The Pattern of the Universe

Since this whole spiritual re-awakening thing started a few weeks back, I’ve been slowly adding back the spiritual practices that were so meaningful to me in my “post new wineskins” period around 2006/2007. One of those is what I will call a contemplative walk, although I honestly can’t remember the real name for this practice. I took one today.

My goal on this walk through the woods by our house was simply to be present. I focused on my breathing. The steps I took along the trail. The sound of the stream as it flowed. And, for part of the walk, the music I was listening to. My mind wandered, certainly, and I wasn’t overly concerned with that. But when it did wander, I would redirect it back to being present.

Toward the end of the walk, I really started to notice that it was winter. The trees were barren, there was no one else on the trails, and I could feel the cold against my skin. And then something mystical happened.

Richard Rohr talks about the “cruciform shape to reality”. The fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the model for all of life. And while intellectually, I could kind of follow the logic, I never really understood it.

Until today.

I thought of the patterns of the seasons. New life in the spring yields to maturity during the summer, then a decline in the fall before nature goes to sleep for the winter. And then, the next spring, resurrection!

And then, I thought about our human lives, defined by a spring of birth and youth, a summer of striving and establishing, a fall of physical decline before winter comes and we go to sleep. But Christ’s promise is that we, too, will follow the cruciform pattern and be resurrected.

And then I thought to the very universe itself. The Big Bang and the hyperinflation of its spring. The stable universe we know today with galaxies and stars and solar systems. Its eventual decline either in a big crush, or based on what is now reasonably widely accepted due to the measurements of dark matter in the universe, more likely a big freeze as everything flies apart at faster and faster speeds. Now, science can’t tell us much about what comes before, nor about what comes after, but the cruciform pattern can still be seen (and, pro tip – there are some stories in the Bible which hint at the non-scientifically observable parts of the story).

And so it is with life. To quote Richard Rohr, “Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form.’ This is the big fly in the cosmic ointment!

There is mystery in the fact that the way of the cross appears to be baked into the entire fabric of the universe. We are constantly seeing new incarnations which ultimately die and are resurrected. The only question is will we still ourselves long enough so that we can see it and be transformed by it?

Mercy and Justice

Mercy and Justice.

Mercy. And Justice.

Mercy. And. Justice.

We tend to think of those two things as being separate, and perhaps even opposites.

Mercy. Forgiveness. Love.

Justice. Wrath. Punishment.

But what if we’re looking at it wrong? What if in fact mercy and justice are really just two sides of the same coin? What if the mercy that liberates the oppressed and the justice that judges the oppressor are really the same thing? What if in fact oppression oppresses both the oppressor and the oppressed and they both are really in need of mercy and justice? What if injustice prevents mercy from flowing in either direction?

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the “beloved community.” The Hebrew scriptures talk about shalom. Mercy and justice kiss.

And what if the church, especially the American evangelical church, in its zeal to save souls from eternal death, has missed the point of grace and mercy by failing to understand that it is intertwined with justice.

Not the justice that casts into hell, but the justice that frees first the oppressed, and then the oppressor to receive the mercy of God.

There is no message of grace in a world where black lives don’t matter. Where refugees are made to wait years for asylum in a place that is only marginally safer than the one they left. Where billionaires are free to suck up the vast majority of the world’s wealth while the vast majority struggle to even survive. Where people are shunned and shamed because of who they love and how they were made.

There is no gospel that does not tackle mercy and justice together. As one. At the same time.

Blessings not just for the ones who kneel.. luckily

One of the things I’ve learned about God is that sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, he takes his time.

A lot of time.

I’ve spent the last several years thoroughly, and completely wandering the post-evangelical wilderness.  Certainties have become scarce, life has intruded, my sin has been magnified, and my faith has been nearly destroyed on several occasions.

But he’s never late.

In recent months I have struggled with doubt and fear that I thought I had left behind when I made the decision to follow him.  Painful, physical doubt. And the endless silence of the dark night of the soul (but not  St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, for which I am quite sure I am unprepared).

And then, suddenly, as I was at my end – as all of the familiar tools of my faith – prayer and worship and word and sacrament – had become ashes in my mouth – he arrived.

Grace, and peace, and faithfulness, and PRESENCE! Presence that I cannot explain but which overwhelmed me. Evidence that once again, everything was going to be alright. Weeping and laughing and joy breaking through the clouds of my gloom.

I can’t quite explain it.  It certainly has nothing to do with my faithfulness.  I struggle to come to him consistently, and consider myself to be just about as much of a sinner as ever. But for about the last month, just about every time I have come to him, he has been there.  Obviously there.  As in “wow, this prayer stuff is real” there. As in, “I kind of understand what it means to be praying ‘in the spirit’ now.” As in, “I’m just floating in the river letting God’s current of grace push me where he may.”

He came just in time. And I can only pray that the next time it seems like he’s taking far too long to come, I will remember this time when he waited until the last possible moment.

* The title of this post comes from “City of Blinding Lights,” by U2.

There are No Words

Today, the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, passed away after battling cancer. I, for one, will sorely miss his honesty, and his unfailing trust in the grace of God. A grace that goes beyond anything that any of us expects. He gave us all a window into that grace, and for that I am deeply grateful.

May he rejoice in the presence of his Lord, and may that same Lord comfort his family and friends in their time of loss.

A Vision for the Future

What’s that scripture about “without vision the people perish?”

That’s pretty much how I have felt the past several months – like I am perishing. There’s been a war going on inside myself between the easy path – just go with the evangelical flow and live the typical American Christian lifestyle, which with three young kids is – trust me – very tempting, and the deeper path I believe God has revealed to me over the course of the past couple of years through any number of his servants who are already walking down that path.

But instead of choosing one vision or the other, I have been basically adrift – unwilling to “settle” for the easier path, but afraid that the deeper path is too difficult for a family to pursue. So I’ve been stuck in neutral, and in-and-out of depression because of it.

This is, of course, compounded by the fact that no-one – not my wife, not my church, not my pastor – no-one – is really thinking about the same kinds of things I am right now. It makes no sense to them. Why would I want to go to an Episcopal church on occasion? Why do I find the communion administered at my church lacking? Why would I choose to recite rote prayers at regular intervals? What’s with all of the candles and the sign of the cross? And am I crazy to suggest that perhaps we should be trying to find a way to live in community with other followers of Christ?

Perhaps I am crazy, but it doesn’t help that I’m the only one with this particular brand of craziness in my church.

And yet online I’ve found so many other fellow travelers. Through teachers such as Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren I’ve learned a great deal about the wealth that exists in the broader church, outside of the parochial confines of evangelicalism which largely rejected tradition in the 20th century. Which, of course, helps me feel a little more sane.

So rather than just perish, I figured it might be a good idea to try to construct a vision for what this “deeper path” might look like in my and my family’s life. To start, I wanted to lay out what it might look like in the 5-10 year time horizon. So here are my dreams:

In five to ten years, I would like to be living in the same neighborhood with a number of other families and others who are committed to a common rule of life – centered around a spiritual rhythm, engagement in the missio Dei in our neighborhood, and the pro-active embrace of Christian community for both those inside and outside of our community.

I would like to together start non-profit businesses which could act as “third spaces” for our community and the neighborhood in which we live. Instead of making people come to church, we would have the church come to them – both through these businesses and of course through our interactions with our neighbors.

I strongly desire to have my children see a faith that is active in the world – loving the poor, caring for the hurting, passionately coming to God in prayer, contemplation, and worship. A faith that welcomes all to the table, and that while seeking actively to understand the truth, is humble enough to accept those who may have different understandings without judgement, condemnation, or a need to be “right.”

Now, I can’t see a path to there at this point. I don’t know anyone else who shares this vision. I can’t imagine myself having the time to pursue this and still have any semblance of a family life. And, to be honest, I’ve had Christian community blow up in my face so many times in the past that I have a hard time believing something like this is even possible.

But for the coming year, I would like to start small.

Try to find a way for my family to serve the poor at least once a month.

Consistently pray at least the morning and evening office every day.

Find time at least once a week to sit in silence before God.

Have an extended time with God at least once a month.

Find a way to start sharing the spiritual disciplines I am learning with my wife and kids, and anyone who will listen, to be perfectly honest.

Perhaps if I just start small, then next year God will give me some more steps to take. And maybe that 5-10 year vision will have a chance of coming true after all?

Missional Community

As God has led me in a new direction – post-evangelical, missional, and emerging – the reality of the disconnect between our lives as Christians in 21st century America and the lives I see modeled by Jesus, the disciples, and the early church has become ever more jarring. This is not to say that I have adopted a view which states that it is impossible to find and follow Christ as a “normal American Christian.” I am certain that God is present in the American church as He is present in His Church around the world.

But I think there’s more. We’re satisfied with the small glimpse of the kingdom of God which we allow ourselves when God wants us to experience much more of the fullness of His kingdom (remaining well aware that there is still more fullness to come when He brings about the new heaven and the new earth down the road).

So it is with this tension in mind that I am beginning to think seriously about what it might look like for myself, my family, and my friends to seek the greater presence of the Kingdom in our lives. And at least at this point, the idea I am toying with is something I am calling “missional community” (apologies to others who may have elaborated on this idea before or in better/different ways).

In my vision of “missional community,” a number of families and a number of singles would move into a neighborhood together with several goals in mind:

  • Living a missional lifestyle to befriend, love, and care for a specific group of people.
  • Pursuing community on a daily basis with others both inside and outside of the community.
  • Living common spiritual practices together to increase the depth of the members’ faith.
  • Giving sacrificially to ensure that other community members can remain in community regardless of difficult economic circumstances and that the needy outside of the community can be blessed.

I’m not quite sure that I would go as far as to call this type of community a “missional order” or a “New Monastic” one, but certainly it draws from that movement.

I’m sure I will have more to say on this topic over time, but this is just a beginning of the thought process for me. In the end, whether it comes into being is mostly a factor of whether it is God or myself who has set these thoughts in motion.

Cacophony

Every once in a while, God is able to break through the noise of our lives and teach us something very significant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but last weekend God did just that for me.

We had our church retreat last weekend, focusing on rest, and silence, and contemplation. Unfortunately, I have two small children, so I didn’t get much of any of those three things over the two days we were there. Except for about twenty minutes on Saturday.

The kids were in their class, and I managed to escape for a brief time to find God. And there I sat, staring at a tree. And seeing glimmers of the kingdom of God.

I saw its glimmers in the sun shining through the leaves. I saw the barest hint of it as the wind rustled against it, causing the shadows on the ground to change in endless ways. And I sensed it in the peace that settled upon me, as I sat there in silence, staring, in the presence of God.

Yet all around me there was a cacophony of lives rushing to and fro. Mothers, fathers, and children. Students (for we were at a college that weekend). Fellow retreat-goers who had not found a space of quiet into which they could immerse themselves.

We cannot see God in the midst of the chaos that is our lives. Especially in post-millenial America, we rush to and fro, contributing to a cacophony which drowns out the voice of God, still and small that it is. We think that by accomplishing our tasks we will bring ourselves rest and satisfaction, and yet we never find that rest.

I got a new car this week, a Prius, in order to help the environment, save some money on gas, and give us a sedan that we desperately needed with two kids here and a third on the way. One of the unique features of the car is the energy display which shows you your gas mileage as you drive. And I found that the positive feedback of higher numbers changed my driving habits. Rather than rushing from stoplight to stoplight, I began to smoothly accelerate and coast as much as I could to a stop. I left people the proper amount of space on the freeway, rather than bunching up a bit too close behind them, getting ready to lane change around at a moment’s notice.

And my driving became more peaceful. In the midst of this change, I was brought back to that tree. Everyone was rushing around, trying to get there a few fractions of a second faster. Not letting people merge. Tailgating in order to force others over so they can shave fractions off their commute time. And I came to a realization. Whether we rush to and fro or give ourselves space and a couple minutes longer of a commute, we all have the same amount of time on this planet. And in the end, the fact that we were able to accomplish one or two additional things in our lives doesn’t mean all that much.

But what if we could see God by giving ourselves the space to be with him in silence? What if instead of passing by the trees which daily sway in the breeze, we could see the kingdom of God shimmering in their leaves?

That is a gift far greater than any accomplishment we can achieve in this lifetime by contributing to the world’s cacophony!