Buechner on Eternity

I spent late Sunday on a bike and under a tree. The morning and afternoon had been music, prayer and fellowship of worship services, then blessing of pets (several dogs, a hedgehog, two guinea pigs, and a horse) at Christ Church Easton.

On a beautiful fall evening, I hopped on my bike and eased around Boone Creek and then found a tree on the shoreline of the Oxford Cemetery. I stretched my legs out and listened to geese in the cove, the breeze through the trees, conversations of boaters in Town Creek, and watched the sun dance on the water. I read David Bailey, Richard Rohr, and N.T. Wright. Mostly I sat, watched, listened, imbibed.

I was completely full. I didn’t try to give it words, just breath and feeling.

Yesterday I came across this passage from Frederick Buechner’s “Wishful Thinking,” and I realized Buechner had the words I was looking for:

ETERNITY IS NOT endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time. 

If you spin a pinwheel fast enough, then all its colors blend into a single color—white—which is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum combined. 

If you spin time fast enough, then time-past, time-present, and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined. 

As human beings we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a marriage—some event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what “it’s all about” involves not just the present but the past and future too. 

Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15) “inhabiteth eternity” but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where he stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too. 

Mountaintop Experiences

Sometimes hospitals can be mountaintops. Mountaintop experiences are those moments or experiences in our lives that rearrange things, change our hearts, bring us closer to God.

Two years ago today, while visiting her mom’s family in Pennsylvania, Ava had a seizure that led her to be flown by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. I was sitting in my sun room at home at 9pm, and got a phone call, and was on the road within a few minutes.

She spent 10 days in pediatric intensive care and all told about a month in the hospital between neurology and the rehab unit. After EKGs and MRIs and who knows what other acronyms, the likely diagnosis was that Epstein-Barr Virus had gotten into her spine, and caused her brain to swell and provoked that and subsequent and ongoing seizures. The doctors, nurses, and technicians at Children’s were rock stars, stayed the course and sent Ava home to conquer 5th grade. Since then, she has been on medication to manage her seizures and we have learned a bit about the world of provoked epilepsy. Ava’s has been a good story, with her making honor roll at school, playing sports, and living a mostly normal life, albeit mornings and evenings feeling like a pharmacy.

Mountaintops are what you make of them. The main thing I remember is the amazing support, prayers, good vibes and good deeds from so many people. It redefined what community meant to me. What Ava went through, and her attitude, and watching her come back to herself gave me a sense of gratitude I wouldn’t have come to any other way. It showed me first-hand, the way a community of people praying can change the heart(s) of the people being prayed for. I have been in a constant and growing conversation with God since (not that I always listen the first time or catch what He’s saying).

Yesterday’s Gospel reading and sermon at Christ Church Easton were about a mountaintop experience–Luke’s story of Peter, John, and James witnessing Jesus’s transfiguration, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”(Luke 9:29). You can’t get much more mountaintop than that. I like how Frederick Buechner brings transfiguration back to everyday life:

“Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”

When I think back to two years ago in the hospital and getting home, I have seen that look on a face. It was there in Anna caring for her sister; it was there in Ava getting home, excited to see her friends and start the school year. And because of that mountaintop experience, when I remember to look with the eyes of my heart, I see it now.

 

Scripture, Small Groups & Ephesians

This week at Christ Church Easton, we kick off a small group study of The Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. The build up, the study, the reflection, and prayer has led me to think about the nature of Scripture and how we read it and relate to it. And why. I doubt it’s a coincidence that one of my go-to thinkers, Richard Rohr, is spending this week talking about Scripture:

Serious reading of Scripture will allow you to find an ever-new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history and your own soul as you discover that the text holds truth on many levels… Sacred texts will always maximize your possibilities for life, love, and inclusion, which is precisely why we call them sacred.

The liberation of our own soul and maximizing possibilities for life, love, and inclusion–not a bad way to spend our time. I also love Frederick Buechner’s thoughts on reading the Bible:

If you look AT a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look THROUGH a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past and into the depths of ourselves. 

There is so much to be gained by a thoughtful, in depth reading and study of the Bible. But it’s not easy going it alone. It’s a communal document, passed down by multiple people, for multiple people. It’s a living document, a living Word, that can open us up to more when looked at and wrestled and reckoned with together.

At a worship service, we can hear the Word. We can listen and reflect on it. But we don’t have a chance to discuss it. That’s what small groups are for. In looking at the reason for small group study, Carolyn Taketa writes:

When we take the risk of being authentic with a small group of people, we can experience God’s grace and love coming through others, which leads to freedom and transformation

John Ortberg writes: “God uses people to form people. That is why what happens between you and another person is never merely human-to-human interaction–the Spirit longs to be powerfully at work in every encounter.” So the goal of small groups is to create the environments where Spirit-driven, life-giving experiences can flourish.

The need for these kind of life-giving experiences, that kind of interaction and helping foster that kind of community is part of what compelled me to follow a calling to lead small groups.

What better place to start than Ephesians?

Bob Deffinbaugh calls Ephesians “the Rolls Royce of the epistles.” And he cites William Hendricksen’s “Exposition of Ephesians,” which calls the letter:

“the divinest composition of man,” “the distilled essence of the Christian religion,” “the most authoritative and most consummate compendium of the Christian faith,” that is “full to the brim with thoughts and doctrines sublime and momentous.”

If someone had to write a movie trailer for Ephesians, I would sign Hendricksen up on the spot.

Life has a funny way of working itself out. Twenty years ago, I would have told you that the texts I would be wrestling with in my 40s would be Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and the heavy hitters of continental philosophy and phenomenology. Looking back, it is clear to me that that would have been an academic exercise. I have lived and watched over that time as my head and my heart have become synchronized and moved into alignment with one another. I want to put that same spirit of inquiry into not just words, but the Word, and not just for study, but for living.

And so maybe it comes back to Ephesians, which seems the perfect place to start, when it is time to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

This is just the beginning.

Making Moments

The world is rough. It is full of death, sickness, sadness, and anger. The adage is that life is suffering. You can’t dispute that. There is so much we can’t understand, that doesn’t make sense to us. Granted we can’t see the big picture, but there are times when our limited view can seem absurd.

But then there are moments. Moments when our hearts expand, connect to our minds, guide our actions, and we can see and feel something bigger than ourselves. Life is also full of these moments, but it is up to us to see them. To find them. And to help make them, for ourselves and for others. Especially for others, because that is how we experience them for ourselves.

Spirituality is not learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there. – Meister Eckhart

In his sermon yesterday, Father Bill Ortt described a mystic as “someone who is hypersensitive to God around them.” He talked about Meister Eckhart, who is a favorite of mine. I think we do well to have people around us who are hypersensitive to God’s presence in the world and in our hearts. They help us to see, they help us to not miss our moments.

2016-nov-girls-on-harrison

For me those moments can happen anywhere. They happen watching my daughters play field hockey. They happen in an interview that turns into a two-hour conversation on spirituality and life. They happen sitting with Anna, Ava, and a friend of theirs at Rise Up Coffee, eating and laughing and telling stories. They happen catching a sunset on the water. I felt a transcendent moment in church yesterday as the choir and congregation were singing, clapping hands, and the girls started clapping along.

Experiencing those moments can be about being plugged in. If we close our eyes, we won’t see them.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one, one seeing, one knowing, one love. – Meister Eckhart

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. As fall settles in, you don’t know how many of those weekend days we will have. So Ava and I opted out of watching football or TV, grabbed Harper and went hiking around Pickering Creek Audubon Center.

2016-nov-ava-and-harper

One part of experiencing those moments, is that sometimes you have to go make them. Our conversations, watching Harper cover ground, being in the woods and fields, smelling fall smells; it just as easily could have not happened.

Frederick Buechner wrote a book called, “The Alphabet of Grace,” where he tries to captures all the blessings and moments he experiences in a single day, just by looking more deeply into life.

Today, my moments and blessings are grateful ones: Ava having a good neurology appointment and good news on her MRI results; time spent with the girls and watching Anna discern and decide how/whether to spend money she earned babysitting; having a job I enjoy and that allows me to take time to go to a doctor’s appointment; coming home to a roof over our heads and a dog eager to share the evening; grilling dinner for the girls on a crisp, autumn night; taking time to be deeply and humbly grateful for the time we have together.

The Gameplan Part II: The Real Work

You’ve called yourself to action, now what are you going to do with it?

That’s the real question. And the answer has been growing in me for 44 years. It’s something that has gained momentum and traction, has surfaced at earlier parts of my life, and keeps coming back, with more force. It’s to the point now where I can feel it when I pray, when I listen, and it can overwhelm me when I don’t expect it. It’s something that is bigger than me, maybe something for which I am just a vessel.

The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. – Frederick Buechner

I’m not clairvoyant. But I try to pay attention and to be mindful when and where things keep coming up. In July, I made a conscious change to more actively follow my dreams. To live life more intentionally and closer to my heart. To commit myself to writing in ways that I hadn’t before. During the past year, but especially the last several months, I can feel a clearer voice and purpose when I write, that seems to come the more I do it. It’s moving toward something, or some way to see.

And a strange thing has happened repeatedly now when I talk to people. I get, “You’re writing a book, aren’t you?” “There’s a book coming.” “It’s time to write a book.” I didn’t think so until a couple months ago, but it has been connecting threads, uncovering itself, and coming to light. More on that another time.

buechner-quote

I have been drawn to learning. It recently came up as a primary strength of my personality. No surprise there. I’ve talked before about deciding  against going to graduate school in Duquesne University’s philosophy program, just after college. I took the more practical, sensible option of getting to work.

Years later, when the contract we were working on ended after three and a half years of working in Washington, D.C., I was at a similar crossroads. Reading and thinking and praying back then, I felt a pull to go to seminary, to delve into studying Christian theology and see where that went. It felt strange, but right, and I talked to a handful of people about it and began researching options. Then I was offered another DC job for a good paycheck, which I took, thinking it the best option for my family, and let that notion fade.

My sense is that things in our lives happen when they are ready to happen and not before. Both of those times, feeling pulled to deeper study in faith and philosophy, I wasn’t ready. It wouldn’t have been real in the way it needed. It was while working the second DC job that I lost track of what my heart and soul wanted out of life, my marriage fell apart, and ultimately so did the job. I had to hit the reset button on life. That had to happen.

That calling to continued, deeper, sustained study in faith and Christian theology is back, exponentially louder than either time before. I’ve ignored it twice before; I won’t do that again.

slide-jesusreally

I get stirred up, moved, inspired when I read Thomas Merton, Buechner, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Richard Rohr, and of late John Eldredge (which is where the image just above is from). I feel things working in me and through me when I am in church. But that isn’t enough. I have to do something with that, I have to act.

One of the things I have seen during the past year at Real Life Chapel with Pastor Frank Short, is how vital and essential small group study is. Church on Sunday is a time to recharge, to reflect, to come together, to pray. But there is no dialogue, there is no depth, it is not the time or the place for the real work to be done. That’s where smaller groups, and directed study and engaging with each other comes in.

Getting people together for some purpose seems to be something I do. A number of years ago, we had a writer’s group, which was a big part of a number of our lives for a stretch. In 2008, a few of us started the Rise Up Runners group, which led to more adventures and friendships than I could have imagined.

Life, and our personal walks of faith are best shared. We need to be encouraged, challenged, helped out, questioned by others. It’s not a safe or easy walk. There are wrong turns, bad ideas, fog, darkness. But there are also accomplishments, clues to be found and left, ways to hold each other up.

God acts in the world through people, among other ways. Through us. Finding and honoring our tribe of spiritual adventurers is key to making sure we find and keep to our path.

Now what are you going to do with it?

That’s the question my heart has been sitting with and my prayers have been in conversation with. When fire and passion and energy have built, are building, what will I do with it?

The answers that keep presenting themselves, over and again: 1) write, tell and share your story.  Dig deep, sustain it, tie the threads together, focus it. Look to examples like Buechner and Merton, that’s part of why they are there. 2) Learn, study, sustain and direct it. Follow the repeated calling to graduate study, find your teachers and mentors for that road. 3) Find and convene and honor a tribe, a small group for Christian study. Engage, laugh, celebrate, wrestle with stuff. Help each other.

Life is an adventure, at least how I want to live it. When I look back, so many things and experiences have been building in me and informing me, some I could hear, some I ignored. They are beginning to come together, and I’ve been quiet enough to listen, to hear, to feel.

It’s all led to right now. It’s where the good stuff is. Where the fun is. And where the real work begins.