Monday, November 29, 2010

The Spaces In Between


The sound of loose gravel shifting beneath my feet breaks the silence as I crest the steep hill leading up to Tiedemann Field.  Tucked away on the grounds of a private school in western Connecticut, this tumbling meadow of soccer pitches and softball diamonds is my sanctuary.  Embraced on all sides by wooded glory, the rustle of fallen leaves and the lonely caw of a distant crow are the only sounds accompanying the slow steady cadence of my own breathing.
It is here in the solitude of a Sunday afternoon that I find the room to stretch my legs, to let my mind wander, and open my heart to God.
It is here that I talk to God.
It is here that I listen to God.
It is here where the veil between the material and the spiritual, at least in my world, is at its thinnest.

When I need to talk to God, to vent to God, to rave and rant at God, I run.
The words tumble out of my head so rapidly my body is forced to propel itself along in earnest just to keep up; turning my thoughts and fears over to divine ears as fast as my legs will carry me.

When I need to listen to God, to feel the presence of God, I walk.
Slowly, methodically, attentively.
Allowing deep longings to rise, quelling the inner chatter, and listening for God in the spaces in between.

Listening for God in the spaces in between.
This is the definition of theology that resonates most with me.

We listen for God, we look for God, we feel the presence of God, in the vague, shadowed spaces that drift in between our existence in the material world and our understanding of the spiritual world.
We search for language, images, and emotions that best describe our encounters with these spaces, in an attempt to bring order and meaning to that which is otherwise indefinable and unknowable.
Theology is the bridge we build between the known and the unknown, between God and ourselves.
For some, this bridge takes on solid unmoving form, with extensive, ornate, often redundant levels, towering towards the heavens while resting on a seemingly sound and sturdy footing.
For others, this bridge to God is strung together with fishing line and cotton thread.
A seat-of-the-pants, cargo-net-like contraption with shaky handholds, unsure footing, and gaping holes in between.
Twisting and billowing in the wind.
Changing form with every gust.
At times sagging beneath one’s weight, swaying dangerously close to the jagged rocks below.
Yet manifesting enough resiliency to spring its occupant high up into the clouds on the rebound.

This is the theological bridge that best fits the way in which I encounter God.
Where language and faith are liquid.
Ebbing and flowing.
Coming and going.
Birthing and dying.
Shrinking and growing.
With a gardener’s eye pruning the excess, the unnecessary, the no longer needed.
While letting the sturdier offshoots spread at will, never quite knowing exactly where they will lead.

Theology for me flows in both the mystical and the practical.
I go to church to worship God, to be in community with others who worship God, to experience the feeling of being held up by the hardwearing bricks of scripture, tradition, ritual and sacrament.
But church is not where I go to talk to God, or to listen to God.
Instead, I come to this hilltop sanctuary.
Where leaves tumble across the grass, 
where the wind whistles in baring branches, 
where shadows and sunlight continually shift form and place, 
changing perspectives, 
altering the colors,
blurring the outlines of the world,
and giving me a fleeting  glimpse of the spaces in between.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Psalm 139: I am still with you...

I'm in the midst of writing my Ordination Paper and I've taken to praying this Psalm before I sit down to write. To remember why it is that I'm doing this.

Psalm 139:1-18

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

November Grey

This is a familiar place.
I've been here before.
But not for a long time.

Not much has changed. I have to say.
I would have thought they would have at least redecorated while I was gone.
The sky is still a low, flat grey.
The trees have been drained of color.
Their once vibrant reds and yellows have browned and now lie in a heap on the ground.
And that pleasing crunch beneath the feet has gone as well.
The rain has seen to that.

Darkness comes early.
The light is leaving this place.
But I can't tell if it's receding...or I am.

I have that strange feeling one gets standing in the foot of the surf.
Feet sinking into wet sand as the waves wash in, and then pull out.
You'd swear you're moving along with the wave, as the sand shifts beneath your feat.
For a disorienting moment you think you're being pulled out to sea.
When in reality you have not moved at all.

I've been here before.
As a teen, in my early twenties, and again in my early thirties.
Whenever some unrequited love or desire tore into my life,
sending me spinning out of control,
and leaving a gaping hole behind in its wake.

This is November.
This is pre-Advent.
The time of waiting before the waiting.
The time of fading light, greying skies, and barren landscapes.
The time of dimming hopes.
The time when all the greenery and life that one has lovingly cultivated,
either goes dormant,
or withers and dies right before ones own eyes.

I've been here before.
But I've never stayed here longer than necessary.
December will come.
Advent proper will begin.
Preparations will be made. Hope will once again be anticipated.
The light will return to the world.

But not yet.
For now, I must decrease, so that He may increase.
Another November Grey must be endured.
With all its numbing pain and listless anguish.
For life to be born anew.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pinch me, I'm dreaming...

My friend Marie blogged about experiencing the presence of God in her dreams and it got me thinking about how often I experience God's presence in my own dreams.

Usually I feel God in my dreams as a permeating presence which is there regardless of what it is I'm dreaming about, kind of like a Divine overlay. It's a warming, comforting, presence that comes through as a guiding voice or scripture verses that float through my dreams.
Whenever I have these 'God experiences' I can never remember the exact content of the dreams, I just remember feeling that presence throughout and I wake up feeling very peaceful yet invigorated.

The most vivid God dream I had happened about seven years ago. I was a year into my undergraduate degree and still wrestling with the call I was feeling to go to seminary. Many people were telling me that it was what I should do, but given that I was still just finding my way back to Christ after so many years away, I didn't see how I could be a "leader" when I wasn't sure where I was going myself!
That night I had a dream that was filled with images of churches, religious symbols, clergy robes, and people gathered around me listening to me speak. I remember feeling as if I was comforting them after they had experienced some tragedy. It felt good. It felt right.

Right before I awoke, in a moment of lucidness, I remember asking God directly, "What does this mean? Does this mean I'm supposed to be a minister?"

And the response I received was:
"You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind."

This was not the "yes" or "no" answer that I was looking for, so again I asked, "What does this mean?"

And again I received the same response:
"You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind."

Now at the time I had a vague awareness that what I was hearing was a scripture passage but having spent so many years away from the Christian church, and having been raised Catholic and thus never encouraged to read the Bible myself, this was NOT a passage that I had committed to memory. Yet this is exactly what I heard. It was loud, it was clear, and when I checked my Bible after awakening I realized that it was taken word for word from the Gospels. Which is how I knew that the answer I received to my question did not bubble up from my own consciousness. It came from somewhere outside of me.

The dream, with all its religious symbolism was for me confirmation enough that the path I was meant to be on was leading towards the ministry, but the response I received to my question let me know that entering ministry was not about the religious symbols, the church buildings, the clergy robes, or the 'good feeling' I get when I've helped someone.
It's about God.
It's ALL about God.

All of the other stuff - the symbols, the liturgy, the drive we feel to help and love one another - all of this flows OUT of the love that we have for God.

I needed to be reminded of that.
I was getting so caught up in worries about going to seminary and succeeding academically, and anxiety over whether I had what it takes to BE a minister that I had lost sight of the most important requirement: I needed to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Once I did that, everything else would come much easier.

I am now getting much closer to making my dream a reality, and in many ways I already have.
But I believe that God calls us all to be ministers.
Some of us are crazy enough to want to do it for a living, and choose it as a vocation.
But we're ALL called to love God with every fiber of our being.
And once we do, that love will naturally flow out and feed our desire to minister to each other.
As teachers, healers, counselors, preachers, and administrators of the sacraments.
Regardless of which career path we choose, with God's love in our hearts we all have the capacity to fill these roles for others, in many different ways.

We all have the ability to make our dreams - and GOD'S will for us - come true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wednesday Words of Wisdom

Today's "words of wisdom" relate to the most practiced yet unappreciated art that we learn here in seminary - PROCRASTINATION.
I have two papers due tomorrow, I've had weeks to work on them yet I've barely started either one. Looks like it's going to be another all nighter!
(and yet here I am wasting precious time on my blog....hopeless I tell you, hopeless!)

"Begin while other are procrastinating. Work while others are wishing." ~William Arthur Ward

"Don’t wait. The time will never be just right". ~Napoleon Hill

"Procrastination is like masturbation. At first it feels good, but in the end you're only screwing yourself." ~Author Unknown

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Altar in My World

I posted this picture of my prayer altar on Facebook today.
I had initially grabbed my iPhone to take photos of the steady stream of leaves blowing past my window. Winter made an early entrance overnight and into this morning in the form of sleet here in Boston and snow back home in CT, and I wanted to capture the frenzied dance taking place outside in the quad between the deadened leaves and the unrelenting wind.
Fall, it seems, is hanging on for dear life, as winter is determined to make its mark here in early November. Just two weeks ago the tree outside my window was ablaze in color, turning the white walls of my dorm room orange and red when the sun hit it just right.
Now it stands bare against the gray November sky, letting in more afternoon light, but blocking out less of the world then it once did.

As I readied my camera phone, a moment of calm settled outside and my focus shifted to the altar on my windowsill. I set this makeshift altar up on my first day of seminary, and other than the summer months when it travels home with me, it has been there ever since. Regardless of the many changes in the seasons that have taken place outside my window during my three years at seminary, and despite the many changes that have taken place within me, my altar has remained essentially the same, with a piece added here and there for good measure.

Cobbled together over many years and from many sources each item on the altar is there for a reason.
  • The framed stained glass with the painted word "SPIRIT" - purchased ten years ago in a gift shop full of *spiritual* knick-knacks in Provincetown, Mass. It's traveled with me through four different moves. And it finds its home in a window no matter where I am.
  • The mosaic cross engraved with the word "HOPE" - bought for me by my wife in shop in Southern California, how long ago, I can't remember.
  • The laminated Catholic Mass card from my father's wake in December 2001. The prayer on the back begins, "Fill not your hearts with pain and sorrow, but remember me in every tomorrow."
  • The Tibetan singing bowl that I purchased just last year for the Blue Christmas service I did at my field placement church. It snowed that night and only five people showed up. But the bowl sang all the same.
  • The dried and whitened palm fronds from Palm Sunday services of two years passed. One (hidden behind the bowl) is folded into the shape of a cross.
  • A cockle shell received in a student led worship during a class my first year at seminary.
  • A conch shell taken from a healing ceremony for a friend who was battling breast cancer many years ago. We were each given shells along with the instruction to place it where we would see it every day and to offer up a healing prayer whenever we did. My friend survived her battle, but I keep the shell as a memorial for those who didn't survive theirs.
  • The acorn, now dried and split, was picked up right here on campus at the end of a walk, two years ago.
  • The dried and curling leaf is the newest addition. I picked up as I set off down the hill on my 2.5 hour *discernment* walk a few weeks ago. I carried it with me the whole way.
  • The painted stone engraved with the word "PATIENCE" is another take-away from that same gift shop in Provincetown. The corresponding Chinese symbol is engraved on the back. Oddly enough, *have patience* is the message that I discerned on my recent 2.5 hour walk. The stone, which has been on my altar for as long as I can remember, has now taken on new importance during my morning prayer.

The remaining four stones are the functional pieces of my morning prayer routine.
I pick them up and finger them in sequence as I move from prayers of thanks and praise, to prayers for healing for others, to prayers of confession, and finally to prayers of petition for my coming day.

The orange and white marbled stone is the first stone I pick up every morning. I found it lying next a stone wall at a CT retreat center in 2005. Its jagged underside and uneven color reminds me of how *unformed* I felt when I found it. I had just made the move into a new church and a new denomination and I remember sitting on that stone wall off in the woods by myself during a church retreat, wondering where it was that God was leading me.
When I pick up this stone in the morning I start off by thanking God for awakening me, for my breath, for my movement, for my senses. My gratitude then moves out from there. For having a safe place to sleep, for the roof over my head, for having access to food, electricity, heat, and running water. For the people God has brought into my life, for the opportunities - and the struggles - that I've been given. For love and joy and Creation itself. And as the gratitude flows, the sharp edges of the stone remind me that love does not exist without pain, and joy does not exist without sorrow.

The flat, black stone is what I hold when I pray for others. Another token received at a student led worship service, its smooth surface is cool to the touch and I tend to rub it between my hands, warming it as I pray. It's wide and flat and serves as a strong stable base to lift up the sorrows and needs of my family and friends, my community, and my neighbors in the wider world.

The dark, round stone is my confessional stone. It has a heft and weightiness to it that reminds me of the burden that I carry with me always. I tend to walk and talk aloud as I *confess* before God, tossing the stone from hand to hand, releasing and receiving the burden as I go. "Bless me Father for I have sinned..." is still the mantra I cling to. This is often the longest portion of my morning prayer routine, as I talk out, and pour out, whatever it is that is darkening my soul. Whether it's a spiritual struggle, an emotional uncertainty, or a physical longing that has distanced me from God. Then I let it go, ask God for forgiveness and guidance, and say the Lord's Prayer. Knowing that I will be repeating this process the very next day...and every day.

The white smooth stone is my favorite. It is hope. As I slip it between my fingers I ask God for strength and courage to complete whatever task lies before me that day. I end my prayer time with the same prayer every morning. The Prayer of St. Francis...
"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury - pardon, where there is doubt - faith, where there is despair - hope, where there is darkness - light, where there is sadness - joy. Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

This entire routine can take me anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and half, depending on how much time I have in the morning, and how much I feel the need to pray.

As seminarians, we're often told that clergy who don't make time for prayer in their daily routines are the ones most likely to burn out.
And that making time for prayer is a practice that should be established in seminary.

Having an altar is a good daily reminder to engage in that practice.
I can't look out the window and thank God for the changes I see in the seasons without standing before that altar, and thanking God for the changes I see in me.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lead us not into temptation...

I've been distracted of late.
While I can't reveal here exactly what has been distracting me, I thought it was worth reflecting on how easy it is for us as human beings to lose focus when we're confronted with distractions, and how during these times of distraction it is that much more important that we stay in conversation with God - to keep us from wandering too far off track.

Distractions are inevitable.
God put us in a world full of shiny baubles that we find hard to resist.
We want, we desire, we covet.
We do these things so often God had to go and make not one, but THREE official Commandments to keep us from losing ourselves in our desires. Numbers 7,8, and 10 pretty much cover the spectrum of bauble desiring, stealing, and coveting.

Shiny baubles come in many forms - the latest techno gadget we can't afford, the bigger house we wish we had, the dream job that we can never seem to find, the unrequited love that tears at our heart.

We want, we desire, we covet.
Material things, experiences, people.

Of course what we're really seeking is security, happiness, and love.
And we think we're going to find it in a thing, in an experience, in a person.
And we do find security, happiness and love in all of the above.
We wouldn't be spiritual beings having a material experience if we didn't; we wouldn't be human.
But while we do derive happiness from things, experiences and people - TRUE happiness can only be found in God.
Loving God. Serving God. Discerning and doing God's will.

Which is why when we find ourselves to be overly distracted by the baubles, we need to ask ourselves, "What is it that I'm seeking? What is it that I'm missing? What is the message that God has for me here?"

Sometimes our desire and God's desire are one and the same.
But we need to pull our attention away from the bauble - the object of our desire - in order to determine whether our will is in sync with God's will.

This semester at seminary I've been learning a lot about discernment and how to put it into practice. There are many ways for us to to discern God's will by listening for the voice of God.
Centering prayer. Walking meditations. Lectio Divina. Clearness Committees.

I often go off on long walks with Jesus, picturing him walking beside of me, or just ahead of me, as we have a conversation. The rational mind may be inclined to think that both sides of the conversation are coming from within oneself, but experience tells me otherwise. The Jesus that walks beside me often offers insights and startling responses that I had never considered. I've come to trust the process, and to trust that this is the way that God has chosen to speak to me.....Because I have chosen to listen.

The bauble still dangles before me.
The desire is still there.
God's will regarding the presence of this desire in my life is still to be determined.
But as long as I keep my focus on God, and stay in conversation with God, the bauble itself is less of a distraction.

Through the practice of discernment, the very presence of God and my acknowledgment of God's presence has gifted me with the security, happiness and love that I desire.
It hasn't negated my human desires, but I don't believe that it is God's intention to do so.
God gave us the created world and God gave us each other.
God wants us to find security, happiness, and love in the created world and in each other.
We are created in the image of a Triune God who lives in relationship with Godself.
We in turn were created to live in a Triune relationship with God, Creation, and each other.
We can't live in relationship unless we first desire relationship.
Desire is not an evil thing.
But it can easily trip us up and lead us away from God if we're not careful.

Therein lies the difficulty of living this human experience.
Shiny baubles abound.
Some we're allowed to have, because God wills it; others we are not, because God knows it is not what is best for us.

So I will continue to discern, I will continue to listen for the voice of God, I will continue to shift my gaze off my distraction so that I may better see the messages that God has dropped along my path.

What about you?
What shiny baubles are serving as a distraction in your life?

God may call us to embrace our desires, or God may call us to let them go.
And if we truly love God, we must accept God's will even if it contradicts our own.

And at no other time is the following phrase more appropriate:
In the meantime, me and Jesus.......we have a lot of walking to do.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Devil is in the Details

I was told by several people today that I need to blog more. And since I'm into that whole "God is still speaking" thing, I decided I'd better heed the suggestions (and their possible divine origin) and actually do it.
Besides I have a paper to write and a whole Communion liturgy to memorize for class tomorrow which means it's time I honor one of the original purposes of this blog: Procrastination.
I'm not home, so I can't clean the house to avoid school work so blogging is the next best thing (why didn't I think of this before??.....*sigh*.....two years of dorm room time gone to waste).

Seriously, I have a terminal case of "senioritus" this semester. I've gotten into the bad habit of starting papers at 10:00 pm on the night before they're due. So far I've managed to keep my head above water but looking ahead to the next two weeks I see a tidal wave a'comin' and if I don't get my act together I'm in real danger of getting washed out to sea.
(how dramatic.....and take note of all the lovely water imagery. You see, this is so much more interesting than writing a paper).

I have paper due next week for my Satan class that involves interviewing members of my congregation to document their beliefs about the Devil and the existence Hell. So far, every response I've gotten has been: "Yeah, I don't believe in either one.....and by the way, WHY are you taking a class on Satan in seminary?"
So now I have the pleasure of writing a 7-10 page paper on "Yeah, I don't believe in either one." Wish me luck with that.

Of course, this is not surprising. The UCC specifically, and New England mainline churches in general, are not known for espousing a fire and brimstone theology that holds that sin is punished via eternal damnation and that evil is personified in the form of the Devil. Heck, on the rare occasions that the UCC Statement of Faith is read in worship one can just feel the tension in the room as the congregation says in unison (through gritted teeth): "We...resist the powers of evil."
Evil? What is this "evil" of which you speak, and what power does it have? Evil, you see, is all in our minds. It possesses only the power that we give to it.

"Evil" is not a word that is typically part of our liberal Christian vocabulary (unless we're using it to describe George Bush or Sarah Palin). So it's not surprising that we have so little to say about it. We may talk about the evils of racism, classism, sexism, poverty and oppression, but we don't ascribe these things to some outside force. We blame them on the evil that exists within. Evil is the byproduct of our own God-given free-will. We are the cause of evil, and the potential to do evil exists within each one of us. So any "war against evil" is essentially a war against our own humanity.

Geesh, now it sounds like I actually AM writing a paper.
So I may as well go and be productive. That Communion ritual is not going to work its way into my brain via osmosis (ahhh, yet another use of water imagery...did you catch that?)