Pentecost’s Promise of Community

Every now and then, I dream of writing another book.  It is not that I have written one, mind you.  It’s simply that a general dream of writing attaches itself to another possibility.

benedictine scanAmong the books I have actually begun to commit to writing is a reflection on the “Rule of St. Benedict” and how it’s ancient wisdom can speak to the Church today. So much is there for the benefit of clergy, individual congregants, and entire congregations.  In a world which is every bit as tumultuous and threatening as Benedict’s 5th Century, the security and stability of a “cloister” (i.e., an enclosure or garden) would seem to be a necessity as much now as ever.

Benedict writes, for example, in chapter 1 or his Rule, about there being “Four Kinds of Monastics.” So doing, I overhear his writing about four kinds of church members:

  • There is the (very rare and exceptional) “anchorite” who has outgrown the need for community in his/her spiritual growth;
  • There is the “sarabite” who walks with one foot on the Church rolls… and one foot in the world—making claims on the Church when it suits them or meets their needs;
  • There is the “gyrovague” who hops from setting to setting in pursuit of a community in their own image;
  • And, then, there are the “cenebites” who yoke themselves to one community and authority over time. (These are the “strong kind” for whom Benedict intends his Rule.

Here, it might be important to reflect upon an important word and concept in Benedictine thought and practice.  While it will not make its formal entrance into the Rule until the end of Chapter 5, the concept of “stability” is very much in mind and heart in this chapter and in the inferred elevation of the “cenobite” over the other two kinds of monks we’ve discussed.  Stability: the “commitment to faithfulness where we are.”   (Canham, Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, p. 35)

For all the many things stability is, it is most certainly the affirmation that living in community is a “means of Grace.”  Among other things, it’s the recognition that far from being someone I need to get away from, my neighbor  is a mirror through whom and with whom I can and do discover myself – and, paradoxically, an “image of God.”  Stability is a vow to attach myself to that lens, that mirror (not to mention the other gifts of community).  Stability is not something monks are when they come to the monastery.  Stability is something they do.  It is the commitment by which they anchor themselves to, root themselves in, stand in solidarity with a given community – believing that Grace can use that commitment to a given time and ruminations June 2020 (rotate + shadow)place and relationships in its ongoing work of conversion.

In an issue entitled, “Community & Spiritual Companionship as a Means of Grace,” we are exploring this notion further via this week’s publication of Ruminations, a free quarterly/seasonal resource.

Among the gifts of Pentecost, you see, is loving, Spirit-filled community – a reversal of all the babel and confusion which divides.

The Stockdale Paradox: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”

In a “Keep Calm” podcast a few weeks ago,
Faithwalking’s Ken Shuman introduced me
to Admiral James Stockdale.

Shot down over Vietnam in September, 1965…

stockdale in prisonStockdale wound up in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he spent the next seven years as the highest ranking naval officer and leader of American resistance against Vietnamese attempts to use prisoners for propaganda purposes. Despite being kept in solitary confinement for four years, in leg irons for two years, physically tortured more than 15 times, -developed a cohesive set of rules governing prisoner behavior. Codified in the acronym BACK U.S. (Unity over Self), these rules gave prisoners a sense of hope and empowerment. Many of the prisoners credited these rules as giving them the strength to endure their lengthy ordeal. (excerpt from bio at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership)

Among the keys to his survival? Maintaining a creative tension between hope and realism–to which author Jim Collins (Good to Great) has given the label, “The Stockdale Paradox” (distilled from an interview he conducted with Stockdale):

Retain faith
that you will prevail in the end,
regardless of the difficulties…
and at the same time
confront the most brutal facts
of your current reality,
whatever they might be.

Collins continues – unpacking the concept for business leaders… and those who seek to lead lives that matter:

collins, good to greatLife is unfair – sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no reason and no one to blame. It might be disease, it might be injury, it might be an accident, it might be losing a loved one; it might be getting swept away in a political shake-up; it might be getting shot down over Vietnam and thrown into a POW camp for eight years. What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened but stronger. (Collins, Good to Great, pp. 85-86)

Taking in Stockdale’s story and paradox, I could not help but think of Paul – and his faithful realism:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…. What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18,19, 31, 35-39)

More scampolo, friday but sunday cominguccinctly, there’s Tony Campolo’s renown sermon, entitled “It’s Friday but Sunday’s coming!” There it is – the Stockdale Paradox in bold relief, clearly portrayed!

Acknowledging
(not running from)
a world of cruel hate
and torture
and disease
and violence
and dislocation
and inexplicable suffering and pain…
Good Friday is real!
(Don’t deny it! Don’t stick your head in the sand!)

BUT, at the same time…
[hold it in creative tension!]

Believing that Easter
(and life
and fresh starts
and reunion
and communion
and Shalom and…)
is true…
Easter is coming!
And, for those who have eyes to see
and hearts to hear,

Easter is even now!!!

 

Altogether, it feels like…
a fitting remembrance
on this Memorial Day,
and a fitting message
during these last days of the Easter season–

acknowledging that it has not been easy
and it won’t be easy for awhile
(in fact, “easy” is not what it’s all about)…

But that, in spite of and beyond all that,
we walk as Easter people
for whom these current pains and groans
are but harbingers
of a greater, fuller birth to come.

Writing to Unclutter

Spiritual practices are activities we engage (usually routinely) in order to intentionally cultivate spiritual growth.  These activities run the gamut – worship, prayer, spiritual reading, interceding for neighbors during a walk, drawing mandalas, being in nature to inspire wonder.  Our personal writing, or journaling, can also be a spiritual practice.

IMG_3057-848x461One form of journaling, commended by many, is that of writing “morning pages.”  (Not sure of the true origin of this practice but Julia Cameron [cf., The Artist’s Way] has long been a prominent proponent. )

Morning pages are written for the express purpose of clearing the clutter in one’s mind.  This kind of writing is done first thing in the morning, by longhand (a key element), in a stream of consciousness style.  The instruction is to write and write and write and write and… No stops. No paragraphs.  No concern about spelling or grammar.  No concern about where your thoughts are headed. This is a practice to help settle the heart and mind by emptying.  A page could go like this:

It was hard to get up this morning but I knew if I didn’t get up the day would just snowball on me – rolling more and more out of control.  The presentation is prepared for the team meeting today but it still keeps running in my head.  I hope my black slacks are clean because I planned on wearing them today.  It will just be good to get to lunch and know that the meeting is behind me.  Then I’ll have to get Kevin’s gift during lunch or I’ll be late to the dinner party. No time after work.  It will be good to end the day with dear friends.  They know I’ve been pressing to get to this presentation.  I’ll have to be careful not to make the party MY celebration! I do have to pick up dog food too…

Approaches vary but are generalized here:

  • Write as soon as you can in the morning.
  • Set an amount of time (20-30 minutes) or a page count as your goal and be diligent. (Allow the writing to trail off to “I don’t have anything left to write…” but keep writing, write even filler words, until the goal is met.)
  • Write without regard to structure, handwriting, or a reader.
  • Simplicity is encouraged. Write in a spiral notebook or loose-leaf paper.  (Some encourage you throw the pages away daily.)
  • The effectiveness of the practice grows with continuity. Be dedicated in giving this practice time to bear fruit.

Often, effectively expressing ourselves is all we need to help relieve the emotional stress we are experiencing.  Pen and paper can become a tangible release valve.  A more significant notebook or journal can be used for other times of writing to process a day, an event, or during a retreat.  These pages are generally separate or at least delineated as morning pages.

Morning page practitioners share that their writing helps prepare them to be productive at work, to be more creative, to be better grounded as they begin their day. This kind of mind-emptying journaling helps prior to sitting in prayer, especially for meditation or centering prayer.

Perhaps, morning pages could be an especially fruitful practice as we navigate these days which include a swirl (onslaught) of information (and opinions) on how to best live during a pandemic.  We have many decisions to make regarding what is risky behavior and which risks we are willing to take.  Even folks who don’t normally experience much anxiety can be experiencing the unfamiliar rumble of stress.  Writing about these feelings can diffuse the stress and anxiety.

Many of us have taken advantage of more time at home by organizing and decluttering closets, drawers and garages.  Decluttering our thoughts would be a helpful venture, as well.  Being present to oneself through the practice of writing morning pages is an act of self-care and self-awareness that will bear fruit in heart, mind and soul.

#morningpages #journaling #selfcare #selfawareness #interiorlife #spiritualformation #spiritualpractices

On This Feast Day of Dame Julian of Norwich: Ancient Words for Modern Times

Picture3

Icons of Julian will often feature her holding a hazelnut… and/or her cat.

Today, May 13th is celebrated as the feast day of Julian of Norwich in the Roman Catholic Church – May 8th in Lutheran and Anglican churches.

Picture4

As an “anchoress,” Julian would have lived in an anchorhold like this one — a cell-like dwelling, attached to a church, in which she could live a solitary life dedicated to intense prayer and spiritual practice.

Julian was a lay woman who, in the 1300’s, dedicated herself to God — choosing a life of prayer and meditation as an anchoress.  Entering such a life was marked by a community dedication on the day the individual was enclosed (boarded up) in a tiny addition to a church building.  Access to the anchoress (or anchorite, when a man) was gained through a small window (a “squint”) through which they received Holy Communion, gifts of food, and prayer petitions from the public.  Sometimes the cell had a door which had access to a small garden.  It was customary for the resident to be given a cat to help control mice.  Julian was known to be quite fond of her cat and, in religious art, is often depicted with her feline friend.

Julian lived in an anchorhold (like the one pictured, above) for over 25 years.  Her squint opened onto a busy road in Norwich, a seaport town, and her spirit and grace and wisdom were such that her window became a popular destination for those who sought prayers and/or spiritual counsel.

Julian lived during a challenging era in England.  The Black (or Bubonic) Plague swept through Asia and Europe in waves.  Peaking in 1347-1351, outbreaks continued to ravage the continent for several centuries. Overall, the Black Plague caused the death of 30-60% of the population (far exceeding the devastation of the CO-VID 19 pandemic) and decimated economies. It is in this environment that hopeful, faithful, and deeply loving Julian thrived as a spiritual light in eastern England.

Julian was gravely ill, thought to be on her deathbed, when she experienced extensive spiritual visions.  These are recorded in The Revelations of Divine Love which is thought to the be the first surviving manuscript of a woman in the English language.

Her most often quoted writing is “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  In what she called her “showings,” these words were said to her by Jesus as she implored him about why sin was even allowed to exist in the world.  Jesus replied (and Julian notes that this was “said most tenderly”) that it was necessary to allow for sin “but all shall be well…”

Reflecting on these words and their larger context, one overhears three great truths for us, today:

First, All shall be well leaves room to acknowledge that things are not always well.  Certainly, during our days of sheltering-at-home and a virus that puts our people and economy at risk, ALL isn’t well.  (Isn’t it uncanny to realize Julian experienced an even more devastating pandemic?)

Second, notice Jesus “tenderly” answered Julian’s challenging question about why sin was allowed.  Julian challenged her creator with how he created!  God does allow us to go “toe-to-toe” with God about what troubles us.

Finally, Julian’s encounter with Jesus calls us to consider and claim the big picture of Life and Faith — that“all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Encouraging to hear these same words being used in contemporary settings.  A dear friend’s son co-wrote the following song (and recorded it with his band, “Blue Water Highway”).  Theirs is the hope that Julian’s ancient wisdom can encourage us in our current situation.  (Click here if you’d like to overhear a little bit more about the story behind the song.)

 

 

 

Hello, My Name is Jim and I’m a Functional Atheist [in Recovery]…

HELP UNBELIEFFunctional Atheism.  Though he never formally employs those words, I was first introduced to the concept by Craig Groeshel in his book, The Christian Atheist: Believing in God But Living as If He Doesn’t Exist.  (Here, Groeshel might have given words to the notion – helping me to formally title and acknowledge it in my life and living.  Truth is, at deeper parts of my being, I “knew” it already.  It was [and is] a part of my experience.)

As an aside, I can’t help but share words from Craig’s introduction – stirring for the ways they convey the topic, startling (in this day and time) for the ways he invokes the word “pandemic”:

“Hi, my name is Craig Groeschel, and I’m a Christian Atheist.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed in God, but I haven’t always lived like he exists. Today my Christian Atheism isn’t as large of a problem as it once was, but I still struggle with it. Like a recovering alcoholic careful never to take sobriety for granted, I have to take life one day at a time.

You might think it’s odd for a pastor to struggle with living like there is no God. However, in my corner of the world, Christian Atheism is a fast-spreading spiritual pandemic which can poison, sicken, and even kill…  Yet Christian atheism is extremely difficult to recognize — especially by those who are infected. (Groeschel, p. 17)

Attending a Leadership Transformations workshop on “Spiritual Discernment” recently had me staring it in the eyes afresh.  Workshop leader, David Wu, gave introduction to the day with two quotes—one from the Scriptures and one from a preferred text on the topic:

 Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.
(Proverbs 3:5-7a, The Message)

God wants everyone to know God’s will. God doesn’t withhold grace, play games, or tease us to test our faithfulness or our worthiness to be trusted with divine insight. I am convinced that God is far more prone to human revelation than I am to divine encounter. God’s will is that you and I, everyone, and our faith communities should discern and act upon God’s will.  (Danny Morris, Yearning to Know God’s Will, pp. 9f.)

Hearing/reading those words –
really taking them in,
slowly and deeply…

trust God [with all your heart],

don’t try to figure everything out on you own,

listen for God’s voice in everything [and everywhere],

don’t assume you know it all,

God is far more prone to revelation,…

Yes, reading, hearing, taking those words in
has the prayer of the old soul coming
to heart and mind and voice in me:
“I believe.  Help, Thou, my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

Being a perfectionist by nature
(and an often unhealthy “one,” at that)
can have me kicking myself–
stirring up all sorts of guilt and shame.
“Jim, you ought to trust more!”
“What a hypocrite!”
“How long have you been at this?”
“Surely, you should be a lot further along in this journey than you are!”

Yes, such are the voices inside—
to which I could give more and more attention.

But, instead,
I discern
and chose
to listen
to a stiller, small voice within.
It calls me
to accept
who and where and how I am…
and to be grateful
for the Divine
Who is not yet finished with any of us.