Tag Archives: Lent

Joy in one hand and suffering in the other

“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:

The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love

It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.

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St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass CO — Keating’s home for many years.

They make Lent sound so easy

Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding  in the other.

If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.

While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim.  They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.

Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder

Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by  someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.

No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?

I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.

Some days of this Lent WILL be easier

Happy lottery winner.

I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of  us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.

Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”

As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”

Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.

I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.

I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

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Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear

I am not sure how it happened. But I realized early on that loneliness and my sense of isolation as a Christian had a lot to do with my infantile sense of being the center of the universe and unattended by those upon whom I was dependent. Later on I met God through Jesus Christ and I realized I was mistaken. In him is life. When I am alone I am actually alone with God. This experience completely changed my life. But it did not change without a process, like Lent. Thank God the season will be here again, soon.

Lent is a fruitful wilderness

Lent grows people who know they are one with God in their isolation and can act out of that oneness, even when they feel lonely. We know about many examples of people with the spiritual capacity to listen in the wilderness and then and act out of the oneness with God they find there, especially to speak what needs to be said to people who need to hear.

I offered a few stories about this to North Broad in December. Let me revisit two, starting with my own experience of the wind in the wilderness in my splendid and disturbing isolation one summer.

Palmdale without Palmdale

Back in the day, when I was in my early thirties, I spent a few retreat times alone in the Franciscan Spirituality Center outside Palmdale CA. Retreating made me a little strange, but I learned to love my wilderness experiences, especially in the desert. I love the desert. I have often met God there. The monks would give me the room of a visiting monk, which was pretty nice compared to the other rooms. I was often there all alone. It was a splendid kind of isolation.

One time I drove out to the center and I just felt terrible. I think I was having some kind of marriage issue. I think my close friendships were in a mess. And I was in a general thirtysomething angst fog. I got to my room and collapsed on my knees next to the bed. I felt blank. It felt like I needed to force myself to stay there on my knees, since I was on retreat and all. But I had no prayers. Not even “Help.”

After a few minutes I began to relax and felt so tired. I lay my head on the bed. Almost immediately I felt a little breeze. I looked over and the window was open a crack — for fresh air from some thoughtful Franciscan. I instinctively laid my head back down on my praying hands, and there was the wind. Dry desert wind gently blew over me until I began to feel it filling me and blowing through me, moving my feelings and reminding me that the Spirit of God was with me.

It was the beginning of a significant retreat. I went away with a marriage change to effect. And I went back with a direction: get beyond yourself and give my word to people. I experienced for myself a pattern often recounted in the Bible. The word of God comes to someone in the “wilderness.” Then the word of God comes through someone as they speak it with passion, authority and courage (although sometimes reluctantly). This all results in the person having a real relationship with the Word of God, Jesus, himself in a deeper and more satisfying, if often trying, way.

Over and over God meets people in their wilderness

Throughout the history of the church, we see again and again how God finds these out-of-place individuals, a bit wild like John the Baptist, nervous like Gideon, incapable feeling like Moses, scared like Peter. They are all thrust into the wilderness in one way or another, receive the word, bring it, and change their world in significant ways. We aspire to be those people. That’s why we remember them in our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body blog.

On November 18 we admired Odo of Cluny (a French way to spell Otto). It is a high-minded name, usually for the upper classes. It means “possessor of wealth.” The Cluny region in France, where he ended up, has always been a little hotbed of edgy Christianity. Today Cluny is about twenty minutes from Taize (whose music we sing), not far from Citeaux (home of Bernard of Claivaux), and Lake Geneva (where John Calvin built his community).

When Odo, was a young priest in Tours, he read The Rule of St. Benedict for himself for the first time. He was stunned. He realized he was not much of a Christian. He decided to leave his home town and become a Benedictine monk. You can imagine how this made him a little strange. In 909 he went to Beaume, a monastery (unlike many) where the Benedictine rule was strictly observed, and Abbot Berno received him into the community.

That same year, Berno started a new monastery at Cluny in Burgundy. He established it on the pattern of Beaume, insisting on a rigorous application of the Benedictine rule, which, to be honest, is not that rigorous compared to other rules, so you can see how lax and lifeless communities can get (note to self). In 927, Odo succeeded Berno as Cluny’s abbot and spread its influence to monasteries all over Europe. It turned out to be a huge influence, probably one of the most amazing movements of the Spirit you have never heard about.

Odo went to existing monastic communities and talked them into returning to the original pattern of the Benedictine rule of prayer, manual labor, and community life under the direction of a spiritual father. Imagine how hard it is to get our congregations to change how they do stuff. He was a change agent when he came to visit. Under his influence, monasteries chose more worthy abbots, cultivated a more committed spiritual life, and restored the depth of their daily worship. Odo helped lay the foundation for a renewal movement that went on for 200 years and reformed more than a thousand monastic communities. Those communities transformed the religious and political life of Europe.

The word of God came to Odo in the wilderness of his nominal Christianity. Then the word of God came through Odo as he spoke it with passion, authority and courage — so much so that he started a revival and became a peacemaker between warring kings. All this because the word of God, himself, the risen Jesus came to him to get his mission started.

Where do you think the Spirit is leading now?

The same Spirit that moved thirtysomething me, Odo, and others brought us together as Circle of Hope. The word of God came to us in Philadelphia, in the wilderness of postmodernity and vacuous expressions of the church.

Those strange people at Tenth and Locust

That Spirit also isolated us in ways. While we might seem normal to us, the reforms we instituted make us loved and resented in the BIC. A man is flying in from Kentucky to consult with us this month because he thinks he is as strange as us. But our bishops are never sure we are really team players. We don’t get along with Trump Christians, we deploy women pastors. We welcome gay people, accept cohabiting people as married. We listen instead of fighting and think reconciliation is more important than being right. We love psychotherapy. We believe black lives matter. We abhor war and suspect guns. We love immigrants. We talk about Jesus all the time to liberals and celebrate Lent with our spiritual ancestors. We practice contemplative prayer and don’t put men or anyone else at the top of a pyramidical structure. It goes on.

We are ambitious. We might go to your monastery tell you what God showed us. We might follow a radical rule of life together right in your backyard. So we might get as isolated like Moses, feared like Odo of Cluny. That might be Lent for many of us – receiving the wind of suffering, struggle, change, and reform that often isolates the reformers while they are bringing people together in Christ.

What is the word that Jesus wants to get out there now? — any new mouthpieces being grown up in the wilderness around here? I know there are. Do not let anyone shut you up. Tell the truth no matter what it costs. Love your hearers even if they don’t understand you right off. Give them what they need even if they throw it back in your face. The message is old. It came as a variation in the 900s and 1980s. But it always has a unique slant. What are you feeling? What does the wind of the Spirit blow into your mind and heart? Trust it!

During Lent we deliberately open ourselves to the disruption of death and resurrection. The discipline season leads us to the end of ourselves so we can rise again. We become isolated so we can be joined with God and others in a new way. As we have repeatedly experienced, through our times in the wilderness we end up being the vehicles for the Spirit, who come with a word from Jesus uniquely tailored to the needy world of today. What an honor! No matter where the wind of the Spirit blows me, I am always honored to feel it at all.

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For Lent: Be still. Become aware.

When things were not working out for you, did a well-meaning person ever counsel you to “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7)? That’s a popular snippet of the Bible which people use as an encouraging piece of self-talk: “Settle down. God is not done with you yet.” If you take their counsel, you might develop a new conviction: “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Contemplation: faith, not sight.I think there is something even more immediate that scripture is teaching. I have learned it through the prayer of contemplation. “Walk by faith, not by sight” is also about becoming aware of the unseen things God is doing in the present moment. It is not just looking ahead, it should also be looking in. “I am walking by the Light of the World, not just by the light of day, by faith, not sight.”

Prayer amounts to faithing. Just call walking by faith “faithing.” Faith is an action not an idea; it is relating, not just thinking about principles. And prayer is the basic place we faith. Prayer is how we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that’s not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. The main thing that happens is love. If you find something else in the silence, you might be in the wrong place. Contemplation makes us available for relating to God. We don’t always pray in order to get God to do something for us; contemplative prayer is not about making something happen, necessarily. We are making ourselves available for communion with God. We are becoming open to experience Love, heart to Heart.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He appropriates the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates growth and appropriates gifts is inner silence. There are two practices that are very important to exercising this skill: stillness and awareness.


When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. Sometimes we do noisy things when we pray, too, of course; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to feel at home. One of the early teachers of the church said, that in this center, we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place: on the outside of him. This suffering man had come upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them, and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

Stillness in Rittenhouse Square park


Our sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel it. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go of our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of our everyday life on planet earth, we are separate from God. But from the perspective of our inner awareness, we see Christ with us. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one the dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” The man answered. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and many of you. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to become aware of something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond that cage and enter into the wide-open fields of silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of the Spirit of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing when we pray this way, and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

This post tells you more about how to practice contemplative prayer. But we don’t need perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built into our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

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Resist and restore: The prayer of imagination

What if you want to use Lent to get out of your head and into your heart? What if you want to explore the depths of your life: mind, heart, soul, strength and have a meaningful life that resists the forces that try to consume it? Last Saturday during our retreat, one of the answers was: learn to pray — and learn to use your imagination. Life in Christ is bigger than such an “answer” of course. But developing a spiritual life is the key to meaning, key to surviving.

Morton Kelsey offered a checklist for venturing inward. It is a good one, since it does not skip to “what I can do on my own,” but attends to our context and community, which are so crucial. To venture inward: 1) attend to the regular disciplines of your community (cell, Sunday meeting, team), 2) keep a spiritual journal, 3) talk about your inner life, 4) receive spiritual direction (could be formal or friendship), 5) learn to become quiet, 6) unleash your imagination.

peering into the inner life

Be quiet. Contemplation is the core prayer

Prayer takes many forms. In every form it is communing with God, relating Spirit to spirit. We intercede and move God. We worship and praise God. We confess and reconcile with God. We have conversations that are full of complaining and questioning. But until we learn to be quiet and find out what is on the other side of silence, our prayer is a bit superficial and missing the deep experiences of connection we crave. The core prayer we need to learn might be summed up with the word contemplation: the basic yearning of our hearts turned to seeking, our innate spiritual capacity stepping toward connection.

Via negativa contemplation

There are two intertwining roads in contemplative prayer; one is often emphasized more by one group than another. First, there is the via negativa, the apophatic way, (the word means “other than speaking,” or “denial”). This way stresses how God is best known by negation, elimination, forgetting, unknowing, without images and symbols, and in darkness. God is other than humanity. God is “not this, not that.”

On this way all images, thoughts, symbols, etc. must be eliminated, because, as St. John of the Cross points out, “all the being of creatures compared with the infinite being of God is nothing. Nothing which could possibly be imagined or comprehended in this life can be a proximate means of union with God.” We enter this nothingness to meet God.

Learning to be quiet needs to travel on this way, since we need to turn away from our self-controlled, world-controlled existence to meet God. In prayer, we need to deal with the distractions that inhibit our solitude.

Via affirmativa contemplation

The other road is the via affirmativa, the kataphatic way, (the word means “much speaking,” oe “affirmation”). This way underscores how we can find God in all people, in all experiences, in all things.

It emphasizes a definite similarity between God and creatures. We are made in God’s image, male and female. The world is an expression of God’s character. As Paul taught the Athenians:  “In God we live and move and have our being.” God can be reached by creatures, images, and symbols, because the Lord is manifested in creation and salvation history. The incarnation of God in Christ forces us take our own experiences as relevant, symbolic and part of an ongoing story of salvation. We are God’s workmanship and Jesus not only symbolizes this blessing, He remains with us to bring about its fullness.

The goal of contemplation is love

All humans are made to seek. We are lonely for God. So very few are spirituality-free. In most Hindu and Buddhist practices, people are taught that the universe is, ultimately, impersonal mind (as in “may the force be with you”). Jesus-followers see the universe as lover. God is so interested in the created world that s/he became incarnate, so interested in humans that Jesus died for us. God enables us to be companions and fellow workers by meeting us Spirit to spirit. The context of our meeting is love; the ultimate goal of meditation is love, even when it is apophatic.

Our communion with God in prayer is, in itself, resistance to the forces that attempt to usurp God’s proper place in the world and on our lives. If you are alone in solitude with God, that relationship has an impact, even if you don’t take much action as a result. It is likely we will take action, however,  since our contemplation regularly gives us our direction and stokes our courage to act. Contemplation allows us to fight evil that arises in us and outside us. We each do this in our own way, but in similar fashion. One’s experience of the world of the Spirit depends on their psychology, which can be understood and developed, and on their world view, which can change. So contemplation is unique to each one who practices, but is unified in the One who meets each of us where we are beginning today.

The kataphatic prayer of imagination

On Saturday, we offered two suggestions for praying in a more “kataphatic” way, making full use of symbols, dreams and the art of imagination.  One way to experience inner meaning is meditating on your inner experiences: coming to silence, going back into the images of your dreams and fantasies, first consciously, then allowing them to go as they will. We noted that most of our spiritual guidance comes from our conscious experience, which is the tip of the iceberg of us. We were trying to learn more about how to receive direction from our inner experience of what is normally unconscious. Many people avoid this territory because it seems vast and dark. But we are not to be absorbed into it, we are to encounter love in it. We have a basic direction for our contemplation – Jesus describes God as the loving father of a returning prodigal. It is clear who is the object of our prayer and who we are.

God's character

So our conscious minds can lead us and our unconscious, our dreams can lead us. When people describe the unconscious experience it is as varied as they are. But for everyone, using our imaginations to explore our inner depths starts with two simple things: 1) one must be convinced that thinking and feeling in images is important, 2) one must spend enough time to break away from the concerns of the waking realm. We explored this path in two ways last Saturday. I thought you might like some of the teaching to encourage your journey through Lent.

Ignatius and praying the Bible. 

Try Ignatius of Loyola‘s approach to praying the Bible through imagination and entering into a deeper connection with God as a result.

Matthew 19:13-15 – Jesus and the children

Allow twenty to thirty minutes for the exercise.

  1. As the passage is read for the first time, try to hear it as if it is fresh and new—as if you are hearing it for the first time. Read Mt. 19:13-15 slowly
  2. As the passage is read for the second time, enter in to the event Place yourself as a child in the scene as it is read. Read passage again in a slow, meditative manner
  3. Answer the following questions: How do you feel as you walked through the crowd? Are you warm? Do you feel a breeze? Can you feel the hand of your parent or adult as you walk toward Jesus? What do you hear? Birds? Animal sounds? The voice of Jesus? The disciples trying to send you away? What do you smell? Is it a dusty day? Can you smell the animals? The body odor of the crowd? What do you see? Can you see the legs of the people in front of you? Can you see Jesus? The other children?
  4. Go to Jesus and hear him tell the disciples that he wants to be with you
  5. Climb up in the lap of Jesus or sit beside him and let him embrace you
  6. Experience the deep love that is offered to you a. Let it wash over you and rest in the places that you are experiencing some type of emotional pain Let it be a balm to the rejection or abandonment that you have experienced Let it be to you the love that you desire, yet have never experienced to this extreme. Rest in that love for a while
  7. If you want to talk with Jesus, you may
  8. Otherwise, just sit and let Jesus embrace you.

Morton Kelsey and the prayer of waking dreams

Try Morton’s Kelsey’s explanation of imaging prayer.

In The Other Side of Silence (and elsewhere), Morton Kelsey pointed out that when we are still, images will appear naturally, as they do in our dreams. There is a vast, mostly unexplored territory in our unconscious, that impacts us deeply. It is a territory where God is much needed and very available. We can follow the revelations in our literal dreams or our waking dreams, listen to them, and find meaning in what they reveal about our deep places where God is relating to us Spirit to spirit. On the way to being quiet, we will need to dismiss many distractions. But we can recognize deeper images that arise from a place where we are communing with God.

Pay attention! It’s Lent.

Last week our pastors focused on the definitive story of Lent: Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. We are in the thick of our own wilderness right now. We are emulating the Lord’s forty days of development before he launched into redeveloping creation. Mark succinctly recounts what happened:

The Spirit sent him out into the wilderness,  and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Has been in desert - Vasily Polenov
Vasily Polenov, 1909

The pastors are trying to get us to make the journey with Jesus. I am taking their lead.

Along the way, I have been struck, again, that Jesus deliberately attends to the process of his suffering and development in the wilderness and in the process he is attended to. A big theme is attention. The Spirit drives the Lord into the wilderness and he submits to the necessity. He turns his attention to that empty space. Sure enough, the devil presents the deepest temptations that might deter him. He learns to defeat them, is ministered to by angels and returns to claim his place in the world and participate in the miracle of redemption. We need to pay attention to the Lord paying attention. We need Lent every year so we can begin to scratch the surface of the deep movement he endures that is also moving in us — and attend to it.

One of the big temptations Lent presents is whether we are going to attend to it at all. It is better if we decide to move with the Spirit, if we give our attention and so learn to be generally attentive to God. But just being around Lent has a tendency to develop us anyway.

For instance, last week a friend called me with some significant feelings about what was going on in the church this season. I finally said, “You are experiencing Lent. The feelings and thoughts you have are exactly what people attending to Lent experience. Great!” He wasn’t too sure I should be celebrating his difficult feelings. But he eventually realized I had discerned the situation fairly well. He felt better.

Likewise, the other night I had a dream that woke me up as I screamed at some dark presence that frightened me. I realized that whether I attended to my inner life during the day or not, when I was less-defended in the night my dreams might try to wake me up to attend to the movement inside me. Whether I wanted to be aware or not, something was happening.

The biggest temptation of Lent might be to not pay attention to the temptation, or to avoid the circumstances in which we might have to deal with something — to pretend we are not moved by the Spirit, not looking toward a new expression of our gifts and mission, or not attended to by God, sought and loved.

The thought of deliberately turning our attention to something deep or hard just seems exhausting to many of us, and for good reason. We are naturally limited, and if we don’t rely on God and others to have a life, we will quickly be overwhelmed.

This reality surfaced again last week when I contacted the Leadership Team (30 great people, thank God!) to find out what communications they gave their attention. I sent a survey out after the iced-out Imaginarium and over half of them filled it out that night! That is some good attending! Others took a couple of days to get to the email and then the survey. But all in all I felt attended to and found them to be attentive.

I learned a lot from the process: risking a test to see who would respond, daring to find out things I might not want to know, imposing on people who have to make an effort to connect, etc. The process was unwittingly Lentish and good. A few things:

  1. We have a good, growing Leadership Team. Thank God! We need them to keep growing. They have a lot to which to attend and they need to be good at it.
  2. Attending is hard. If you write an email to your team member, you need them to answer it or there is no team. Some of the people I polled can’t read email at work. They might read it first on their phone and realize they’ll need to sit down at a computer later. But they come home to the needs of their house and maybe a baby or two. Plus they are tired. It is hard to keep up.
  3. If someone does not attend, the system brings up the rest of its inadequacies to make sure they are noticed. It is a bit like my dream. What is unattended is going to find a way to make itself known. You might think other people are making up for your lack of attention, and that might be true at times. But more likely, you are more important than you admit and your inattention is creating trouble. That trouble will make itself known.

You undoubtedly relate to all this. Attending to people we love is hard for all of us. That is astonishing, but it is true. We are so limited, we might feel put upon by the need to love God or the ones who love us! — much more those we don’t know yet, or our enemies! A simple email can make us feel like we are in the wilderness with wild beasts!

I am not sure Jesus was completely conscious of what he would face in the wilderness when the Spirit drove him into the first Lent. Like we need, he needed to have courage to attend to whatever was coming. His attention to his Father and his true self is a great example for us. Not attending like Him will deform us. Our avoidance won’t save us from having to face what we fear, as we hope it might; our fear will find a way to dominate it unless attending to Love casts it out.

One way or the other, we’ll meet up with our temptations. We’ll be inexplicably mad at those dearest to us. Or our dreams will be disturbed. Or we will be the problem in the functioning of our team. Or something. I think we would like to never be led into temptation, like the Lords’ prayer has us pray. But chances are we can’t avoid it and we will need to learn how to be delivered from evil, as in the very next breath of the same prayer. We are in the middle of being delivered right now. Lent is helping us to see what it is in us, as individuals and the church, that needs God’s help and teaching us how to participate in our deliverance – for some of us, whether we want to see or learn or not! Some of us are leaning into it with Jesus. Some of us are learning to sort out what we attend to like the demands are wild beasts meeting us in the desert! Either way, we are driven by the Spirit to get ready for what is next. I think giving what attention we can muster is our crucial part.

Introduction to Lent.

This year’s Lent theme from Circle of Hope’s pastors: Lent theme: not for nothingHere is the first of four posts I collected to help people who are less-experienced with the discipline season called “Lent.” It begins tomorrow with “Ash Wednesday.”

Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

These are a few basic thoughts distilled from our Ash Wednesday ritual. Lent begins on February 10 this year.

Slow down

We need silence to find the spiritual place where Jesus is with us in our suffering and we are with Jesus in his suffering. Lent is the season of silence and solitude — and suffering. Some people will even “give something up” to cause some small suffering to make some space where they can experience something more than their usual anesthesia, avoidance or denial. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our yearly, disciplined journey of repentance and renewal, the beginning of the concentrated season of self-denial and self-giving that feels like suffering but points us toward joy.  Wednesday we enter the great forty-day fast with millions of other Jesus followers – those living and those who have gone before. God bless you as you take your steps along the way of Jesus this year!

The interior journey too
The interior journey too

Let’s go as slowly as possible. We need to be quiet, thoughtful, and restful. We must not be impatient. We must not worry if we don’t feel or understand things right away — there are no expectations of Lent except that we seek after Jesus, explore the meaning of his death, and die with him. Paul shares our goal: I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Lent in not the imposition of some demanding God, but it might feel like it, since in solitude God’s presence will be compelling. One of Job’s friends has it right when he says: God is wooing us from the jaws of distress into a spacious place free from restriction. Let’s see how much we can cooperate.


Examine yourself; admit the truth about yourself to God; sense the conviction of God’s Spirit pointing out what is self-destructive or what amounts to an alliance with evil. Lent begins with an honest self-assessment. We pause to consider whether we have strayed from home, whether we have gone our own way, whether we are squandering our inheritance, whether we are feeding pigs in some way. The discipline of Lent dares us to be aware of our prodigal sides. We are looking for an awakening like the child in the Lord’s parable: “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

We consider whether our lives sadden the One who gave them. When Paul teaches us about sin he says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Do not break God’s heart. Do not break up with God, who loves you. Do not turn your back on your lover. Do not live in fear as if you are not loved. Do not hold on to condemnation when you are freed from it. Do not violate the Spirit of love. Ash Wednesday is all about seeing God’s grief and sharing it. Lent is a season for turning back to love and rebuilding it.


We have become so unrelated in the world today that the early church rituals like those associated with Lent: ashes on our foreheads, fasting, communal spiritual disciplines all seem quaint to many of us. People of the past seem so tied up with God and one another! They were not anonymous or autonomous. They did not keep their distance. They did not know how to be absently virtual.

mourning, transforming black pines
mourning, transforming black pines

For instance, it is said that very early in the history of the church, it had become a regular practice to have people who had been caught up in serious sin to come to the community of the church seeking a way to re-enter the fellowship in good conscience for the main celebration of the year: Resurrection Sunday (Easter). They would be sprinkled with ashes and then sent off in “exile” from the church, “into the wilderness” with God – sent off with the expectation that they would be restored. Their forty-day period of repentance was called their “quarantine,” from the Latin for forty. It soon became common for friends to come with the penitents to receive ashes in solidarity with them and to express the truth that we are all sinners. The leadership of the church finally saw the wisdom in what was going on and encouraged everyone to repent and fast in preparation for the resurrection. By 1050 a pope had made it a requirement.

It makes sense to use this tradition as one with all the other Christians throughout history who have gotten the same point: we need a time to be sick with sin and to get well, to let ourselves experience the grief of being separated, the desperation of our sorrow, the difficulty of having been far away in sin. We need to hope to be restored by Easter. We need to get into the truest story there is: we are the child of the grieving father; we were dying; we need to come back to life. The essence of the discipline of Ash Wednesday is to acknowledge that sin, brokenness and oppression. The call is: Remember from dust you are and to dust you will return.

We are so disconnected from nature and the seasons of the year nowadays! Even in a hard winter we expect to get our unseasonal fruits and vegetables, to travel without restriction, to go about our business as if nothing is happening, surrounded by our artificial environments. The people of the past seem so primitive, forced to live according to the changes around them.

Moving the couch toward the Lent bonfire
Moving the couch toward the bonfire

For instance, in the villages of medieval Europe it was common to mark the beginning of Lent with a huge bonfire in the village square. The fuel for the fire was all the detritus left over in everyone’s house after people were cooped up all winter. In any number of ways people would use the fire to symbolize that winter was soon to be over, the fire was a statement of passion in direct confrontation to the numbness of the cold. It was time to look forward to spring.

Simple, physical symbols like that help us on our spiritual journey through time. Lent is a yearly season for spring cleaning. Ash Wednesday is the day to light the bonfire to burn what needs to be cleaned out. May your garbage be turned to ash. May we rise from our ashes. May we be transformed in a furnace of God’s Spirit burning in us and refining us. May sunrise come to your heart and spring touch your bitterness.

Let something burn. Let it go. Be freed. Be received. Use Lent for spiritual housecleaning. Turn around and remember who you are. Let yourself go. Let something grow. Let the consuming fire of God’s Spirit transform you. Have a vision of what can be.

Go slow. Begin with reflection – the Holy Spirit will help you. Proceed with imagination —  Jesus has made us each a new person.

Other Posts about Lent:
Lent Did It’s Job

At times, I felt a little guilty, because my self-imposed suffering was bearing delectable fruit: some of it tasted new and some of it tasted of well-loved flavors I had been missing. Meanwhile, some people were blowing off the discipline…for what? At times I felt like I was having a feast while strangely invisible to starving people.

Survival vs. Lent

All this makes me wonder if Lent will be ignored this year because we’re too busy surviving the way we do when we are not living.

Lent, the Teen Whisperer, and Skins

It seemed like people were into it. But given the typical attention-span of most of us, it will probably take an uninitiated person about five years to understand what is going on during the season of Lent. I hope they stick around that long. A lot is going on.

For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. Some of us long for Ash Wednesday all year, this is for those who don’t.

Even though the discipline of imitating Christ’s 40-day fast is an old one, each year it is new, as well. Because each year we are called out into the wilderness as a year-different person than we were the previous year: a year wiser or a year weaker, a year more mature or a year more undone.

As a new person who is the “I am” we are right now,
we are called out to meet the “I am” who is God.

We go in search of our true selves as we meet the one who makes us new and whole in a whole new way.

light in clearing

Every year we gather around the communion table to share the Lord’s death so we can share in his resurrection. It is just as mysterious as Paul describes it to the Philippians in the letter to them:

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

When Jesus, the great “I am,” welcomes us to the table, some of us will not want to go. This post is for you.  

Continue reading For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

These are a few basic thoughts distilled from our Ash Wednesday ritual. Lent begins on March 5 this year.

Slow down

We need silence to find the spiritual place where Jesus is with us in our suffering and we are with Jesus in his suffering. Lent is the season of silence and solitude — and suffering. Some people will even “give something up” to cause some small suffering to give space where they can experience something more than their usual anesthesia, avoidance or denial. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our yearly, disciplined journey of repentance and renewal, the beginning of the concentrated season of self-denial and self-giving that feels like suffering but points us toward joy  Wednesday we enter the great forty-day fast with millions of other Jesus followers – those living and those who have gone before. God bless you as you take your steps along the way of Jesus this year!

The interior journey too
The interior journey too

Let’s go as slowly as possible. We need to be quiet, thoughtful, and restful. We must not be impatient. We must not worry if we don’t feel or understand things right away — there are no expectations of Lent except that we seek after Jesus, explore the meaning of his death, and die with him. Paul shares our goal: I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Lent in not the imposition of some demanding God, but in solitude God’s presence will be compelling. One of Job’s friends has it right when he says: God is wooing us from the jaws of distress into a spacious place free from restriction. Let’s see how much we can cooperate.

Continue reading Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

Faith in the Land of Food Glut

This past week I heard an interesting juxtaposition of comments (maybe veiled criticisms) that made me think that I just might understand Jesus better than I used to.

One person said, “Our church is really good at Lent. But we aren’t that great at joy.” I think they meant that we can relate to being morose and remorseful, we can do pensive and self-critical, but we have a tough time letting loose and being happy. Maybe.

Another person was pondering out loud and said, “Having a pile of goodies as part of worship is a new twist. Gluttony as praise.” He was referring to our weekly invitation to get our taste buds involved in receiving the sweetness of resurrection. One week we had a pile of strawberries littered with chocolates. But he must have been there the week we had a big pile of homemade cookies. Were we encouraging the behavior that makes many of us so food-obsessed and fat? Maybe.

Isn’t it great that people are thinking deep thoughts and not all watching Iron Man 3?

Can one feast or fast in a food glut?

Their comments reminded me of what people said to Jesus. On the one hand, his disciples were aghast at what he said to the rich young man he sent away. When Jesus told them it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom they wondered “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10). Jesus seemed extremely serious and downright austere. The kingdom is a perpetual fast?

One the other hand, people thought John the Baptist was tough, but they thought Jesus was a party boy, in comparison. John seemed like perpetual Lent and Jesus looked like a glutton and a drunkard, eating and drinking with tax collectors and other people on the outs (Luke 7). Jesus seemed committed to joy and freedom and on the edge of being immoral with the immoral. The kingdom is a perpetual feast?

fat-cow-loginFeasting is such a problem for us Americans. We live in a food glut, so we never kill the fatted calf, we decide upon which fatted calf we will eat today.* The vast majority of us have never been hungry and don’t know anyone who has been hungry, ever (even though they are still out there, people: in Philadelphia and in the world). I think many of my plump friends looked at a plate of cookies on the “altar” and it looked like it was mocking them. They’ve eaten so many cookies, they stopped tasting their sweetness ages ago. Food is like a burden they carry. They are always loaded with it, trying in vain to get rid of what’s hanging on them. They can’t feast, just feed at the immense trough.

But fasting is such a problem, too. We live in such a food glut that we are always eating the fatted calf, we have cow factories devoted to providing them at low cost. When we fast we tend to give up the cherry on our perpetual sundae, or go on a brief diet. We can’t get away from excess even if we try. Yesterday, I went to a breakfast meeting, a potluck for Cinco de Mayo (with excellent chips), and two further meetings laden with surfeit snacks! If we endure a season of Lent we think our morose behavior is extraordinary and we long to get back to our sunny diversions — the ones that make Jesus look like such a downer.

Life beyond the perpetual questions

Since we are on the subject. Just sayin'
Since we are on the subject. Just sayin’

I think most of us have been well-trained to live in the quandary I just set up. The people who supplied my original motivation were doing the same thing. There are always the opposing thoughts in any argument or situation and we think our job is to live in the compromised middle of them. We tend to be afraid to move this way or that because there is always that other argument. Does Jesus call us rich people to give it all up, or is he feasting with us sinners and freeing us from condemnation? And there we go again in some endless dialectic.

It seems to me that if all we are talking about are the applied definitions of “fast” and “feast” we are liable to sit around feeling critical of strange things that happen in worship meetings. But strangely hidden in the scriptures that seem so opposite is another approach to listening to God that is not about applying static principles.** Just like the Christian year moves from fasting to feasting along with the seasons of creation, understanding the revelation in Jesus is a journey, a trusting movement through time.

In the Mark 10 passage where the disciples are amazed at how hard Jesus seems to be on the rich man, Jesus is just suggesting a journey. The man needs to move through the “eye of the needle.” Likewise, the disciples need to leave and move with Jesus into eternal life.In the Luke 7 passage where Jesus is accused of being a glutton, it is all about people going out to see John and coming to Jesus, and Jesus going into the marketplace and making relationships. I think both passages are happening along the journey, during which there are days of fasting and suffering and there are days of feasting and joy. It all works out in the purpose of God and in the love we are sharing, not in the appropriate application of good theology, alone.

Faith is a daily matter of trusting God along the journey. Sometimes we can’t make perfect sense of it all. For instance, I went out to dinner twice this weekend. On Friday I went to Harvest at 40th and Walnut, where I had a delicious pork chop and plate with just enough calories on it. The next night I was hungry again and ended up at Tandoor where I had two heaping plates of my favorite dishes from the buffet. I felt a bit guilty after I ate all that food at the wanton Tandoor, like I had betrayed the morality of the austere Harvest. Today I have convinced myself that it is all part of the journey in the land of food glut. I was criticizing myself like people criticized Jesus – and I was, indeed, better at that. But I also really enjoyed all that saag paneer and the pakora, too – and I am letting myself experience that sweetness.

* More on simplicity skills here: link.
**More about not just applying the principles here: link