Summer as a Verb

Summer means different things to different people. If you are a kid, it means no school. If you dig the water, it means game on. If you are in Maryland, it can mean eating steamed crabs, rockfish season, river swimming, and/or lightning bugs. Maybe it means family vacations.

Winter and spring this year were fully scheduled. Events and programs at the community center; three different evening small groups at Christ Church Easton; lacrosse season and school for the girls. All great things, which drove where and when to be and what to do.

Summer right now is an opening up of the schedule. But in some ways, I can already feel this notion of chaos taking over from order, or inactivity as a response to hyperactivity. So it’s time to create fun and balance and challenge all at the same time.

Yesterday morning, I found Paul’s Letter to the Galatians staring at me:

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5, 22-25)

That is a great reminder, note to self, and guide for how to approach summer, or life in general, every day.

With all that as backdrop, I like making fun “to do” lists. Here’s one for the summer months.

1. Summer reading – read three unread/unfinished books from my bookshelf. My “to be read” stacks of books grow and books I have started or wanted to read get cast off. I started yesterday by picking back up T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” White’s wild take on the King Arthur legend, an imagination-shaping story for me as a kid, a favorite book of my brother-in-law, a book I have started and not finished. I am giving myself to the end of June. Other likely contenders are James Hillman’s “A Blue Fire,” Richard Rohr’s “The Divine Dance” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” Every summer should have some Vonnegut.

2. Regular running – as a 5-mile run yesterday evening can attest to, I have some work to do. I let my running slide this winter/spring, and it is one of the habits that rights my body and mind.

3. Paddleboarding – at least 50 miles of summer paddleboarding. More than doable without being a stretch goal at all. I’ve just written about stand-up paddleboarding on the Shore, I live walking distance to the water, make the miles happen.

4. It’s called Natitude – go to five Washington Nationals home games (September counts). When I worked in DC, it was a habit. The girls are Nats fans and enjoy live baseball, and we haven’t caught a Nats home game the last two seasons. Time to change that.

5. Prayer – My deepest connections and most meaningful moments are when I can feel the Holy Spirit at work, when I “let go and let God” to quote a friend and small group leader. That happens more frequently when I silence and open my mind. Making time for prayer is an integral part of being guided by the Spirit.

6. Life’s a Beach – we’ve got our annual Ocean City pilgrimage on the map for July. But Assateague Island is easy. Boat and paddleboard beach exploring. Make more time beach time.

7. Go new places – I’m going to keep this broad. It could be trails, small towns, road trips, scheduled or unscripted.

8. Grow things – summer mulching has begun. I need to plant tomatoes again and regain that connection to the earth, even potted flowers and plants and the habit of watering in the mornings while drinking coffee.

9. Make a skateboarding adventure – there are a few folks who I think will be on board with this. We’ve pondered the Western Maryland Rail Trail before. I don’t know what this might become or where, but I want to recapture the feeling skater Jason Adams talks about here.

10. Live music – summer and live music are meant to go together. In June, we’ve got Josh Ritter at the Avalon Theatre and The Specials in Baltimore on the books. The Avalon has outdoor music on Harrison Street, the community center will be having Philip Dutton and the Alligators, just to name a few.

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it’s a way to shape thinking about the summer. A way to carpe the diem. John Eldredge wrote something that resonates with me: “We are created for adventure, and if we cannot find one, we start blowing things out of proportion so it feels like we have one.”

In the case of adventure, or summer, it can also be a state of mind. Be guided by the spirit, and approach these days, weeks, and months for all that they, and we can be.

“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.

rublev-trinity-icon-no-text-for-wp

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.

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.

A Journey with Fire

There are a few times in life where I have felt my heart and soul consumed by fire. It’s an incredible feeling. One that I am starting to feel again. It is wholly overwhelming. It’s a stirring of the soul, a call to action.

I am laid back, I tend to go with the flow and enjoy where the ride goes. That’s a tendency I like about myself, but it’s also one I can let get taken to the extreme. It’s a good thing until it becomes passive. Then it can lead to complacency. I am not a fan of complacency.

I’ve come to recognize that my whole being needs challenges; needs adventures; I need to be roused. Woken up. I’ve been feeling that in crazy ways of late. Fire is the best metaphor I can offer. It feels like flames.

Thursday was bookended by soaring thoughts. In the morning, it was from reading John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart.” Eldredge flies in the face of the notion of Christian men and women as simply “nice” and “good” people; he sees the church today as being too full of bored (and thereby boring) people and points us more toward living a life with passion, adventure, not playing it safe, and finding our true name, our calling.

The history of a man’s relationship with God is the story of how God calls him out, takes him on a journey and gives him his true name.

It strikes me that it different key points in my life, books have found me that bring up and work through the warrior spirit. The year Anna was born it was Chogyam Trungpa’s “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior,” from which I have a tattoo on my upper back, and now it’s Eldredge calling me back to that energy with God. It has stoked more inner fire, seeded more prayer, and roused a renewed energy at a time when I need it.

My other Thursday bookend came from watching “The Shawshank Redemption” at the Oxford Community Center’s movie night.

shawshank-bus

I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. – Red

The team of Andy Dufresne and Red stir my soul every time. But here we are with the journey again, at it’s beginning.

I fractured my skull during Sunday School at church when I was three years old. That should have been all the indication I needed that my journey was not going to be easy, or boring, or safe. Our walk with God is a full contact sport.

This morning’s sermon ended with a prayer from Thomas Merton, which the minister found during college. He claimed that Merton helped save his life. I feel the same way and have written plenty, and will continue to write, contemplate, and quote Merton.

thomas-merton-train-tracks

This morning’s prayer came from the book, “Thoughts in Solitude:”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not know the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Our journey, our road is ours. It’s not like anyone else’s. It’s wired into our unique DNA, and we have the Holy Spirit in that same DNA, a compass to help us find our way. The Holy Spirit, is also that fire in our hearts, which gets stoked in each of us after our own passion, our own calling. The closer we get, the more it gets stoked, the higher and brighter it burns. We have to find what stokes us, and how to sustain it. We are given maybe a spark, which we have to help grow and light us up.

I’ve got all this dancing around in my head, walking up to communion with the girls together for the first time in our lives. I’ve got deep joy welling up, as the closing hymn begins playing.

The song? “Light the Fire in My Heart Again.”

Amen.