Lent’s Invitation to Desolation & Consolation

Walking with St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises has me wanting to be more aware of the consolations of God (those times of nearness and contact with Spirit and Grace) in my daily living.

As a “1” on the Enneagram (and a not so resourceful 1, at that), I have no problems seeing the desolations (the points of departure and distance from God) in a day.

I knew it from my days in the Emmaus movement of the United Methodist Church and reunion groups therein: that the more you were asked “what was your closest moment to Christ?,” the more readily you saw them in a week.  Must be one of those muscles you have to work…  or you risk losing.  And so, I am re-working old muscles – looking for “close moments” or “consolations” throughout my days.

Enter Andrew McCormick, a student in one of my online spiritual formation courses.  In an assignment to further introduce himself to peers, he shared a video from one of his “sacred-music-composer-idols, Heather Sorenson.” 

 “Not One Falls” premiered at “A Leap of Faith Concert” benefiting The Grace Center Texas on February 29, 2020 at Lovers Lane United Methodist in Dallas Texas.

Taking time to view it (really view it)…
and claiming space to let it soak in —
at a point when I was otherwise
about a frantic rush through my “to do list” –

was and remains a clear and obvious consolation
for which I am truly grateful.

I pray it is the same for you –
even as I pray that you, too,
are being ushered into a fuller awareness
of the consolations of the Divine in your life
and the ways that “Earth is crammed with Heaven.”

Lent and Easter’s Exchange:
Out with the Old and In with the New

Prefacing note:
Permission to share this was obtained from Michael and Megan. 
This preacher is beyond the days of sharing a family story… and, then, checking to see if that sharing was okay!

Michael, our youngest, turned 30 this last weekend.  (How is that possible?!?)

Just a week before his arrival and his joining Kathy and I and his two older sisters in this world, I wrote an article for the parish newsletter that captured a lot of my thoughts about Lent and Easter…

Michael and wife, Megan,
at a recent birthday celebration.

FEBRUARY 23, 1993

   DESK. . .

“Ye must be born again.”(John 3:7)

I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about babies and birthing lately. I ponder the adjustments the newborn must make–adjustments that are essential, though not necessarily easy–if life is to go on: adjustments to air, adjustments to light, adjustments to big sisters that ache to play,… in a manner of speaking, newborns need to “die” to one way of existing if they are to experience and enjoy the larger world “out here.”

The analogy to our spiritual lives and living is clear: there are those things we must die to, if we are to experience and enjoy the “larger world” out there. Altogether, it gives this coming Ash Wednesday and Lent a whole new meaning.

Of course, it all depends on how you look at it. The adjustments which a newborn makes: these we can choose to define as “birth.” The adjustments encouraged by Lenten examination: these we may choose to define as “death and dying.” For my part, though, I hate to separate the two: my,birth demands my dying, my dying invites new birth. It’s the tale of the newborn. It’s the profound mystery of Lent and Easter.

Yours, in the Pilgrimage of Lent and Easter,

Little did I know how prophetic that article would be.  For a day or so after his birth, Michael needed to be put into the ICU of Texas Children’s Hospital.   A blood disorder threatened to attack the rest of his body as though it were a foreign object.  What they call a double exchange transfusion—a 6 -8 hour procedure in which they meticulously pull out the old blood one syringe at a time and replace it with healthy whole blood—was prescribed.  Michael, you see, had to die to that old blood if he was to live in this world.

Needing sites for IV’s in ICU would reek havoc
on Michael’s scalp — creating a pretty ugly mohawk
and earning him the name of “Little Mo” among the nurses.

It’s a metaphor which informs the ancient path to Easter which is Lent:
    An exchange transfusion of sorts—
        dying to the old blood and living to the new,
            fasting from some thing
            and feasting on others,
                repenting (changing your mind about one thing)…
                and believing the Good News of the Gospel.

Of course, it all depends on how you look at it. The adjustments which a newborn makes: these we can choose to define as “birth.” The adjustments encouraged by Lenten examination: these we may choose to define as “death and dying.”

For my part, though, I hate to separate the two: my birth demands my dying, my dying invites new birth. It’s the tale of the newborn. It’s the profound mystery of Lent and Easter.  It’s the profound mystery of salvation—God’s ways and means in healing and wholeness.

Lent’s Invitation to Flip the Lid

Engaging in a workshop on crafting a Rule or rhythm of life and living with Steve Macchia, I found myself sharing the impression that I wanted and needed to “repent of” (i.e., get a new mind about) an old metaphor I have employed across the years.  At the very least, it’s a metaphor in need of a makeover.

First the metaphor.  Then, the basis of my newfound desire to “repent” of it.

The Metaphor…

Through the years, I have been witness to (and even employed) an object lesson about priorities that goes something like this…

With a jar and walnuts (or rocks or ping pong balls) and a handful of popcorn (or sand or rice),

I have noted the difference:

  • How, when you put all the popcorn in first and then add the walnuts, you can’t put a lid on things.
  • But, when you put the big things in first and then add the same amount of popcorn, it all fits… to the end that you can put a lid on it!

And, then we move to a naming of pieces in the metaphor:

  • The jar represents your life.

  • The walnuts are the important things – God, your partner and family, your health– the things most important to you and your life… and your living.

  • The popcorn is all other things that press for attention – maybe, say, mindless television viewing or shopping or playing games on your iphone or various social commitments… or any number of not-so-essential things.

And, then we might move to the closer, the big punchline—something along these lines:  

“Spend all your time and energy on the small stuff and you will never have room for the things that are most important to life and living. But, pay attention to the things that are big and critical to your meaning and fulfillment… and the little things will fall into place!”

The Repentance…

I don’t know about you, but the metaphor as described above overwhelms me – inspiring a certain claustrophobia. It’s wrapped up in that notion of squeezing as much as you can into the jar… and then putting a lid on it.

Truth is – for me, now in my life – I don’t want the jar of my life to be that full and crammed – as if the goal of each day is to cover as much ground and get as much done as possible.

My soul aches for margin – for some breathing space and room.

Maybe, in fact, I don’t need a good bit of the kernels. And, maybe, just maybe, some of the things that I have held as big nuts aren’t really that big or important!

And putting a lid on things?
No way!

God, you see, may not be one of the big nuts in the jar!  Maybe God is in all of the things [the jar, the kernals, and the nuts]… and God is in the air that infiltrates and surrounds it all!

(Here, I cannot help but recall the notion of prayer as “spiritual breathing.”)

Yes, give me room – margin – to breathe… and to let every part of my existence breathe! Can you begin to see the grounds for my “repenting” of that old metaphor… or choosing to recast it? Lent can be a great time of being about this kind of work of assessment and review…
    • Considering the nuts vs the popcorn 
    • Maybe downsizing and redefining what is what and what needs to stay 
    • Asking what kind of margin and breathing room we have in life 
    • Considering, perhaps, what to do with that “lid”

. . . . .

In that same workshop, Steve shared some research findings that, on average, people tap, swipe, and click their phones a whopping 2,617 times each day!
(cf., https://dscout.com/people-nerds/mobile-touches)

Come to think about it, I might have found the need for another jar… and its lid!

“Of Mice and Men”…and Addictions and Community

A recurring theme in my life and ministry through the years is the ways that community can be and is a “means of Grace” – a channel of the Divine’s saving me.  

Coming along to confirm – if not amend and expand – this notion was a TED Talk which Rev. Jennifer Webber introduced me to a few weeks ago.  (Jennifer is Lead Pastor of the Bryan Community Church, a United Methodist new church start, here in Bryan, Texas.) 

In “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” British author and journalist, Johann Hari, shares some rather startling research and realities related to the transformative power of genuine community.

To engage the full [15-minute] video, click on the image, above.
To engage/download a fuller detailing of Hari’s presentation, click here.

In a nutshell, Hari’s “argument” is this: experiments – with both rats and humans – demonstrate that meaningful connection in community trumps the bio-chemical “hooks” to which we usually assign so much power in discussions of dependency and addiction.

    • In one set of laboratory experiments, rats where observed and tracked in two settings: solitary confinement versus communal confinement.  (Both settings provided equal access to clean water and drug-laced water.) Overdose rates dropped from almost 100 percent [in solitary conditions] to zero percent in the “happy and connected” environments.
    • In a social experiment that has played out in Portugal over the last 15 years (where all drugs have been decriminalized and freed up resources have been diverted to rehab, counseling, employment initiatives, and efforts to reintegrate the addicted into community), the results are striking:

injecting drug use is down by 50 percent,

overdoses are massively down,

HIV is massively down among addicts, and

addiction in every study is significantly down.

“One of the ways you know it’s worked so well,” Hari notes, “is that almost nobody in Portugal wants  to go back to the old system.”

To be sure, I have my reservations.  A few studies do not make for a radical dismantling of the system.  Moreover, there are deep seated impressions I hold about addiction.  Having read on the topic and having visited with addicts across the years, I still believe in a hereditary basis – physiological predispositions — to addictive behaviors.  At this point, the last thing I want to suggest is anything that approaches (or might even have an air of suggesting) that “it’s okay to eat, drink, and be merry” – so long as we do it in community or with a sense of purpose!

Still, Hari’s presentation is most provocative and compelling: that authentic community  – connecting in genuine and meaningful ways (and here, he will point out that social media and texting does not count!) – is a clear channel of healing and salvation.  Community is a means of Grace!  

It certainly screams for a fuller hearing, further investigation, and deeper consideration.

In some ways, in fact, it argues against some of the things that I’ve taught and preached through the years.  In the past, you see, I have clarified that “my being in community is not a condition for our salvation as much as it is an expression of that salvation.”  (Here, I admit, my Protestant stripes shine though: “Salvation is by faith alone… in Christ alone!”)

But, here, now, on this side of engaging Hari’s talk, I have to wonder.  Maybe community is more than just a place where I express my salvation.  Maybe there’s a way that community connects me — connects us — with the Christ of salvation.  For who would deny that there — in the place where I discover and embrace real love and acceptance in life…  That, there, in that place, I am encountering and accepting Christ into my life.

And here, I will give Johann the last word:

I think the core of that message — you’re not alone, we love you — has to be at every level of how we respond to addicts,  socially, politically and individually. For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts when, all along, we should have been singing love songs to them. [Why?] Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.

Being Patient Amidst Our Perfecting

In a session of the Spiritual Directors International series, “Making Our Way as Spiritual Directors,” Lucy Abbott Tucker shared how as a young girl she had “heard a very stirring homily about perfection”:

And [so], I decided it was my task, not my goal, my task in life to be perfect. And I can assure you that I worked extremely hard at being perfect. I am sure that I worked harder than any of you did. Positive about that.

And then, when I was in my early thirties, I heard a very extremely talented scholar named Don Senior talk about the scripture passage, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And he said–and I will never forget it, standing in front of the class–shaking his head, “Such a bad translation. It should say, be patient as a loving parent is patient.” My insides relaxed for the first time in years.

Being a One on the Enneagram [who can go to less resource perfectionism at the drop of a hat] as well as being the son of a German engineer, I do believe I could give Lucy a run for her money!

No surprise, then, that hearing these words would stir deep within.  So much so that they sent me on a search –  googling to find those words and to confirm that truth.  I even found myself calling Lucy for some kind of attribution or credit for the quote.  But, all she could do was commend me to Don Senior… and his broad corpus of writings.  All to no avail.

In fact, searching had a way of complicating things.  There are, in fact, two verses in which “be _____ as you father in heaven is ___________” is invoked:

  • There’s Luke 6:36, “Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
  • And then, there’s Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Was this the basis of Don’s exegesis – seeing or claiming perhaps that the Lukan passage might have had some kind of precedence over and meaning for interpreting the Matthean?  Perhaps.  Who knows? 

Problem was (and is) that I am not going to roll two distinct but similar Biblical texts into one – embracing the “safer” option for my heart and soul.  For some reason(s), Tradition preserved two forms of the saying.  Integrity seemed to call for me to do the same.  We must be both “perfect” and “merciful” as God in Heaven is.

Still, Don’s (and Lucy’s) translation would not let me go.  

Or, maybe, I could not let it go.

Helpful amidst my searchings and readings was the reminder that “perfect” in the Greek is “telios.”  I remembered that it is was one of the last words Jesus spoke from the cross when he said, “It is finished [telios].”  Yes, it can be translated “perfect.”  But, it can equally be translated “finished” or “mature” or “complete.”

When Jesus said “it is telios” from the cross, he was not saying that “it was perfect” as much as he was saying that “it” [i.e., his life and its mission] was fulfilled and complete.

Could this, then, be the basis of our associating “perfection” with “patience”?  “Be ye complete and full [in your purpose and your being] as your God in Heaven is [complete and full].”  Given the fact that it is a journey with no instant arrival — that it takes time but is nonetheless our destination: does this not demand and invoke the need for patience?  Patience from and in each of us – and, indeed, patience from the Divine.

It may not be the best resolution to the quest and question Lucy sent me on.  (I’d still like to find its source in Don Senior.)

In the meantime, though, it breathes some peace and joy.

And, somewhere in the ongoing chewing, I find myself recalling the words of St Francis de Sales–believing it might have some value in this discussion:  “Be who you are and be that well. So that you may bring honor to the Master Craftsman whose handiwork you are.”

Maybe we could meld the Scriptures and de Sales —
without too much violation of either of them…

“Be ye patient in your becoming
completely and fully who you are–
even as your Master Craftsmen
is patient and forbearing in the work
of bringing you to completion and fullness.”