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.

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.

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.

Delusions of Knowledge

When I look up at the stars, my response is wonder. When I watch a hummingbird hovering in the yard, I am fascinated. In neither case is my first instinct to analyze, label, figure things out.

Likewise, when I think about God, it isn’t to solve the Mystery, but to dwell in the Mystery, sit with it, let it wash over me. Not to try to pull it apart.

The mystery of creation is like the darkness of night–it is great. Delusions of knowledge are like the fog of the morning. – Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore is a writer who I have recently been drawn to more and more. He was the first non-European writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913. His “Stray Birds” are several, rapid fire blasts of sunlight, glimpses of illumination that cut through the shadows of unchecked rational thought. The painting at the top of the page is Tagore’s as well.

I’ve been sitting with the idea of paradox a lot lately–the notion that two things taken together are seemingly impossible, but actually true. Like when physicists say that light is made up of (behaves like) waves and particles at the same time.

Science and scripture are full of paradoxes. How can Jesus be both a Lamb and a Lion; how are the worldly poor the spiritually rich? Why do you have to let go in order to have everything? Why is surrendering the only way to victory? Jesus loved paradoxes and deep thinkers like Einstein saw them everywhere.

Why is that? One reason might be that our intellect by itself is not the right faculty to get us to the deeper truths. It would be like trying to use smell or taste to figure out the tip when you get the check from dinner–could be interesting, but ultimately not helpful.

I am never more frustrated than when I try to have all the answers; when I want to have things figured out before I move forward. I am never more at peace than when I allow myself to be in the moment, to be happy with/by/from the things and people that make me happy. And it is still hard not to want to know that I am moving in the right direction, doing the right thing, moving further up the mountain rather than backpedaling.

“One of the great constants in life is change.” That was the doctrine of Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. A paradox and a truth. And not new information.

How we deal with change, how we deal with the mind coming up just short of what it is we want to know, those responses to life are what our lives become. There are all kinds of options: we can doubt, fear, bury our head in the sand and not give it thought, we can lose ourselves in work, we can party like it’s 1999.

I go back to a favorite Thomas Merton thought:

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.

That feels right. So when I walk outside after the storm and through the boat yard to catch the last bit of sunset and see this…

2016 Sunset Owl

And I walk back to the house and hear an owl in the top of a tree and then watch he or she take off and fly with outspread wings, I smile and sit with Tagore’s words that have been in my head on a Sunday:

That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life.