Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Practice, Practice, Practice...

From time to time it is a useful to revisit the great spiritual classics. Each time I do this, I find those profound thoughts and words which seemed so familiar are fresh and new. They are full of new interpretations in light of the change and growth that happens within me over time. Recently, I have been re-reading one of those well-known classics: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century French monk. His writing is simple and direct and readers immediately feel that he understands our spiritual struggles and failures.

One of the aspects of Brother Lawrence’s thought that grabbed my attention as I read through it again was his singleness. There is one thing he calls us to do and there is nothing complex or incomprehensible about it. Again and again, he draws our attention to one thing simply put: we must be given entirely to God. Every thought, every action, every word belongs to God. In all things, we must first dwell on God’s presence and then think, act, and speak from that presence of God. No matter how trivial our thought, word, or deed may be, even picking up a piece of straw, it must be done to the glory of God. This is the single message. This is what Brother Lawrence says we must practice.

So we set about giving ourselves entirely to God and practicing the presence of God, and within moments, we have become distracted. We have begun to focus on the next task and this great task is forgotten. It is the nature of being human. We can only truly focus on one task at a time. If we are entirely focused on God, we become no “earthly good.” Imagine trying to explain to your boss that you missed a deadline because you were trying to practice the presence of God! But then, if we focus on the earthly task, we forget to give ourselves entirely over. This is our constant struggle.

If Brother Lawrence were with us today, I can imagine him knowingly nodding his head as we describe this dilemma. He would simply tell us to start again. And again and again and again. I wonder if we might come up with some parallel experiences to draw upon. Have you ever tried to change your attitude about something; to think differently by shear effort? “I’m not going to be angry!” “I’m not going to let so-and-so ruin my day!” “I’m determined to enjoy myself under difficult circumstances.” I imagine we have all thought these things from time to time. We know that we can control our thoughts and attitudes. But sometimes it isn’t so obvious. It can be subtle and difficult. But the more we practice it and the more familiar the new attitude becomes, the easier it is to maintain. We can have an attitude of worship. We can cultivate an attitude of obedience. We can develop an attitude of love in all things. We can grow in singleness of heart. Our new attitude may not be constantly conscious, but it can underlie all of our thoughts, words, and actions.

Practicing the presence of God means that our thoughts, words, and actions are always grounded in that Presence. Perhaps our conscious thought is not always about that Presence, but it is always there. Perhaps it is like the love we have for another person. Over time, that love grows. It may not always be at the top of our thoughts, but when we act in relation to that person, we act out of that love. That love is always there whether we are thinking about it or not. It forms every thought, word, and deed that we practice as we relate to the loved one. One difference with the practice of the presence of God is that all of our thoughts, words, and actions are in relation to God. Everything we do, say, or think is formed by that love of God. Everything we do, say, or think springs from the loving practice of the presence of God. This is but one way to begin to grasp what Brother Lawrence has for us.

For Brother Lawrence, there is nothing that requires superhuman smarts about practicing the presence of God. It is simply what must be done. Even for him, it took years of practice. He had to bring his mind and heart back to God again and again, and over time, that singleness became imprinted in his subconscious and constantly bubbled up into his thoughts, words, and actions. He was totally, unreservedly given over to God. The practice of the presence of God became the ground of all else in his life. In those years of practice so many more great insights came to Brother Lawrence.

If you would like to know more about Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God, join us for our Blessing the Workplace online retreat, which begins on January 24th. Registration opens on January 10th. Go to for more information.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Now or Never

In his Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly spends quite a bit of time trying to explain the full experience of now: He refers to time-nows and Eternal nows. Again and again, he returns to the concept of the Eternal Now, each time taking a different path so that we can begin to grasp what he is trying to say. He is trying to explain the ineffable. He is trying to help us understand what cannot be understood intellectually, but only through personal experience. To some degree we can hear what Kelly is trying to say, but his explanation requires stepping into the experience through prayer and meditation.

In prayer and meditation we can begin to know what it means to exist outside of time. When we have lost ourselves in those moments of union with God, we step outside of time into eternity. This is the nature of relationship with God – it is eternal. When we enter into relationship with God, we enter into eternity. We transcend the chains of time and are free to be present in the eternal now. The past and future cease to exist – they become one with the now. The eternal now becomes vast, beyond the words of explanation that we try in vain to attach to it. Like anything else, once we have stepped outside of time, our understanding and existence in time is fundamentally changed.

One thing that is different is that our view of the importance of the time-now is transformed. It is the Eternal Now that takes precedence over the time-now. The eternal now informs what we do and how we think in the temporal moment. For one, we understand the present moment in itself, detached from the past or the future. We begin a process of holy forgetting – forgetting the past so that we can live in the present. Not that we lose what is of value from our past experience – after all, that is what makes us who we are today, and thus is a part of the present moment. But we don’t dwell in the past, ruminating on what is finished and thereby forgetting the present. What is done is done, and we cannot change it. So we manage some holy forgetting, letting go of those things that tie us to the past. We also live in the present moment by losing our worrisome thoughts for the future. Through faith and trust, we can let go of those things in the future that keep us from living in the present and trust that God knows our needs even better than we do. We realize how useless it is for us to worry about the future when we don’t really even know what it is that is needful. God knows, not us. The question is, in truth, a question of how much we trust God. If we trust God to know what is needful in the future and to care for us better than the lilies of the field, then worry is not an issue. Now, of course, this is not a license to be irresponsible. Part of how God cares for us requires our own participation. We do what we can. Trust that it is what God requires of us; trust that God will provide what is needed. It is amazing how this happens if we can let ourselves let God.

The experience of the eternal now changes how we view the past and the future and permits us to live in the present. It is an experience that may come through prayer and meditation. We provide the space and the time, and God meets us in that sacred moment. Life is changed and we begin to live each moment to the fullest. What grace it is to forget the nagging business of the past. What grace it is to leave the future to God. In the present we live with God and touch eternity. We dwell in the moment.

Without the nagging past and worrisome future to hold our thoughts hostage, we can be present to the presence of God. Here we find ourselves praying without ceasing, finding praise and thanksgiving irresistible. We respond to the world from that place with God, directed and guided in each thought and conversation. We exist in a new dimension, living both in time and in the eternal. Although it is the nature of creation, and us human beings as part of creation, to exist within time, it doesn’t mean that this timely existence must blot out the eternal existence and the present moment. The present moment becomes the dwelling place and the past and the future are incidental. What is important is immediate, which is God. And it is this experience of immediacy where we learn to love as God loves. The world comes into our love and care more and more as this immediate God desires our love and care for it. We are able to be carriers because we have been present to the present moment and have stepped into eternity to bring that great love back with us. The one who receives this love of God is transformed. We have been transformed in the eternal now so that others may be transformed. The world is changed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tracks in the Snow

A week or so ago, we had some snow at my house. It wasn't much, but it was enough to cover up all that old dirty snow and give everything a glittering clean fresh covering. It is always beautiful around here after it snows. Snow followed by sunshine makes the world sparkle. Sometimes it is so bright, it is hard to look at!

One of the things that you can't help but notice a few days after a good snow is all the tracks that are made. The human tracks are logical, going from garage to house, or mail box to house, or car to house, or whatever. Those animal tracks, though, go every which way and seem to lead to no place in particular. They are all different sizes: fox tracks, rabbit tracks, raccoons, squirrels, deer, elk, even mountain lions and bears leave their mark. Those tracks make me realize just how much is going on around my house!

Those tracks also make me think about the tracks that I leave. I think we leave a lot more tracks than we know. One reason I think that is because I can remember many people who have left tracks in my life that probably don't know it. Some of those tracks have been very positive and helpful, some haven't. I remember a couple that I was acquainted with. They were always so friendly and helpful to strangers. I would watch them interacting with others and think that I should be more friendly and helpful to others. They helped me to examine my own behavior and try to be a better person. Whenever I am tempted to be overly shy or to ignore a situation in which I can be helpful, I remember that couple and try to step out of my shell and reach out to others. Those were fine tracks that were left in my life. I appreciate them and remember them often.

Then there are those tracks we would like to cover over. There was a man I worked with who didn't like me much. He was mean! He would send nasty, aggressive emails and say sarcastic things to me. He often said things that were demeaning. Of course these things were all said with a smile and a warm tone of voice. I could never respond fast enough - you know how that is - two days later you figure out what you wish you had said. I always felt demeaned and angry after seeing him. Fortunately, I don't ever have to see him again, but I still get angry when I remember the tracks he left. In fact, I think he was stomping his tracks into me. Someday I suppose those tracks will be filled in and forgotten, but right now, they are still a little fresh.

Well, I know which kind of tracks I would like to leave behind. I also know there are many times I leave the wrong kind of tracks. Some of the tracks I have left make me ashamed. Some of them make me embarrassed. Some of them make me sad. I have finally gotten to the point that now, when I know I have done that, I try to go back and smooth them over with people as soon as possible. This usually requires a change of heart and a sincere apology. Even then, I can only hope that the tracks are truly wiped out. But I'm sure I also leave tracks I don't even know about, so I try to remember to be self-aware and thoughtful.  Perhaps there are times when I leave some pretty good tracks, maybe even times when I don't know about it. I hope so, but I can't say. That's for others to know about. I don't really need to know.

God leaves some pretty interesting and challenging tracks in our lives. For me, those tracks are tracks that have taught me how to love and forgive and play and grow. When I look back on my life, I see tracks all over the place that are made in that beautiful new snow. The world of my soul sparkles brightly under the sun light and those fresh tracks may look like they are going every which way, but somehow they make sense. God's tracks are big and small, delicate and subtle, sometimes deep and powerful. There's a lot going on around my soul! How about the tracks in yours?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How 'bout those Saints!

I remember quite a long time ago listening to a talk about the nature of holiness and humanity. There was a large audience, a couple of hundred people or so. The speaker asked us to raise our hands if we thought we were holy. My hand immediately went up - I didn't even need to think about that one! But I looked around and realized I was the only one. I was mortified, it was one of those most embarrassing moments! I didn't have a chance to explain my point of view, and in fact, the rest of the talk was about how it was impossible for us human beings to be holy. I wanted to crawl under my chair and sneak out the side door! The speaker claimed that we were not holy people and could not be holy people. Obviously, I was the one crazy person in the room and had some kind of god complex.

When we think of being holy, we think of saints, and many of us probably think about it in terms of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about saints. A saint is someone who has been dead for a good long time and has performed miracles. A saint is someone who behaves beautifully all the time and never does anything sinful or wrong. We might think in terms of a mysterious, perfect kind of person. Saints have become intermediaries, untouchable, and frankly, discouraging for all us "normal" folks. When we think of these perfect saints, we might remember the saint count in heaven:144,000 – the number of those who made it. When you think of all the human beings on this planet, these are worse odds than the lottery! I may as well give up now and live the high life! With those standards, I am no saint and I certainly ain't makin' it to heaven. I suppose holiness really is impossible!

But wait a minute! When that speaker asked that question, I was wondering why everyone didn't know that they are holy. I thought every person should have raised his or her hand. I have always thought about holiness as a matter of degree: no one is perfect but we all have some holiness in us. We're not perfect saints, but we are saints, and we're working on doing better. When you look a little more carefully at that 144,000, we find that this number it isn't about limiting the people in eternity with God, but it is about describing a limitless number of people. Twelve is the number for completeness or everything. When this number is used in the Bible, it means all or everyone. When you take that number and multiply it by itself, that means all times all. And then, the Biblical writer multiplies it again, times ten times ten times ten! That's everyone times ten three times! I think that means everyone several times over! How much more emphatic can the meaning be?!

So I think the question becomes not are we saints? But how saintly are we? There is holiness within every person, so how is that holiness doing? Is the holiness being nurtured or stomped out? It the holiness growing or diminishing? Just how holy am I? Maybe part of what this life is about is holy making. With God's help, each of us grows in holiness and spreads that holiness in our world. Every one of us is called to be holy, to make our world holy, and to see that holiness in others. Holiness is not reserved for an elite few. It is the nature of all people. We are created with that spark of holiness within, and we have only to cooperate with God's creative process. Perhaps if more of us thought of ourselves as carrying that holy spark, we might have the courage to act upon it.

Every one of us is in that great multitude in heaven. That multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in our hands, crying in a loud voice, saying “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Friday, December 4, 2009

New Glasses

In his book, A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly uses the term “hyperaesthesia.” This word is not one we see often and is not particular to the spiritual experience. It means extreme awareness of the senses. A hyperaesthesiac person would be very sensitive to tastes, touches, smells, sights, and sounds. I remember a hyperaesthesiac experience when I got my first pair of glasses. I was about eight years old and it is still so clear in my memory. What a miracle it was to see! I remember my mother going on an errand to the fabric store immediately after we had picked up those glasses. The colors and patterns on all those bolts of fabric were so vivid! I could see every detail like I had never seen before. The whole world was a celebration of color and texture and detail. Imagine your soul with a new pair of glasses, celebrating a new way of seeing, seeing every detail and color and texture of your own being, of the condition of humanity, of the presence of God. Kelly uses this word to describe the state of the soul when it is attentive to the presence of God within. In the hyperaesthesiac state, the soul sees to the depths of the human condition, both for good and for bad, for shadows and for glories. From this place of deep sensing, we see deep within ourselves as well – deep into the shadows and soaring into the glories. We see our own sinfulness and grieve deeply for it. When we see that sinfulness, we recognize the grace of God and the gift of love that has come into our lives. We are so completely other than God and yet we are wanted and loved so deeply by God. Suddenly everything is new and different. All of creation is so much more than we had seen before. Now we can truly see the glory of God.

And now that we can truly see the glory of God and the deep reality of our own sinfulness, our choices take on a new dimension. We can clearly see the results of our choices and they are not bland or insignificant, they are vivid and colorful. The detail comes into focus for good and for ill. Our choices become more significant than we had imagined. The consequence of our response to God, whether it be acceptance and joy or apathy, is revealed in its fullness.

Again and again, we choose for God or against God. We choose to nurture the flame or to let it flicker feebly. As Kelly would say, our choice seems subtle at first, perhaps just an orientation. This orientation is the beginning, but it quickly becomes a “firm cleaving” to God, or a deadly earnest dedication. It becomes an “unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being.” The flame of love for God becomes a roaring fire as we become more and more drawn into the light. In this state, we are “owned men” says Kelly: owned by God and part of the process of the “divine creativity.” God works through us, we become God’s co-creators. God accomplishes change in the world through those who are of deadly earnest dedication, who have that unceasing orientation. Kelly calls this “prayed through.” God “works and prays and seeks His own through us.” Then, Kelly says, we become “time blinded men.” As time blinded people, we become untainted by the effects of time. What happens over time is that our sense of the immediacy of God fades. The fervor dies. The energy is used up. We begin to forget what it is like to be in the presence of God.

We have all had those mountain top experiences, like transfigurations. We see the glory of God for a fleeting moment, and like Peter, we want to build dwellings and stay there. But Jesus states the reality, we must go back down the mountain. And then the fervor begins to fade. Haven’t we all felt this and tried to hold it off. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to dwell on top of the mountain all the time, to feel that joy and wonder in every moment, to keep the fires roaring through our souls. But this is an unrealistic expectation. I think many of us have known people who have denied this fact and put on the outward appearance of constant uplifted joy. This is not reality, it is unsustainable. We are not created to live in ecstasy. We would be of no earthly good, as they say. Kelly writes of another state then, that is sustainable: the state of serenity. We must pass from ecstasy to serenity, a place where we can and must build dwellings, a place where we can live and sustain our earnest dedication. A place where we become unaffected by the passing of time: time blinded men.

This is how our practice and dedication endures. We become unshakable in our orientation toward God. What happens around us, whatever the storm of life, we are owned by God. We live and move and have our being in the presence of the Holy One, and from that place we are useful to God. We become detached from the world, in it but not of it. We are willing; willing to go where ever it is that God would lead us. The light within, that roaring flame, becomes our guide.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Our American world has entered into the pre-Christmas frenzy.  How dreary it is!  I find I have less tolerance for all the music and decorations and shopping - even though I must admit that I do my share!.  All this when most of the folks who practice this frenzy aren't really interested in what the real excitement is all about.  Meister Eckhart, an early fourteenth century mystic wrote, "This is the fullness of time, when the Son of God is begotten in you."  This is a time of spiritual waiting, preparation,and expectation for that birth of God within. 

In his Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly writes about the light within that “presses to birth.” He would say that every person is created with that light within. It is not something we create ourselves, but something that exists in the human soul because it is human. We are simply created in the image of God, which means that there is a light within each of us. The light is the image of God, the Christ presence that is part of being human, the spark of Spirit consciousness that makes us alive. The human condition is such that just as each of us has a heart and an intellect and a soul, there is a spark of the divine that makes us what we are.

This light is a compelling human attribute. It persistently cries out to be fueled and fanned. This presence of God within us is active and demanding. “Pay attention to me!” it says. “Feed me, let me breath, keep me burning!” This is how the spiritual life begins. God takes the initiative: first creating the Christ light within each of us and then loudly, persistently compelling us to nurture it. It is God’s initiative that plants the light within us. Like a child in the womb, the light then demands to be fed. Almost in spite of ourselves, the light persists. It will be born! If we think we have the power to extinguish is, we are proud indeed. If we say that we have no goodness or light within ourselves, we have claimed that we are more powerful than God, that we have the ability to change God’s creative intent. We must simply get out of the way and not block God’s creative power.

Suppose the light within you is a roaring fire. Is this to your credit? Have you done anything to grow the flame? Do you have the power to keep this flame burning or to extinguish it? No! This is entirely God’s grace. This is entirely God’s act. This is entirely God’s gift and intent. We can only be overwhelmed with gratitude and awe. God has done a great thing within each of us and we can but humbly acknowledge that we are vessels and recipients. God’s pursuit of us is beyond our control, understanding, and opinion. Sometimes we are overwhelmingly immersed by this pursuit. We stand outside ourselves and fall into ecstasy – the flame has engulfed us. For a moment we step beyond time. Then we emerge from ecstasy with a sense of awe and gratitude. In the fleeting moments of consolation, life is deeply transformed and God’s power to make us whole has left us stunned and amazed. It is in this moment that we deeply know the connection between praise and thanksgiving. One cannot exist without the other. We are so overwhelmed with gratitude that we can only bend the knee of our hearts and fall down in utter and complete praise. There is no other possible response.

But why is it that some have roaring flames within them and some have sickly flickers of light that can barely be seen or felt? Is not God’s desire that we should each one burn with the longing for God’s presence? Certainly, it is. But at the same time, God loves us so much that we are given a choice. Love and desire is not love and desire if it is not chosen. Our responsibility, then, is simply to choose. What else must we do to stoke the flame then to choose for it to live. God rejoices in that choice and feeds the flame with love. As we are captured by the flame, we feed it with the meager fuel of cooperation, co-creation, and intention. Our participation is one of receiving and providing a womb for that life that presses to birth within us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Our driveway is about 76 feet long. For where we live, that’s not very long. Its not steep compared to most of the driveways of our neighbors and it has a place for turning around so you don’t have to back out of it. One winter evening, in the middle of one of those famous Colorado mountain blizzards, my husband was late getting home. After anxiously waiting for him, I was relieved to see him finally and safely turn in the driveway. We were sitting down for a late dinner, when a good size truck – about the size of a small moving truck – pulled into our driveway. “Dino-Tec” is said on the side, with a cartoon dinosaur character. Someone was having a plumbing emergency and had had to call this poor man out in the blizzard. The driver parked and came running through the snow up to our front door to ask about our address. “No,” we said, “the house you are looking for is across the street” (that neighbor has a driveway that has three switchbacks, very long and steep!). Well, he had to back that truck up into the turn around and pull out on to the street and it took the poor guy forty five minutes! He was slipping and sliding all over the place. We watched helplessly. Had we been able to push him with our four wheel drive, we would have been glad to, but the truck was way too big. By the time he was finally out onto the road, we had a driveway covered with three inches of packed snow and slush that froze up over night and was then covered with drifts of fresh snow. Of course the plow had gone by and added insult to injury by creating a pile of packed snow and ice across the driveway entrance. Not only was it quite a chore to clear the driveway enough to get out, but it took weeks for the sun to work on the mess and melt it all away. The only thing that finally cleared our driveway was the arrival of spring.

Sometimes I find my behavior to be like that Dino-Tec truck. If I engage in closed mindedness, gossip, or aggression, I am packing down that ice into a tenacious and frozen mess - for myself and for others. My soul becomes iced over and it is impossible to get beneath the surface. Sometimes that ice can be made up of the hurts of life, or pride, or a lack of humility. If you have chronic anger or addiction in your life, you may find your soul covered with a layer of hardness that is dangerous, slippery, and cold. There are so many ways that we pack down that ice or allow others to close us up within ourselves. Sometimes it happens all at once. Sometimes it happens slowly over time. The real you is unavailable and covered over. We do it to ourselves and we do it to each other.

At times like this, our only hope is the coming of spring; the warm temperatures and lengthening days when the sun can do its work.  Here is the presence of God bringing healing and wholeness to our wounded beings. When those spring time days come into our lives, we have an opportunity to help with the melting of those things that cover us over. Perhaps we must start with the will and the desire. Then we must submit to some truthful self examination, some life changes, prayer, and right actions. It is hard work to get beneath that hardened surface and it may take a long time and many setbacks.  God never gives up!  When we can finally melt all that ice off of our souls, good maintenance sure makes life easier. For good maintenance perhaps we can invite more of that warm sun by cutting away those shrubs or trees that block out the light and warmth. Good maintenance may require lots of shoveling, perhaps a few applications of salt. I think most of us know those things in our lives that keep us inaccessible and covered in ice, and we probably know pretty well what is needed to melt it away.

Spring in our souls is a time of warmth and light. It is a lengthening of the day. We are all called to let in that warmth and light and let the ice on our souls melt away. Even as we enter into this season of long nights and winter cold, may we find plenty of warmth and light within.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

People and Baggage

I just got back from a week out of town. In the great airport adventure I found it very interesting to observe the behavior of people at the passenger pick-up area. Being the Friday before Thanksgiving, the airport was very crowded, so needless to say, the passenger pick-up area was stop and go traffic! Cars waited in line for quite a while to enter the area and then cruised as slowly as possible down the lane looking for people. Some drivers were on cell phones, some blocked traffic, some honked, and others hurried to load up baggage and people. A couple of people dared to park and wait in their cars, but it wasn't long before the police woman knocked on their windows and told them to move on. They reluctantly pulled away from the curb and started the great merry-go-round again. A big van pulled in and six attractive young women loaded up - the bridesmaids had arrived! People shouted greetings to each other across the lanes and dashed through the slowly moving cars. There were hurried hugs and introductory inquiries. Generally, the passenger pick up area seemed to be a pretty happy place. Loved ones and friends were together again. Lots of people and baggage, people and baggage.

As we go through life, it seems that we are often on that merry-go-round of passenger pick up picking up people and baggage. I suppose that sometimes this is good and sometimes it isn't. We drive through life picking up new relationship along the way. Those relationships might be pretty good, or they might be pretty bad, but sometimes it takes a while to know. Sometimes we don't do such a good job discerning what kind of people are best for our lives. Sometimes we pick up the worst kind of people. We can easily be fooled. Sometimes people change. We may be surprised to find that our spouse has started to drink too much or becomes abusive. We may not realize that a new friend is in the relationship only because they want something inappropriate. We might discover that a trusted visitor in our home is stealing from us. When we pick up the wrong people, our lives can be dramatically changed. If we knew better, when we picked up the wrong person we would drive right around to that passenger drop off area. Unfortunately, we usually have to suffer a bit before we get it. It takes practice to be discerning about people. It also takes practice to let go of our denial or blind spots. I don't suppose we should expect to get it right all the time no matter how much practice we have, but we can always do better.

Baggage is much the same. We pick up much baggage along the way. Here and there someone directs mean criticism at us or hurts us. We can't let it bounce off so we carry it around. We are deceived or fooled and we tuck that away in a corner of our minds determined that we won't trust again. Someone hurts us without even knowing it or intending it, but we are angry and can’t let it go. Some things we have been carrying around for so long, we don't even know they are there. We might even carry around other people's baggage! Our burdens become needlessly heavy and slow us down. Our baggage keeps us from seeing clearly and making sound choices. Excess baggage can dramatically affect our lives.

I suppose we can help ourselves if we pay attention and be intentional. If we have an intention to seek out certain types of folks for our relationships, we are more likely to find those people. If we have an intention to care for ourselves by finding good and positive influences in our lives, we are more likely to have success. If we are on the lookout for our tendencies to be over sensitive or to carry other people's stuff, we can head it off. If we are determined to open our eyes and learn from our past mistakes, the odds are much improved that it will happen. With intention, we are going to pay attention. The relationships we choose don't just happen. The baggage we lug around doesn't just happen to be loaded onto us. We choose it. It is important to be able to say, "This is mine," or "This is not mine." We may need some help to figure it out and unload what doesn't belong to us, but we can do it. It is within our power and ability. I like to travel light through life. It requires that I am discerning, paying attention, and being intentional.

Enter the passenger pick up area with caution! Carelessness can lead to needless burdens!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


My husband and I live in a house that was built in the '80s. Although it is generally in fine shape, there are some decorating challenges still hanging around here and there that someday I will get to. One of the projects I have been working on slowly but surely is getting the popcorn texture off the ceilings. I have been doing this one room at a time with long breaks in between rooms. I think that is all I could take. This has got to be one of the messiest jobs in home improvement that I have ever done. It is slow and uncomfortable work. The first thing you have to do is get everything out of the room. Anything left in the room will be hopelessly covered and infiltrated with grimy white dust. If you want to save the floor covering, you have to put a protective cover on it. Then the drudgery begins. Every inch of the ceiling must be sprayed with water to loosen the texture, and then scraped. Lots of times, since you are scraping over your head, the dust and texture falls on you – in your mouth, nose, and eyes. It helps to have protective glasses and a mask. Fortunately, the moisture cuts down on the dust in the air, but it is still bad. Once you've gotten all the stuff scraped off, the cleanup is a challenge. Hopefully you were able to contain the dust in one room, but if not, you will be cleaning it up all over the house for days. The room itself takes several sweepings and a few vacuumings. When you return your attention to the ceiling, you notice that underneath all that texture, the drywall was not properly finished. Although most of the seams have been taped and spackled, there are still plenty of nails that have not been covered. There is also a residue of the texture that needs to be sanded off. And there are those unavoidable gashes from the scraping and various other imperfections. If you want a smooth ceiling, little patches of drywall paste need to be applied and sanded. I discovered that if you sand the drywall patches before they get too dry and hard, it is much easier to get them smooth. This process itself takes a few days. Since you have to take regular breaks from holding your arms up over your head, you can only do so much sanding in any given session. There's also the patch, dry, sand cycle that requires waiting for the drywall paste to dry. Often, any single patched spot takes more than one coat of paste. It is pretty tedious and requires plenty of patience. Well, when you finally have all those patches done and all the texture sanded off and your ceiling is smooth, you put on a coat of primer. Primer can be quite revealing. Suddenly, there are more spots that need attention. So you get out that drywall paste and patch a few more spots. You're getting closer. After priming over the new patches, the painting begins. Two coats are best for a smooth, consistent finish. For a while, you wonder if it was worth it. But then you forget about how awful it was to do this job, you are glad it's done, and you plan which room will be next!

Do you suppose God feels the same way about removing the popcorn from our souls? We have all those old textures in our lives where cobwebs and dust build up over the years, looking very dingy and worn. Perhaps we have gotten in the habit of being anxious or worried. Maybe we have some old relationship issues we have never dealt with. Time seems to dull the ache to the point where we forget that we have an ache. We don't notice how bad we feel until we actually do feel better and then we are surprised that we put up with it. These things are not the major issues that are obvious for everyone to see, but are perhaps noticed by those folks who hang around a lot. They are the things that nag at the back of our minds that we try to ignore.

But God sees the value in beginning the cleanup project. Furniture is moved out of our spiritual space so that it won't be covered with grime. To do this, perhaps we go on retreat or begin a new prayer routine to declutter our spirit so that the work can begin. The scraping can be painful. That layer of popcorn has had its protective properties. The previously unexposed places have the light of day staring at them. We might call this part of the job repentance or confession or reconciliation. Having all those old habits and persistent sins rubbed out and scraped away leaves us uncertain of how to behave. But we trust God and submit even though this in between place is vulnerable and uncertain. God has to sweep up and vacuum several times because the grime that comes from all that scraping has spread all over the place. We didn't realize what a mess we were causing and we may need to make a few amends as well. Then the patching up and sanding are like a deep soul scrubbing - this can be painful. But finally, the blemishes of our souls are removed and healed and we begin the rebuilding process. The whole thing takes plenty of time and patience. The result is a smooth, clean surface that is prepared for primer and paint – a corner of our soul that is ready to nurture the Christ light. We may not think it is a remarkable thing of beauty, but God certainly does… and then God is thinking about which room will be next!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Vacuuming with Sunglasses

Several years ago I was chatting with a friend of mine. This friend had taken her two sons, ages eight and ten, to see a Christian rock concert the night before. We were talking about the concert when the eight year old said dreamily, "Mom, after that concert, I feel like my soul was just vacuumed!" It was an odd way of saying it, but I think we all knew exactly what he meant! I suppose there have been those times in my life when I have felt completely clean, as if all the sin and evil and error have been sucked right out of me; not because of anything I had done, but entirely because God had acted powerfully in that moment. Those times don't seem to endure, but they do feel good, like a fresh start in life. From there on, you want to do better, to be a better person, to keep the soul clean and sparkling. But it doesn't take long for that first stain to ruin everything, and all the old habits and shabbiness seep back in. At least, that's the way it has been for me.

As I was vacuuming under my piano the other day, I recalled my friend's eight year old and his experience of the concert. I also thought about another odd vacuuming experience from a few years back. Once when we were having trouble keeping the cleaning staff at the church, we had a temp employee filling in. He was there to clean the church for Sunday services and one of his duties was to vacuum the area rugs in the sanctuary. I happened to walk through as he was vacuuming, and I noticed he had sunglasses on! The first thing I thought was that he wanted to hide that he was high or had partied too much the night before. Who knows? It was rather amusing, but we made sure that this particular worker was not invited back. Since he couldn't possibly see the dirt and dust through those glasses, it is hard to imagine that the quality of his cleaning was very good.

So who is running the vacuum cleaner in your soul? I suppose we all try to vacuum out those soul corners from time to time. Maybe we vacuum when we are reminded of our short comings and transgressions. Perhaps we vacuum when we find ourselves in the presence of a person with integrity. Maybe we only vacuum when we get caught with dirt on our souls, and then it's really not vacuuming at all, it's only pretending in order to look good. When we vacuum, do we keep those sunglasses on? Sometimes I suppose I really don't want to know what the dusty corners of my soul look like. If I can't see the dirt, is it really there? Nobody else can see it, right?!

Would I dare to put the vacuum in the hands of someone else? That would have to be someone I deeply trusted to love me even though those soul corners are truly a mess. There are a few of those people in my life - the ones who know me a little too well for my own comfort, and deep down, I know I need those people. But I must admit I wouldn't want too many of those folks in my life. That would require way too much vulnerability. No thanks. I'll run that vacuum myself most of the time.

And then there's God. God has a deluxe, heavy duty, industrial strength, super-sized vacuum cleaner. Watch out for that One... the dust in the corners of the soul doesn't stand a chance. Let God in with that vacuum, and you'll be spick and span in no time. We would not only look clean, but we would feel clean and smell clean. We would have a fresh start, a clean slate, a new life.

It sounds to me like having your soul vacuumed at a rock concert might be the way to go. With a little entertainment to go with the cleaning, it might be less conscious and less painful. That's where the sun glasses come in. We really don't want to see the dirt - and a little entertainment to make the medicine go down does make it easier. That probably works well for self aware eight year olds. Well, I don't know about you, but it's a long time since I was eight years old, and I choose adult consciousness when it comes to the spiritual journey. When the journey requires that those dusty corners be vacuumed, I'd rather take off the sunglasses and get the place as clean as I can. Better yet, invite God with that deluxe, heavy duty, industrial strength, super-sized vacuum cleaner to do the job, and life is truly made new.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Sabbath of Snow

The weather reports called for lots of snow. Where I live in the mountains, this is nothing unusual, but for the last week in October, this much snow was a bit unusual. Whenever the predictions are for more than a foot or so, some planning is in order. Since my husband works down the hill, he took what he needed to be able to stay with relatives in the Denver area if the roads got too bad. We made sure there was plenty of wood stacked by the wood stove to keep the house warm, put the snow shovel by the door, and checked the snow blower to ensure that it was ready to go. After my husband left for work, I began to prepare for a power outage, just in case; that meant getting the candles out, putting the old analog phone next to a jack, doing the laundry, running the dishwasher, doing some cleaning, and taking a nice, long, hot bath. Since we are on a well, when the power goes out the water doesn't run, you have to plan for that. Finally, I made a list of the things I could do without electricity, which mostly meant doing some writing the old fashioned way - with pen and paper. I was ready!

The snow had already been falling for about twelve hours. It was coming down thick and heavy. Before you know it, there was about a foot and a half on the ground. I went out for the first round with the snow blower the afternoon of the first day. The power was flickering on and off, but so far, we were still up and running. The snow continued for another day and then some. By the time it was all over, we had well over three feet of snow. Schools and businesses closed and cars couldn't go anywhere. The only folks out on the roads were the snow plow drivers. For two days I was home alone keeping the fire going, clearing the snow on the deck and driveway, and working on my computer. I was very thankful that the power hung on!

At times like this, routines are suspended. Life comes to a standstill. I tend to switch into survival mode - do what needs to get done to make it through. I also keep in touch with the ones I love. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my husband, kids, parents, and friends. We were all checking in with each other. What was happening? Was everyone safe and sound? What was everyone doing? Assured that everyone was fine, I could relax into the experience and treasure the spaciousness and quiet. These snow days can be Sabbath times: times for quiet, reflection, rest, and re-creation.

Sabbath time is a gift that we give to ourselves. In the past, a weekly Sabbath time was the norm for most folks. The Sabbath day was a time for God and family. Businesses were closed and day to day chores were put on hold. Even recreational activities were not scheduled. The other day of the weekend was the day for sports tournaments and yard work. But over the years, the discipline of Sabbath has been lost in our culture. I know plenty of people who spend their weekends playing so hard that they are exhausted by the time they return to work on Monday. We work and we play. These are needful things. But rest and re-creation is frequently dropped from the equation. It is no wonder that Americans have trouble sleeping - we have lost the discipline and practice of rest and renewal. Maybe snow days can be a reminder for us.

On a snow day, when routines are suspended and life comes to a standstill, perhaps there is an invitation. We are invited to enter into a Sabbath time. We are gifted with the time, the space, and the quiet that are necessary to be with God and family. We can take some quiet time and not feel like there is something more worthwhile we should be doing. The snow day invites us to experience the gift of Sabbath but it is up to us to engage it with intention. Once we have tried it a few times and begin to appreciate the value of it, then we can promise ourselves that we will go against the cultural inertia and regularly give ourselves the gift of Sabbath. It may take a lot of planning and preparation. We might have to be determined. We might have to say no to other invitations. We might have to miss out on other enticing opportunities. We might fail. But I believe the gift of Sabbath is one that contributes to health and happiness in life. Sabbath can help us to engage the rest of life with more energy and enthusiasm. Sabbath transforms our busy lives with a touch of that peace that passes understanding. Sabbath is a very worthwhile discipline and practice. This is age old wisdom that has been neglected in our culture. Perhaps it is time to recapture it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Walls or Welcome

Almost 35 years ago I met my husband, Tam. Tam and his family had just arrived in the United States from Vietnam and in spite of the language barrier, it didn’t take long for the two of us to find ourselves falling in love. But our romance was interracial and intercultural, and although interracial couples were not rare in our society back then, they were still considered edgy. There were plenty of folks, both strangers and family members on both sides, who did not approve.

As I got to know this Asian family and Tam and I grew closer, I knew I had a lot to learn. I would step into that Asian household and find I had no idea about the simplest things – things I usually took for granted. At a meal, where should I sit? When should I sit? With whom should I sit? After several awkward gatherings, it became obvious that this was an important concern in this new culture, and I was doing it all wrong. What should I call people? Whom should I talk to? What should I say?  When should I speak up and when should I be quiet?  The wrong manners could easily offend, and I didn't take me long to do plenty of offending! I could easily be offended as well by the strange manners I observed in this foreign culture. Clearly, this was a time for extra patience and giving the benefit of the doubt. This was a time to learn new things and even be delighted and surprised by diversity and differences.

As the years passed, I learned to appreciate the diversity that we shared in our marriage more and more. We raised our children in two cultures and helped them to appreciate the infinite variety of God’s creation. When things were strange or different, this was an opportunity to celebrate another discovery and delight in something new.  The diversity was enriching and taught me to have an open mind and to be generous with people I struggled to understand.

As our world grows smaller and we are exposed to so much that is diverse, whether it be culturally, ethnically, behaviorally, or spiritually, I hope we can celebrate and learn from each other rather than judge or take offense. What a gift it is to encounter people with different lifestyles and worldviews. We are all enriched by it and can learn so much.  But we can either put up walls or welcome the stranger, and contrary to how we sometimes behave, I believe that it is the walls that impoverish us, not the welcoming.

I recently attended the wedding of a same gender couple.  This was a new experience and it felt as if I was entering once again that foreign household where I understood so little and could offend or be offended through a lack of understanding.  I vowed to do my best to welcome rather than build walls.  The service itself offered some help.  The favorite passage from I Corinthians was read: “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not irritable or resentful. It endures all things. Love never ends… Faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” It is a passage many of us had heard at weddings, but since it is read so often at weddings, I wonder if we confuse Paul’s words and think he is writing about romance rather than love. Let’s try it out: romance is patient, romance is kind, romance is not irritable or resentful. It endures all things. Romance never ends. Faith, hope, and romance abide, and the greatest of these is romance! It doesn’t work very well, does it?!  This scripture passage is about every day, practical, rubber hits the road love – for neighbor, sister, brother, parent, child, friend... for foreigner and same gender couples.  It is about hard work. It sets the bar high.

We live in a diverse world, where things are often new and different. We may make mistakes. Our world requires all we can give of understanding, patience, kindness, and endurance.  Diversity is a great source of celebration and enrichment. It can also be a source of misunderstandings or offenses or hurt feelings. The only course to take is to come back again and again to these words about love that Paul has left us. We must apply ourselves once again with the promise to do better next time. We can count on always needing to ask ourselves how best to love each other and even still falling short much of the time. It is unfortunate when we fail, but be assured, there will always be plenty of opportunities to try again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Simplification of Life

The Christmas shopping season has already begun!  If you are looking for a holy way to approach the coming holiday season, at Creative Spirituality, we are offering an online retreat. Our retreat, the Simplification of Life, will begin on the First Sunday in Advent, Nov. 29th and continue through Jan. 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. I will be your spiritual director and guide as you join us on this road toward a Christ centered life.  For more information and an audio introduction, see our retreat page at Creative Spirituality.

Meister Eckhart, a late 13th century scholar and monk, preached a sermon in which he said, “This is the fullness of time, when the Son of God is begotten in you.” Each year, as the Advent and Christmas seasons approach, I once again begin to reflect on the depths of Eckhart’s meaning. To give birth to the presence of God within my being is a thought so rich with grace and transformation that the implications are manifold. As our society gets wrapped up in frantic consumerism and the consequence of clutter, my soul cries out for that birth within, the deepest reality of the Christmas gift.

In our retreat, The Simplification of Life, you will be invited to engage and explore that birth of the Son of God within you. Thomas Kelly will be our guide as we examine his spiritual writings which comprise his “Testament of Devotion.” Kelly was an early 20th century scholar of philosophy and the sciences. He was deeply affected by his Quaker upbringing and remained a highly sought after speaker and teacher in the Quaker tradition throughout his life. He would be pleased to know that one of his biographers described him as a man who lead an adequate life – a life that was filled with simplicity and grace, centered on the Light within.

Through the teachings of Thomas Kelly, we will journey through a series of short studies that examine the nature of the birth of the Son of God within and how it truly leads to the simplification of life. You will be encouraged to focus on the Light within, learning to peel away the many layers of busy-ness in which we trap ourselves and following God’s deepest desire for your life. As Kelly will show us, following that desire allows us to focus on God’s deepest call in our lives and leave the rest for others. He states, “We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.”

Provisions for this journey to this focused life include a daily prayer guide based upon the monastic prayer hours. Each day, you will be given scriptures, psalms, and quotes from Kelly’s works to reflect on. The daily prayer cycle will be enhanced by a short reflection or teaching on Kelly’s thought. A weekly reflection of the Gospel appointed from the Revised Common Lectionary will be provided along with a video which will include materials to flesh out Kelly’s teachings. Discussion rooms will be opened where you can engage in conversation with me and your fellow travelers, and for those who wish to go deeper, personal spiritual direction is available.

In his writings, Thomas Kelly demonstrates how a deep and profound spiritual life is the most practical way of living. At a time of year when everything around us pulls us away from our center in Christ, I encourage you to travel with us to experience and explore that birth within. Let your life be transformed by the grace of God begotten in you.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bird Baths Are Dangerous Things

Serving as a priest in an Episcopal Church offers some interesting and unique experiences. One of the things that happens on a regular basis is having a person or family whom you have never met come to you seeking sacramental services. This happens most often with baptisms, weddings, and funerals. A priest always hopes that the family, once they get the baby done or the couple started, will be back to attend services and join the community. This rarely happens. I always hope for that, too, but I don't mind offering those sacramental services with no expectations attached. After all, who am I to refuse the touch of God's grace in someone's life?

I must admit that I have always referred to these types of events as "drive bys:" drive by baptisms, drive by weddings, and drive by funerals. I hope you don't find me too irreverent.

Not long ago, we had a drive by baptism at my church.  The candidate, a three year old little girl, knew this was a special occasion and was very excited about it. We were in the church doing some baptismal instruction and this little girl excitedly dashed about.  When she saw the baptismal font, she exclaimed, "Mommy, look at the bird bath!" What a delightful and profound description! How often we use the symbol of the descending dove to depict the grace filled presence of the Holy Spirit, especially in baptism. In the great faith traditions, the cleansing of the body with water often points beyond to the cleansing of the soul. Water is also an archetype for God, reminding us of the creative, cleansing, freeing, nurturing power of the Holy. We come back to the bird bath, seeking that grace again and again.

We have a bird bath on our deck. It is only small one, but it attracts a variety of birds and they create quite a mess.  The mess begins with the inevitable evidence all birds leave behind and goes on from there. Certain birds seem to relish their baths more than others. It is especially fun to watch the beautiful mountain jays. They are large, brightly colored birds and are aggressive. They seem to overwhelm our little pool. They splash about, spreading water all around. They leave their feathers floating on the surface like tiny ships. The water collects bugs and windblown leaves. That bird bath requires regular maintenance.

When we approach the bird bath of our souls, it seems to me that we seek that cleansing of God in much the same way as that little three year old did. She had no idea what her baptism was really all about. She didn't know that this was the beginning of a relationship with God that requires much more. No one had shown her the warning label that must come with any approach to God. She didn't know that a bird bath is a very messy affair.

We approach the bird bath desperately needing that cleansing, creative, freeing, nurturing power of the Holy, but we must remember that discipleship comes with a cost. Those bird baths need warning labels! God needs to provide full disclosure. We must know what we are choosing when we choose God. The warning label might say, "CAUTION! Approaching the Holy One leads to personal sacrifice" or "God's grace requires that you encounter the hard truth" or "Being in the presence of the Spirit may result in turning over your life." We must not seek God's grace naively with no expectation that much will be required of us. Bird baths are messy affairs.

I believe in the power of the bird bath. God works through it, sometimes in ways that are not immediately evident and sometimes in ways we never even know. Let one and all come and be cleansed and nurtured. But often we come like children, naively forgetting the sacrifice that follows. Let us not bathe casually or in ignorance. Always remember those warning labels and, at the same time, embrace them fully

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Descending into the Cloud

Last week I spent a day guiding a group through a spiritual discernment process. The group was in Leadville, an old mining town in central Colorado. Knowing that I would be driving to Leadville at the end of the week, I had watched the weather reports carefully to make sure that I would avoid bad driving conditions as much as possible. I don't like driving over mountain passes in the snow; it can be a "white knuckle" experience. The weather reports were not good. The morning I was supposed to head out to Leadville, a storm was coming in so I decided to drive up the day before. The drive to Leadville was beautiful! The mountains in the fall are breathtaking and my route took me over Fremont Pass, which takes you up to 11,000 feet on gently winding roads. Although the aspen trees were past prime viewing, the peaks were snowcapped and the evergreens made for stunning contrast. The sky was slate blue and the sun was shining. I am always surprised and delighted by the beauty of God's creation.

The next day, the Leadville morning was greeted with the same gorgeous blue sky, but the weather reports in the Denver area were terrible. The roads were covered with ice, there was a 50 car pileup on I-25, and parts of I-70 were closed. The storm was pushing up against the Front Range and it looked like my drive home was going to be rough. After a prayerful morning of working with the discernment group, I anxiously hit the highway. Fremont Pass was once again clear and sunny. No sign of snow on the west side of the Divide made for a smooth approach to the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel. As I began the eastbound descent from the tunnel and drove through Georgetown, it was still clear and sunny. I had not caught up to the storm yet but the radio station continued to report the terrible weather and road conditions in the Denver area. It was on the other side of Idaho Springs that I could see the dark clouds piled up. The storm was backed up against the Front Range and the plains were socked in. Idaho Springs was still sunny and bright, but I could see that soon I would be descending into the gloom. As I approached my exit, the clouds embraced me. I had entered a new world! Everything was covered with a layer of snow and ice, the type of thick frost that holds on to the tree branches and makes each twig and pine needle glisten. Mist filled the air.  The road that took me home was empty and the uncharacteristic mid afternoon quiet was serene. But even with the gloom and the snow on the grass and trees, the roads in the foothills cooperated by being dry - the icy roads were further down the mountain. My anxiety about the drive home dissipated as soon as I entered the cloud and I knew that coming home was going to be easier than the weather reports had indicated. I was grateful.

On the spiritual journey we find ourselves entering into the cloud at times. Perhaps the spiritual cloud is one to which we ascend rather than descend, but it can still be a journey of anxiety and uncertainty. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes dwelling in that place of mystery and serenity. The author says, "When you first begin, you find only darkness, as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don't know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness."

When we seek God, we enter a new world - one that is so different we cannot see clearly. Since we are unable to truly know God, we must acknowledge the mist that covers the eyes of our spirits. God is deeply unknowable. We can only hope to see the effects of God that change the world around us. It is like seeing the glimmering frost that makes the world beautiful while not being able to see the cold that collects the humidity on the branches. It should be no suprise to find the road home clear and our spirits quiet and serene.  If we can "reconcile ourselves to wait" in the mystery of the cloud, our eyes begin to see that loving sweetness, we find ourselves experiencing that peace that passes understanding. Let us not be anxious about entering into the Cloud of Unknowing, even when it appears to us like a storm cloud.  Let us rejoice in the presence of the Holy, especially when it seems we are surrounded by mystery.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Winter is Coming

Winter is coming. In the mountains just west of Denver where I live, fall is usually the most beautiful season, but it is gravid with the appraoching, unwelcome hardships of winter. Right now, the air is gold as the sun shines through the changing Aspen leaves and the temperature is crisp and pleasant. It is a delight to sit in the sun and breathe in the earthy smells, relishing these last warm days. But this year seems to be different. It is supposed to snow tomorrow and a wintery cold is on its way. This year, the change of seasons is just a bit early. As I sit at my kitchen table looking out at the Aspen grove just outside my window, you can see the chill. The leaves fall like rain with every gust of wind. A little chickadee flits about looking for bugs in the bark of the trees. It doesn't seem to notice that a change is coming. The Rocky Mountains are beautiful, but they can be harsh as well.

There's a fire in the wood stove. My kitchen is a warm refuge against those harsh and unpredictable elements. I sit in a cocoon, looking out at the world and feeling safe and protected. I appreciate this moment of safety with the knowledge that it is transitory gift. It won't be long before I must engage the world and all the elements that come along with it.

Winter is coming and there is nothing that we can do to keep it at bay. If we want to live, we are compelled to engage it. This change of seasons warns of cold and death - there is desolation just around the bend in the road. Cocoons don't last long. We move about in a world that can be harsh at times: life brings us an unexpected illness, someone we love is suffering, a job is lost, our hearts break with the breaking of a relationship. Safety seems impossible, it cannot last. The journey of the soul has similar bends in the road; we can sense a spiritual chill in the breath of a season. Our spirit is tired or worried or overwhelmed or grieved. God seems distant or absent entirely. These are the long dark nights, the times of desolations and sufferings and it is a reality of the spiritual life. Suffering is not something one would seek but it is something that cannot be avoided. No matter how hard we try to deny it, suffering is part of life. One contemporary statement of this reality is "shit happens." Yes, it does, and to deny it is foolish.

It seems, however, that we often do everything we can to deny the reality of suffering, to stave off the winter and hold back the snows. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this denial is how segments of our culture handle death. Most people don't even like to say that someone has died. We use all sorts of euphemisms such as "passed on," "went to a better place," or even "kicked the bucket." We don't have funerals anymore, only "celebrations of life." I suppose that's OK, but truly, I think we need to have both. Life and death are inextricably one. If we want to engage in the fullness of life, we are compelled to engage the fullness of death.

Even when the spirit is tired or worried or overwhelmed or grieved, when the winter of the soul is coming, we are creatures of hope. We endure the winter, knowing that spring and summer inevitably follow. Somewhere, somehow, new life will spring up. The winter snows provide the nourishment of the spring waters. The cold earth shelters the seeds of growth. The barren Aspen branches give birth to buds and shimmering new leaves. Sometimes our souls are covered with snow or buried in cold earth or waiting to give birth. But this season of death inevitably yields to the season of life.

Yes, winter is coming. But it harbors new life. To know God is to know the springtime promise, even when it seems that there is no evidence for it. The truth is, we may not see the gift of new life for a long time to come, but if we can trust that it is there, we are more likely to recognize it sooner rather than later.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Musicianship of the Soul

When I was five years old, I told my parents that I wanted to play the piano. My older brother played the clarinet and my older sister played the flute, so naturally I assumed that playing an instrument was simply what people did, and I was certain that the piano was the one for me. I also remember us siblings having our own record player, and I would close the door to my room and turn up the music - loud! You might think that sounds like a typical thing for a kid to do, but this five year old sorted through the classical recordings in my parents' cabinet and selected according to the pictures on the sleeve. Names like Mozart, Bizet, and Schubert were quite beyond my reading ability and titles like "Swan Lake" or Piano Concerto made no sense. After all, what was an 'Opus' anyway?

I have played the piano since childhood, and although I am not a professional musician, I still play seriously. I was certainly no prodigy, but music took me deep into my soul - a place I went often and with intention. You see, I have always thought that making beautiful music and making a beautiful soul are much the same process. Both require passion, conviction, sensitivity, discipline, and imagination. Both take time, great effort, determination, and dogged practice. There are plenty of mistakes made along the way and they often become the source of the deepest learnings, propelling the seeker to the depths. I have never been able to be a casual musician or a casual spirit.

All I can say about casual musicians is from observation and not direct knowledge.  It seems to me that a casual musician only scratches the surface of profound beauty. If one does not truly understand what it means to explore and recreate the complexities, subtleties, and depths of a single phrase from a Mozart piano concerto, the enjoyment is but a fraction of the awesome beauty. The genius of the composer! The simplicity of the harmony! The skill of the musician! The capabilities of the instrument! What an incredible journey of creation. The casual musician misses so much! The casual soul is in the same predicament.

I just recently reread the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In The Magician's Nephew, Lewis describes the creation of Narnia. Aslan, the lion, sings Narnia into being. With each note, a new star appears in the sky. A new melody causes the land to form or plants to spring up from the earth. As the symphony progresses, animals are created, and Aslan breathes the breath of life into them. Creation and sound are the same movement of the Creator. Music has a hand in bringing forth new life!

This is what music means to my soul. Spiritual creation and musical creation are the same movement. Music sings my soul into being. To say that I can not be a casual musician nor a casual spirit is to say that the essence of life, the presence of God, is found in making music. For me, playing the piano is a form of prayer and an integral part in the creation and re-creation of my spirit.