The Creative Spirit: An Open, Aware Heart

Outside Sedona. SJG photo.

“Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film.” – Ansel Adams

What the great nature photographer Ansel Adams knew and showed us in his haunting, elegant black and white photographs is that there is so much to be seen and experienced in the world if we only slow down and pay attention — not only to the image in front of us but to the light and shadows that surround, encompass and overlay what we see. Adams would hike miles, laden with his heavy equipment and supplies, to get to the perfect place at the perfect time of day. Then it became his job, to paraphrase the renowned words of the poet Mary Oliver, to “stand still and learn to be astonished.”

There’s lesson in that for us somewhere, surely.

Over the past few years, I have developed a passion for walking. For its physical, mental and spiritual benefits, it has become my exercise of choice. I can put my head down and speed through a few miles around campus on my lunch hour. But more often than not — and especially when I have more time — my pace slows and I allow the world around me to seep into my eyes, brain and soul as I walk.

The truth is, we need both movement and stillness to remain wholly healthy. We need exercise. We need to get outside and breathe fresh air. But we also need quiet, contemplative time that puts us into closer contact with the natural world, with the people around us and, for those who believe, with the God who made it all. We may be re-energized by a brisk walk or exhilarated by a bike ride, but we also require the quiet introspection that comes from solitude, reflection or prayer, from placing ourselves before the world like an open lens and allowing ourselves to be imprinted by it all, like photographic plates or paper, by what the world is showing us.

Whether that is a luminous view of the red rocks of Sedona or the downcast eyes of a work colleague who just needs to be listened to, we have the responsibility to pay attention. We are called to a life of paying attention and being astonished by what we see. Perhaps most importantly, we must allow ourselves to be moved into action in response. Whether that response is gratitude for the beauty of the day or the decision to listen to and serve those around us, it is the same. It is a response imprinted on our hearts in those moments of standing still, those instances of wonder when we come to know that we are not meant to be alone, those times when we are reminded that perhaps the best we have to offer is the act of putting ourselves second. Maybe third.

Living Extraordinary Lives Begins with Gratitude

It’s an ordinary time on an ordinary day,
It’s the simple things we do that take our breath away.
And the more we pay attention to every day that fills our eyes
The more we live extraordinary lives.

- “Extraordinary Lives,” by Steve Givens and Phil Cooper

Day's Beginning: Surprise me. SJG photo.

Gratitude, it seems to me, is the starting point for our lives of prayer, creativity and living well among others. But gratitude is easy to say and harder to live by because it’s hard work. Saying “thank you” to God and to others around us is the simplest thing to do and, yet, we so often forget to do it. Or don’t make time to do it. Or don’t make it a part of our daily experience.

Today I offer a short reflection, a brief, two-pronged approach to a life of gratitude, followed by a new song called “Extraordinary Lives,” composed with my friend and co-creator Phil Cooper. [The song will be on the forthcoming CD by the Mo Bottom Project, scheduled for release this summer. If you’d like to reserve a copy shoot me an email!]

So how can we live lives filled with gratitude? It begins with our expectations that something unexpected and filled with blessing awaits us. It begins with the simplest of prayers at the start of each day that is some version of this: Surprise me today, Lord. Show me something I’ve never seen before. Give me a new vision of something I’ve seen every day of my life. Put a new person, experience or opportunity into my life. The real secret of this approach to prayer (and to living) is that we’re turning over our day to God. We’re not trying to figure out what this new thing should be. We’re not trying to network our way into a new relationship. We’re not setting out to find a new experience. We’re leaving it to God. Surprise me.

But the second part of this prayer is equally important. We have to remember to pay attention, to recognize the moments when God delivers on our request and says, “here ya go…surprise!” Again, this sounds all too simple. But honestly ask yourself this question: How often do you make your way through your day with absolutely no awareness of what happened to you? So wrapped in our responsibilities and busy-ness, our heads hit our pillows and we’re so exhausted we fall asleep with no idea of what we encountered during our day. We have no idea what hit us. It happens to us all, but it doesn’t need to.

Day's End: Where did God show up? SJG photo.

When we start our day with the prayer of “surprise me” and end it with “what happened to me today,” we begin to live our lives in awareness. We begin to see the movement of God where we thought there was nothingness. We begin to recognize the kindness of strangers where we thought we were alone. We begin to see the hand of God in the beauty the world displays but we so often ignore.

It’s time to begin living our lives like they mean something. Like they are miracles and gifts. Like they are extraordinary.

Enjoy our song. The lyrics are below and you can listen by clicking here: Extraordinary Lives 41416.

It’s an ordinary time on an ordinary day,
It’s the simple things we do that take our breath away.
And the more we pay attention to every day that fills our eyes
The more we live extraordinary lives.

One day I stood out by the road,
And beyond my fields the river flowed.
Gold stalks shimmered in the light
My soul on fire, my mind in flight.

It was just one moment in the sun,
A reckoning when day was done.
A time to stand and be amazed,
For we spend our lives as we spend our days.

When we look ahead, say, “someday soon.”
When we wring our hands and count the moons.
When we fret the sands in the hourglass
We can miss the days that become our past.

So with the sun each day I rise,
My only prayer, to be surprised.
By the beauty that the world displays
For we spend our lives as we spend our days.

“Extraordinary Lives,” lyrics by Steve Givens, music by Steve Givens and Phil Cooper. Violin composed and performed by Connor Coffey. Copyright 2016, Potter’s Mark Music.

The Seven Last Words: Spirit

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

Into your hands I commend my spirit. SJG photo

Seven: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23: 44-46

It is the middle of the afternoon and darkness has descended over Jerusalem and its environs. This is no passing storm. Even the universe is rebelling, it seems, against the injustice of what is happening on Golgotha. The sun has been eclipsed, covered over by a lesser light, as seemingly has the life of Jesus the Christ. The veil of the temple — separating the Holy of Holies from the people — has been torn down the middle. There is no longer this hidden distance between God and humans. Jesus summons one last burst of energy and cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” With those words, he breathes his last. Will this be the end of him and his idea of a new kind of kingdom where love reigns?

For those who believe, we know this is not the end of the story but rather the beginning of something new. It is a communion between God and the rest of us, born out of this painful death and Jesus’ surrender and giving up of his Spirit. For as Jesus gives his last breath he gives the promise of a new breath and new Holy Spirit that will continue to live in us — as Church, as individuals, as citizens of the world who must come to know that we need each other. (How are we doing with that?)

It is, indeed, his Spirit that matters. “Spirit,” from the same Greek word — pneuma — that gives us “breath,” Jesus is leaving us more than a memory. He is giving us an indwelling of God in our lives. Never again will we be alone, if we are prepared to watch and listen for the Spirit’s gentle movement. For like the gentle Jesus, this Holy Spirit is more like a whisper than a roar.  More like an expired breath than a shout for attention. More like love than anything we can imagine.

Ask yourself in silence: How can I better still myself to experience the spirit of God breathed on the world?

Happy Easter to all!

The Seven Last Words: Finished

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

It is finished. SJG photo

Six: “It is finished.” John 19:30

Jesus sips the sour wine and — in this last purely human act — knows that his end has come. But notice his words. Not “I am finished” but “it is finished.” This tragic scene before us, filled with passion and drama, is about much more than a man dying. This is beyond a sad tale of a failed prophet and teacher. This is the end of something bigger. This is the culmination of the Father’s plan for the salvation of the world.

From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross on Calvary, the Incarnate Word of God visited earth and lived among us so that God might draw us all to himself. That experiment in divine interaction was coming to a close, and none of us would ever be the same.  Bowing his head, Jesus handed over his spirit.

The overall scene is brutal, violent and bloody, but the end reflects the gentleness of a God who only wants us to embrace and say yes to him. As he has done throughout his ministry and passion, Jesus does not lash out. He does not hate. He does not promise retribution to those who persecuted and killed him. He does not scream. He bows his head and “hands over” his spirit. No one has taken his life from him, for he has freely given it.

Here, in these simple and surely whispered words, is the model of living and dying that he has left us. Even as Jesus pours out his life for us, we are called to a life of surrender to God, to the creator and author of life who knows us better than we know ourselves. I am reminded as I write this of a prayer called the Suscipe from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, that prayer of abandonment and detachment from the things of this world in exchange for something much greater — the presence and grace of God:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Perhaps the best and most authentic response to the grace offered to us on the cross is giving away our own lives to others and to God. We are called to be servants. We are asked to be more for others than for ourselves. We are invited to love in the face of fear, confusion and hatred.

Ask yourself in silence: What in my life needs to change so I can pray, “Take, Lord, receive…all is yours now?”

Tomorrow: Commend

The Seven Last Words: Thirsty

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

I Thirst. SJG photo.

Five: “I thirst.” John 19:28-29

Jesus, on the cross for many hours now, is losing bodily fluids like a wrung-out sponge. He is growing weak, his body emaciated and dehydrated from sweating, crying, even breathing. He needs to drink something. There is not much time left, he senses. His lips are parched and dry, his head spinning. Aware of the end, and in order that once again scripture might be fulfilled and we all might come to belief, he says quietly — for certainly the time for crying out has now left him — “I thirst.”

Once again, he is hearkening back to the psalms of his Jewish heritage (Psalm 69:21-22):

Insult has broken my heart, and I despair;
I looked for compassion, but there was none,
for comforters, but found none.
Instead they gave me poison for my food;
and for my thirst they gave me vinegar.

Indeed, there was a vessel nearby filled with common sour wine. So someone — was this person helping him with such a drink or not? — soaked the simple wine on a sprig of hyssop (the same small branch from the mint family that Moses dipped in blood for the Passover sacrifice) and put it up to his mouth. Jesus sips from the “sacramental” wine — however sour — and prepares for his final words.

If we have any doubt of Jesus’ humanity — and that he is truly suffering — this simple and natural urge to slake his thirst ought to set us straight. Throughout his life, Jesus shows us over and over again the emotions, traits and urges that make him human. He weeps and cries, he mourns, he gets angry, he becomes tender, he eats and sleeps and thirsts. It is his incarnation — Word of God into flesh and bone —that binds and attracts us to him. God the Father knew we would need this, would need someone like us, if we were to believe and be drawn back to God despite our sins that separate us from the Divine.

As Jesus thirsted for drink — a human need in the midst of his physical and spiritual turmoil so, too, do we thirst. We thirst for God and for a relationship with him. We thirst for spiritual nourishment in the midst of our busy, physical lives. We thirst for the one thing that cannot come from any place other than Jesus — living water that never dries up and never fails to satisfy. Tonight at our Holy Thursday mass we sang:

O let all who thirst, let them come to the water.
And let all who have nothing, let them come to the Lord.
Without money, without price.
Why should you pay the price, except for the Lord?

John Foley, SJ (Come to the Water, 1978)

Ask yourself in silence: In my life, for what I am most thirsty? How do I feel as I answer that honestly?

Tomorrow: Finished

The Seven Last Words: Forsaken

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

Pierced for our transgressions. SJG photo.

Four: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:33-34

It was perhaps Earth’s darkest three hours ever, from noon to three o’clock on that first Good Friday, when the world was draped in a gray veil and Jesus hung heavy and nearly lifeless on the cross, his life slowly ebbing away and his breathing labored and weak. It is the man Jesus — the human just like us — who cries out loudly these words of hopelessness and utter dejection: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

They are words prayed in fulfillment of the psalms (Psalm 22) that he certainly heard as an attentive young man in the temple:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.

But this was no mere repetition of a childhood prayer in a moment of anguish. For he had good reason to wonder where God was. After all, he had done everything right. He was certainly innocent of these so-called crimes. He knew the Father loved him and approved of his life and ministry. His miracles and healings and feeding of thousands were the work of the Father through him. He had never been alone before.

Yet even as he knew all this, even as he was accomplishing and fulfilling the purpose for which he became “Emmanuel,” he feels the emptiness and pain of being a man seemingly forgotten — the suffering servant of God. With the weight of the world on him, he was still “man enough” to feel like a man, to sense abandonment by the One who loved and sent him. He can’t help but ask the question: Why?

Because he is fully man, no pain escapes him. The suffering is as real for him as it will be for us. As we come face to face with our own moments of pain and death, we, too, may be pushed to the brink of doubt and faith, seemingly forsaken by the One who loved and created us. And we will not be able to not ask the same question: Why? Why come so far to end like this? Why here and why now? Why, God, if in fact you are God…

For when it comes to pain, suffering and death, we don’t get a “get out of jail free card” because of our faith. Faith in Christ doesn’t promise us “easy,” but it does promise us what Jesus came to experience in the fullness time — life in the eternal presence of God.

Ask yourself in silence: When have I felt forsaken? When have I felt the eternal presence of God?

Tomorrow: Thirsty

The Seven Last Words: Behold

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

Woman, behold your son. SJG photo.

Three: “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” John 19:25-27

Jesus looks down from the cross and sees what must be a son’s worst nightmare — his mother, watching him suffer and die. Standing there with her friends, close relatives and his beloved disciple (John), his thoughts turn from his death to their life, to their care for one another. Looking at his mother, he says, “Woman, behold your son.” And to John, “behold your mother.” He knew those were all the words he needed to say. He knew from that day on she would be cared for and revered by John and the early Church community. She was to be blessed indeed.

As I read and contemplated this passage today, the phrase “no mother should bury a child” kept coming to mind. I wondered to myself, where is the greater pain: in the mother watching her son die or in the son watching his mother watch him die? For us all, the pain of death can be so intense that we find ourselves asking (or screaming), “why God?” We hurt so much because we love so much, of course, because even as the life we love so much slips away we already feel the loss of relationship and presence.

Certainly Jesus knew the pain his mother was feeling, knew that she needed to be cared for in a society where widows and motherless children were often ignored or worse. So he did the best he could for her in offering her the companionship of John. Jesus neither asks nor commands John about this task; he simply and gently presents them to one another.

As we walk our Christian life, we are called to be more aware of one another. We are asked to “behold” one another, for certainly there are those in our life — whether we are aware or not — who are suffering and in need of our attention. Indeed, perhaps what they most need is for us to simply see — behold — them.

It is this same interaction of beholding that St. Ignatius uses to describe our prayer and relationship with God. When we enter into prayer, he suggests that we “consider God considering us.” As I write this the world once more is grieving over the killing of so many innocents in Belgium, so as we pray tonight we offer up a prayer especially for all those affected. We ask God to consider them, to behold them and gather them into his arms.

Ask yourself in silence: Who needs me to behold them today?

Tomorrow: Forsaken

The Seven Last Words: Paradise

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

Paradise in Nicaragua. SJG photo.

Two: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

Hanging on a cross and utterly helpless, Jesus’ torture — both physical and mental — continues. He has been in relentless pain for hours. He has plenty of reasons to be angry, to seek vengeance, to lash out at his attackers. And who would blame him? What man — especially an innocent man — would not defend himself, after all? Even one of the criminals hanging beside him, condemned to death the same as him, gets his licks in. “You’re the Messiah,” he shouts at Jesus, “save yourself and us!” But Jesus does not respond. Is this weakness or strength, we wonder? For this is how we see the world. An eye for an eye…

But in a quiet moment between the harangues of the thief, the other man speaks up, perhaps seeing for the first time the error of his life and ways. He knows, after all, that he deserves what he is getting. He calls out in anger and confusion at the one attacking Jesus, “Have you no fear? Are you a fool? We are guilty and our punishments fit our crimes. But this one — what is it about this one? — has done nothing wrong. Jesus,” he calls out in some last-minute attempt at redemption, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

What kind of response he was expecting we can only guess, but I can’t believe he thought for a moment he would hear this from Jesus: “Okay, I will,” Jesus says. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Paradise — another world, another day, another chance.

Once again, we see the wounded, hurting, oppressed Jesus turning to love and forgiveness. He had no reason to do this and yet he is ready and quick to forgive and offer redemption. Hanging there, wracked with pain, he continues to love as if he has no choice.

The offer of paradise he offers the penitent thief is what he offers us still. In spite of our pain, our failings, our doubts, dependencies and deep-held grudges, he offers us paradise — another world, another day, another chance.

Ask yourself in silence: How can I find it in myself to be compassionate to those who lash out at me? How can I somehow find the strength to love in the very face of illness, evil, hatred or even death? How can I accept the offer of paradise?

Tomorrow: Mother

The Seven Last Words: Forgive

During the hours when Jesus hung on the cross leading up to his death, he uttered seven “words” (actually short sentences, as recorded across the four gospels), and these words continue to be meaningful and insightful to us today if we’re willing to spend some time in quiet with them. For they are not only remembrances of that day and of Jesus’ suffering and death, but also serve as reminders of how we are to live in our own moments of suffering. As we enter Holy Week, I offer seven short reflections on these words and ask you to consider what they might mean to you, today.

Written on the wall: Forgive. SJG photo.

One: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:33-34

We arrive at the place hauntingly called Golgotha (the Skull), where Jesus and his cross are lifted into place on that ugly hill, a criminal to his left and right. Jesus is tired, wounded and bloody from the torture he has experienced and from the long walk to Golgotha carrying his own instrument of death. He owes nothing to anyone.

Put in his situation (or one similar to it), what would our first words be to the crowd gathered before us? Perhaps something along these lines: “Stop! I have done nothing wrong! I don’t deserve this! This isn’t supposed to happen to me! You’ve got the wrong guy.”

Jesus, instead, turns away from hatred, denial and retribution and toward love, acceptance and forgiveness: “Forgive them, Father. They are just incapable of knowing what it is they are doing. As painful as this is for me, as unjust as the whole situation is, please, just forgive them.”

As we face (or contemplate) our own moments of suffering and death, we are asked to consider Jesus, the gentle healer and forgiver. Will we be able to reach deep beyond the pain and turn the situation to love? Will we be able to forgive those who have hurt us, who have left us feeling alone or with a burden that has been nearly too great to bear?

Ask yourself in silence: What will be the legacy of my suffering? Will it be more pain for someone else or a turn toward the kind of love modeled for me on the cross? Even as I exit, can I leave love behind?

Tomorrow: Paradise

Being There: Jesus Heals the Paralyzed Man at Capernaum

In Ignatian spirituality, we are encouraged to place ourselves in the midst of a gospel story in order to more fully encounter Jesus who teaches, heals, befriends, suffers and dies. In this occasional series, I’ll take a journey into that world and pray it helps you find your way there, too.

To begin, I turn to this marvelous story of healing in Mark 2. I believe I first encountered this story as a child, caught up by a Sunday School image of this man being lowered down from the roof so that Jesus can touch and heal him…

Mission door near San Antonio. SJG photo.

As you walk down the dusty road leading into Capernaum, you hear the rumble of voices before you even realize what is going on. A crowd is gathering, converging on the simple home of the itinerant teacher named Jesus. Some even call him a healer. Others say perhaps he is a prophet. A few have said, “Maybe he’s the Messiah we are hoping for.” But who would be foolish enough to believe that?

You push your way through the crowd to see for yourself, edging your way into the doorframe. The air smells of dried clay and cedar, and you lean back against the wood and feel it push into your back. You peer over the heads of those encircling the bearded man at the center of the small room. Quietly and yet with a natural confidence and seeming authority, he is explaining the law and the prophets. No one moves and no one talks. He has captured their attention and their imaginations. He laughs easily and frequently, his eyes dancing in the slant of light coming in through the small windows to his right.

Read the rest of Being There: Jesus Heals the Paralyzed Man at Capernaum »