experience of God’s deep and full love.  Oh, it’s there in my head – like a John 3:16 banner hung in any number of sports arenas.  But, deep in my soul, there’s a question of how lovable I really am… and whether the Spirit at the center of life and living really does care for me that much.

    • And when it comes to suffering and serving? Count me out there, too.  With the majority of American Christians, I do not want to suffer or sacrifice – even if it means others will somehow benefit.    En curvatis en se: that’s the way Augustine diagnosed our situation.  Yes, “I am wrapped up in self.”  I want a cake walk.  Even with those I love the most, I find myself hitting a wall… and wanting them to come through for me!

    • Don’t miss, by the way, the way these two can and do conspire with one another — for the more I am confronted by my selfishness and self-centeredness, the lower I esteem myself as really lovable.

Truth is, I do not think I am alone here.  Invoking Thoreau, I believe that that most of us “live lives of quiet desperation” –in which these feelings of unloveliness and a shirking of suffering are predominate features.

Amidst the confusion of these confessions, I find myself groping for a word of hope and “good news.”  (It is among the burdens of preachers every Sunday, I was taught – to unpack the command and the promise of each day and each text.”

There is some sense of hope as I affirm that I am not alone.  Others along the way have felt this way…

    • The old soul there in Mark 9:24 (“I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”) who was not spurned by the Lord.
    • And then, there are all sorts of prayers from saints I hold dear…

Donne’s “Batter My Heart”3

Bonhoffer’s “Who Am I?”4

Merton’s “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.”5

Nouwen in his various journalings6

But, the biggest consolation comes as I recall Jesus and his walk and prayers…

Where’s hope
Mid our days of quiet desperation–
cloaked in the lesser life of ego’s reign?

To know we are not alone —
that others, too, carry this load?
Yes, there’s some consolation there.

Still greater and fuller, though:
To recall that our high priest,

That He knows how we feel,
That He once despaired
As we do–
Joining us in prayers of
“where art thou?”
“take this cup…”

Yes, He has been there…
and is here.
Yes, He knows what it is
to thirst
in a barren land.

And, in love,
with sacrifice,
He scandalously leaves the flock
to bring me home.

A Good Faith Debate: Gun Control from a Biblical Perspective

In the wake of the horrific and inexplicable slaughter of innocent children and teachers in Uvalde, Texas this week (not to mention the shooting at the supermarket last week in Buffalo… and, here, the dam breaks with all the statistics flooding in), I am numb.  Beyond my inclination to withdrawal and stew and wallow, I do seek some kind of positive contribution to bring healing in and to a broken and hurting world.  And so…
  • I pray – though it’s more of a knotted stomach and groaning that I believe the Lord discerns and understands. (cf., Romans 8:26)
  • I find myself holding loved ones closer.  In word and deed, I want to assure them that, in the words of David Wilcox, “it is Love that wrote this play” we are in (no matter how messy the stage can get).
  • I find myself googling around – seeing what resources are out there that might bring healing and comfort.
  • Invariably, I come back around to the subject of gun control: what I think and believe, yes, but also the question of how we’re going to break through the impasse that surrounds this issue (and so many other divides in our land and our world).

As a spiritual director who believes in listening as a fundamental spiritual discipline and as one who affirms the value of paradox, it seems to me that a first, crucial step in moving towards any meaningful solution to gun violence in our culture is our finding our ways into a common forum in which positions can be shared in a climate of civility, openness, and respect.

One such forum is ours via The Gospel Coalition and its “Good Faith” series of debates.  Recorded just a few weeks ago (on May 4, 2022), “How Should Christians Think About Gun Control?” provides what I believe to be a balanced, albeit introductory, presentation of both sides of this issue from a biblical perspective.

In the hopes that I can get folks to listen to the entire debate, I have decided to provide clips of each individual’s opening argument.  I suspect that there are some folks, you see, who are so given to their own position on the issue that they might need to hear what “their” person says before they are willing to give themselves to the fuller discussion.  (Following these introductory clips/arguments is the video in its entirety.)

First, there is the opening argument tendered by Bob Thune (MA, Reformed Theological Seminary)—advancing arguments against gun control:

Speaking to the “pros” of gun control is Andrew Wilson, teaching pastor at King’s Church, London:

To see the debate/video in its entirety (including an edited transcript), click here: How Should Christians Think About Gun Control? (thegospelcoalition.org)

For more than half of my 35+ years in pastoral ministry, I felt like it was mine to tell people what to think and how we ought to do things on various issues and initiatives.  Over time, though, this stance yielded to an understanding that the bigger need in congregations and our world was the shepherding of due process — the promotion of holy conversations.  Yes, I have my positions.  Do not get me wrong.  But, it seems to me that until we’ve taken the time to guarantee a safe place to respectfully share and gracefully listen, we hardly ever earn the right or the opportunity to share the truth that is in us. We’ve got to find a way to get around the endless talking past each other which characterizes too much of our discourse these days!