An Ode to Uncertainty

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

It must be nice to have all the answers.  The rest of us get to walk in the dark amidst the mystery and uncertainty while trying not to break a toe on the bedpost.  Some people have more (perceived) authority to be so sure of themselves than others.

When Constantine took control of the reigns of Christianity and the councils were banishing people as heretics left and right in the name of orthodoxy, those who had the ear of the emperor could carry an air of confidence as they wrote the theology books.  It’s no surprise that it didn’t take long for the desert fathers and mothers to escape the sureness of the prevailing theologians and seek an experience of God outside of dogmatic decree.

This cycle has repeated itself throughout religious history and on into the age of enlightenment and reason.  Fundamentalists latched onto and nailed down anything they could in the whirlwind of logical existentialism and emerged from the rubble with a literal and confident understanding of scripture and theology.  It’s worth noting at this point that theology isn’t really the study of God, but rather the study of humankind’s thoughts and perceptions about God . . . .

Today, we are finding more and more people grappling with the questions that have plagued us since the beginning of time.  Better yet, there is an increase in those who are being vocal and doing something about the questions that they carry.  Some choose to study theology more deeply to find the answers.  Some read the Bible or ask clergy.  Other, sit in silence with their heads in their hands wondering what went wrong when, like Elijah, they finally discover God “in the sound of sheer silence.”  This isn’t the “knowing” of God that they had sought, but rather an experiential “unknowing” that is ultimately more real.

In a society where we are taught to learn more and know more regarding just about everything, it is difficult to embrace mystery.  Yes, it’s irresponsible to rest upon platitudes and merely make the words, “God works in mysterious ways” an ascent to ignorance.  However, for most of us, we would serve ourselves well by practicing a little more awareness and a little less certainty.

As of late, I have come to see the truth in this line of reasoning in my own life.  Things that I thought would serve me and make my life more fulfilling have, at times, turned out to be a hindrance.  Being so sure of what I need and of what God needs of me usually will only lead to discontent.  Instead, I will sit in the darkness and not be so concerned about stumbling because I choose to be there – embracing the beauty, the experience, and my own transformation from the inside of an unknown, mysterious, and still-creating God.

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The Birth of Self

Posted in Uncategorized on December 26, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

I tend to have equal parts of love and enmity for Christmas each year.  Yes, I love what the season represents, but there is also all of the work as a pastor that goes into making Christmas meet everyone’s expectations: giving the congregation a great service, making sure my kids have enough presents that they actually want, etc.  While the beauty of it all stirs me, I’m also rather cynical as people rush around for gifts and lights and tinsel.  A pastor friend of mine even reached out to me minutes ago to share how much Christmas wears her out.  I can only agree, but a recent realization gives me hope.

Advent is coming to an end and we will pass into Christmastide and on into Epiphany.  I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the liturgical calendar and have become acutely aware that there is an internal process as well as an external one.  Externally, we consider the life of Jesus and what each phase of his life meant to the world.  Waiting for the Christ Child through Advent, his birth at Christmas, homage at Epiphany, journeying into the wilderness at Lent, dying on Good Friday, and being resurrected at Easter.

This is the typical progression that we celebrate throughout the year, but what if we were to undertake the inner work during these seasons?  Each step along the path of Jesus’s life is also a metaphorical representation of our own life journey.  Unfortunately we tend to experience these seasons from the periphery as we go through the motions, but I have become convinced that there is something miraculous that can happen if we commit to the process internally.

There is both a corporate and an individual aspect to the different liturgical seasons.  The corporate and cultural aspects (centered in our westernized Judeo-Christian cultural context) tend to get the most attention.  But what would it look like for us and for the world if we took each season with an attitude of intentionality and commitment to the inner work while celebrating the traditional meaning?  Perhaps it might look like this:

Advent – Traditionally, we await the coming of the Christ-child.  A light shines in the darkness and we wait in expectation for the birth of hope into a world that feels hopeless.

Internally we turn our gaze inward toward the light that shines at the depths of our being – the divine flame that burns within each of us.  We progress through Advent with a growing awareness of this flame and let the God-In-Us grow.  Like the desert fathers and mothers, the great mystics of past and present, we recognize the mysteries within and without and begin a commitment to embrace them.  The light shines gradually brighter and the darkness recedes with the only remaining unlit corners not as ominous traps, but as questions to be lived.

Christmas – Jesus is born into the world and despite the troubled climate of the land, the possibility of justice emerges.

Within us, the light emerges fully and for the first time, we begin to realize that change is actually possible.  There is a shift in our mindset from complacency to conviction and determination.  We refuse to give up in the face of opposition and start to claim our own lives.  The True Self that has been cloaked in darkness and fear emerges and our sense of purpose brings new meaning to being alive.

Epiphany – Three wandering Oriental mystics take notice of a shift in the cosmos and are curious.  They begin a journey across the desert to find the reason for this shift.  They pay homage to the baby Jesus and bring him gifts.

Inside, we develop an awareness that this “thing” is actually working.  It is not merely an idea, but a concrescence being born into reality.  As Catherine of Siena said, being who were were made to be actually is setting the world on fire.  People around us notice the shift in our countenance and feel the joy and peace that we are experiencing from being our True Selves.  This realization starts to take hold on those around us and a transformation begins.

Lent – Jesus leaves civilization and decides to go into the wilderness alone.  Many times he is tempted to take the easy route, but he commits to seeing his journey to completion.

In our hearts and minds, we come to the realization that, while we have allowed for the birth of our True Self within and the nurturing of the essence of our being that interconnects us all, there is a lot that needs to be let go before that True Self can fully thrive.  So, we embark on an inner journey of self reflection through which we carefully identify those attachments, relationships, habits that may (or may not) have served us in the past.  We realize that most of these things only served to feed and affirm our False Selves.

Good Friday – Jesus is led to Golgotha and crucified at Calvary.  He cries out to God “Eloi!  Eloi!  Lama Sabakhthani!?” My God! My God!  Why have you forsaken me!?  His Godhood within and without are at odds and he struggles with his destiny.

For us, we have done the work of naming those things that have to go in order for us to fully live into our True Selves.  We have identified what needs to die, but with both a sense of liberation and trepidation, have realized that we cannot merely shed those things, but must die completely to our False Self.  It isn’t easy.  There is much emotional and existential pain.  We have become so used to being who we thought the world wanted us to be that it feels nearly impossible to sacrifice that Self.  It’s who we have known and been for all of these years and as with anything, it’s easier to stick with what you know – even at the cost of losing our True Selves (recall the Exodus story).  But, we do it anyway.  We carry those burdensome and heavy traits of our False Self and through gritted teeth and stinging tears, cry out as our False Self breathes its last.

Easter – Jesus is called out of the tomb and when the stone is rolled away, he is nowhere to be found – until a gentle voice falls upon Mary’s troubled ears.

We open our eyes in complete darkness.  For a split second, we panic wishing that we had shorter memories.  But the grave clothes come off in strips more easily than we expected.  The cool smoothness of the rock walls inside the tomb are cool and soothing to the touch as we grope along the wall until we feel the huge stone that stands between us and  the sunlight.  Our fingers find their way to a small gap where a sliver of light pierces the darkness and we push with all of our might.  The stone moves slowly, at first, and then gravity helps.  The stone rolls down the hill as we smile, finding it reassuring that even the laws of nature were on our side from the beginning.  We make our way out into the day – resurrected, whole, healed.  Those who come to look for us in the tomb do not find us and as they weep for our selves and their own selves, they turn with a start as we place our hand on their shoulder saying, “It’s ok.  I’m not in there anymore.”

And so they begin their own journey to resurrection, to their true selves.  And so begins a revolution of societal transformation all because we chose to do the inner work through the liturgical seasons.

 

Christian Mindfulness

Posted in Uncategorized on August 22, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

Elijah

You wanted to descend like a storm wind

And to be mighty in deed like the tempest,

You wanted to blow being to being

And bless human souls while scourging them,

To admonish weary hearts in the hot whirlpool

And to stir the rigid to agitated light,

You sought me on your stormy paths

And did not find me.

You wanted to soar upward like a fire

And wipe out all that did not stand your test,

Sun-powerful, you wanted to scorch worlds

And to refine worlds in sacrificial flame,

With sudden force to kindle a young nothingness

T0 new becoming of blessed poem,

You sought me in your flaming abysses

And did not find me.

Then my messenger came to you

And placed your ear next to the still life of my earth,

Then you felt how seed after seed began to stir,

And all the movements of growing things encircled you,

Blood hammered against blood, and the silence overcame you,

Then you had to incline upon yourself,

Then you found me.

— Martin Buber

There seems to be a lot of disconnect when it comes to the subject of mindfulness.  Most people assume it is a Buddhist thing and so many Christians who are careful not to tiptoe the inter-religious lines shy away from it like an unclean leper.  The truth is, though, that mindfulness exists in all religions and no religion.

When one thinks of mindfulness, depending upon the person, the mind goes to certain aspects: meditation, enlightenment, awareness, presence, breathing, etc.  None of these are particular to Buddhism.  Meditation and contemplation, for example, are something that go back to the early days of Christianity when the desert fathers and mothers escaped to isolation where they could avoid politics and experience God.  Centering prayer, Lectio Divina, and even meditation are ancient practices common to Christianity.

The practice of awareness is one that Jesus spoke of extensively.  He constantly warned the disciples to be aware and the Psalms are full of hymns that sing of the awareness of the presence of God.  Being present to those whose company we keep, focusing on our breath, active listening, all of these things bring a deeper awareness of the sacred space between and around us.

I often wonder if joy is somehow our perceptible inner reaction to the awareness of the presence of God.  I believe it was Buechner who said that happiness can be attained anywhere, but true joy can only come from God.  This past week as my boys are in Japan, I spent four days with my daughter.  Cuddling, laughing, going on carnival rides, chatting, drawing together, skipping while singing songs, making up silly songs about her beating up monsters, and all of these things brought me such joy.  Feeling her head on my shoulder as I patted her back to sleep and hearing her say, “I love you, daddy” served as a bigger testament to the presence of God than any written scripture.

It matters not what religion we practice nor who we credit with “inventing” mindfulness.  What matters is the way we sit in the silence and watch the gentle rise and fall of a small child’s chest as she breathes; the way she rolls over in her sleep to touch your arm to make sure that you’re still there and in that moment your mind and soul are aware of nothing else. Just like Elijah, it is only when we pause so still and quiet as to hear the beat of our own heart and sigh from our chest in synchrony with that of the universe that we are truly aware of the essence of life.

Storms

Posted in Uncategorized on July 12, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

Storms make me think.  Not that I’m contemplating the storm itself nor the awesome byproducts that shake the land and light the skies.  But, because inside the house is the best place to be and the weather isn’t conducive to running around outside, it forces me to sit inside and be still.

During such times of contemplation I find a great peace and clarity that can’t be found in racing around and chasing after things I “need” to get done.  It is in such moments that I catch a glimpse of myself – the real me, the me that doesn’t need to prove anything to others, the me that doesn’t have to get something done that has nothing to do with me just so I can feel that others approve of me, the me that knows who and what I am.  That me is much simpler and needs much less than the me “out in the world.”

We sing of a land of unclouded days and the time when the storms will pass, but sometimes the storm is just what we need to make us stop, sit still, and be.

Sure, it was frustrating when I ran up to the doors at Aldi and they were locked due to the power being out.  I got drenched and ran back to the car feeling cold and drenched.  But, as I said, there was also something redemptive in the rain.

Don’t fret over the things that aren’t getting done when you are stuck in the house.  Don’t lament the storm that rages outside.  Instead, note and appreciate the storm’s majesty.  And then, just sit and be and meet someone whom you may have not met in quite some time, or perhaps have never met – yourself.

Another Tale of Adam and Eve

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 29, 2017 by thecrossingchicago
I once read an intriguing book by Patti Smith called M Train.  It is a wonderful memoir and in some ways, a treatise on life and all of its wonders.  In a chapter called Clock with No Hands, I came across this gem:
In the beginning was real time.  A woman enters a garden that is bursting with color.  She has no memory, only a burgeoning curiosity.  She approaches the man.  He is not curious.  He stands before a tree.  Within the tree is a word that becomes a name.  He receives the name of every living thing.  At one with the present he has neither ambition nor dream.  The woman reaches toward him, gripped by the mystery of sensation.

When I envision this scene, I see Adam and Eve.  Adam is disinterested.  He’s an automaton.  He doesn’t have much wonder or feeling.  He’s just created out of dust and has no capacity to feel.  Eve, on the other hand, was born of humankind.  She came from flesh, not dirt.  She has an innate capacity for curiosity and awareness of mystery.  She ponders, she explores.  In so doing, there are of course risks and the potential for causing or receiving harm is there, but it’s worth it.  Much better than not living.

 
Adam has the names.  He receives them and it gives him some sensation of power and, for him, that is enough.  He doesn’t feel the need to explore – even within his own mind.  He has control – or at least the illusion of it – and holds on to what he “knows,” e.g. the names, for dear life.  He becomes infatuated with the tree and likens it to his life and meaning when it was the names that were important, not the tree. In his unceasing grip on that tree he fails to understand what the names mean and they become for him a mere means to assigning purpose to his life, albeit a false one.

 
Eve has no memory.  Even if she does “remember” things, she chooses to not let them become a hindrance in discovery.  She still wears the scars and the bruises from past mistakes, failures, abuses.  But she moves forward with arms open to embrace life.
 
In essence, Eve has what Thich Naht Hanh calls a “beginners mind.”  She doesn’t come to the dance thinking, “Yeah, I’ve seen this movie before.  I’m not going to get in and get hurt again.”  Instead, she views each experience as a new one.  She doesn’t bring her preconceived notions that will hold her back or lead her to assume she already knows the outcome.

 
This idea of choosing to live with all of its risks reminds me of one of my favorite quotes.  This one is from Teddy Roosevelt:

 
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.
 
Indeed life is not easy.  It can be downright dangerous and offending.  It can leave you beat up and broken.  But if you don’t choose to live it and take the risks, then you will never taste the sweetness of victory nor the elation of discovering new worlds.

What They Didn’t Tell You

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

At the writer’s conference that I mentioned in my last post, we were challenged in one of the individual workshops with writing prompts.  Sometimes the prompts can be downright hokey, but I thought that most of those given at the conference were genuinely thought- and reflection-provoking.  The final prompt that was given to take back with us to our respective homes and writing desks was, “What they don’t tell you about.”  So, I will stick with the theme and see how it goes.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

They.  The pronoun that represents anyone and no one.  I guess “they” are grandparents, parents, the wise elders of society, talking heads, preachers, and gurus.  They tell you that you can get whatever you want as long as you work hard enough for it.  They tell you to never give up.  They tell you that if you get a college education that everything will go smoothly.  They even tell you that there will be some pain in life, but there is nothing that God gives us that we can’t handle. Yeah, they tell you a lot, but there’s plenty that they don’t tell you.

For one thing, they don’t tell you about how unfair life can sometimes be – that life really is like a box of chocolates.  That, although you think you know,  you have no idea what you are biting in to and there’s a good chance that you might crack a tooth on an unexpected almond.  Or that you may put the whole piece in your mouth while in unfamiliar company just to realize it’s coconut when you can’t stand the taste of coconut and it makes you want to puke,  but you can’t spit it out so you swallow it trying to keep the wince imperceptible.

They also don’t mention that regardless of the taste of the filling or the texture of the inside, life is encapsulated in sweetness.  You’ll sometimes draw some that aren’t the most appealing or tasty or even downright disgusting, but there is still some deliciousness even in that single bite and if you only focus on it, the experience can still be enjoyable.

Another thing they don’t tell you is that order of things is really just a fabrication to make ourselves feel better.  Babies will die before their mothers and grandparents will live to see their grandchildren perish.  The true order is that there is none.  We are made to believe that as long as we treat people nicely, we will live long lives and never experience the pain of loss.  But we all know that this is a fairy tale.

The flip side to this is another thing that they don’t teach you – that there is healing on the other side.  That things will somehow be ok despite the fact that they never will be.  There’s nothing anyone can say to make it better and you will hear many utterances that will make matters worse instead of better, even though the one saying them means well.  You will even be guilty of making such comments yourself.  You will learn, though, that there is such a thing as “holding space” and that the mere compassionate presence of another will do wonders to help you see that indeed God is with you though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  They don’t tell you that, as painful as it may be, you will sometimes be situated at the right place and time to be that compassionate presence for another.

They tell you that you can be and do anything you want to in life as long as you work hard.  If you go to school and get a good education, then the world is your oyster and nothing can stop you.  They tell you that you can make as much money as you want and have any job that you want as long as you keep your nose to the grindstone and go to the right schools.

What they don’t tell you is that your grade A education can never be a substitute for passion.  They don’t mention that you can get that great job and then be laid off in a flash of restructuring.  They forget to teach you that all of your book studies will never prepare you for the realities of life and that compassion and mindfulness will always supersede knowledge.  They also forgot to impart to you that money isn’t and never will be everything and that you can become a prisoner in a cell of your own construction.

Even with all of this, they don’t tell you that there is such a thing as joy.  Being caught up in the “important things,” they forget to mention the euphoria that comes from feeding a hungry child or the feeling of wet sand between your toes as you walk barefoot at the beach or the sound of rain on leaves and freshly bloomed flowers.  They overlook sharing that there are sacred spaces and music that stirs the soul and good wine.  They didn’t deem it worthwhile to mention that the sound of laughter can move you more than any pithy quote and that there is more peace to be found in a single breath than in all the sacred texts ever written.

They forgot to teach you a lot.  But despite that, you have learned.  Life taught you what they couldn’t and you have been a good student because at some point you realized that the key to understanding wasn’t how much you studied or where you went to school, but how well you listened and how aware you were about how things really are.  Well done good and faithful student.  And let’s not blame them.  Maybe they never did learn or maybe they forgot or perhaps they were just too afraid to let go of the way they think things ought to be.  You have done and occasionally still do that.  So do I.

 

With a Lump in My Throat

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

For the past few days, I was at Princeton Seminary for the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop – something so worthwhile that I have made it into an annual pilgrimage.  Listening to geniuses such as Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and the master himself through other greats speak of the craft is exhilarating.  It always serves as the catalyst that I need to get out of a slump and begin to write again with more passion.

Buechner has written volume after volume about religion and spirituality.  In speaking of the word itself, he says that

[r]eligion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.

I often find myself allergic to the word “religion”.  When someone launches on a diatribe around religion, I feel my throat swelling, my arms begin to itch, and a sneeze tickle its way out.  Anaphylaxis sets in and my breathing becomes belabored.  The word “spirituality” seems to connote, for me, a more approachable reality that allows for the movement of the spirit and not a mere assent to intellectual understanding or belief.  Buechner provides for me an antihistamine with unfathomable efficacy.

For Buechner, writing  is and was a religious practice.  It is a ritual for the writer to express his or her encounter with the divine.  It is, although often inadequate, an attempt to reveal to the rest of the world what the mystic has perhaps accidentally stumbled upon.  Sitting down to convey such an experience is akin to chanting an ancient liturgy or presenting bread and wine in the hopes that those gathered at the altar can see it as body and blood as clearly as the one who is giving it.

In order to write, to create, to do religion, to actually see beyond the veil, one must acknowledge whatever it is he or she has come upon.  Unfortunately, few of us give ourselves enough credit to be able to see in such a way that our souls converse with the whispers and sighs that are beyond words.  Buechner says:

We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe—life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.

“To enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.”  And there it is.  The redemption, for me, of the word “religion.”  That’s all it is.  Simply a word that struggles in its simplicity to describe a reality beyond description.  Sacred space, thin places, the setting where the Spirit can faintly be heard dancing over the face of the deep causing ripples that seem to hum something so beautiful that not even Barber could have conceived it.

Some do, however, dare to undertake the impossible.  Those who create art are those who listen for the voice of the muses and attempt to translate their message for the rest of us.  Buechner said that those creative souls who set about this work of holy interpretation are driven by a fire not unlike that of Jeremiah when he said that “the word is in my bones and if I do not speak it, it will consume me.”  The labor of imagination and awareness of an unseen place plants the seeds that allow for the birth of the sacred amidst the mundane.

Buechner shows us what this process looks like for the writer as he or she sits down to create as the experience they seek to record is recalled:

First the lump in the throat, the stranger’s face unfurling like a flower, and then the clatter of the keys, the ting-a-ling of the right-hand margin. One thinks of Pascal sewing into his jacket, where after his death a servant found it, his “since about half past ten in the evening until about half past midnight. Fire. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace,” stammering it out like a child because he had to. Fire, fire, and then the scratch of pen on paper. There are always some who have to set it down in black and white.

Sitting on the Orange Line train from Midway Airport, alone with my thoughts and having nothing better to do than reflect over the wisdom imparted while hoping that with me it didn’t fall futilely like seeds on barren land, something occurred to me.  Those brave souls like Buechner, Lamott, Taylor, Norris, O’Donohue, and many others who came before and after them make visible for us what is otherwise invisible.  Things like the flutter of angels’ wings behind an oak tree whose leaves are set ablaze by the sinking sun.

For us, these courageous ones who use urim and thummim to see beyond the substance of things unseen all the way through to the true essence of creation and being itself are creative mystics.  They use their tools – pen and paper, computer, typewriter, brush and easel, score paper – and open a door to the place where dreams are birthed from the tehom.

They are like the great scientists who challenge us to imagine that the impossible is possible and that hope is more than ephemeral.  Grabbing us gently by the shoulders and leading us over to peer down into life itself through their microscope or out through their telescope where the heavens expand and Browning’s reach exceeds his grasp, they show us.

“Do you see it?” they ask us.

“No.  What is it?” we say.

“There!  Look there.  You’re looking right at it, but not seeing it.”

And then suddenly we gasp as it becomes visible.  Our eyes wide open followed by a smile so vast that it almost hurts our face.  It comes into focus for the first time.  The sacred.  The mystery.  The burning bush that is engulfed in flames, but not consumed.  And silently we remove our shoes and weep.

 

* Quotes are from Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner