Grace well(s) and a Grace that makes us well.

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There’s an old well on our property. As far as we know, it hadn’t been used since the late 70’s. Nearly 50 years of muck built up over the years it sat forgotten in the field. We installed a new line and pump, and daily we pumped out the brackish water. Day after day the result was the same; hundreds of gallons of undrinkable water came up out of the well…until one day it began to clear. Today it flows clear and clean, but it required that daily-emptying before becoming a life-giving source.

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It has been two years this month since I resigned as pastor of New Beginnings Church, but it was just few days ago that we returned from attending their 25th anniversary celebration. It was a wonderful and important day; a day that reflected the future rather than the past.

For the close of the anniversary celebration, I was asked to offer the Words of Institution. I received the invitation as an honor…to echo Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. As I stood before the people, I began with these simple words:

“I’m told that the eu in Eucharist comes from the Greek word meaning well (well-being) and kharis meaning grace. Perhaps then, we could say the Eucharist is a grace that makes us well.

It seems this is how God chooses to remember us. It’s how we are encouraged to remember one another. Perhaps it is why Jesus uses the painful and ugly memory of his own death to mark the salvific beauty of forgiveness and new life.

Anxiety is not well. Fear is not well. Shame is not well. Isolation is not well. It is in the intentional practice of grace-filled remembering that well-being is found. It is a daily rhythm in which we choose to live. I suppose we could say that wellness flows from the spring of thanks-giving.”

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During the 25th anniversary celebration, the church gave us a gift: a Eucharist cup and bowl. It’s a grace-well…and a grace that leads toward wellness. The grace they offered is received, and will be extended as we share with others. It is a well from which we will choose to draw daily.

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3 Men, 3 Days, and 90 Miles in a Canoe

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We were novices in the paddling world; dangerously inexperienced. Our two short practices in the month before the race both ended in disaster. One with a capsized canoe and one with a “we’re lost” call to the forest rangers.

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On the first morning of the race, as the other boats eagerly bobbed near the starting line, we steadied ourselves at the edge of the dock. Perhaps it was fear of the unknown obstacles ahead; the mystery beyond the mist of the morning. Or maybe it was a lack of trust for the others in the boat.

We had started as a team of four, but those two practice experiences led one to jump ship. The empty seat could have been the final motivation to withdraw from the race, but instead, it became our rally cry: “There’s no quit left in this boat.” For although we lacked experience and although we did not yet know what the journey would require of us…we were curious enough to try.

Each man in the boat has a unique story. Each walked their own path to this point. I arrived in the stern of boat by way of my role as an addiction counselor. My task was to keep the boat pointed in the right direction, to avoid obstacles, and encourage forward movement. Two seats ahead of me, in the second seat, was our power. The speed of our boat rested in the hands of a disabled determined veteran with fused wrists. At the bow of the boat sat yet another veteran, accustomed to merely hiding in the crowd, now given the mission to lead our pace. In the third seat, the empty seat, should have been an additional power paddler. But instead we filled the seat with the names of the “missing” in our life. Remembrance is its own strength.

The gun sounded and carefully we pushed off the dock. 8 hours the first day, 6 the second, and 4 hours on the final day. Each day we were faster. 90 miles in 18 hours. Three inexperienced paddlers finished a race they shouldn’t have entered.

We certainly weren’t the fastest. Our routes weren’t always straight. But there was something unique about our crew. We knew our weaknesses and we admitted them. We learned our strengths and we used them. We recognized when the other wanted to quit and we encouraged them.

I suppose it was more than a canoe race for us. It was a three-day submersion into the surrendered life. In addiction counseling and in AA/NA there’s a lot of talk about admitting powerlessness. Some struggle to find that place of surrender. Some jump ship at the moment it’s required. But the surrender to powerlessness is required for any real life-journey to begin.

Perhaps our powerlessness moment happens when we finally admit our own success is dependent upon the success of the other. Living with an awareness of the other helps us see that everyone is paddling through the same currents. For me, the past couple of years have required a surrender of an identity I once held too close. For the two men I sat behind for 90 miles, they too are in process of letting go of their false-self. Their warrior narrative is fading. Their addict label is beginning to peel.

As we crossed the finish line the final lesson became obvious: our highest joys come in moments of shared experience. Our lives are best lived in recognition that we are all in the same boat.

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A prophetic cry.

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Two years ago this month I walked into Conception Abbey to begin a week-long prayer retreat. It was the end of our summer sabbatical and I was wrestling with the dread of unresolved decisions. We sensed what we were being called toward, but we lacked the courage to act. And it was in that week that I dreamed. Sabbatical dreams. Over the past two years I have written out that sabbatical journey. Here is a tiny glimpse into how the week began.

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Conception Abbey

I shivered. The cold air of the basilica was at first a reprieve from the August heat, but now my body was shaking with the shock of the temperature change.

Slowly I continued down the center aisle. The brick floor, grouted with sand, launched a crunching sound with each step in the cavernous space. I wanted to be unnoticed, but every step forward announced my presence.

I had arrived early for evening vespers. Perhaps because I was looking for something. Or bored. Certainly I was alone; both at this moment and in my anxious mind. I continued forward to the fourth row, close enough to be seen as sincere, but not so near that I would be uncomfortable.

As I sat down, a familiar cracking and creaking of the wooden pew echoed through the space. It was a sound embedded in my memory. That sound of the cracking pew and my imagination took me back thirty-eight years. I was once again sitting on the wooden pew of my childhood church. A small chapel on the South Dakota prairie where my parents faithfully attended for many years.

Three times a week we religiously drove the thirty miles. It was a simple place, a gathering of family and a few others who lived scattered across the prairie on small farms. I’m sure there was preaching. But I don’t remember it. The liturgy stuck in my memory was the weekly testimony of those gathered. Sincerity wasn’t lacking, but joy was hard to find. A fear of the world was woven into most of the stories shared. Prayers were offered from our knees, consisting of loud and fervent petitions for rescue us from the evil world. Stories of signs indicating the end of the world were told with conviction. It was readily assumed we were living in the very last of days. According to Uncle Harry, the perfect red heifer was already in route to Israel. Any prayers for peace or to hope for war to cease, was in some ironic way, thought to be joining the feared anti-christ.

In my young mind, my own future…if there was to be one…was already determined to be miserable and meaningless. If I was hearing correctly, my only hope was to be redeemed by suffering. Persecution was my predetermined future. I began to prepare.

If this was my only memory of church, I’m certain I would have either simply chosen to laugh off the absurdity of religion and prophesy a future of my own, or perhaps I would have sought to spend my life prepping for the mythical end-times in some remote prairie abyss.

But it was the witness and action of my parents that shaped a different way forward. Occasionally in those testimony services there was a tearful moment of honesty. Specifically, a confession of yearning from the voice of my mother. She would stand and begin with words of gratitude, thanking the Lord for the blessings of life. As she spoke, her voice would slowly increase in pitch until it reached the sound of desperation. Tears mixed with words of gratitude. A hodgepodge of sorrow, joy, pain, and hope.

As I sat waiting for the vespers to begin on that August evening, the creaking pew and my Mother’s cry filled my mind. Maybe it was what I was looking for; that innate desperation to confront the anxiousness. I too was searching for something deeper, something beyond the religious routine. And in that moment I knew that if I listened, my mother’s prophetic cry would begin to lead me home.

 

 

Because God is, I am.

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For the past six months I have served as a counselor in an addiction treatment facility for men. While many people stigmatically look upon these men with pity…I am learning it is not these in recovery in need of pity. They know their struggle. Most readily admit their weaknesses. They are self-aware. They live everyday confessing their need of strength and grace…while knowing full well those gifts must come from outside of themselves. Though they are given the label of “addicted,” in truth, they are often more free than most.

Being daily submerged in such a confessing community exposes the “outside” lives as the ones in need of freedom. The truly enslaved are those fooled into thinking they are free.

Richard Rohr says, “There are two ways to be a prophet. One is to tell the enslaved that they can be free. It is the difficult path of Moses. The second is to tell those who think they are free that they are in fact enslaved. This is the even more difficult path of Jesus.”

Only when confronted by our own enslavement does our real journey begin. The Christian journey of finding our True Selves (our identity in Christ) requires honest awareness of how ingrained we are in the pattern of self.  Without ongoing confession of these patterns, we are fooled into self-holy thinking that creates a comfortable rhythm of non-growth.

What happens when we are made aware of our enslavement? It’s then the work begins. We must begin the painful process of “dying to self” (Rom. 6-8), “putting off the old” (Eph. 4), “leaving the former” (Is. 43), and “decreasing” (John 3:30).

I am daily reminded of this spiritual formation work as we continue rebuilding our old house. Every swing of the hammer has served as a spiritual metaphor for me. The house, like our lives, must be stripped down to the skeleton core. All of the wall coverings have been removed to expose the true structural integrity and the foundation examined and reinforced.

These hidden pieces, the foundation, studs, etc., are what sustains the house. The house cannot last without its core essentials. So it is with us. Our identity must be securely rooted in the image of God…the aesthetics matter but only in relation to the well-being of the structural core.

So today, I post these journal words as a reminder of who I am in Christ.

Resting on the foundation and formed by the image of God; I am loved and enough.

So are you.

Free

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Written on the top of the page are these six words; “You have no obligation to Pharaoh.”

Those conversation notes are almost a year old, but yet, when reviewed, spoke to me again today. I don’t remember all the details of that particular spiritual-direction session, but I do remember the feeling. The tension of anxiousness and despair. The gift of freedom delivered in gentle prophetic words.

“You have no obligation to Pharaoh.”

Perhaps every person hears it with a slightly different tone. For we are all, in our own ways, charmed by the character of Pharaoh. 

However, it’s shortsighted to only see Pharaoh embodied as those “in power.” For that is not the point. “Pharaoh” need not be a specific person…it is a posture of power. It is the lure of anyone or thing who disregards human dignity and worth. And, lest we miss the obvious point of the gospel narrative, God is not idly content or controlled by these imitation powers.  God has already declared, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (Ex 9:1)

Perhaps addiction is the best present-day description of Pharaoh. For in every addiction there is a hidden human desire being sought and satisfied. Like in our addictions; comfort, security, and basic worth is being met in Pharaoh’s rule. And although we recognize its abusive power, we surrender our dignity for the sake of being served. The thought of freedom to choose now becomes a fear itself.

As Gerald May wrote in his book Addiction and Grace, “Once attachment is fully entrenched, our motivations become so mixed that freedom to choose is seriously compromised.”

It’s easy to see the character of Pharaoh at work in the obvious attachments of drugs/alcohol/crowds. But the daily heart-and-life addictions of the Pharaoh culture we live within are more difficult to confess.

  • We begin to expose the attitude of Pharaoh when we examine our addiction to being right. Our addiction to our own way of thinking. The curse of individual certitude. The judgement of others that condemns only ourselves.
  • We acknowledge the scarcity-driven anxiety of Pharaoh when we confess our own addiction to consume without regard for our neighbor or creation. Our insatiable want. Our willful covetousness of more than enough.
  • We expose the insecurity of Pharaoh when we confess our own tribal behavior, our racism, our neglect of the Imago Dei (Image of God in Genesis 1:27) of every human.

These are a few of the heart-and-life patterns we have become entrenched within. Perhaps, to find freedom from the attachment to the culture of Pharaoh, we need to hear those words again…

You have no obligation to Pharaoh.

Eating is a Resurrection Act

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Luke 24:13-49

As I was reading through the Gospel passage for this week I couldn’t help but read a few extra verses. It seems Luke’s story of the disciple’s reaction to the presence of the resurrected Jesus is about more than their shock.  Perhaps it also foreshadows the reaction of those who grow accustomed to having Jesus around, those who think they already know what Jesus is all about, who then get interrupted by the unexpected twist of Jesus’ priorities in the resurrection life.

This verse captured my attention today: Luke 24:41 – While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Eating was an important “bodily resurrection” proof I suppose, but it seems more. Think on this: The night before dying, Jesus institutes the table as his own ongoing memorial. After resurrection, Jesus is first recognized as the gardener. Jesus then breaks the bread on the Emmaus road. And now Jesus is asking “Where’s the food?” And not long after he is again telling his disciples to “feed my sheep.” In Jesus’ final days before death and first days of resurrection…Jesus was strangely focused on eating.

As I read the passage, Wendell Berry’s famous statement ofeating is an agricultural act came to mind. Berry has famously written on how food, and its inherent economic/work/enjoyment/community effects, is always near the center of our humanity story. The Bible reader should already know this; for the Bible starts in a garden and ends with a banquet feast. But Berry’s phrase came to mind when I read Jesus’ question, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Why was Jesus asking for food? I won’t pretend to know…but I like to wonder. Perhaps, rather than fixating on the disciple’s disbelief and awe in the act of resurrection…Jesus points us back to the fleshy resurrected reality of the everyday.

We too, like the disciples, might need to refocus on Jesus’ priorities. We tend to look to the sky thinking God is far off. We spiritualize incarnation. We idolize worship-service feelings or huddle in fear wishing for an end-time rescue. But Jesus interrupts this disbelief and calls us back to the reality of resurrection…the everyday, the ordinary, the life-on-the-ground neighborly reality of today.

Perhaps we could say, “eating is a resurrection act.” For eating represents what the resurrection life is about…the preparing, planting, nurturing, harvesting, and enjoying the making of all things new. The resurrection life is about good work, the circle of followers around the table, the ongoing storytelling of Jesus’ ways, and the continued works of restoration and hope. It’s the heaven-come-to-earth kind of life.

“Have you anything to eat?” – Jesus

Shut Doors

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While studying in the lectionary passages for this Sunday, I paused on this sentence; “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” (John 20:26b, nrsv).

On a daily basis we are surrounded by “shut doors” – defended and defensive lives. In truth, we all experience the “shut door” of our own ego. Thomas was not just behind the closed door of a room, but the closed door of disbelief. I often see the same “shut door” in myself. I see it in those whom I work with everyday. For that’s what addiction does – hardens and harasses our will, our spirit of life and joy – and robs us of the openness and vulnerability required to recognize the Presence among us.

But the “shut door” isn’t just reserved for those whom I work with in my role as an addiction counselor. Richard Rohr states, “Most addictions are not substance addictions (alcohol, drugs, food, consumer objects, etc.), but process addictions (patterns of thinking and reacting). Spiritual traditions at their higher levels discovered that the primary addiction for all humans is addiction to our own way of thinking. That should be obvious.”* (underlined emphasis mine)

The addiction to “our own way of thinking” seems epidemic these days. But, in truth,  it’s always been that way. We humans tend to shut the door of our lives to the new thing God is doing and give ourselves over to fears and doubts of our own making.

Rohr says it again in his book, Breathing Under Water.

“Stinking thinking” is the universal addiction. Substance addictions like drugs and alcohol are merely the most visible forms of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality. The very fact we have to say this shows how much we are blinded inside of it. By definition, you can never see or handle what you are addicted to. It is always “hidden” and disguised as something else.” **

Thomas’ addiction to his own experience, his own reality, his own thinking…was disguised as doubt. Under that doubt is the addiction. The same one we all suffer with…to our own way of thinking.

The good news is there too. Jesus shows up. In spite of our defensive and closed doors, Jesus keeps showing up and revealing our “stinking thinking.” Jesus keeps offering the same words, “Peace be with you.” A different Life, a different Way, seen and experienced through the Truth.

*From Richard Rohr’s daily email.

**Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pg xxiii