On Vocation Part II: Closer to the Heart

My path seems spiral-shaped sometimes. I come back to a familiar place or thought, but things are different. It’s like further unearthing something, brushing dirt away to reveal more of the picture or map.

When I graduated Washington College in 1998, I was set to go to graduate school with the goal of teaching philosophy and religion. Ultimately graduate school debt didn’t make sense and there was something to staying in this community that stuck. That fall I started working at the Academy Art Museum, overseeing public relations, marketing, and development. Almost 20 years later, my career and spiritual paths combine, right across the street from the Academy: on October 16, I will start working full-time at Christ Church Easton as Assistant for Adult Christian Education & Newcomers Ministry.

I’ve been working at Christ Church part-time since last November, listening to a calling to work with small groups and adult education. I go back to Frederick Buechner’s thought that, “the place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I knew right away that working with the church was the first time that my vocation lined up with the big questions that I’ve always asked, the things I wonder about, and how I want to spend my time.

I am humbled by and grateful for this opportunity. This summer I told friends that if I won the lottery, I’d focus more on working for the church, continuing my own education, and writing. This fall it seems I’ve won the lottery.

Since February 2015, I’ve had the privilege of being the Executive Director of the Oxford Community Center, in the town where I grew up. I don’t have the words to say how much that experience has meant to me and what an incredible time it has been developing programs and events and welcoming and building the community at OCC. It has given me back a town I had lost touch with and one I am excited to call home again.

There have been a few moments in my life where/when things have lined up and I have known in my heart and in my bones what I was supposed to do. To this point in my working life, I’ve had jobs that I’ve enjoyed, but not that called me from the deepest level. I’ve felt this calling time and time again–from studying and wanting to teach philosophy and religion; to wanting to go back to school for Christian theology in 2014; to last year, putting my hopes and intentions out into the world, which led me to the small groups position at Christ Church.

I’ve reached a place and time in life that feels like a new beginning. It’s a beginning that is the culmination of everything that’s happened up to this point: work, fatherhood, friendships, connections, questions, faith, joy, struggle, community, opportunity, study, passion, prayer.

In his book, “Desire,” John Eldredge spells out:

“To live life fully–that is to say, to live life as God meant for us to live–demands a full recovery of our heart. You need that wellspring flowing swift and clear and true… The adventure calls. The future awaits. How you handle your heart’s desire will in great measure determine what becomes of your life.”

To be a part of a community of faith. To help each other in our own walks, with our own questions. To study, to learn, to share, to write. To have the opportunity to follow a calling in vocation. To live life closer to the heart. To listen, to discern God’s will and find deep happiness in His Way and Word.

Those are things that get me out of bed in the morning, things that stir my heart watching the sunrise. They are thoughts and images that dance through my mind when I am running, skateboarding, hiking, reading, or paddleboarding.

It’s a coming together of life and experience to this point, my part and passion in God’s larger work and will. It’s coming to know God’s grace and love as lived out and given to and for us through Jesus Christ.

Here I am. I am grateful, humbled, excited, and so many other things.

Amen.

Seasons, Journeys, Treasure

I dig the seasons changing. There is something to that elemental shift that stirs my soul. These warm days of walking home for lunch and feeling the sun on my face; longboarding to work; thinking about sunrise or sunset paddleboarding on the horizon; putting tomatoes in and mulching gardens; seeing the return of green grass. I’m looking forward.

This is maybe the first time I have fully paid attention to the changing seasons of the church: from Advent to Christmas, from Epiphany now into Lent, looking to the Passion and Easter. Another new thing for me is leading a small group as we journey through Lent.

At the Ash Wednesday service last evening at Christ Church Easton, Father Bill Ortt gave out some information on what Lent is all about. Among other things, I like getting into the word itself:

The word Lent is derived from the old English word “lente” meaning “Springtime” or “lencten” referring to the lengthening of the daylight hours. In the agricultural sense, it is a time when fields are prepared to receive the seeds for the crops to be planted. On a spiritual basis, we might look at it the same way. There is much work to do to break the ground compacted by the weight of the winter period of “death” and there are weeds and obstacles to remove. And yet there is good to be found in the preparations, because it is preparation for new life. In other words, this is more than a good thing.

Lent is a preparation. Lent is also a journey. Lent is a journey over a period of time, 40 days, and it is also a journey over the terrain of the soul.

This morning, thinking about journeys, I went back to a book I pick up a lot for those kind of travels, Jim Harrison’s “The Shape of the Journey:”

It is not so much that I got
there from here, which is everyone’s
story: but the shape
of the voyage: how it pushed
onward in every direction
until it stopped

It’s not the destination, it’s the shape of the voyage that defines it. And can define us. In Walter Brueggemann’s “A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent,” he offers this prayer for today:

Self-giving God, call us to walk the road of
newness–a new self, a new society, a new world,
one neighbor at a time. May we have traveling
mercies this Lenten season. Amen.

We are each on our own journey. Some are fortunate enough to help others in their travels, some people help us along. Where our paths intersect, and where we can travel together, those are great times. This kind of trip can be lonely and rough and we need help.

The Ash Wednesday reading from the Gospel of Matthew had some really key traveling advice. Something we may want to take to heart. Matthew quotes Jesus, who talks about not storing up treasures on earth–material things, money, fame, success–but storing up “treasures in heaven,” those things that light the soul, that put us in touch with something bigger, that connect us to God:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This Lent, this spring, as we set out on our journeys; may we find and store up the right kind of treasures and know our hearts; help our fellow travelers on their way; and all know traveling mercies, as Anne Lamott and Brueggemann call them, remembering it is the shape of the journey at least as much as the destination.

A Tale of Two Buildings

Let’s be up front: this isn’t really a tale of two buildings. It’s more what they represent. They are buildings, but also emblems. The cabin and the church.

The Cabin

It is so easy for me to be a hermit. An active, outdoor hermit, mind you–wrangling sunrises with coffee, running, paddleboarding, looking for birds. I like to hermit in the John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau style.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to daydream about finding a cabin like this one from Cabin Folk and holing up for a good stretch with books, notebook, trail running shoes, binoculars, backpack, you get the idea. And I would enjoy that and likely recharge a bit.

Solitude is a necessary condition for me. But I’ve come to realize it’s not enough. It’s just a beginning point, albeit one to return to. If you are one to ask life’s biggest questions and take the walk to find answers, there is a good chance that you are going to struggle at times. You are going to suffer, you are going to come up short, and sooner or later, you are going to need help. That can be a humbling experience. For me, being humbled is also a necessary condition.

It’s being humbled and needing help that sets us up for needing other people. Needing a community of sorts. Needing people who we can relate to; who understand our struggles; and who we can in turn help with theirs. In my experience, helping someone–whether it is moving furniture, listening, laughing, accomplishing a goal, or just being there–creates a feeling in me that I can’t replicate on my own, cabin in the woods or not.

The Church

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Someone who thinks and feels with us,” Goethe is perhaps describing the beginning or foundation of community. In his sermon at Christ Church Easton on Sunday, Fr. Scott Albergate posited that “The reason to go to church is to be in the company of others,” and that while in a worship service, “Hopefully it will sink into your soul–through the sacraments, songs, Scripture–that life is beyond our control.”

If you spend time in nature, or if you are at all mindful of the passing of time, disease, death, the notion that life is beyond our control is almost self evident. And it can be a heavy truth to bear. As we try to carry that with us, it can weigh us down.

Fr. Scott also pointed out that the majority of what we know of Jesus through the Gospel, he is concerned with healing and transformation. Healing and transformation, through Christ, happen through love and grace. Love happens in the world, through people. We can’t experience it alone. And when we come together, a funny thing happens:

God brings his presence ‘into the house,’ and we are called to release it back out into the world. – Pete Greig, “Red Moon Rising”

Grace is only grace because God gives it to us, He shares it. We know it as a gift and show it by sharing it with each other and others. We know love and grace in the company of others.

Two Buildings

The cabin is the place to find ourselves in solitude. The church building is the place to come together with those “close to us in spirit.” We come together to know, to experience God’s grace through each other and to take it out into the world.

I need both buildings and what they represent. I think Thomas Merton gets it right when he says:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

“Start Your Life Afresh”

A blind girl sees for the first time after getting her sight from cataract surgery. Annie Dillard describes the girl’s experience visiting a garden:

“She is greatly astonished and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it,  and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'”

I don’t know how many times I have gone back to Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” but I’d forgotten that passage until coming across it again, afresh, while reading John Eldredge. I love the description of “the tree with the lights in it.”

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. In his sermon this morning. Father Scott Albergate invited us to look at Advent as a time to “pause and seek a fresh start in your life.” He described Advent as having a couple points, which resonated with me: 1) to live in hope, and 2) to live with a sense of a call to action and a purpose.

This has been a year of a lot of reflection for me, of trying to figure things, life out (nothing new there). It’s been a year where I have felt God and Christ in my life in ways I haven’t before, and I have tried to get out of the way, to surrender to these rolling waves that come over me, which I don’t have words to describe. They come in prayer, on walks, while running, while writing, raking leaves. All I can do is ride them as best I can.

2016-nov-jj-candle

Advent is new for me in that way. I’ve been through 40-some Advent seasons, and yet T.S. Eliot could have been using my eyes to say:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It’s not coincidence that I’ve written about Dillard and Eliot before, quoting some of the same passages, but now they circle back via Eldredge or others, and they are new, changed, even though the words are the same. I read them differently.

These waves of faith and feeling and newness aren’t constant. I misstep, get turned around, make mistakes on a regular and frequent basis. Life is still confusing and I still struggle.

But I hear Father Scott invite us to look back at “where we see God’s movement in our lives in the past year,” and I know He is at work in new ways; starting things this year that haven’t been there in the past.

There are times when I feel beat down by life. And there are times when I feel like the tree with the lights in it.

Light. Having new eyes, seeing things differently. Starting life afresh is choosing to be awake to what is going on around us; choosing to be awake to God at work around us and through us.

ig-lodge-photo

I was pulled into this photograph today, and the photography of Pete Muller more broadly afterwards. There is something about the landscape, the river, the boys tending their cows, a beauty in the present moment. It takes me around the world to Kenya, a place I have never been, and connects me through the human experience, nature, caring for animals (it is Muller walking his dog that puts him there). I can’t say for sure why, but the scene gives me a deep sense of peace; if a scene can smile, this one does for me.

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty–”

 

Hopkins, Eliot, Dillard, each are awake to everything around them, each moment.

Advent is a time to pause and reflect and a call to action. It is both a looking forward with hope, and a being awake to life and what God is doing right now. Part of our job, going back to Father Scott’s sermon, is “to usher in the realm of God in the present moment.”

Amen.

Off-Road Spirituality: Finding a Compass

Sometimes I feel like I need a guide. Someone who’s been there, walked it, looked around, and can report back. I think we all get there. I don’t want someone to walk for me–I want to take it all in, experience it, know it for myself, but someone pointing a finger in the right direction, throwing a knowing smile that I’m on the right track can be huge. Those people pop up in our lives, sometimes in the form of actual people we meet or know, sometimes through books they’ve written or the story of their lives, which can be an example. John Muir is someone I come back to a good bit.

The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love. – John Muir

Muir understood the correlation between our interior lives, what is inside us, and the natural world. That is key for any spirituality for me. And though Muir made that connection eloquently, beautifully, and all the more so because he lived it, his life’s work was getting that point across to people, finding the Divine in nature, finding the Divine in us, and connecting them, encouraging folks to get outside, this was not a new concept.

I think there is a misconception that Christianity happens in a church, is all about “thou shalt not” and is generally boring. For those that would knock it, it seems more about keeping people in line, a blinding form of mind control. And there is some validity to those criticisms, when you look at some of the fundamentalism and the parts of what it is to be a Christian that some churches decide to focus on. Those churches aren’t focusing on what Christ did with his life, how he lived, what he taught, or how he encouraged us to be. There is so much more to it, to Him, if we just take the time to find out for ourselves.

It’s the Christian mystics who light me up, who seem to come the closest to communicating what Jesus taught and lived. They are interested in experiencing God’s love, following Jesus, living out his teaching, not simply sitting passively, or being talked to, or taught.

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If we move our idea of wilderness into metaphor for a minute, it’s a wide world out there, and we are all wandering, looking for something. Spirituality is maybe that notion of trying to find the right path, trying to make our way through the wilderness to get somewhere. No one walks it for us, but we could use some help.

Finding Christ, in the deep and mystical sense, the experiential sense, Jesus as the coming together of the Divine and the world, is finding our compass, the way to point us and show us the way to get where we are trying to go. The even better part of finding our compass, on our walk, is that it’s not just about the destination (it never is), it’s reassurance, it’s guidance on our walk, in a way that makes each step that much better, that much more loving, that allows us to fully be in those moments.

I’ve been getting a double dose of Richard Rohr this week, reading his book “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” and really drinking in his daily meditations, which this week have been focused on the “Cosmic Christ.” Rohr talks about the Eternal Christ, as part of the Trinity, who goes back to the beginning with God, as well as His becoming human to show us, teach us, give us an example of how to live, how to love, how to navigate the wilderness of our lives. Rohr points out St. Francis of Assissi, the Desert Fathers, and others, who got it and lived their lives knowing:

Jesus is the union of human and divine in space and time, and the Christ is the eternal union of matter and Spirit from the beginning of time. When we believe in Jesus Christ, we’re believing in something much bigger than just the historical incarnation we call Jesus. Jesus is just the visible map. The entire sweep of the meaning of the Anointed One, the Christ, includes us and includes all of creation since the beginning of time. Revelation was geological, physical, and nature-based before it was ever personal and fully relational (see Romans 1:20).

As someone who thinks deeply, who (on a good day) meditates and prays on things, who tries to open myself, I find Christ to be the way to go deeper to a real understanding of things; the way to embrace life and love and recognize God in all things. And not in a way that dismisses cosmology, or science, or logic, but in a way that picks up where those things leave off, where they end in paradox. Because the mind stops short. The trail ends and we have to look for a new way to continue. That way is the heart.

The compass that we are given is the Trinity–it’s in each of us, as the Holy Spirit, flowing through our hearts. Our compass is our heart and life lived with and from the heart.

ransomed-heart-quote-oct-26-2016

It’s opening ourselves up to a new, deeper way of knowing. It’s finding our spiritual compass, built into our heart, that can guide us in our walk. It’s recognizing, heeding, and living our lives from the heart.

“Awakening to New Wonder”

God is bigger than church. Church isn’t the only place you’ll find Him. For a long stretch, church was one of the last places I looked. Nothing against it, but I felt like I connected with God better in nature than in a building.

I still talk to God more outside than I do inside. My most prayerful places are by the water. I treasure those times and those places. Yesterday, Harper and I took our dog walkabout to Wye Island, a place where I have run close to 30 miles at once, have run at night, have lost keys, hiked, reflected, prayed. Our walk didn’t disappoint, following trails, sitting, listening, reading and praying by the river; and Harper would have liked to have chased down her first buck, though I’m not sure what she’d have done with it if I had let her go.

2016-oct-wye-island-osage

I’m a slow learner, and have never been one to take anyone’s word for anything. I have to find things out for myself, experientially, even though it frequently means falling on my face and dusting myself off, eventually coming to the same realization that was suggested at the beginning.

If we only look for God in church, we are selling ourselves, and Him, way short. But I realized I was selling myself, and Him, short by choosing to only look for Him outside a church. And part of what that comes down to is misconceiving “church,” as being just a building, or a set of beliefs. And not seeing it as a people, coming together to worship, quite literally to be the body of Christ, alive in the world. I like the way Richard Rohr looks at the Trinity:

God for us, we call you “Father.”
God alongside us, we call you “Jesus.”
God within us, we call you, “Holy Spirit.”
Together, you are the Eternal Mystery
That enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us, and even me.

It’s that understanding, of having God alongside us, and working through other people, and finding that, feeling it, knowing it much deeper when I started to find other people walking their own walk, struggling with their own questions, coming together to worship and to pray and to help one another. Finding church.

Yesterday sitting along the Wye River and this morning in church, I felt grateful; an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Thomas Merton explained what I felt better than I can explain it:

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything… Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God. – Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

I’m a work in progress. That’s all I will ever be, trying to put one foot in front of another along the path and not be distracted chasing every other SQUIRREL! life throws at me. But gratitude and prayer are pretty good at helping sustain and focus me when I pay attention.

This morning’s sermon was about praying. Can I pray? Can I pray always? Can I pray proactively? Can I be persistent, not just praying when I am troubled, but also when and because I am grateful. The sermon closed with a prayer from Archbishop Desmond Tutu (which he adapted from Sir Francis Drake), which I felt in my bones:

desmond-tutu

Disturb us, O Lord

when we are too well pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord

when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the abundance of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord

to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.

Amen.