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.

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.

Just Get Living

“Just Keep Livin,” was a notion from David Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey’s character from the movie “Dazed and Confused.” The motto struck McConaughey so much that he named his foundation after it. I have dug it as a way of going about life–you struggle, you fall down, if you are lucky enough to get back up, just keep livin. You have great moments, you celebrate, you drink it in, just keep livin. What else can you do?

But what if you get to a point in life, you come to a crossroads, you have an awakening of some sort, and you look at life differently? What if you wake up to a revelation you can’t go back from? You are compelled to do something. You have to act.

Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts. – Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

You can know something all you want, right down into your very being, but unless you act on it, act in accordance with it, unless it means enough to live it, what do you really have?

Thought and life, thought and action, need to be aligned. They need to have each other’s back, to prove one another. It can be a feedback loop:

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. – Merton

2016-oct-cove-sunrise

I would venture to say, if you live in an area where you grew up, and you love life, you are tapping into something like experiencing new things in the old and old in the new. Coming at something familiar with fresh eyes is huge for me.

Let’s get back to action. We are a society whose actions don’t line up with our words. We see it in churches, politics, sports, schools, you name it. We are all guilty of it to some extent. But we can do something about it in our own lives.

I’ve been pretty good at thinking elevated thoughts, finding and mining great experiences outside, or as a father;  having moments, minor epiphanies that leave me reeling; riding that stoke, maybe writing it down, on to the next. Surely they are moments to be savored, to carry with us, to seek out.

Then I come to a place in life, where things look different. Things feel different. Life the way it was falls apart, shakes to pieces. And a new life is opened up–opened up and connected, or uncovered to be part of something bigger. Like I’ve been given the gift of a new way of seeing and being. If I do nothing with that, if I put it on a shelf to come back to later, or I just keep living the same way, and sit on it, then what do I know differently? What have I done with the gift?

The spiritual life if first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived. – Merton

When you know things to be different than they were, it is no longer okay to just keep living. It’s more a matter to just get living.

There’s a funny thing about an awakening where God is concerned. That kind of awakening is not a matter of: go to church, be good, color inside the lines and everything will be okay. Anybody can do that and churches are full of people who like that safe approach to spirituality: follow the rules, keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times. It’s comfortable, reassuring.

Look back at the lives that the early prophets lived, the life that Jesus lived, the lives the disciples lived. Did they play it safe? Not so much.

The prophets, too, were a wild bunch. They had to be because they were the spokespeople of a wild God, a God who didn’t care much about temples and offerings but who cared a lot about the way people were treated and the opening of the human heart. – Richard Rohr, “From Wild Man to Wise Man”

In my mind, any kind of spiritual life is not about playing it safe, but following, being led by the spirit, or more specifically, the Holy Spirit working through us. The opening of the human heart. And that can be some scary stuff. But it’s when and where the adventure begins. It’s where it gets good. It’s open eyes, new eyes, wide eyes, looking down a path, taking it all in, and walking it to see where it goes.

2016-oct-harper-wye

Hold on, what’s different? I’ve walked paths, walked and run trails for years? What’s new? The difference is a new understanding: it’s not about me, or my walk specifically. I’m not just randomly picking paths. I’m trying to go where I am led, called, and trust it, trust God. I’m not setting out down a path I would have chosen or thought about prior to now. I’m trying to act on thoughts that I don’t exactly know how they came to me.

Wisdom is God Himself, living in us, revealing Himself to us only in so far as we live it. – Merton

I’m trying to wise up. And just get living.

“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.

Hurricanes and Riverbeds

I dig storms. I always have. The build up, the uncertainty, the excitement, the aftermath. Thunderstorms, hurricanes, snowstorms, blizzards. I have biked and run in conditions ill-suited for humans; walked in waist-deep streets after hurricanes and driven around surveying storm and snow damage.

I am not alone. We don’t have a Weather Channel obsession because of days of abundant sunshine.

September is a time of year on the east coast where storms find their way into our psyche–the possibility, the coming of them, the anticipation.

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Rainer Maria Rilke is one of a handful of writers I come back to over and again, for inspiration, for glimpses behind the curtain, for a kindred historical soul. Rilke wrote his “Duino Elegies” and “Sonnets to Orpheus” in what can only be described as storms of creativity; visions channeling divine inspiration. He described it as a “hurricane of the spirit.”

mountain-ranges, peaks growing red in the dawn
of all Beginning,–pollen of the flowering godhead,
joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones,
space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, storms
of emotion whirled into rapture (from The Second Elegy)

Rilke wrote in a whirlwind. Reading about the intensity of effort and emotion and thought he went through in writing, I’m not sure many of us would want, or survive, his hurricane of the spirit intact.

Being in a constant state of storm, or constantly on guard for a storm doesn’t seem like a way to live life. Richard Rohr‘s daily e-mail yesterday morning offered a different approach to being swept up in the storm.

The contemplative’s inner stance is not one of being swept downriver along with everything else. The contemplative’s repose is not a passive state, but an engaged, silent receptivity… like a riverbed, which is constantly receiving and letting go in the very same moment. Vigilant receptivity and nonclinging release are one and the same for this riverbed awareness as it constantly receives all coming from upstream while at the very same moment releasing all downstream. – Martin Laird

Be the riverbed. That’s easy enough, right? Take all that life throws at you, let it wash over you, and don’t cling too tightly to any of it.

It’s a repose. It’s a metaphor. Easier said than done, but helpful. It’s a letting go of the storm, of worries, while being receptive and mindful. Not a bad stance for a Monday.

2016 Sept Town Creek chill

The Head, the Hand, and the Heart

I don’t know much about John Ruskin. But maybe he knew something about living. Ruskin said:

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.

I’m not so much worried about fine art as about living fully, deeply, integrated, connected to God. And I’ve been thinking about when you get two of three of those things–the head, the hand, and the heart.

In church we’ve been talking about the head (beliefs) and the hand (actions) going together. If you believe something, truly believe it and hold it to be important, then your actions should show it. That seems wholly true to me. If your actions don’t show your beliefs, what good are your beliefs? But there seems to be something missing. I think it’s the heart.

If you put the head and the heart together, you get a band. One I’ve been listening to a bit lately.

the-head-and-the-heart

Their song, “Lost in My Mind” gets stuck in mine. It’s a great song. Getting lost in my mind is an easy tendency.  “Oh my brother, your wisdom is older than me.” There is a notion in the song I dig:

How’s that bricklayin’ comin?

How’s that engine runnin?

Is that bridge getting built?

Are your hand getting filled?

Won’t you tell me, my brother?

Cause there’s stars

up above

We can start

moving forward

It’s that notion of work versus dreams. You are working, making a living, but are you filling your heart, your soul, with the good stuff? The wonders of the Universe. The deeper aspects of life that we miss entirely if we don’t pay attention: raising kids; watching a sunrise on the beach with someone you love; playing an instrument; staring at the stars; writing a book; whatever it is that fills your heart.

But if you have just your head and your heart, you are missing your hand: you are holding your dreams, but not acting on them. Not trying to build them.

It’s not easy to yoke those three things together and drive them forward. For me, thinking and dreaming come easy. It’s building that takes work and effort. And attention.

At 44 years old, I’m not one to let go of dreams. As a father, I’m not about to wildly chase a dream that doesn’t help, include, or provide for my girls. A conundrum? Maybe.

Sooner or later, if we’re lucky, we come to learn a pretty big lesson: it’s not all about me. Though I try to shape them, use them, and do the best I can with them, I didn’t make or create my head, my heart, or my hands. I have to admit there are bigger things, bigger hands, hearts, and minds at work than mine. And if I want to put mine out there and try to make something of them, it requires a couple things: faith and risk.

I get a daily e-mail to contemplate every morning from Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, founder of the Center for Contemplation and Action. This morning’s musings came together like this:

This is probably why Jesus praised faith and trust even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall or to fail–and not to fall apart. Faith alone holds you while you stand waiting and hoping and trusting. Then, and only then, will deeper love happen. It’s no surprise at all that in English (and, I am told, in other languages as well) we speak of “falling” in love. I think falling is the only way to get to authentic love. None would go freely, if we knew ahead of time what love is going to ask of us. Very human faith lays the necessary foundation for the ongoing discovery of love. Have no doubt though: great love is always a discovery, a revelation, a wonderful surprise, a falling into “something” much bigger and deeper that is literally beyond us and larger than us.

We need our heads–our thoughts and our beliefs. We need our hands–our actions. And we need our heart–love, passion. And love is something that goes beyond us, is bigger than us, involves a letting go, a surrender; involves faith; involves God.

I’ve still got more questions than I’ll ever have answers. But I like to think about living life the way Ruskin describes fine art. And I like to think of giving my head, hand, heart, over to faith, to love, to God, and trying to build dreams, to build life, with a little Help.

2016 Hammock Swing

 

* The photo at the top came from Living Outdoor. It represents something of a dream for me–living and writing outside in the woods, in a simple cabin.