Let Yourself Be Useless

This, from beloved theologian Henri Nouwen:

Prayer is not a way of being busy with God instead of with people. In fact, it unmasks the illusion of busyness, usefulness, and indispensability. It is a way of being empty and useless in the presence of God and so of proclaiming our basic belief that all is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work. Indeed, wasting time for God is an act of ministry, because it reminds us and our people that God is free to touch anyone regardless of our well-meant efforts. Prayer as an articulate way of being useless in the face of God brings a smile to all we do and creates humor in the midst of our occupations and preoccupations.

Thinking about my own prayer, I realize how easily I make it into a little seminar with God, during which I want to be useful by reading beautiful prayers, thinking profound thoughts, and saying impressive words. I am obviously still worried about the grade! It indeed is a hard discipline to be useless in God’s presence and to let him speak in the silence of my heart. But whenever I become a little useless I know that God is calling me to a new life beyond the boundaries of my usefulness.

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: How welcome are the words”all is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work” to you? Do you ever wonder or worry about the “grade” God might be giving you?

Soil and Seeds

This reflection on Luke 8:4-15, from “Unearthing My Religion” by Mary Gray-Reeves:
“When farmers look at soil, they see a detailed future, a strategic plan, the economy, politics, immigration laws, and the cultural preferences of various groups. I know now that when they are staring at the soil, they see an entire universe and how the tiny seeds they cast will be part of it. Their persistent study and experienced practice of noticing the soil and all related factors makes the difference in the harvest. Unlike America today, most people in first-century Palestine — Jesus’s audience — were farmers. Everyone understood what happened when seed fell on rock, was not watered, or was choked by thorns. Certain conditions produced certain results. It only makes sense…The story is not about ground conditions, but carries over to the listeners’ inner life. It invites us to ask: Are the seeds God is casting on our spiritual soil taking root? What kind of seeds are they? What is the condition of your inner soil? Is there spiritual receptivity within you? Will holy seeds develop? What does harvest look like? Do you care? These were questions people might have thought about sitting and listening to Jesus then and now. They are timeless queries.”

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others, these “wondering questions”, also taken from “Unearthing My Religion”: Imagibe God casting seeds into your soul with ridiculous abandon. Where are they landing? Where are they living? Where are they dying? Where are they growing with deep roots and becoming fruitful? In other words, what parts of your spiritual life are flourishing? Which parts are struggling? Where is there more potentially good soil for future planting?

The image is by Sadao Watanabe

Angels, Archangels and all the Company of Heaven?

This, from Richard Rohr’s latest book, “The Universal Christ”:

“In his book ‘Unmasking the Powers’ theologian and biblical scholar Walter Wink makes a very convincing casr that [an] intuition about the inherent sacredness of creation is precisely what sacred texts are pointing toward when they speak of ‘angels’. An angel, Wink believed, is the inner spirit or soul of a thing. When we honor the ‘angel’ of a thing, we respect its inner spirit. And if we learn to pay attention to the soul of things — to see the ‘angels’ of elements, animals, earth, water, and skies — then we can naturally work our way back through the Great Chain of Being to the final link, whom many call God. Don’t waste your time deconstructing your primitive belief about pretty, winged creatures in flowing pastel dresses…We need to reconstruct, and not just continue to deconstruct. Then you will see angels everywhere.”

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: Go on an angel hunt — how are angels depicted in the the building where you worship, in art that speaks to you, in scripture (the Bible Gateway website is a useful search tool), or in words we hear in church on Sundays? Do Rohr’s comments intrigue you? Annoy you? Enhance your sense of wonder and mystery in creation? Or affect you in some other way?

A Mary Oliver Easter

The Fawn

Sunday morning and mellow as precious metal
The church bells rang, but I went
To the woods instead.

A fawn, too new
For fear, rose from the grass
And stood with its spots blazing,
And knowing no way but words,
No trick but music,
I sang to him.

He listened.
His small hooves struck the grass.
Oh what is holiness?

The fawn came closer,
Walked to my hands, to my knees.

I did not touch him.
I only sang, and when the doe came back
Calling out to him dolefully
And he turned and followed her into the trees,
Still I sang,
Not knowing how to end such a joyful text,

Until far off the bells once more tipped and tumbled
And rang through the morning, announcing
The going forth of the blessed.

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: The poet asks “what is holiness?”. What is your answer? The poem is full of images of calling, seeking, leading, and following. Which of these images speaks most clearly to your heart this season? What is your Easter song?

Seven Stanzas at Easter (John Updike)

“Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.”
~ John Updike

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: Writer Matthew Sitman responds to Updike’s poem by considering gospel accounts of resurrection appearances to Thomas in the upper room, Peter on the beach, and two disciples on the road to Emmaus and saying “The problem is not that Updike challenges us to consider the strange idea that a man rose from the dead; it’s that what he holds before us isn’t strange enough.” What do you say?

Approaching Good Friday

“The cross confronts us with the fragility of Jesus. He’s no Superman who leaps down and says ‘Only joking!’. He suffers to the end. We wonder how this awful spectacle can possibly be necessary for our salvation. We’re supposed to wonder that. We wonder whether this tiny, broken, wasted body can possibly be the body of God. We’re supposed to wonder that. We wonder how any joy, any hope, any glory can possibly emerge from this hideous catastrophe. We’re supposed to wonder that. We wonder why God doesn’t utterly reject us after we’ve shown the very worst that we can do. We’re supposed to wonder that. All these wonderings should be part of our faith, our imagination, our daily prayer and our compassionate hearts. But for all our wondering and pondering one thing is utterly clear. When we see the pain, when we feel the grief, when we look upon the loneliness, when we touch the wounds, when we hear the cries, we know, we know that God will go to any lengths for us, God will never be separated from us, that loving is written into God’s DNA, that there’s no part of God that has any desire to be except to be with us, that Jesus is the embodiment of the way God’s destiny is wrapped up in us forever. Any other notion of God, any other speculation about God’s wishes, any other idea about what lies at the heart of God is gone. Over. Dispelled. Finished…[on Good Friday], everything is finished. Everything’s desolate. Everything’s laid waste. Everything’s lost, except the heart of God laid bare…

These challenging words come from “Hanging By A Thread: The Question of the Cross”, by Samuel Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, London.

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: What are you wondering and pondering in your heart as we approach these holy days and risk drawing near to the cross once again?

What we do in Church

This, from “The Way of Love: Worship” (Church Publishing 2019)

“The liturgy is not a performance. The liturgy is an art form that is not meant to entertain or impress or edify or instruct. It is a corporate act of the people of God that aims to change us, to draw us out of our self-conscious preoccupations and deeper into the mystery of the dying and rising love of God for us and for this world. It is an encounter with God’s own presence.

Granted, it is not always immediately clear that anything like this is happening on a Sunday morning in a typical church. Would a complete stranger to the Christian faith have any inkling of the vast mystery we gather to encounter here?

The author Annie Dillard suggests the answer is no: [She writes] ‘On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we do blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church: we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.’

Dillard shocks us with her strong words, but maybe we — like that sleeping god — need to wake up. Some say the worst and most persistent sin the church continues to commit is to bore people. It is worth pondering.”

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: If you worship in church regularly, why? If not, what is keeping you away? Annie Dillard suggests that many are not “sufficiently sensible of conditions.” What conditions is she talking about? When and where are you most aware of God’s power and love?

A Theologian’s Faith (and Ours)

“We hang onto a lot of hurt in our lives. There are moments when God will tell us quite clearly to let go of it.

The life we have in Christ is an adventure that will not be simple, easy, or dull. It will take us in all kinds of directions. We will be doing things we never thought we would do, saying things we never thought we would say. Being a Christian — a disciple, a follower of Christ — is not a panacea which creates immediate happiness. Any religion that claims it makes life perfect is selling us a cheap bill of goods. But when Christ comes to live in us we will have a life we would not want to trade, even when the tough times come along. Christ gives us a quality of relationship with God we will never have experienced before. The adventures we have in prayer, in study of Scripture, in witness and in life itself will, day by day, show us the reality of God’s power and [God’s] love.

How do we sum up the Christian life? Karl Barth (a theologian who died in 1968) was interviewed in Time magazine in which he was asked to sum up his theology. In response, he began to sing the children’s hymn ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’

Your faith has to start there, in a recognition that God loves us. God loves all of us. There are no exceptions. No matter what our past is, no matter what others may say, this is the fundamental witness of the Christian faith. God loves us and in order to win us back, [Jesus] went to the cross and was raised from the dead in order to be able to live in us and through us, so that we might be witnesses to his life in a world that is caught in the jaws of death. Behind all of the complexities and under the surface there is a world longing to hear that Jesus loves us.”

From “The Way of Love: Turn” Church Publishing 2018

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: Karl Barth is perhaps best known for his magnum opus “Church Dogmatics”, which contains six million words and 8,000 pages. How do you respond to the simplicity of his faith recorded here? The authors of this meditation direct readers to a particular starting point for faith. Do you agree with them? Where does your faith start?

On Being God’s Beloved

This, from “Ashes to Phoenix: Meditations for the Season of Lent”:

Sooner or later, all our tricks stop working. Our ways of managing our lives fall apart. Illusions of control dissipate –and there, at that most vulnerable and tender point, we fall into the hands of a living God. There is a reason Jesus has to enter the wilderness for forty days. In the River Jordan, Jesus hears God tell him that he is God’s beloved, but Jesus still has to learn what that means. He has to learn that being God’s beloved has nothing to do with power or position or prestige but is deeply rooted in trusting good — and the will of God — with all his heart.

Sooner or later, every one of us will find our way into the wilderness, discovering over and over again that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Then, by God’s grace, we can turn around. We repent, we open our hearts to God. We ask God to come find us, because we do not know how to find where God is.

The real work of Lent is reorienting ourselves into right relationship with God. We don’t need our worthiness of resurrection through mortification of the flesh or self-denial. Instead, we turn away from the illusion that we are in charge of anything except our intentions. In our turning to God, we ask to be connected to the source of our light and lives.

The men and women in the Bible who come closest to Jesus are those who have no illusions about their ability to make their lives work. They are lame, blind, bleeding, bereaved; some are already dead. They have come to the end of their ropes and fall into the hands of the living God, praying the ultimate prayer of surrender and sacrifice: ‘Help’. In this season of Lent, may we have the honesty to admit our limitations and brokenness. May we pray the prayer the Lord always hears, ‘Help’. (Porter Taylor; image by Julia Stankova)

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: What does being God’s beloved mean to you? How is your sense of what it means to be beloved changing this Lent?

A Spring Blessing

Lent means Spring! (At least in Old English). This Spring blessing comes from Macrina Wiederkehr’s book “The Circle of Life”. She reminds us that Lent is a time when “deep trust in unseen growth is absolutely necessary” and that in Lent we are called to “trust without seeing the face of secret life that stirs, to hope without happy feelings, and to work with what seems to be little fruition”. In today’s blessing, she also offers us glimpses of God’s springtime grace.

Blessed are you, spring,
bright season of life awakening.
You gladden our hearts
with opening buds and returning leaves
as you put on your robes of splendor.
Blessed are you, spring.
In you is a life no death can destroy.
AS you exchange places with with winter
you harbor no unforgiving spirit
for broken tree limbs and frozen buds.
Blessed are you, spring.
You open the closed buds of our despair
as you journey with us
to the flowering places.
Blessed are you, spring.
You invite us to sing songs
to the frozen regions within
and to bless the lessons of winter
as we become a partner in your new dance.
Blessed are you, spring.
Like Jesus standing before the tomb of Lazarus,
you call to us: Remove winter’s stone, come out,
there is life here you have not yet tasted.”

For reflection in solitude or in the company of others: What frozen places in your life have begun to open to God’s grace and mercy? What lessons has this past winter taught you? What “life you have not yet tasted” might be waiting for you this season?