Becoming Peacemakers

I’ve been re-cultivating the discipline of push-ups against the door frame lately. Fifteen was a challenge to start with, and now I can do thirty. I’m stronger, but it wasn’t entirely my doing.

I did stick with the activity, remembered to take time most days, persevered in pressing my weight away from the door frame until my muscles complained, endured the sense of weakness as I reached my limit. That much I could do.

But the getting stronger part is a mystery. It happens quite independently of anything I can direct. The body’s own wisdom and intelligence is knit into how we’re made.  It repairs the tiny fissures in the muscles in a way that leaves them more powerful. I invite that repair by exercising enough to stress the muscles without overstraining them. But the growing strength is the body’s own doing. That potential is built into the design of this miraculous embodied experience.

We do our work—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—in co-operation with the universe. Hopefully over time we learn to make space for the greater wisdom and power available to us. Into that space enters a transformative life force beyond anything we can put there. Trusting that process is what faith means. We aren’t alone; it’s never up to us alone.

Just before I fall asleep at night I know I’m being carried and I can let go. In fact, only if I let go can I sleep. Such a mystery, this space that opens up when I step back from thinking, planning, reviewing, worrying. In that space is an unnameable reality more real, more enduring, than all the plans and work and details that pass away. In that space is the experience of safety, wholeness, and love.

We’re part of the magnificent flow of life. We do our best to do our part, whatever that may be. Whether we’re in the calm before the storm or the storm before the calm, we’re carried by something bigger.

Making space to connect with that source of wisdom can change our perspective. As we rest from our labors, it knits us together stronger. And when we take up our tasks again, the strengthened source of wisdom within helps us offer the peacemaking presence that this world sorely needs.

 

Walnut Season

Earlier this week I took an evening walk under a canopy of beautiful old trees. The light was golden, shining through the sheltering limbs. But as the breeze stirred, the walnut trees did what they do in the fall. Suddenly I was surrounded by the force of heavy green-husked globes pelting the pavement and splitting open. Hoping to avoid a knock on the head, I scurried to the other side of the street.

walnut-in-hull

Last week on a retreat at Loretto, I also found walnuts wholly or partially encased in their hulls scattered across the grounds and walkways. I had to watch where I stepped to avoid stumbling. These gifts from the trees can trip you up, but at the same time they offer themselves to whomever will gather them.

The retreat was led by Lisa Maas, whose ability to lead Spirit-centered groups has enriched my life again and again. Over the two days we spent together, our group talked about the fears and self-protective habits that get in the way of fully experiencing life, love, other people, and the presence of the Divine. Using the tools of the Enneagram, we looked at our personal types according to our primary coping strategies. We considered how, though they may have served us well long ago, those patterns of behavior eventually interfere with living a full life.

Coming face-to-face with how we limit ourselves through long-held patterns is a moment of truth that can be very painful. Yet that is the human condition, and seeing it is how we come to maturity. The path to our transformation is through our weakest aspects. In our encounter with the inadequacy of our approach to life, we invite the divine healing that turns our limitations inside-out and reveals the gifts, and the strengths, that are uniquely ours to share with the world.

I was thinking of all these things as I walked the campus of Loretto. I considered gathering the walnuts lying about, but that black inner hull meant unavoidably staining my hands and clothing. I love walnuts, but there is no way to get to them without encountering the messy blackness surrounding the nut. On the other hand, the intact hull is beautiful, and bowl of those green spheres would make a lovely display. But what a waste it would be to never get to the real treasure inside.

I’m glad to find walnuts at the grocery store already hulled and shelled. But in our authentic spiritual lives we are not spared the messiness. The way to spiritual maturity leads through dismaying truths we don’t want to contend with. But this is simply how growth works. If we can bear to be present with them, our shortcomings show us what we need. They break open our husk and reveal our vulnerability, our need for guidance, and the way forward.

That’s how we get to the heart of life. That’s how we grow into who we really are. Our frailties make us part of humanity and teach us compassion—for ourselves and others. As Leonard Cohen says, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Looking deeply at what is can be messy, like a walnut hull’s black interior. But that’s not the end of the story. If we keep going we find what is nourishing and delicious. We’re surrounded with reminders and invitations to take this journey. Walnuts are falling all the time, trying to get our attention.

Look out!

A Gift Just for Showing Up

If I hadn’t had a role to play in the service today, I would have skipped church. With family visiting all too briefly from out of town, another cup of coffee together sounded like a better plan. But since I was needed there I drove to church instead, listening to NPR on the way.

I’ve resisted the anniversary observances of 9/11 this year, wanting to avoid dwelling on the suffering in that event and the dismay at what has transpired since then. But the reminders are everywhere this weekend, and this morning’s coverage left me feeling the weight of the past ten years.

I found myself thinking that if I had to be going anywhere I was glad it was to church. If nothing else, I was glad to be offering up the events and emotions of this anniversary with others, as part of a service that makes remembering more bearable and perhaps even more meaningful because it is shared.

As I waited in back to follow a cherubic acolyte up the aisle during the opening hymn, I had a vision of the sanctuary I had never experienced before. The glass walls at the back of the sanctuary caught the light in just the right way to reflect the trees in the garden behind the church.

The reflection of their trunks blended with the wood of the pews on the other side of the glass, so that the trees seemed to have taken root in the sanctuary. A canopy of green appeared to shelter the worshipers and the center aisle was like a tree-lined garden walk. As a breeze lifted the branches and rustled the leaves outside, the reflected movement seemed an image of the holy spirit, stirring gently among the congregation.

Knowing I couldn’t possibly do justice to the scene, I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo anyway, just to help me remember. It’s the picture you see here, the photographic equivalent of an illegibly scribbled note.

I’ve written about trees in a church before—something I find to be a meaningful symbol. That’s why this scene of a worship service overlaid with the life of a garden felt like a gift. In the fullness of late-summer growth, brought to life by a gentle wind, the reflected image of the trees spoke of suppleness and fruitfulness, deep roots and new branches, life and hope.

At its best, that’s what a church is all about. And because I showed up today, I was able to experience a reminder of the good that can come from people gathering together. On today, of all days, I’m glad I was there.

I’ll leave you with a verse from the opening hymn we sang:

Yes, on through life’s long path,
still singing as you go,
from youth to age, by night and day,
in gladness and in woe
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.

 

 

 

When a Week Holds Too Much

Some weeks I feel like nothing more than clay thrown on the potter’s wheel. Hollowed out by forces beyond my control, I see once again that I am not in charge here. Life presses in, making it clear that I have not reached my final form. The potter is not finished with me.

Yet just as I’ve been pressed and pounded, I’ve also been stretched and shaped. The vessel’s curved sides are taking shape, rising in accord with the potter’s vision in these last few turns of the wheel.

We have a great deal of freedom in what we do with our lives, but we are not in control. Sometimes the best I can do is to be good clay. I can try for the balance of malleability and resistance that allows the formation of a good vessel. I can try to sustain the cohesiveness that allows good clay to hold its form.

The sum of the past several days may feel like more than I can hold—challenge and loss, hope and disappointment, love and sorrow—yet the week has nonetheless brought all of it. So I act as I am able, and respond as I can. I cannot assuage my friend’s grief, but I can offer soup and love. I cannot make the world kind, but I can make laundry clean. I cannot make life easy, but I can be grateful for the ability to work.

I cannot see the future, but I can appreciate the beauty of the world around me. I cannot make my wishes come true, but I can take a risk and reach toward them. I can neither force nor forestall change, but I can accept the love and grace that remain constant.

The wheel keeps turning; a hand I trust remains on the clay. All will be well.

What is the turning wheel bringing to you?

Moving Forward When We Don’t Know the Way

When my daughter was in elementary school, there was one year when math was more than a class—it was a foe that demanded months of wrestling before she could pin it to the mat. Those afternoon homework sessions required a lot from both of us; it took all the patience and humor, strength and courage we could muster.

But the most important breakthrough came when I finally realized that she believed she was supposed to already know how to work the new problems. She cut herself no slack for the process of learning a new skill. If she couldn’t master it immediately then it was too scary, too hard, and too far out of reach. The first thing she had to learn was that it’s ok if you don’t yet know how to solve a problem. You’re not supposed to already know everything. You’re learning. That’s your job.

After that, it was just a matter of learning to work the problems. She overcame her math anxiety—better than I did at her age. And I came to appreciate the importance of not being intimidated by problems we don’t yet know how to solve. Years later, it remains a good lesson to remember when I need to move forward and don’t know how.

We all face problems that we’ve never encountered before, requiring resources and abilities we have never used. People who have passed through a time of change often speak of finding strength they didn’t know they had. They look back and see the growth that occurred as they rose to meet the challenge. Life seems designed to foster our development in this way.

The issues we face have been there for others as well. Whether the challenge arises from a particular situation or in the larger context of the changes in our lives, we are not alone. There is a source of wisdom and clarity that far exceeds anything we can know on our own. That Source is at work, urging us toward where we need to be and helping us to get there. It’s ok to take one step at a time; it’s ok to only see one step at a time. God works through those steps, leading us to move in the right direction. People with insight and experience can also help, and often appear on our path as if placed there by a loving guide.

We can trust that we’re being led forward even when progress is hard to see. It’s easier to remember that when I know how to work the problem. But it’s even more important to remember it when I feel I’m not up to the task. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid,” are the words of Jesus in John. This deep reassurance is part of the gift of faith. Not knowing how to proceed doesn’t mean I can’t meet the challenge. It means relying on the abundant resources available. It means remembering to pray, and to open my eyes to how prayer is answered.

What helps you move forward when you don’t know the way?

The Path Back to the Garden

I’ve recently read two good books: Women Food and God by Geneen Roth and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At first glance they seem to be about very different subjects—making peace with food and making art. But reading them in close proximity has me thinking about them together and finding connections I didn’t expect.

Geneen Roth’s work arises out of her experience with compulsive eating and her years of helping others separate food from the emotional issues tangled up with eating. But her insight is into addictions of all kinds. Seeking refuge in the addiction is how we abandon ourselves, withholding the attention to our own hearts that can show us what we most need to know.

She describes it as:

an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings…we ignore what could utterly transform us.

Steven Pressfield’s work is about overcoming the resistance that arises in anyone attempting to do something new. An artist must recognize and conquer the impediments that inevitably arise when we try to shape a new creation, realize a new vision, or express a new idea. Resistance would enforce the status quo, having us abandon our risky calling and with it our highest self.

He writes:

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Both writers see the work we’re called to do as deeply connected with the divine. Both understand how easily we are kept from that work, and the heartache that ensues. Roth urges us to remain present to ourselves when we’re tempted to flee. Pressfield insists that we show up to do the work even when it feels impossible. They are connected.

Being present to ourselves allows us to do the work. Doing the work makes us present to ourselves. Both place us in the presence of God. Taking refuge in addiction is a kind of resistance to the life we’re called to live. Allowing resistance to come between us and our true work creates a false refuge in which we can never find a fulfilling life. Both are an attempt to hide when God calls our name.

An addiction cuts us off from the Tree of Knowledge standing in the center of the Garden. But as soon as we bring our attention to our behavior, to the thoughts and emotions driving it, the addiction shows us the way back. Likewise resistance keeps us out of the garden we were created to tend. No other work will give us satisfaction until we climb over the walls that stand between us and our calling.

What’s the next step leading back to the garden?

Ordinary Time

The rush of wind and tongues of flame in the story of Pentecost are powerful symbols of transformation. The drama of the Christian story breaks into flame, and a bewildered body of believers is energized and empowered to become the church. It’s a moment of incredible intensity, but the story doesn’t end at that crescendo. In real life, it never does.

We celebrated Pentecost on Sunday, honoring the power and presence of the spirit in myriad manifestations then and now. But on Monday, the church simply entered the season of ordinary time.

Fire creates a drama that’s tough to follow, and the liturgical calendar makes no attempt to top it. The high seasons of Lent and Eastertide have passed, the liturgical purple, white and gold, and red are folded and put away. Through the remainder of spring and summer, and well into the fall, the church wears green—the color of life and growth. It’s time to move into a growing season that unfolds in its own time, yielding the fruit that the coming days will nourish. Whether it’s in the church year or in our individual lives, growth is manifest in ordinary time.

The drama wanes in the return to everyday life. When tongues of flame set us alight, we know there’s something happening. We’re part of something big, and life is exciting. When we’re merely a vine trying to put out a new leaf, the work is hard and the audience is gone.

The return to ordinary time is like the lesson from a Zen master—Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water; After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. Our spiritual life may change, but ordinary chores remain. We may awaken to a richer reality, but we live out that new perspective in this world—the only one we have.

A vision of what life might be depends on the work of carrying it out. The miracle of transformation is only experienced when it is lived. Transcendence can be visited upon us in a moment, but following through in the world takes time and strength.

Moses came down from the mountain to the mess that his people had made, and he led them to a better life. Though Peter encouraged Jesus to dwell on the mountain of his transfiguration, he returned to his ministry and made the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Mountaintop moments come to fruition when we return to daily life.

When the Holy Spirit blew into the lives of Jesus’ followers, it was through the hole in their world left by his departure. It blows into our lives, too, through openings we may not even realize are there. Its arrival may not be dramatic, and its presence may be subtle. But it abides where it matters—in ordinary time.

What happens next?

Make Us Free to Dare and Dream

Graduation day at Lexington Theological Seminary is announced with bagpipes. The piper, in full regalia, fills the air with tradition. The past is present as we look to the future. Today the Class of 2010 walked down the green hill of the LTS campus and across South Limestone, led once again by the piper, Will Young.

The sound of the bagpipes carries, whether across the moors or across a busy city block. The tones evoke a sense of ancient memory and speak of spiritual longing. The graduation procession winds down the hill, leaving the campus of the seminary—a fitting ritual for commencement. The traffic of modern life pauses for a moment as the line of choir, faculty, trustees, and graduates threads its way across the busy street to the swell of the piper’s chords.

The church has been changing for centuries upon centuries, and the education of its ministers has changed as well. Those connected with LTS are now living through the necessity of change, its uncertainty, and the arduous effort it requires. The seminary is making a transition into new ways of reaching and educating students, and the churches its graduates serve will be finding new ways to reach out and to embody Christ in the world.

Through all the change, we continue to be shaped by memory and longing. The wail of the bagpipes is a way of describing the place where we stand. In our own lives, and in the lives of the institutions we foster and depend on, we stand between what has been and what will be. We hold the teachings and traditions we have received, with our hopes and longings for the world we want to see shaping the way we pass our faith along.

It was a privilege to hear Rev. Dr. William L. Lee, Senior Pastor of Loudon Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia give the commencement address. He spoke about the power of being “Chosen,” and the responsibility and accountability that comes with such a designation. He reminded the graduates: you have not just been invited—you have been chosen. Jesus has done the choosing; he knows you for better or worse, and yet he chose you anyway. He sees in you what you cannot see in yourselves. So don’t dwell on what you are not; focus on what you have. God’s grace will always be greater than any failure. And when you no longer believe in God, know that God believes in you. “God knew just what she was doing when she laid hands on you,” he assured them. You can know that, because you have been chosen.

One of my favorite aspects of the LTS graduation ceremony is the hymn, “God of Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty,” sung to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It names God in fresh and revealing ways, ascribing divine presence to a vast scope of human endeavors. It offers encouragement to all of us who stand in the transition between what has been and what will be. I leave you with these word to the hymn below:

God of Wisdom, truth, and beauty, God of Spirit, fire, and soul,

God of order, love and duty, God of purpose, plan and goal;

Grant us visions ever growing, Breath of life, eternal strength,

Mystic spirit, moving, flowing, Filling height and depth and length.

*

God of drama, music, dancing, God of story, sculpture art,

God of wit, all life enhancing, God of every yearning heart;

Challenge us with quests of spirit, Truth revealed in myriad ways,

Word or song for hearts that hear it, Sketch and model—forms of praise.

*

God of atom’s smallest feature, God of galaxies in space,

God of every living creature, God of all the human race;

May our knowledge be extended, For the whole creation’s good,

Hunger banished, warfare ended, all the earth a neighborhood.

*

God of science, history, teaching, God of futures yet unknown,

God of holding, God of reaching, God of power beyond each throne;

Take the fragments of our living, Fit us to your finest scheme,

Now forgiven and forgiving, Make us free to dare and dream.

***

Asking for What We Want

I’ll soon be leading a class exploring different ways to pray, which brings up the question of how to begin—for both a class and a prayer. One possibility is to begin as Ignatius taught, by asking God for what we want our prayer to yield. Asking for what I want is not something I’m good at; maybe looking at that is a good place to start.

When Jesus teaches about prayer in the gospel of Luke, he gives us more than the model of the Lord’s Prayer. He also tells the story of a man who receives what he needs because of his persistence in asking for it.  Then Jesus offers this assurance to his followers:

Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.

I love this passage, its comfort and encouragement, but it raises questions, too. Earlier in my life I assumed there were limits on what I could ask for, and that the possibilities for asking were on the other side of a high wall. Janis Joplin’s song made me smile, but I didn’t want to be guilty of praying “Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz.” I didn’t know what to ask of God, and didn’t trust myself, or God, enough to find out.

It took me far too long to learn that it’s ok to ask for whatever I need. The mindset of not asking is a stew with many ingredients; and I simmered in it for a long time.

Now I don’t worry about asking too much; I wonder if I ask too little. There may be no limit to the possibilities if we trust that our asking, seeking, and knocking will all be answered. The potential for change is actually unnerving.

Now I think we can ask freely for what we deeply want. We can expect God to meet the longing beneath the things that we desire. And if our vision is not clear, and we pray for a surface need that we mistake for the deeper one, we may find our prayers answered in ways we didn’t expect. God will meet the hidden and genuine need beneath our wishes, even if we do not know how to ask.

Making Peace with What You Can Do

Walking in the early spring air this morning, I got by with a light cotton jacket. Yet the weather remains cool and damp. Green fronds push up from the ground, but the skies are grey. Trees are full of birdsong, though the bare branches appear unchanged since winter.

This almost-spring feels nothing like winter, yet there is no blossoming. As if the earth is saying: This, today, is what I can do. I can bring forth this much, but for now I can go no farther.

And the slow warming is enough. The turning of the seasons is exactly this; nothing more is needed. There is no hurry, no catching up to do. All is sufficient.

***

It’s tempting to discount those efforts we are able to make. How do you make peace with the limits of what you can do?