“You are loved / and so are they.”
(From Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, by Douglas Wood)
This is what we so often forget, even if we don’t consciously realize it. This is what we need to remember and rekindle. This is the kind of life to which we are called, one in which we walk and talk and act and plan as if the other is as loved by God as we are.
But we forget. Sitting in the comfort of our homes (here I am on an early Saturday morning with a laptop on my lap, a cup of coffee in my hand and a fire in the hearth), we can feel safe, warm and content. If we are people of faith, we can feel loved by the God we think of as Creator and Lord. If we are Christians, we can feel loved by the grace and peace of Jesus. All’s good, we say. I’m loved, we think. I have everything I need right here, we feel deep inside.
And that’s a good thing, to be so secure in this love that God has for us. This is as it should be.
But we need to be careful. For sometimes, in our assurance of our own belovedness, we begin to think that we (our group, our tribe, our church, our denomination, our country, our race) has a monopoly on God’s love and we begin to create in our minds “the other.”
The other lives far away, or maybe just in another part of the city. The other looks different than we do. The other prays and worships differently, or maybe they don’t pray or worship at all. The other speaks a different language or with inflections and accents strange to our ears. The other is darker or lighter than us. The other sometimes laughs and cries at different things than we do. The other is too loud or much too quiet. And we begin to fear the other because the safety of our own sense of belovedness begins to falter and crack.
If we’re so loved by God, we say to ourselves, how can the other, who is so different, be loved too? So we build fences and walls and otherwise put distance between ourselves and the other. We build up armies to protect ourselves from the armies of the other and, indeed, these are often necessary. For the other fears us as much as we fear them.
The thing is, we’ve got this all wrong. We don’t get to choose who God loves.
Ask yourself in silence: Who is my other?
Richard Rohr has written that, “The whole point of religion is to let you know that what you’re drawing upon is already planted within you.” And I retype those words fully aware that, for many, the whole problem with the idea of God — that which is already planted within them — is, in fact, the whole religion part. The challenge of modern faith, it seems, has become for many the problem of finding God in organized religion because organized religion (of all different sorts and sects) has often let so many people down.
God can certainly be found in religion and religious practices, just as God can be found in quiet moments of solitude and prayer, in walks through the woods and in times of joy and ecstasy as we experience glimpses of God in art, nature, loving relationships with others, in the poor and in the sacramental moments of our own religion, if we have one of those.
But what’s most crucial, it seems, is that we don’t flip-flop the equation. We don’t draw upon what’s planted within us to find religion; we draw upon religion to find what’s planted within us. Even that well-worn phrase, “he’s found religion,” seems to be missing the point. It’s not religion God wants us to have but rather the deeply found relationship of looking within ourselves and finding God there waiting for us, so deeply implanted that we might not even have seen him there…nurturing, gently leading, making our lives richer and fuller and whole.
To give up on a religion that has let us down — or that never attracted us in the first place because of the imperfect people who make up that religion — makes perfect sense, it seems. Gandhi once said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
If we are Christians, it’s our call then to look inside to find this deeply planted God, to resurrect in our lives what it means to be like Christ, and present that to world when it comes looking for a reason for our faith. Maybe they will even come to like our religion. It’s on us, not them.
Ask yourself in silence: What’s most deeply planted in my life?
May the gifts of the Creator-created world, which never cease to amaze and silence the noise within and draw us close to the source of all, give power and inspiration to those of us who try to make sense of a sometimes senseless world through art, music, movement and the written word;
May the blessings, tragedies, challenges and intricacies of our lives and histories feed our imaginations and bring to others a sense of the Divine that lurks in the sunlight as well as the shadows, a God who can sometimes only be seen through the painter’s strokes and impressions, the composer’s trills and silences, the dancer’s angles and speed, the writer’s sense of story and character and rhythm and truth;
May the presence of God in every living thing, in every color, movement, flow, sparkle and whisper be the divine spark that is captured and reflected back to the world by the humble servant of the art, who hears and responds to a call that cannot always be understood and yet continues the response as if driven by the very air she breathes, the very flow of the blood that courses through his veins;
May we see our work as merely a small measure of all we have received, the first fruits of a greater harvest returned to the Lord of the land, an offering back of everything we hold close and sometimes covet too dearly — our liberty, memory, understanding, will, possessions and passions.
May we take our work seriously and ourselves with a grain a salt, with a growing knowledge that we are only instruments waiting to be played, apprentices under the guiding hand of a master craftsman, young players in need of the maestro’s baton, glimmering pieces of shiny glass and refracted light in search of focus and unity, sparkling moments of inspiration awaiting meaning and purpose, self-knowledge that we are moons, not stars capable of our own energy and light.
A couple of months ago, my friend Fr. Gary asked, “why haven’t you written about the word “mystery” on your blog?” I was flabbergasted. Surely, I thought, I’ve used that word as one of my chosen words before (this, by the way, is my 101st entry in the series). But he was right. I’ve written about mystery and around mystery and have been inspired by mystery. How could I have not? As a person of faith who tries to live a contemplative and aware life, mystery lies at the core of all I am and believe. For in mystery, God resides.
Fr. Gary (easily the most gifted preacher I have ever known) wrote in an email: “Mystery: Wow. Some of the every day events I come up against that bring me into Mystery include birth, death, evil, love, vocation, suffering, the human person.” Indeed, there’s a lot of fertile, mysterious soil in in the stuff of our everyday lives.
May the God we search for make himself known to us, allow us to find and hold onto him as we would a trusted friend, a mother and a father, a confidant and unmoving rock in our moments of confusion and weakness and suffering and everyday busy-ness;
May we be committed to opening up a space and time for God in our lives, finding in precious times of quiet and solitude the still, small voice of God that whispers just loud enough that we may hear him;
May we have the courage to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment as he works and moves in our lives, reach out with the confidence of knowing that his spirit and healing flows from him to us just as it did when he walked in Galilee, healing the sick and giving strength to the weary, for we, too, are sick and weary and in need of his touch;
May the bread and wine of the Eucharistic meal – the body and blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross – become a living sacrament in us, our real and holy sharing in the resurrected Christ…the source and sustenance of our lives and the sacred reminder of our connection to all who share in and become the body of Christ as church; and
May we be present to God and God to us, may we find as we search for God in our daily lives that we have already been found, have already been chosen and called, have already been marked as his own. May we come to know that we are known by name by the maker of all. May we find that through and with and in him…all things are possible.
(This was written for the Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church community in Mascoutah, Illinois for the mission I presented October 25-27, 2014).
When we live a more reflective, contemplative life, filled with a greater awareness of the “more” that is all around us, we begin to see the patterns in our existence. We create some of these ourselves, to be sure. Over time, we develop personal rituals — repeating patterns — of work, play, love and prayer. We create patterns in the way we approach the world, for that helps us meet each day with a sense of something bigger, a knowing that we do not need to “recreate the wheel” with each passing day. That’s the beauty of ritual and disciplined practice of any kind.
But I was reminded in a recent daily email from the writer Richard Rohr that there’s something even bigger going on here. We may create our own patterns but, as he writes: “Only if you trust such a ‘Someone’ will you eventually know that you do not have to create all the patterns nor do you have to solve all the problems. You are in fact being guided.”
There are, indeed, patterns in our lives that exist whether we recognize them or not, whether or not we give them even a passing nod or sing to them a hymn of gratitude. The passing of seasons and years, the rising and setting of the sun, the pulsing of the waves and the flowing of rivers and creeks and streams, all these point us to the Someone who is guiding us on and home. For God exists in these patterns and flows, as sure as the moments in our lives somehow add up to a day, a month, a year, a lifetime.
It is in stopping occasionally (hopefully often) to ponder and appreciate the moments — and so recognizing the complexity and enduring nature of the patterns — that we find God and offer ourselves the blessing of gratitude for it all. For gratitude to the Maker is a blessing that comes back to bless us all the more.
Ask yourself in silence: What are the patterns in my life (physical and ritual) that point me to God?
Speaking of Gratitude: This past weekend I presented my first-ever parish mission at Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church in the beautiful small town of Mascoutah, Illinois. I spoke over three evenings (with some wonderful help from my Nathanael’s Creed bandmates on the first night and my musical collaborator Phil Cooper on the other two nights), and the title of my mission was, “Groping for God and Reaching for Others: Living a More Contemplative Life.” My thanks again to all the organizers and all who came out to pray with me.
This morning I almost decided NOT to go on the long Sunday morning walk around Creve Coeur Lake that has recently become my habit. It was gray, dreary and a bit cold after raining much of the night, although it wasn’t raining at the moment as I stared out of my bedroom window at the deck and the yard and the woods beyond. What the heck, I finally thought, the worst that could happen is that I’ll get a little wet. I got dressed and drove the quick few miles to the park.
My soundtrack for much of the walk was Rich Mullins’ wonderful and eclectic “A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band” album, which begins with the late-Mullins mumbling into the studio microphone: “Bear with me everybody, I’m barely ready to do this…” I felt sort of the same. But let’s move on, I thought.
The first part of the walk was as dull as the steel-gray lake surface reflecting the cloudy and overcast sky above. “Just keep your head down and walk,” I thought to myself, “it’s good exercise, but not so much about the view today.” I circled my way through the woods along the back stretch, walked the length that runs under the highway overpass and finally came to the long homestretch about three-quarters of the way around the approximately 4-mile loop.
About that time, Mullins’ “The Color Green” came in through my ear buds. It is perhaps my favorite song for walking through nature and includes these picture-painting lyrics:
Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands,
Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land.
Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
Blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise.
No blue sky today, I thought. But then I looked, perhaps for the first time that day, at the green. The green of the grass and the trees exploded into my vision and I was taken aback by the utter beauty and contrast of the wet green against the coldness of the rest of the landscape. I woke up, it seems. It’s not drab, I thought, it’s just God telling me to remember that beauty lies all around us, all the time, if we’ll only wake up and pay attention.
And then, as if on cue from the great director in the sky (and I kid you not nor do I exaggerate the perfect timing on this), there was a flash of brown and white in the corner of my right eye. I turned my head just in time to see a bald eagle gliding to rest on a tree branch not 50 feet in front of me, clutching in its talons two (two!) approximately two-pound fish, obviously and recently pilfered from the lake. My hand went to my chest. I could not move. Seriously, God?
“Seriously, Steve. This is what I do, day in and day out.”
Ask yourself in silence: When was the last time you were totally caught off guard by the wonder and power of God?
Note: As I was writing this, I searched online for the lyrics to the song to double check them, and while I was there ran across this video of Rich Mullins singing the song while walking through a drab, gray Irish landscape, with contrasting scenes in black and white and vibrant color. Great minds and all that. Enjoy the video by clicking on the highlighted text above.
May this time of waiting bring you unexpected gifts, moments of peace and surrender that arise unbeckoned like mist from the saturated earth and envelop your life in a gauze of sacred presence and veiled knowing;
May the company and concern of friends and family circle ‘round you like an ancient dance, a flurry of movement and color and a certain slant of light that recalls childhood joy and recollects moments of profound and transcendent joy;
May you feel the prayers from those around you, tiny drops of rain on the back of your neck, on the palms of your hands and on your face as you lift your mind and voice to the ever-present and never-changing hearer and healer of all;
May the Lord of all creation create in you a space to be filled, a hunger never fully sated, a thirst that can’t be slaked, a restlessness that rests in God alone;
May the starless filter of midnight bring the astonishing and inescapable light of dawn, moments of hope that string together to make days, pearls of faith and love that make a life.
May the sun, which is yet to show its molten face, greet us today with all the warmth and light we need to bring us fully alive and fully awake, ready to meet our day with purpose and love for those who surround us;
May it cast shadows across our faces and hands to remind us of all that needs to be done, all that needs to be healed, all that needs to be offered up to the giver and taker of life;
May this day bring us what we need and nothing more, for it is often in the excess of desire that we lose our very selves and our connection to the Divine Provider who knows better than we do the difference between want and need, who will give us our daily bread in exact proportion to our reliance and trust of the giver;
May those who enter our lives today — new friends and old, colleagues and strangers — end the day changed for the better because our shadows crossed theirs, because our lives touched in some small, significant way that we may never know.
May we live today knowing this power we hold to make small dents in the armored lives of others, that we possess in our hands and in our words the ability to make change and draw the attention of the world to the source of all light, the one sun who casts shadows too many to count across the surface of our days.
Last evening’s walk around Mallard Lake in Creve Coeur Park in suburban St. Louis was a walk through beauty. No less than a dozen deer crossed my path as I walked along, a few so close we could look each other in the eye. The slant of light from the setting sun caught the water on the lake, the tips of trees and the wings of a soaring red-tail hawk at just an angle so as to take my breath away. I had to stop for a second on my trek and whisper a silent “thank you,” knowing that was enough of a prayer for the moment. I can only imagine that beauty magnified a thousand times in a few months when full-on autumn hits us with the gentle ferocity of Jackson Pollock-like splatters of color and light. There’s so much to be seen on such a walk, so much beauty to take in if we place ourselves in the position to see it. I walk for exercise, but I walk in such settings for the beauty. I need them both to be healthy.
And even as I write this, I realize that this word — beauty — is so overused in our world and culture that we barely pay any attention to it at all. Or if we do, we may be speaking of some artificial kind of beauty. Indeed, if you google “beauty” the very first entry will be a link to products and merchandise that will MAKE you beautiful, a social ploy created God knows how long ago to make people, especially women, think they are just not good enough as they are. Shame on us for buying into that at the expense of the inner and outer beauty that already exists in us.
Beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder, but aren’t some things innately beautiful? Thoughtful people have been asking that question for millennia, of course. I’m no expert on aesthetics, but I do know that my concepts of beauty are formed (or should be) by my faith and belief in the creator of all that is beautiful — in something that transcends both me and the created world.
This past week I listened to a podcast (something else I sometimes do on my walks) of an interview by Krista Tippett with renowned cellist and composer Yo-Yo Ma on her public radio show “On Being.” Near the end of the interview, Tippett asks Ma for his definition of beauty and, after a bit of creative and interesting rambling, he settles on this: “I can’t say the word beautiful without also equating it with the word transcendence…a moment of reception and cognition of the thing that is, in some ways, startling. There’s that moment where there is, essentially, a transfer of life…human cognition of that vastness, awe and wonder.” (To hear the whole glorious interview, click here: http://bit.ly/WAkzFB.)
For me, this comes close to the mark. This “transfer of life” that takes place in the presence of real beauty is perhaps why we gasp, as if we’re being re-born and sucking in air for the first time. It’s why so many of us find God in nature, in wind-blown places where the spirit wanders as it pleases and finally comes to rest on our lips and helps us pray, helps us whisper that “thank you.” For whether we find God in the natural beauty of a lush forest or a stark desert, whether in a museum or a concert hall, it’s the same God showing us beauty in the bounty and diversity of the earth and in the people who walk it.
Ask yourself in silence: Where do I most easily see beauty? What is my response to it? Do I often enough put myself in a place where I can experience it?