Archive for the Encouragement Category

Groping Around in the Dark

Posted in Encouragement, true self with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

In a world where being sure about everything is the way of life, embracing mystery can be incredibly difficult.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are many aspects of our life to be gleaned in those dark places, so we shouldn’t forsake them.

It’s easy to feel that life would be so much easier if we could just know everything clearly and be able to define every occurrence accurately without having to take time for interpretation.  If we could know ourselves without all of the soul-searching and contemplation, wouldn’t life be so much better?  I don’t think so.
Those walks in the dark where the ambiguity is the rule and not the exception, are transformative.  Barbara Brown Taylor said that “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.”  Groping our way around in the darkness teaches us things about the world and ourselves that seeing them in the light never could.
During Lent, we learn to embrace the darkness so that we can appreciate the light.  That faint glimmer of sunshine that pierces through the gap between the stone and the cave wall is not a reassurance that we will be saved from the darkness, but rather a reminder that the darkness is good, too.  Light and dark need each other to exist.
When Thomas Merton was starting his writing career and making his early attempts at being a novelist, some of the beauty that would emerge from embracing the spiritual writing that he was best at shone through.  In this excerpt, Merton is having a conversation with a couple of Gestapo officers in London through the window of a bombed out house as he writes.  They ask him why he writes and he replies that it is so he can learn about the world and himself.  The officers then inquire as to whether it would just be faster to see things clearly from the beginning and that writing to figure things out would lead to many volumes of wasted paper and meaningless books.  Merton’s reply was:
No doubt.  But if I if it were all clear at once, I would not really understand it,
either.  Some things are too clear to be understood, and what you think 
is your understanding of them is only a kind of charm, a kind of incantation in your mind concerning that thing.  This is not understanding: it is something you remember.  So much for definitions!  We always have to go back and start from the beginning and make over all the definitions for ourselves again.
Even the things that can be seen clearly in the light aren’t always what they seem to be: scripture, the actions of another, our own lives, even.  It’s in the overcoming of the discomfort and the dis-ease of our own being that we finally start to reach out in the dark without fearing the monster that may lie waiting beyond our fingertips.  It’s in those moments when we really get to know the world as it really is.

Cryin’ Time

Posted in Encouragement with tags , , , , on June 16, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

ab2e6aae7569767e3cebea551eb71fb3The kid would not shut up.  The whole way back to Chicago from Newark he was screaming incessantly from his seat two rows in front of me.  It was bad enough to be stuck in a flying tin can, but to have a child crying like that was almost unbearable.  I didn’t have earphones, so the best I could do was to close my eyes and tune him out by recollecting the events that happened at the Writer’s Conference.

There was the time when we were all gathered in the chapel for midday worship as the rain came down in sheets outside.  The run from the event hall to the chapel was rather unpleasant, but there were no unhappy faces as we sat in our soggy state singing praises to God.  Just as we came to the line in the hymn proclaiming God’s majesty like the power of thunder, a deafening peal shook the chapel exactly was we were singing the word “thunder.”  We all glanced around at one another and just smiled.  Coincidence?  God showing off?  A not so subtle reminder?  Perhaps God was looking down and nudged an angel with an elbow saying, “Check this out.  Humans love it when I do this.”
Then there was the reading.  People who signed up had the opportunity to read samples of their writings for five minutes.  Some were mediocre, some were profound, some were just like the rest of us.  There were the occasional few that really hit home, though – such as when Em read his poem for his daughter that he had just sent off to college.  The precious moments he had with her when she was a child.  The periods of joy and sadness that they shared as she grew into a young woman.  And then finally the moment where they said goodbye at the riverbank while she went off to start the next chapter of her life.
Although my daughter is only three, it made me think of the things I will share with her and the things I will miss with her.  Since I no longer have the opportunity to see her every day, I imagine there will be many moments that I won’t get to have, although I’ll always do my best to play a pivotal role in her life.  It reminded me of the importance of parent-child relationships and how we have to choose peace and kindness toward those we love rather than grief.  As Father’s Day approaches, it’s especially important to consider these dynamics.
Suddenly, the voice of the crying child on the plane sounded less like a headache-inducing wail and more like the sweet music of an innocent child.  I became aware that such cries are to be embraced right along with the laughter because we won’t always have the opportunity to hear either one.

Stop Wishing!

Posted in Encouragement with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2016 by thecrossingchicago
man_climbingWhat a wimp.  I had three 45 lb plates and a 25 on each side of the bar and I was doing sets on the bench press like nobody’s business.  He only had two 10s on either side of his bar.  He might as well just stay home and lift pop cans.  It would save him the money on the gym membership.  In reality, though, he was lifting a lot more than I was.  It wasn’t just the 85 lbs that he was pressing off of his chest, it was also all of the comments telling him that he couldn’t do it because he only had one hand.
Amir lost most of his right hand in Afghanistan to a roadside bomb and is now living in Chicago as a refugee.  I often see him with his brother spotting him on the bench as he grabs the bar with his left hand and rests it between the stump and what he has left of a forefinger on his right hand.
Another at the gym – Ahmed – has nothing left but rounded stumps where both arms were blown off up to the elbows in Syria.  But that doesn’t stop him from doing what many people say they will do when they get around to it as they sit in their chairs dreaming and speaking of “someday.”
I was listening to a motivational speech recently, and the speaker said something that struck me: The richest place in the world is not Shanghai and it’s not Dubai or Singapore or Riyadh – it’s the cemetery.  So many people have gone to their graves with “someday” on their lips and unrealized dreams in their hearts.  Too many of us are making excuses as to why we can’t do something, even though it torments us every day that we don’t.  We wish we could plug the ears of our soul as our personal legend cries out to us from within: “This is why you’re here!  This is who you were meant to be!”
Perhaps today we can begin to do something different.  Try stopping and listening to that voice within and see what it has to say.  Even better, start acting on it and see what happens.  Don’t go through life like “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat” (TR).  Don’t spend your days saying “I wish,” when you have everything you need to make it happen!  And when you need encouragement, just come and watch Amir and Ahmed lift their complacency and excuses off their chest along with their weights.
Here’s to doing,

Savor the Pain

Posted in Encouragement with tags , , , on April 21, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

Paul was the penultimate masochist.  His writings are laden with calls to suffer as Christ suffered.  Perhaps in a particularly bleak bout with acedia, Paul even goes as far as to say that “to live is Christ, but to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).  Numerous other verses make it seem as though we are lesser Christians if we do not endure some form of suffering in our lives.  I doubt Paul was ever accused of being the life of the party.

I’m not a fan of suffering.  I don’t know of anyone who is sane that does either.  We try to avoid it at all costs, and for good reason – it royally sucks.  As much as we loath the idea of having to endure an unbearable experience, we all share the same reality that at least some bitterness in life is inevitable.  None of us is exempt from heartbreak and loss.  Such adversity is merely a part of our membership dues in the club we call the human race.

Any contemplative will tell you that suffering is a choice.  I agree.  Though we are subjected to tribulations, allowing them to break us is a decision that only we can make.  Nobody can make us despair.  It takes our cognizant intentional surrender to the situation and/or the persecutor to classify us as defeated.  Some choose this path and embrace the resulting acrimony and complacent indolence that is reserved only for those who have given up.

But there is something else about suffering beyond the mere survival of hardship: it’s one hell of a teacher.  Each experience – both bitter and sweet – forms us into the people we are today.  How these incidents form us is entirely up to us.  They may teach us that life is cruel and meaningless and that perpetual ennui is the true flavor of life.  Or they may teach us that we can, in fact, overcome even the worst of trials and that we are being formatively prepared for a brighter future.

I cannot honestly say that I have suffered in life.  Sure, I have had hardships and trying circumstances that took an emotional toll in their courses, but nothing that seemed insurmountable.  Or maybe the situation did seem hopeless at the time, but I have difficulty recalling that feeling because I’m now on the other side of the tunnel.  What I do know, though, is that each and every experience that I have had in life has prepared me for who and where I am now. 

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”  (Romans 5:3-5).  Yeah, Paul.  Right on.

The Resurrection of the Christ Within

Posted in Encouragement, true self, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 11, 2016 by thecrossingchicago

red-cross-jung-resurrectionIn his later years, Carl Jung became a genuine mystic and contemplative.  His theories of psychology eventually superseded the purely cognitive and reached in to the existential.  In his metaphysical journal that would come to be called The Red Book, Jung explored beyond the depths of the human psyche and into the eternal self, seeking the potential of individual humans and the interconnected humanity.

What is important and meaningful to my life is that I shall live as fully as possible to fulfill the divine will within me. This task gives me so much to do that I have no time for any other. Let me point out that if we were all to live in that way we would need no armies, no police, no diplomacy, no politics, no banks. We would have a meaningful life and not what we have now—madness. What nature asks of the apple-tree is that it shall bring forth apples, and of the pear-tree that it shall bring forth pears. Nature wants me to be simply man. But a man conscious of what I am, and of what I am doing. God seeks consciousness in man.

This is the truth of the birth and the resurrection of Christ within. As more and more thinking men come to it, this is the spiritual rebirth of the world. Christ, the Logos—that is to say, the mind, the understanding, shining into the darkness. Christ was a new truth about man. Mankind has no existence. I exist, you exist. But mankind is only a word. Be what God means you to be; don’t worry about mankind which doesn’t exist, you are avoiding looking at what does exist—the self.

In his transcendental thoughts, Jung points out that each of us has a divine potential that is at the core of our being.  The autonomy of the individual is merely an illusion – we are in actuality manifestations of the cosmic Christ and any individualistic tendency comes from a fissiparous human propensity.  Were we to awaken to the cosmic Christ and our own “divine will within,” peace and harmony would become the norm both in society and within our own souls.

While some are obsequious in their literal interpretation of scripture, I have an occasional tendency toward brash skepticism at most, or an intentional awareness of its metaphorical and allegoric nature at the least.  This is not to say that I do not “believe” in scripture, but I believe the way it has been interpreted and handed down over the years by mostly caucasian males has, in many ways, marred it’s true beauty and the divine imprint upon it.

Having said that, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:13 that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” has, in the past, elicited equal doses of hope and doubt.  If Christ strengthens us, then why do we sometimes feel so worn down and beat up?  Why does Christ choose arbitrarily whom and when to gird and support when needed?  When I look at Paul’s adulation of Christ as something that originates externally with no interaction on our part, I find cynicism bubbling up from within.  However, when I consider Christ to be the logos, the divine manifestation, the source of all being that exists within all of us that calls us to a conversion into our true self, then I do not merely find myself able to nod in intellectual assent, but I am comforted in some place and at some level that I cannot describe.  To know that such strength exists within to draw upon not because it’s occasionally available but because it’s the very nature of our existence creates in me that “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, spoke of the human conditioned inclination to ignore our true self and choose to make excuses rather than become who we were meant to be.  Many times, we even sabotage ourself and make ourselves into victims who are somehow prevented by ill-intentioned people that prevent us from attaining our true potential.  In reality, we fear what we do not understand and would rather not know who we are supposed to be, let alone live into that reality.

Perhaps I am stronger than I think.  Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength, and turn it against myself, thus making myself weak.  Making myself secure.  Making myself guilty.  Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me.  Perhaps I would rather be guilty and weak in myself than strong in Him whom I cannot understand.

The only way that we can discover our true selves and experience the resurrection of Christ within is to sit with ourselves in the silent stillness and ask ourselves the powerful questions that we are afraid to answer.  Who am I?  What is my deepest passion?  What gives me joy?  If my life were ideal, what would it look like?  What is preventing me from becoming who God wants me to be?  What am I afraid of?  Ask these questions and you will find that the answers were there all along.  Live those answers and you will finally become who you were meant to be.  When the path seems daunting and fear wracks your mind, just tell yourself that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because indeed, it is the potential that has existed within you since before you were born.  Claim it for your time for resurrection is now.

Knowing the Healer

Posted in Encouragement on March 14, 2011 by pastoralb

In John 5, Jesus is on his way back in to Jerusalem when he comes across a colony of blind, lame, and paralyzed people. The colony is centered around a pool called the Pool of Bethesda and everyone believed that angels would occasionally stir the pool giving it healing powers. They thought that the first one in the pool after the stirring would be healed.

Jesus walked up to a paralyzed man laying on the ground who had been that way for 38 years. Jesus knew that he had been paralyzed for that long and asks him, “Do you want to be well?” The man replies, “I can’t sir because I have nobody to put me in the water.” The man was fixated on the pool and thought that it was the only cure for his illness. Jesus taught him better by saying “Pick up your mat and walk.” So, the man did and without a word, picked up his mat and walked out to the temple grounds.

I can only imagine the scene. To hear that Jesus healed someone does not seem to stir any emotion in us anymore because we know that Jesus went around healing a lot of people and we tend to take this for granted. This event, must have been something amazing to witness, however. The man was frozen in one position and probably couldn’t even move his head very much. So he is staring up at the sky all day, every day for 38 years. Blue skies, grey skies, rain, thunderstorms, this is all he sees. Who knows what the weather was like that day, but I picture a blue sky with a few clouds. The man is lying there staring at a cloud as it passes by his field of vision and he imagines what shape the cloud resembles.

Just when the cloud was almost past where he could see it, a shadow fell over his face and a man who was covered in dust from his long journey stood over him and looked down on him with pity. After staring at each other for a few minutes, the dusty traveler speaks. “Do you want to be healed?” What did the man think about this wanderer? He most likely had a feeling of contempt. How many times had peope stood over him and teased him by asking him that same question? How many times had mockers made a false offer to take him to the pool just to walk away and leave him there? Who was this man? “Do I want to be healed? Dang this prankster for toying with me!” But somehow, this man with dirty feet but gentle eyes was different. The look on his face was one of genuine compassion. He may have been an escapee from the adjoining psych ward, but he genuinely wanted this man to be healed.

So, why not give it a try? Maybe the man was a joker and when the man made an effort to stand up nothing would happen just like every other time. The man would have a good laugh at his expense and go on his way. But something felt different this time. Felt? Oh my God, he could actually fFEEL for the first time in 38 years! This wasn’t just the simple healing of nerve endings and muscle motor response – this man had been on the same bed for 38 years in the same position. Imagine the sores he must have had all the way down his back and legs. Imagine how atrophied his muscles must have been. Expecting those muscles to support him would have been like putting a brick on jello and expecting it not to sink. He was used to having to rely on people to feed him, to carry him out of the rain, to come and stand over him in his line of sight so they could be seen. But this time, it was different! There was no laughing or mocking grin. THIS time, he could feel his limbs and they felt great! His limbs responded when he placed his hand on the ground to push himself up and he stood face to face with a human being for the first time since his youth! No longer was he being carried around on his mat, but this time, he was rolling up that mat and carrying it.

The man went to the temple grounds where all of the crowds were for the upcoming holiday. He walked by the Pharisees and in their typical fashion, they rebuked him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Why did he go to the Pharisees in the first place? Did he just happen to wander past them or did he have a purpose? I like to think that he went there to gloat. I like to think that he danced a little jig and said “Check THIS out! For the past 38 years you have been stepping over and around me and were unwilling and unable to do what this stranger has done for me. And now, I stand before you on my own two legs!” We do know that when he was scolded by the Pharisees he told them that it was the man who healed him who commanded him to carry his mat. The Pharisees asked, “Who is this man who told you to do such a thing?” They didn’t say, “Wow! Who has this power to heal like this?” Instead, they just wanted to know who was commanding people to break the law.

What is this mat that the man had to carry? I think it represented everything that carried him along in life. It was his complacency, his fear, his lust, and everything else that paralyzed him. Don’t we all have our safe little beds that we make to lie in so that we don’t have to take on the world? Why do we even bother? Sometimes the world brings us down when we are called to something great and so it is just easier to give up and wallow in our complacency. Plato said that “Complacency is the refuge of those who have lost the dream.” I repeat this quote often because I think it is so important. Do we still have a dream or have we lost it somewhere along the way?

The interesting thing is that the man didn’t know who had healed him. He replied to the Pharisees when asked that he didn’t know who the healer was because he had disappeared into the crowd. Jesus found him again, though, and said “Now you are well; so stop sinning, or something even worse may happen to you.” Sin? What sin? We don’t know for sure, but perhaps it was the sin of not kowing the healer. Sometimes we think that we can solve our own problems and deal with everything ourself so we forget that we have been healed and who did the healing. All the while the man thought the pool was his only hope to get well when in reality, Jesus was the only true healer. Don’t we sometimes forget the healer and then when the going gets too rough, we give up and go back to our mats to be carried around and left in paralysis from doing anything of substance or meaning?

“Stop sinning or something even worse may happen to you.” During that time, illness and sin were thought to be directly connected. Remember when the disciples asked Jesus about the blind man in John 9:2? “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” We tend to think of this as ridiculous today, but is it really? Don’t we get caught up in sinning and doing things that we don’t need to be doing and end up getting hurt ourselves as a result? I sure do. Maybe we just have to change our patterns so that “something worse doesn’t happen” to us.

So, I ask again, why bother? Perhaps it is just to know we tried. When we lie down on our mat for the last time and prepare to enter our final resting place, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look back over our lives and say we tried? Hasn’t God called us to greater and better things than we persue now? I want to leave you with these words from Teddy Roosevelt. I hope they inspire you as they do me. May you know the healer and may he set you free.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.