A New Year for the Dead Made Living

We are a sick house here, so 2015 came last night amid sniffles, snot, fever, and crying (don’t even get me start on how my wife and kids were doing har har). Reading often relaxes me in these scernarios (in between dispensing medication, tissues, and rocking babies to semi-sleep), and I came across a great passage by N.D. Wilson‘s Death by Living to start the New Year:

“Living means decisions. Living means writing your every word and action and thought and drool spot down in forever. It means writing your story within the Story. It means being terrible at it. It means failing and knowing that, somehow, all of our messes will still contribute, that the creative God has merely given Himself a greater challenge- drawing glory from our clumsy botching of the past. We are like factory workers in a slapstick comedy, standing at our positions beside the too-fast conveyor belt that flings the future and all of our possible actions at us. Corn syrup and food coloring everywhere (along with cheese and ceramic figurines).

Do your best. Live. Create. Fail.

And from it all, from the compost of our efforts, God brings glory- a world of ripe grain in the wind.

By His grace, we are the water made wine. We are the dust made flesh made dust made flesh again. We are the whores made brides and thieves made saints and the killers made apostles.

We are the dead made living.”

Cheers to all of us living into the Great Story this year.  Cheers to more frequent blog posts :-).

Not Alone.

Today I learned that I do not control the universe.

Having all my lesson plans ready and organized for the coming days, I went to pick up my wife from work.  On the way, I thought I’d give a quick call to my parents, to let them know I was alive and assuage the guilt of not calling them for over a month.

Long story short: my father has been sick.  Quite sick.  My sister and brother-in-law too.

For the past three weeks, he has battled high temperatures, joint pain, chronic fatigue, and faced a barrage of tests which have poked and prodded him, including an extraction of bone marrow.  His blood platelet count is down, and he has tested positive for Lyme disease.

Needless to say, a bit concerned here.

For the past few weeks, I have been restless, wanting to put my faith into action, dissatisfied with the lack of discussion and questioning of my home church, Emmanuel, and seeking new places to connect with my Christian peers.  I’ve wanted to take the reins with my walk with God and determine the new and next paths to go down.  This has been a good thing, partially.  But I’ve also allowed myself to become a bit self-absorbed, withdrawn, and irritable.  Not exactly a place of openness and communication.  Which, of course, would lead to grace, if my impatience would give it just a moment to seep into my shielded soul.

So for all my renewed theological arguments, I’m reduced to a speechless state of worry, and only able to offer my father the words “I’ll pray” and “I really want you to get well.”

Left simply to recognize my worry and concern, and offer it up to He who says “I am with you.”

Even though I’ve wanted to be by myself.

I now know I am not.

I don’t know if I really believe that sometimes, but in either case…

Grace and peace.

“The Monks are back. School must have started…”

…this is what I wrote recently in my journal, totaling the entries to two (2), because it’s a beautiful leather bound journal I received as a gift for Christmas years ago and I don’t want to mess it up with my scribbling.

So what I wrote must have, in hindsight, been pretty important.  And now, upon reflection, seems to me an indicator of a new season in my life.

The “monks” in question are actually two books about monks: An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire and Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco. Infinity profiles five young men who chose to become novitiates of the strict Carthusian order started by St. Bruno in the 11th Century.  Voices explores the structure of life among the Trappists, from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to Notre Dame de Melleray in France.

The books are quite gripping, and help sustain an interest in monasticism I’ve had for years, but the real question remains: “Why did I choose to pick up those particular books?”

I’ve quipped a few times to my friends that the practices of monasticism are really a form of Ritalin for those of us suffering from spiritual ADHD.  For those, like me, who suffer from the actual physical disorder, you may know what I’m talking about here.  Our attention span is a like hummingbird drinking espresso- it’s all over the place.  Spiritually, I think this makes it harder for us to focus on God, especially in silence and reflection.  If there are a million things going through our mind every second, what do we do to help us put all of that aside and focus on God and His guidance and assurance?

Along with increasingly over-perscribed medication, psychiatrists emphasize the establishment of routine and pattern of those with ADD.  This emphasis on organization helps reduce the stress and anxiety that usually occurs when “too many things seem to be happening at once.” Similary, monks have established spiritual practices (prayer, work, contemplation, lectio divina) which allows them to further focus on God.  This is not to reduce these practices as some sort of “prescription for finding God,” but I think the analogy works to a point.  Monks remind themselves daily- hourly- of the pattern, rhythm and presence of God in their lives and in the world.

Which brings up the question of liturgy.

It’s a question already posed, and answered substantially, over at Julie Clawson’s onehandclapping blog.  Liturgy is the rhythm and pattern many Christians follow and embrace every Sunday as part of their worship service.  This is the “smells and bells” approach to worship, with repeated prayers, times for standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, contemplation, and the partaking of the Eucharist.  For many of us, it is a reminder of God’s role in the world and the steps it took to bring about the miracle and mystery of Christ.  For me, it’s a reminder to breathe, not simply just to relax, but to breathe in the realization, as Rob Bell stated in a recent sermon, that “A whole new world is bursting forth, right in the midst of this one, and everybody everywhere can be a part of it” and that “A Christian is constantly learning how to see this creation with their very own eyes.”

There are many other thoughts on this, and I encourage those who would like further perspectives to the conversation put forth in Clawson’s blog.

This sense of structure and organization is imperative to me as a high school teacher.  yep.. That’s what I do.  And let me tell you, if you are disorganized as a teacher, life quickly becomes a living hell.  Because it’s not just me…the organization of my 150 students is a necessity as well.  It’s organizing lesson plans, homework, essays, vocabulary work, grades, progress reports, permission slips, notes, etc.

But it’s all meant to create a space so we can open up.  We can explore.  We can immerse ourselves.

The monks are back.  To remind me of what higher purpose that structure is for…

“I Knew a Child,” “Spiritual Murder,” and “Impossibilities:” Reflections on G. MacDonald 11-13

I’m quickly falling into the trap of simply compiling entries, instead of reflecting on each one.  Conveniently, however, these three entries all focus on the concept of Forgiveness, on how forgiveness illuminates our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other, and how those relational pairs are inextricably connected.

In “I Knew Child,” MacDonald relates the story of a girl who believed she had committed a sin.  It was a small matter, and the average person would have been quick to say “don’t worry about it.”  MacDonald refutes this position, saying “Dare not to rebuke me for adducing the diseased fancy of a child in a weighty matter of theology.  The child knew, and was conscious that she knew, that she was doing wrong…He would not have told her she was silly , and ‘never to mind.’  Child as she was, might He not have said to her, ‘I do not condemn thee: and go and sin no more’?”

In “Spiritual Murder,” MacDonald surmises that “It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him.  The former may be the act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice.”  Following closely on this sentiment, “Impossibilities” states “no man who will not forgive his neighbor, can believe that God is willing, yea wanting, to forgive him.”

There are things in my heart that show me I have a long way to go in fully absorbing the ideas MacDonald presents.  And I must remember that when I am wronged, that harbored injury, the longer it remains inside of me, the more distant from God I become.  As Christians, we recognize that every time we come into God’s presence to ask for His forgiveness, we are cleansed.  This is a sacrament that I experience every week at Emmanuel, and a time I try to set before God every night.  But often I do not have that “rise-to-my-feet-I’m-now-white-as-snow” feeling.  Because I know I’m still holding some things back.  So now a part of my prayer has become “Please help me to let go of things that I insist on holding on to,” because it is an “Impossibility” to be close to God and still harbor resentment, anger, strife, or anything that contrasts with the Inexorable Love.

When No Escape is a Good Thing and “The Word”- George MacDonald Reflections 9 & 10

9: Escape is Hopeless

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning.  But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it.  Escape is hopeless.  For Love is inexorable.  Our God is a consuming fire.  He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing

10: The Word

But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged.  It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth.  The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God.  It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to Him.

Christianity gets particularly singular, despite its numerous doctrines, traditions of the church fathers and mothers, saints, and denominations.  All things point to Christ, and Christ alone.  What are we to make of this?

The more educated I’ve become about Bible, the less I’ve come to see it as the be all end all of Christ’s teachings.  It is a combination of historical documents, poetry, storytelling, myth, letters, and prophetic writings.  To some, this automatically renders the Bible, and thereby Christianity to be of no use, authority, or truth whatsoever.  For myself, however, this realization brings on a sense of relief and enables my faith to come more alive.  Why?

I was at a retreat at Weston Priory, and the brothers took us through the benedictine tradition of lectio divina, which is a very slow, methodical, meditative reading of a passage of scripture from the Bible.  I asked, at one point, “So what does this passage mean?”  The subtext of my question was an inquiry into what the doctrinal position was on this particular passage, a “when Christ says X, he means X” equation.  The brother looked at me and then asked quietly, “Well, what does it mean to you?”

What the brother was emphasizing was a return of my consciousness to what holy scripture was meant for: to assist in the growth of my relationship to God.  That’s what scripture is meant to speak to.  If my first impulse was to read the Bible as a series of rules that I must obey, to apply X to X, as one would in following directions on how to build a table,  then I was truly missing the point.  Of tantamount importance is what this particular passage of scripture was saying about my relationship to Christ , right then and there, and the impetus of this reading was to focus my mind on that, and that alone.  The Bible, having led me to where I need to be, can now be put to the side, as I dwell in He to whom I have been led.

And by my faith I believe I have been led to a place where inexorable Love is supreme, that anything that is not Love is burned away.  The part of me that comes with the baggage of hate, anger, greed, selfishness, insecurity, anxiety, is stripped away, and I am able to dwell in that Perfect Love.

Faith and Focus for the New Year: George MacDonald

George Macdonald (1824-1905)

George MacDonald (1824-1905)

That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, “Thou art my refuge.”

Happy New Year to all! I have not made any New Year’s resolutions per se, but in order to offer some focus to this blog, my writing, and my devotional meditations (3 birds with one stone!), I am embarking on a journey through C.S. Lewis’s anthology of George MacDonald. This consists of 365 readings of the Scottish novelist, poet, and clergyman focusing on everything regarding to the faith, from God’s Love to Death, Forgiveness, Prayer, Miracles, and everything in between. I will use the blog to either simply post the daily reading as I go along, or reflect on portions of the daily reading. Normally my modus operandi consists of devouring several books at once, and from there attempting to sift through the information to find a kernel of wisdom lost from the inundation of my gluttonous reading habit. This different approach, similar, I think, to the monastic practice of lectio divina, will hinder the sense of confusion which usually results from my normal practice, and do what all good reflective reading is meant to do: slow down the mind. I usually stay away from “devotional reading” books as I find them trite and often too sentimental. I trust that this anthology will be different, as I do have respect for the discerning mind of its compiler.

For those of you who do not know much about George MacDonald, you can find a biographical sketch of his life here. The Golden Key is another good resource.  MacDonald was influential in the writings of both C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and many others. Oh, and we share a birthday, too. When you get a chance, please wish him a happy 184th birthday.

So, onto the quote above “That man is perfect in faith….” Here I think we start off the year with a wonderful paradox. How can one be perfect “with the weight of low thoughts” and “wandering forgetfulness?” We are able to come to God in prayer sometimes with a joyous heart- if we have had a good day, or in the memory of a good day from the past. However, often I know I settle down for my prayers not even wanting to pray, with my mind distracted with thoughts and activities that either will be coming up (morning prayer) or which I have had to deal with (evening prayer). But MacDonald seems to bring that act of prayer back to its barest essence- the recognition that, with heads bowed, our reliance is on the God who offers Himself as refuge for us- no matter what the circumstance. For we are perfect in faith when in any situation, we rely and hope in the love of God the Father. When we see those low thoughts, distractions, and failures as the ultimate reality of our lives, then we have no faith. But turning to the One who can lift us beyond that “reality,” therein lies the hope and joy that comes from life in Him.