Today’s Word: Available

Chronos. St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. SJG photo.

Evidently, the vast majority of Americans believe that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. In fact, it was uttered by the wise old founding father Ben Franklin who, although clever and all that, is hardly a reliable source for Christian social teaching. For Franklin’s witticism is not only non-biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Indeed, it could not be further from the call to service and love that we find in the gospels.

For if we profess to be Christian, we have no choice but to love and care for those around us. And who is “around us?” Who is our neighbor? As the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) teaches us, our neighbor is anyone who is in need. So we must ask ourselves today: Is there anyone in need around us? If we say no, we’re either looking with half-closed eyes or our world is far too narrow.

We are called to make ourselves available to others. In Ignatian spirituality, this is referred to as “apostolic availability.” We must be there for others. We must be the healing and comforting Christ for others. We are called to bring the “good news” of the Gospel to others, but with the knowledge that salvation comes in different forms. We tell of a Jesus who saves and promises life to come, yes. But we are also called to bring the good news of the here and now. I love this from Dean Brackley, SJ:

Jesus proclaims “Good News to the poor.” What is this Good News? Ask 
the poor — you will get clear and immediate answers: health, shelter,
food, opportunity, jobs, education.

The challenge of responding to this call to service is that our lives often make us so UN-available. We fill our lives with so many things — including many good things — that we leave no time to just be available if someone needs us, no time to go looking for someone who might need us, no time to call someone up and say, “do you need anything?”

Kairos. Jackson Square, New Orleans. SJG photo.

This is the difference between the Greek ideas of chronos time and kairos time. Chronos time rules our days. It is ordered time — seconds, minutes, hours — and it is a demanding taskmaster from the moment the clock goes off in the morning. It’s necessary, of course. But it is not all. Kairos, on the other hand, lies outside of this sequential time of clocks and calendars. It is the time that slips by in moments of quiet contemplation and prayer. It passes without notice in moments of service to others. It is fleeting in moments of creation and joy, when time seems to stand still. It is time outside of time.

We need chronos, of course, or nothing would run on time and the world would run amok. But we need times of kairos in a chronos world. We need big chunks of time when we’re not watching the clock, when we’re not worried about the next appointment. We need this time to be available to God and available to others. This availability — this love — doesn’t come free or even cheap. It will cost us something. As Sarah Thebarge, author of The Invisible Girls, writes:

Love will cost you dearly.
And it will break your heart.
But in the end, it will save the world.

Ask yourself in silence: To whom can I be available today? What will it cost me? Will it be worth it?

Sitting at the Feet of Elders

Memorial Stone in New Orleans cemetery. SJG photo.

About a month ago at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church at Saint Louis University, I had the opportunity to attend an event for the L’Arche community in St. Louis featuring Sue Mosteller, CSJ, a sister of St. Joseph for 65 years and a long-time friend, colleague and literary executrix of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, who died in 1996, was one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century and one of my own personal inspirations and heroes, although I never had the opportunity to meet him.

So when I had the opportunity to hear Sue Mosteller, who has done so much to preserve and continue to publish Nouwen’s work, I knew this might be as close as I ever might get to Nouwen. And I was not disappointed. Sitting on a folding chair with a few hundred others, I was reminded of something I recently read (wish I could remember where!), that “sitting at the feet of wise elders is like listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Although I took notes while I was there, I wasn’t sure I would ever do anything with them. But as I reviewed those notes yesterday, I realized the depth of the wisdom and knew I needed to share it. So with apologies to Sue if I get anything a little wrong from faulty note taking, here are a few things I learned sitting before this particular elder, this person willing to allow the Spirit to work through her as she told us about listening for the “inner voice of love.” I didn’t put quote marks around everything below because I wasn’t sure of my accuracy, but be assured that the thoughts and ideas are hers, not mine…

She began by telling a story of accompanying Nouwen to a museum, where he placed himself before a Van Gogh painting. She waited with him…5 minutes…10 minutes…15 minutes until finally she asked him, “What are you doing?”

His nonchalant reply: “I’m walking around in the south of France, aren’t you?” He had stepped into the painting, was appreciating it. And the lesson: We cannot be spectators when it comes to our faith.

Sue Mosteller, from Wikipedia.

So where is this “inner voice of love?” First of all, she urged us to be careful about those words, for there is no “voice.” The inner voice of love, the voice of God, comes to us through others, and often from the most unlikely of teachers. John the Baptist, one unlikely teacher [just think about what he must have looked and smelled like!] came to point to the light of the world. “Not me, it’s him,” he said.  “There is the lamb of God.” We need John the Baptists who will point us in the right direction. We hear that voice, but it is Jesus we follow and encounter, and it is with Jesus that we abide. In that encounter we are transformed. In that encounter we discover the voice of love.

When God wanted to save us he didn’t send a book; he sent a person, Jesus. And this Jesus is delicate and respectful. He doesn’t begin by saying, “repent and be saved.” He says, gently, “What are you looking for? Can you give me a drink? Would you like to be healed?” This is the voice of love. The voice of love asks questions of the other.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I love you.” We have to claim this. We have to say, “yes.” We are beloved, with all of our beauty and darkness. The earth has seen 34.5 billion years of evolution and…then…there was the perfect time for you and me to be born. So that we could be here right now, doing what we are doing. Jesus came to “pitch his tent among us.”

We need to stay close to the wise voices that are guiding us, that are telling us that we are loved. For the call of love is to become like Jesus. Our call is to become what we are — mothers and fathers of whatever kind — and take responsibility to show and guide others to the realization that they are beloved.

Jesus was vulnerable to others — he kneels and washes their feet. So we need to ask: What is my role, my primary name? Do we give people a moment of heaven in the midst of their hell? To do so, we must be aware of what is happening around us.

Sue ended by telling the story of a prostitute in Paris, depressed and suicidal, who stopped by a church to pray one last time before going off to kill herself. A minister saw her there and sat beside her while she wept.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’m on my way to die. There is no redemption for me and I hate men.”

“Could I say one thing?” the minister asked. “I hear you and I know you are suffering. But do you know that you are a virgin?”

She scoffed.

“There is a secret place in your heart, a hidden, privileged chapel, a place to which only you and God have access. In that place, you are a virgin.”

She wept more.

Can we believe there is such a place for all of us? A place where God dwells and waits for our return? A place where God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love?” We need to claim this truth. We are beloved. We are all broken and waiting to be transformed.

Ask yourself in silence: Do I believe I am beloved, that there is a place where God and I can meet, a place where God awaits my return, no matter what I’ve done?

One more question: Leave a comment and tell me about a time you sat at the feet of an elder and felt the pull of the Holy Spirit. Who was it and what did you learn?

The Creative Spirit: Waiting

Waiting for spring. SJG photo.

It’s a cold, cold, cold morning here in America’s Midwest, and the snow and ice outside my window are begging me to stay inside today, nudging me toward my chair by the fire, toward a time of prayer and waiting.

So much of prayer, like so much of the creative process, is in fact about waiting. But it is not a passive waiting as much as it is a time of expectation that something will happen, a hidden promise that revelation or inspiration will come if we leave ourselves open to that secret and mystical movement of God in our lives.

And yet, sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes we sit and wait and nothing happens. No words, no ideas. Our hands won’t move across the keyboard, the pen sits idle in our grasp, the paintbrush remains dry.

So what do we do when our prayer life or our creative process come up dry? Rather than wringing our hands or — even worse — giving up, our call is to something gentler and more faithful. God asks us to sit and wait, to keep coming back with the knowledge and expectation that the divine presence remains, whether we sense it or not, whether our time of prayer or creativity seems fruitful or not. With a very loud silence, God reminds us that our time together is not about what gets accomplished; it’s about our time together, our shared and intermingled presence.

I was reminded of all this upon reading a poem this week by Rev. Tom Schoenherr, a retired Lutheran pastor, spiritual director, and inspired writer and blogger. Tom’s poem, below, speaks to this “gnawing at the soul” that we can sometimes feel in the depth of dark and cold winter. You can check out more of his writing at his website, The Deeper Journey.

Snow blankets the scenery,
White smoke pours from chimneys,
Writing gnaws at my soul,
No words to pray
Longing for peace-filled thoughts,
Hoping for new life,
Doubting your presence,
No words to pray
Where comes the Spirit?
Where come the sighings?
Where lie deep thoughts?
Where comes the crying?
My mind settles in,
My spirit centers my soul,
I rest my open hands upon
My knees. I wait,
I listen.
You are here

Welcome, Kate. SJG photo.

Speaking of waiting, yesterday Sue and I welcomed our second grandchild. She is perfect in every way and the spitting image of her big brother, Noah. Welcome to the world Kate Olivia Givens, we’ve been waiting for you…

Ask yourself in silence: How do you cope with those times when God and inspiration seem distant?

The Creative Spirit: What If?

What if I missed this moment? SJG photo.

Asking “what if” is one of the most creative and contemplative questions we can ask ourselves. How many books, poems, paintings, songs, plays or other creative works have come to life because the artist dared to ask, “what if?”

“What if” is how we find meaning. It is how we begin to make sense of the senseless and read between the lines of reality and the mundane to discover something new and rare. “What if I created an imaginary world of dragons and elves and hobbits, of secret doors and alternative worlds?” ask imaginative and deeply spiritual writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “What might that world teach us about ourselves? About God?”

What if I created a seamless and perfect form from a rough block of marble or brought to stage the complexities of life, family, addiction, love, hate, sin, God? What if I put paint to canvas or paper (or clicked the shutter at just the right moment of time, color and light) and captured the sacred in the midst of ordinary existence? What if I could make it seem like dancers were flying through the air or sang a song that would speak to your heart and your very real human condition?

And what if I could do all these things and didn’t? This is the call of the artist, and for those of us who hold and share a belief in a Creator-God, it is a call to holiness. It is a call that must be answered and responded to. Ask most artists why they create and you are likely to hear some version of, “because I have to…because I wouldn’t know how NOT to…because it’s who I am.”

But asking “what if” is also a call to us all to think and imagine more broadly. It is “yes and” and “no but” instead of “either/or.” Whether we consider ourselves creative or not (and I believe we all are and can be), to ask this question is to step outside our own little worlds for a brief time and consider the alternative. Whether we are seeking to create a work of art or a healed relationship, asking “what if” is a place to start and a place to pray.

On the corner of Mystery and...SJG photo.

To end, I wanted to share with you a poem written by my friend and fellow spiritual director, Jeanne Baer. Jeanne asked “what if?” in dealing with the pain and confusion of her father’s death and in seeking to make some spiritual sense of loss. Read carefully. For this is more than a list of “what if” questions. In these few poignant lines, Jeanne gives us the privilege of listening in to a painful and personal internal dialogue leading to revelation and the presence of God.

What If

What if I never forgave my Dad?
What if God helped me to forgive him?
What if I never spoke to him again?
What if God helped me to find the words?
What if I carried the pain of memories to his death?
What if God healed me of those memories?
What if I couldn’t forget our differences?
What if God showed me our commonalities?
What if I always wished he done things differently?
What if God showed me he was doing the best he could?
What if I could only see him through my eyes?
What if God showed me how to see him through God’s eyes?
What if I carried all the pain and hurt to his death bed?
What if God allowed me to be the one to lovingly lead him into the arms of Jesus?
As you can see, I am human.
As you can see, “with God, all things are possible.”

- Jeanne M. Baer

Ask yourself in silence:
What if I responded today to a call I have been ignoring?

Today’s Word: Glory

Glory: Live your life like this. New Orleans musician Doreen Ketchens. SJG photo.

It’s not a word — glory —that most of us use much on a daily basis, I suppose. It’s a bit old fashioned, perhaps, and reserved for a few special things.  The wonders of nature tend to be “glorious,” and the flag of my country is sometimes referred to as “Old Glory.”  At church we’re likely to hear and sing it often. We might think about “glorifying God” by our words and actions, but how exactly do we go about doing that and does God even need us to glorify him? “Glory, glory,” as some of my elders used to say in exasperation…where to begin?

Read the rest of Today’s Word: Glory »

The Creative Spirit: Savoring the Moment

Savor your life like a first birthday cake. SJG photo

I’m up early on New Year’s Day and contemplating the new year that now faces me. These new years, it seems, come in rapid-fire succession the older I get, and every year I sit in this place with this computer on my lap and wonder: What happened in the past year and what will happen in the year ahead?

The first question (what happened last year?) is a tricky and important one. For the issue at hand is not simply remembering as much as it is appreciating, what sunk in and affected me because I was made more aware of it. How many good meals do I remember, how many stimulating conversations with family and friends, how many pieces of music did I allow to seep into my soul and change me? Which books struck, inspired and challenged me? Perhaps most importantly, how did I allow God into my life in the past year? How often did I sit quietly and savor the presence of God in the quiet of this room, in the holiness of liturgy and the sacraments, in the company of friends, relatives, colleagues and strangers?

Most of us would likely say we appreciate these things. But we are called to a higher standard. We are called to savor them for what they are — gifts of the spirit, sent to make our lives richer and more meaningful and to draw us closer to the sender.  All too often, and through no conscious decision as much as unconscious living, we miss all these things. They still happen to us (these meals, these conversations, these sacraments) but we haven’t noticed them and thanked the sender. We’re missing the moment and forgetting the gratitude.

Count Your Blessings. SJG photo.

So all this leads us to the coming year, a chance (as always) to begin again, to live more purposefully, more authentically, more aware of the gifts given and the call to respond and share. For those called to the creative life, in whatever form, this is a call to recognize those gifts and transform them into something others can see, hear, taste, experience.

Today I’m beginning a challenge and throwing it out there to see if anyone wants to join me — a year of living in higher awareness and gratitude for the gifts around me. For me, this will take the physical form of a new journal (provided as a gift from my good friend Jill Stratton) in which I will be recording the blessings and moments and opportunities that come my way this year, in hopes that I will be more thankful, more aware, more creative in turning those blessings around and giving them to others. A year of savoring each day a little more intensely, a year of appreciating every gift that comes my way. The journal is just for me, but I have no doubt it will fuel and enrich my writing, my music, my photography and art, my cooking, my service to others.

I can’t help but be reminded of the old hymn:

Count your many blessings name them one by one.
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Ask yourself in silence: How aware of my blessings and gifts am I?

Today’s Word: Self-Image

Mile High footbridge, Grandfather Mountain, NC. SJG photo.

It’s that time of year again. We gaze into the mirror and, with the prospect of a new year and a new opportunity for beginning again facing us, we start to think of all the ways we can improve ourselves. And I’m all for it. I’ve lost some weight the past six months and gotten into better eating habits and an exercise routine I enjoy. Taking care of ourselves — physically, mentally, spiritually, professionally — is important.

But even as I think about how much more weight I want to lose and what my exercise goals for the next year should look like, I am nudged deep inside by a voice that says, “there’s more.”

Okay, I think. More. Hmm. So I start making a self-improvement list. A class perhaps. Cook more, eat out less. See family more often. Start that journal again. Walk further. Maybe get back on the bike. The list can grow long, as we all know. But then I hear a voice once again, and this time it whispers, “Maybe less would be better.”

Self-care is critical if we want to spend many healthy years with the ones we love and if we want time to do the work to which we feel called. The danger, so to speak, is not letting ourselves slide down the slippery slope toward a self-image that is based entirely on, well, ourselves. For we are more than what we look like in the mirror and how far we walk or run. We are more than our educations and professional relationships. We are more than what we appear to be.

Mile High Footbridge, Grandfather Mountain, NC. SJG photo

We are at our best when we give ourselves to others in service. We are at our best when we are able to empty ourselves of the bounty and noise of life and focus on the still, small voice of the One who calls us to be more (and less) in different ways than the mirror or the scale could ever show us. For God sees us differently than we can ever see ourselves.

Today, even as I think of ways I can improve my health in the coming year, I recall the words of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “I am who I am in the eyes of God—nothing more and nothing less.”

Ask yourself in silence
: As I make my New Year’s resolutions, where’s God?

The Creative Spirit: Creatio ex nihilo

Street musician, Maplewood, Mo. SJG photo.

One of the essential elements of creativity — one of the things that makes art “art,” — is that it begins out of nothingness. When we create, we echo and reflect God’s creation of the world out of the darkness and void. All things are creatio ex nihilo; they come into being from nothing, and that’s what makes the creative process a sacred one.

That’s not to say that we break new artistic ground each time we face an empty canvas, an empty page or screen or sit with our hands perched above the clay, the keys, the strings, the fabric. As in so many aspects of life, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. We write out of everything we have ever read. Compose because of what we have heard. Paint and sculpt and sew and assemble because we have walked through museums and experienced the works of others’ hands. Still, however humble, our own work begins from a moment of nothingness.

In talking and corresponding with writers, they will often say that they don’t have anything to give the world that hasn’t already been given thousands of times and by writers far more talented than themselves. And they are right, of course. If I worried about the originality of my ideas every time I wrote a blog post or a reflection in Living Faith, I would never write at all. Indeed, in the world of literature and art, so much attention is often paid to the idea of originality that would-be artists can become disheartened. Each time a sanctimonious critic decries the work of someone as “derivative,” someone lays down their pen, their brush, their journal of ideas and mutters, “what’s the point?” (As if that critic has anything new to say!)

For in this rarified air of the world of high art, such an approach to art criticism leaves many with seemingly nothing to do. But for people of faith who create because something deep beckons them to do so, the call is not to originality above all else. Rather, it is a response to a moment of inspiration out of silence — nothingness — that might serve to direct others’ attention to the Creator.

Street artist, Melaka, Malaysia. SJG photo.

The subject of the art needn’t be religious in the typical sense of the word, of course. A simple still life watercolor of an apple — its reds and yellows and greens summoning up our senses to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” has the ability to draw us near something sacred, if we allow it to do so, if we put ourselves in a place of openness to God and God’s creative, Holy Spirit.

The canvas or paper may begin blank and the light-bulb moment of creation is perhaps ours to savor and celebrate, but only when we realize that our moment of creation out of nothingness come out of our everything. For in that moment of silence is God, and in God is all that we need.

Ask yourself in silence: What can I create today? What image grabs me and demands incarnation?

The Creative Spirit: Mary’s ‘Yes’

Williamsburg silversmith shop. SJG photo.

Today I begin a new series of reflections about the role of the Spirit and of spirituality in the life of the creative person. Whether you are a professional artistic type, an occasional poet/artist/craftsperson or someone who just thinks that maybe there’s something deep inside them waiting to come out, I hope you’ll find in this series some inspiration that will move you toward recognizing the ideas germinating within you and putting down words and images that will enable you to share them with others.  For that’s the role of the artist, to bring ideas to life.

I am up before the sun today, waiting to greet a busy day in these waning days of December, trying to latch on to an early-morning idea that will spur my brain into its creative mode. I’m trying to conceive, looking for a spark of something.

The gospel reading for today is one we all know. We’re only a few days from Christmas here in 2014, but this story from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel finds Mary before her child has even been conceived, confronted by an idea and a voice saying:

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.”

And she replies: “Really? I don’t think so. I’m not really prepared for that and, by the way, I’m a virgin, so…thanks anyway.”

But this voice is calm and insistent and is having none of her initial hesitance: “Ah, but this isn’t about you. This is about God in you. It may seem impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.”

And Mary answers with a simple, “yes.”

Smith's shop in Williamsburg. SJG photo.

It’s the beautiful beginning of the story of the Incarnation, and as I read and reflect on it this morning I am reminded that Mary’s “yes” to this conception serves as the perfect model for the creative process, for all of us who sense something moving and growing inside us. I will never conceive and bear a child, and yet I must be willing to accept and nurture the fruits of the Spirit that have been planted deep within me. The creative and artistic process requires a willingness to move beyond “I’m not really equipped for this and don’t yet have all the right experiences” to a simple “yes.”

The incarnation of Christ in the form of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and born to a virgin is the ultimate metaphor for all who create. It’s unexpected and new. It’s a bit dramatic and filled with poetry and startling images. It’s unbelievable and yet contains the truth. As we sometimes say when astonishing things happen in real life: “You just can’t make this kind of stuff up.”

That the nativity is a great metaphor for the creative process doesn’t make it any less real, and the incarnation (the word becoming flesh) of Christ didn’t stop when Mary gave birth. The incarnation continues in all of us, and it’s a particularly vivid reminder of the responsibility of all who create.

As we arise each day and search for ideas and meaning and insights, as we face empty screens and journals and canvases and sketchbooks, the Word (co-present with God since before the creation of the world) moves around inside us and kicks us like an unborn child aching and yearning to see the light of day. We give birth because of his birth. We create because we have been created.

Speaking of light, it’s starting to fill the world around me. I’ve turned an hour or so of darkness into something new. That’s all God asks of us.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s inside me that’s aching to come out?

Today’s Word: Broken

Looks like an A-minor. Photo by Jon Givens.

It is perhaps a bit cliché to speak of “grasping the moment,” but like all good clichés, there’s some truth and wisdom at the bottom of this one. Especially right now, as we enter the third week of advent, we are reminded that “now” is our time. We may be “waiting” for Christmas, but God and Jesus are here and available to be experienced right now — no waiting required.

And so it goes with the moments that come and go in our lives, waiting to be truly recognized and experienced by us. This is perhaps especially true of the difficult times when we feel lost, broken, abandoned or alone. The Christmas season is a time of joy for many, but for others, it can be a tougher period. As some struggle to get by, as they see what so many others have (and buy, buy, buy…) and as they cope with the memories of those no longer with them, advent can be a time of just waiting for it all to be over. Advent can be a season of sensing our brokenness.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Christmas stories — the tale of how that most beloved of all Christmas carols came to be written. By some accounts — we can’t be sure of the truth here, however — “Silent Night” was created out of brokenness. The story goes that a young priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, wrote the lyrics to “Stille Nacht” in 1818 and gave it to a friend and local musician, Franz Gruber, asking him to compose a simple melody to be played on guitar, as the organ in St. Nicholas Church was broken. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve and the rest, as they always say, is history. From brokenness springs beauty.

Me and Jenny. Photo by Jon Givens.

Here’s a simple guitar and voice recording that my daughter Jenny and I made a few years ago:

01 Silent Night

As we near Christmas, we recall both the woundedness of our lives and the joy of the birth of the Christ, who came to bind up our wounds, heal our brokenness and fill the empty spaces. This is the Christ who heals, who forgives, who makes whole. A child in a manger, yes, but more importantly the Word of God set in the midst of us not just 2000 years ago but even today. Especially today. This is ours to grasp, this is our moment to seize. This is heavenly peace for our lives right here.

Ask yourself in silence: Where am I broken? What beauty can spring from it? Where is my peace?