Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What do I really want?

We tend to look outside ourselves for what we think we want; money, fame, love. We tend to get stuck looking for what we want. What we want, true happiness, is inside. D'Souza, Discovering Awareness
Be born to us today. O Little Town of Bethlehem
In, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer shared a memorable story about the time he was offered the opportunity to become president of a small educational institution, In essence, he had been told that if he wanted the job, the job was likely his. He called on a half dozen friends to help him discern his vocation by means of a "clearness committee," a process from the Quaker tradition where the group refrains from giving advice but spends three hours asking you honest, open questions to help you discover your own inner truth.

Halfway into the process, someone asked Palmer a question that proved to be the turning point. It sounded easy yet turned out to be very hard: "What would you like most about being a president?" After spending some time explaining what he would not like about the position, the question was repeated: "What would you like most?" 
"Well," Palmer wrote, " I guess what I'd like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it."  They did not laugh at all, but went into a long and serious silence. Finally the silence was broken with one last question - one that cracked all of them up- and cracked Palmer open: "Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?" 
Palmer's odd, circuitous route to happiness is not unlike our own journey. For example, we have no control over the choices of others, but we can easily bank our well-being on someone else's happiness.

But we can choose to be happy. This is especially important for those who deal daily with sickness, death, dying, family crises, and loneliness as a main feature of their work. The only person's unhappiness we have any hope of changing is our own.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Collecting Spiritual Toys

Advent: A time to let go of the toys
Some years ago, I met a young American woman who had traveled to India on several occasions to study yoga and meditation under distinguished teachers... After listening to her life story, I asked her why she was doing this. She told me that she was fed up with the materialism of the West, and she was now looking for the spirituality of the East. I told her that essentially she hadn't changed. She reacted strongly, "What do you mean, I haven't changed? Isn't spirituality better than materialism?" I told her in the past, she was collecting material toys to entertain herself; now she was collecting spiritual toys. The problem was she was still collecting. Her mindset was the same, only the object of her "treasure hunt" had changed... We think what we want is outside, but what we really want is within us. Tony D' Souza, Discovering Awareness
The beginning of growth begins with a simple question: "What do I really want?' The answer to this question resides within us, not outside of us. Spiritual toys offer a kind of security but keep us from looking within. We look to others and things to do what we can only do for ourselves: our own spiritual work.
Like the materialism of the season, we can become really busy with the religious calendar while neglecting the one thing needful: the state of our spirit. All the church observances of the season have the goal of letting Christ be born in us, the dawn of God's "tender mercy" enlivening and renewing us. 
Without that life, we may just be collecting spiritual toys to entertain us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Humility: Open to What Is

Humility is humble in the sense of not being offended by the truth. But humiliation, according to Saint Bernard, is the path to humility. Saint Bernard means the humiliation that one uses well, that one accepts willingly insofar as it is true, but does not attribute to oneself if it is not true. Humility is never a put-down, but the willingness to acknowledge the truth about ourselves. Humility welcomes humiliation. Although it's painful at times, it realizes that, precisely because I feel humiliated, I'm attached to my happiness seeking programs in some way that needs correction if I'm going to be really happy and at peace in daily life. Thomas Keating

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Does the Pastor Have a Pastor?

Let your mind wander through your life, and let it notice what it hasn't noticed yet.
 L. Roger Owens

In his book, Abba, Give Me a Word (2012), L. Roger Owens tells the story of his journey in spiritual direction. The volume is one of a kind: I know of no other practicing United Methodist Pastor who has authored a book on his or her work as a directee.

Does the pastor have a pastor?
Let the tremendous benefits to personal well-being and ministry outweigh whatever barriers you have.  Begin, Owens, suggests, by writing a "longing list," noting what you want, the things you are longing for. Do this for three days, writing for five minutes each time without over-thinking. "Just write." Eventually, we will probably move from a new roof or car or suit to things like peace, quiet, healing, God.
The fuel for spiritual direction is our spiritual yearning for more of God. This longing is more important than the obstacles we might construct to seeking spiritual direction.

Thus, in the "Finding" chapter, Owens addresses the process of finding a spiritual director, what can make for a good fit, and whether or not we "pay" for it. This chapter may be the most useful in offering practical help to Protestant clergy who are new to spiritual direction.
The chapter, "Offering," covers the reluctance we feel in offering to God the messy fragments of our life. "Just bring yourself," God says. "I've taken care of all the rest." Owens counsels:
Where in our culture do we have a safe place to offer even our worst, where that offering will not be rejected? At church? Not many. At work? Certainly not. And that might be the reason you are longing for a spiritual director because you've heard someone say, "It's one place I can offer everything without fear."
Spiritual direction is that space where I can be myself,  where I learn to let God take what I have to offer, even if what I have to offer is a mess. How I need this space cannot be overstated, especially if I am charged with the care of souls. This care is impossible to offer when my default is to attempt spiritual formation and ministry all on my own. I can begin to see more wholeness and less fragmentation as I seek out spiritual direction.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Goodbye Birds, Emilie Griffin

Emilie Griffin's volume, Goodbye Birds and Other Poems (2014), is an authentic witness to an exuberant faith lived deeply and well. The themes and metaphors are far ranging and relevant.
For example, the book's namesake, Goodbye Birds, is a comment on the ecological disaster of the "deep petroleum roar," while The Loss of Monarchs and other Puzzlements, refers to global warming affecting all living things: "Across the blue world, summer extends."
...poetry that is kind and truthful
But the little, powerful volume is also the fruit of life-long reflective and lived faith in Christ. As an octogenarian and one who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis, Griffin patiently, courageously, makes her way on walker up to the front of the room to speak about her life and writing. Griffin has earned that right to speak of aging, God, and spirituality. But it's also her gift:
This is what you may call if you like to give names to things a spirituality of rheumatoid arthritis:
the human spirit, fueled by grace rising up joyfully from the chair to say, Oh yes, I did have a headache,
I was a bit unwell today
but I am well in the grace of God
Well enough to withstand whatever the universe is dishing up today and well enough to ask hard questions
not to mention well enough to hold my Bible in my lap
until the day of Resurrection.  (from The Middle Step)

Then, along with the playful Pope In, Pope Out-  Hawking, Get Used To It, brings a smile:

Something flung wonder
from NO to Where.
I say he is Someone
and has a name.
The native Louisianan (see Louisiana: Three Recollections) and well read in the classics, she writes nimbly and triumphantly of spring and the first Wisteria in the back garden and offering a wonderful metaphor for God-presence:
Christ walks here
in light that bleeds
through shards of memory
sky places
earth faces
Resurrection blooms.
Wisdom hard won, faith clung to, and in the end, as with many of these poems, a note of victory. There's this example from Loss of Monarchs: "Yet over the wounded planet mercy prevails. God sovereignty permits, denies, keeps this, not that. Meantime grace blankets us from pole to pole."
Emilie Griffins other books include Small Surrenders: A Lenten Journey, and Green Leaves for Later Years, both available on her Goodreads page. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Please Wait

They also serve who only stand and wait. John Milton, quoted in Griffin, Doors Into Prayer.

My mother, Judy Endress, died earlier this year, in January, 2016. Instead of ruminating about making changes, the best decisions I am making are about self-care here and now, and living well through this experience of loss.
Nothing, no one, can take your grief away
For clergy who cannot avoid facing death, dying, and grief as apart of their ministry, it is especially important to make our well being the priority.
Take time by: scheduling a private retreat, seeking a skilled counselor, seeing a spiritual director, listening to the waves roar and the birds echo. 

Grief is not easy nor is it temporary. There's no "getting over it," nor is there a solace that removes the reality of the loss. There's no "cheering up" or feeling good because the deceased lived relatively happy and long, or died some kind of hero. There is not a pill nor a therapist nor a Bible verse that is going make it all better, to take our grief away. What would it be like if Jesus, instead of breaking down in desolation at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, started quoting Bible verses to Mary and Martha? 

After a significant loss, there's nothing magical about waiting a year or more before making major decisions. It allows us to experience a year of seasons and holidays and times in which I mark my loss.  
One of the most helpful readings I have come across is from Fenelon, the French Archbishop and spiritual director of the later half of the Seventeenth Century. Because his sermons and other writings were destroyed (unhappily by his own church ), only his letters to spiritual directees survive today.

Here is an excerpt from The Seeking Heart 
Never make important decisions in a state of distress. You just are not able to see clearly...
When you are in a place of calm and quiet rest, do all that you sense within your spirit. But to suppose you are level-headed when you are in the agony of distress is to set yourself up to make a mistake... Any experienced spiritual counselor will tell you not to make decisions until you regain your peace and re-enter inward prayer. Never trust yourself when you are suffering greatly because your nature is so unreasonable and upset...

It is as clear as day that you will fail to do what God wants if you act when your old nature is feeling deeply wounded to the point of despair. Wait until you are not feeling so hurt. Be open to every alternative that God might suggest.
The peace of Christ be with your spirit. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Because you are loved (4)

God is not our co-dependent
We turned our lives over to the care of God as we understand God. Step #3 abridged

We sense that we can never entirely imitate his godly love. But we can break free from some of the boundaries that hold us captive. We can come closer to the light. Emilie Griffin, Small Surrenders
The thought of cheering-up God like a parent would cajole a moody child reflects an early stage of faith development. It's also a way we have of crafting God in our own image, of making the Lord of all the powers of the universe a little more manageable by projecting stuff that really belongs to us, not God.

In my journey, Step #3, which is similarly worded in most 12 Step programs, is a daily invitation to surrender to God and to let go of controlling others- and God.

Instead of what we often hear about pleasing God or God somehow needing us, the truth is that God doesn't need us to feel sorry for God or calm God down. Giver of Life doesn't need us to make the Holy One happier than God already is. "God is, in simple terms, sublimely and eternally happy to be God," wrote Rowan Williams.

Manipulative, guilt-based religion is when we hear, in essence, "If your heart is truly 'right,' you will want to please God, and we will show you the way to please the Holy One." Do we really think God loves us more because we prayed a little longer today, or God is more pleased with us because we managed to show a little kindness? Or that God will treat us better if we behave ourselves? Jesus described the difference between us and the One God: "only God is good."

Sure, I can learn to live out of God's love more completely, but there's nothing on earth I can do make God love me more than God already does. Accepting the gift of what already is would be coming closer to the light.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Because you are loved (3)

We can't offer others what we don't have
We confuse love and pity and tend to "love" people we can "pity" and "rescue."  The ACA Laundry List
We will choose to love people who can love and be responsible for themselves. The ACA Promises

Don't talk of love. Well, I've heard the word before. Simon and Garfunkle, I Am a Rock
"Love" may have been used on us- to excuse abuse, or indifference or neglect. The adults in charge may have told us that, whatever happened, it happened for our own good, or because we were "loved."

The word took on a toxic connotation as it was associated with  harmful experiences.
Because we cannot offer love if we don't experience self-love, we sometimes settle for pity as a default. It's easier to be attracted to weaknesses because we can feel in control as rescuer. Pity puts us over others. In feeling sorry for someone, I'm often led to give relief or aid. That makes me feel better about myself. But it's not love.

When Jesus taught to love others as we love ourselves, he also provided an insight into how love functions. We will love others as we love the first person in our lives: ourselves. We cannot offer love, acting in the best interest of others, if we don't know what it means to act in our own best interest. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Because you are loved (2)

The only person we have a chance at changing is ourselves.      
First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. Jesus

We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc. from Tony A.: The 14 Traits of an Adult Child

Pleasing others is a default many clergy have learned through years of serving others. However, tying my emotional well-being to the approval of others is something I learned at a young age.

In families impacted by addiction, alcoholism, or dysfunction, a survival trait often acquired to survive is people-pleasing and  we live by the illusion of fixing others. We may have tried valiantly to change our troubled and toxic family into a loving and supportive one. And we continue that fruitless effort with those closest to us in the present.

Like the children in the movie, Boyhood, every day is lived walking on emotional egg shells. That means that hyper vigilance is the baseline reality for our bodies. Stress hormones running overtime, in fight or flight default. 
That's the physical cost of people-pleasing and the futility of controlling what we cannot, in the end, manage: the behavior and choices and addictions of others. The emotional focus also becomes other- centered, in a toxic way. Jesus spoke to this persistent focus on others, a trait shared by many, but especially apart of the adult child's experience.
How sad and ironic that "Christians" may think we are given the privilege and necessity of judging others in the name of Jesus, that the Christ himself somehow gives us that right because we go to church. Read the words: according to Jesus, one of the chief signs of  healthy spirituality is self-examination, not focusing on others.
When we release ourselves from the responsibility for others, a new freedom to be ourselves is possible. By learning to keep the focus on ourselves in the here and now, taking responsibility for our own life, we can be free from focusing on others in emotional dependence, blame, or judgment.   

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Because you are loved (1)

Insanity: extracting love from others 
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change. from Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families

For those of us who grew up where addiction/alcoholism/dysfunction was present, the first line of this prayer of serenity offers a hope and recovery from to emotional chaos. We don't speak of sanity as if it was there. The rules were 1. Don't talk about it 2. Don't feel 3. Don't trust. Thus, we speak of clarity. 

Without a resolute and ongoing self-examination, life is an endless exercise in abandonment and desolation, especially if we hope others will give us what is lacking in us: self acceptance and self-love. We learn to reflect and talk about what happened then and how it affects us today. We give words to our feelings and learn to trust. This, without casting blame or judgement, realizing that the adults in charge were not able- they could have done no differently. We see with the eyes of compassion.
It's a wonderful gift to realize that we have choices. Some are toxic to us because they cannot be present to us, having compulsions of their own. It's freedom from trying to pull from others what we can only give ourselves.  We allow ourselves to be loved by God. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Completely incompatible?

In the church's earliest centuries, government officials who wanted to be baptized first had to relinquish their offices...As counterintuitive as all of this might seem, there are serious Christian thinkers (not just Anabaptists) who argue that it is impossible for a Christian to be at one and the same a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and a responsible president of the United States, for example.* This is not a question of arguing about whether or not Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush were sincere in their claims of being born again; it is the simple assertion that there are inherent irreconcilable contradictions between honoring the Sermon on the Mount and being the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in all of history.
* Clarence Jordan surmised that being President is completely incompatible with being a Christian. 

Arthur Paul Boers, Servants and Fools, pp.143-144

Monday, January 4, 2016

Gaining Christ

Fallen idols: letting go what is most false in us and our world
There was a Birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.  from T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi 

I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ-- Philippians 3: 8 CEB
The Coptic Church gives us a remarkable account of the Holy Family's escape into Egypt, which is referenced in Matthew 2: 13-15. It's the falling of cultural idols.

"A prophecy in Isaiah says that idols of Egypt will totter (or shake) at His presence. This happened in many places that the Holy Family visited. Whenever they came near the Ancient Egyptian holy places with their idols, many idols would fall over and crash. 

One of these places was in the region of Hermopolis, near the modern village of Ashmunein. The Holy Family could not find any place to rest so they went into this temple. There were 365 idols in this temple. The people would worship each day of the year. When the Holy Family entered the temple, all the idols fell on their faces and broke into pieces.

The governor of the city heard the news, and many people expected that he would punish the Holy Family. Instead when he saw the idols fallen, he actually worshiped our Lord and said, “Unless this were the God of our gods, our gods would not have fallen on their faces before Him.” Therefore, all the people believed. You can still see the ruins of the temples of Hermopolis outside village of Ashmunein."
Having 365 idols seems like a lot, but in reality, it shows how inventive we can be in attempting to fill our demands. So if one thing doesn't work, on to whatever gets our attention as quick as possible. However, you can never have enough of what is not working. 

Continuous news networks often promise to follow a particular "trending" story, and "breaking news" news throughout the day. Overnight, the "story" that was penultimate the previous day is just about forgotten. Our brains are not made for multitasking, but operate by refocusing- or starting over- with each different task. The cultural idol of multitasking prevents us from focusing on any one thing, be it another person or God, who is One.
The invitation to journey with Three Kings to Bethlehem or with the Holy Family to Egypt is also a chance to let go of what is most false within us and in our world. We can resign of being CEO of the universe. We don't have to have an opinion on everything or everyone- nor tell everyone.  
Because the battle is spiritual and has to do with the crumbling of the idols within- our own judgmental attitudes and self-righteousness, we can also choose to forego the voices that tell us we are not free to choose our spiritual path of loving action and life-giving joy. 

When the cultural belief of peace and salvation through more anger and violence -embodied in all the Herod-s of the earth- shops for an agreeable place to land, we don't have to welcome the false idol of redemptive violence. We can resist hate, neglect and indifference. In the words of Paul, we can let the "sewer trash" values go where they belong- down the toilet. 

Oldies but Goodies