Rocks

20170408_150421_001Rocks. All shapes, all sizes. They’re everywhere here in New England. From the rock-bound coast of Maine to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Green Mountains of Vermont, rocks are familiar residents of this part of the world. And while tourists may come from other climes to admire them, they’ve more often been colorfully cursed by the farmers who had to wrestle them out of their pastures and fields. Despite their occasional picturesque configurations, rocks are most often regarded as useless obstructions to some useful endeavor – God’s ugly waste-products from an otherwise beautiful and fertile creation. All the rocks we see built into walls, foundations and fireplaces are not so much a testimony to an appreciation of rocks’ utility, as a pragmatic and inexpensive way of disposing of these unwanted blemishes on the landscape.

Tomorrow, Christians around the world will observe Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. The Gospels all report that it was a festive occasion, as his followers and admirers celebrated his arrival. In Luke’s account of this event, Jesus’ critics feel that such boisterous demonstration might provoke a repressive Roman response, and they demand that he restrain them. He responds by saying, “‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” (Luke 19:40)20170301_082645_001

Luke’s gospel is the only one to mention this brief reference to rocks, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Jesus’ critics feel that his followers are making a big mistake – a dangerous one that could have serious consequences. But Jesus refuses to condemn the enthusiastic crowd, and instead, insists that if they were silent, even the lowly, worthless stones beside the road would celebrate for them. As a result, he seems to be inviting us to reflect on our own “stone-like” qualities. We often feel more like rocks than human beings. When we make a bad decision that has negative consequences for ourselves and others, we can easily feel like an ugly, useless rock sitting exposed in the field. We feel like we don’t belong there, and that everyone would be happier without us. Losing a job, betraying a spouse, disappointing our family can all leave us feeling as useless, lifeless and helpless as a rock beside the road. Aging can also prompt us to feel more like a sedentary obstacle than like the dynamic, productive and energetic person we once were.

But no matter how rock-like we may feel, Jesus reminds us that we are not without value. Failures, mistakes, disabilities and social isolation characterized the lives of most of the people Jesus ministered to over the course of his life, redeeming, empowering, healing and resurrecting the lives of those regarded (by themselves and others) as useless stones beside the road of Life. He showed us how, whatever our circumstances, we can be transformed into something great and glorious. Regardless of our reputation or social status, God can still build us into something beautiful and enduring.

20170407_153613In our current society, where productivity and utility are dominant values, this truth can be easily overlooked. But we are part of a larger Reality in which even the stones are blessed! We aren’t alone, but part of a magnificent construction designed by a Power beyond our control. Can you catch a glimpse of it? Can you hear the stones singing and shouting around you? Can you feel the rocks in your soul beginning to tremble and come to life? If so, wonderful! But if not, please remember that a Spiritual Director may be able to help.

The Great Detective

imag1044I’m a fan of British detective shows. I like them partly because they tend to be character-driven instead of action-driven. They also tend to focus more apprehending the criminal by understanding the perpetrator’s motives rather than on destroying the evil-doer by any means possible. As a result, the cases are solved more often by outwitting the villain than on subduing him/her through violence. And since there is always an abundance of possible suspects, all somehow involved in questionable sexual and/or financial activities, the stories imply that few of us are as morally pure as we’d like to think we are.

These shows tend to have several distinct parts: THE CRIME, THE PURSUIT, and THE APPREHENSION. The first and third parts are relatively short and straight-forward. The bulk of the action takes place in the second part, as the tenacious detectives collect and examine evidence, discover clues, conduct multiple interviews, develop a plausible narrative, and ultimately identify their prime suspect. It is this evolving process of unraveling the mystery that makes each episode appealing and worth watching. The more complex and inscrutable the mystery, the more we’re captivated by it. We can’t resist seeing someone make sense out of something that initially seems so totally baffling.

20170306_151809Perhaps the reason these detective shows intrigue us is because they parallel our own spiritual struggles so closely. On some deep level, we all have a sense that a crime has been committed against us. Whether we think it was God or our parents or some other culprit who victimized us, we feel that we have been unjustly deprived of something essential for our physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being. In some way, our lives feel broken or incomplete. A sense of wholeness has been lost, and we can’t resist the impulse to solve the mystery and bring the criminal to justice.

At that point, the pursuit begins. Like intrepid detectives, we doggedly examine the evidence, look for clues, interview anyone who can enlarge our understanding and shed new light on the one(s) responsible for our current state. At times, the trail goes cold, and we fear that the mystery is unsolvable. But then, we get a break, and new clues appear and open up new avenues of inquiry.

Eventually, our detective work bears fruit. We get a lead to where our suspect resides. We catch a glimpse of a suspicious figure sneaking through the trees. The hooded figure steps out of the shadows, removes a mask, and finally, we see the criminal’s face. But just as on TV, the person we see before us is not who we expect. The face that is revealed to us . . . is our own! The one who has caused us such misery is none other than a part of ourselves that we have failed to recognize and embrace. The crime done to us was not the removal of something precious and irreplaceable, but rather it’s our self-inflicted blindness to the wholeness that is already ours. The wounds and experiences that we thought had diminished us turn out to be seeds that have born priceless fruit that we have not appreciated or utilized. The scene of the crime has become the cradle of blessing. Our vulnerability has become the vehicle of our salvation.

20170306_100139_001Our spiritual journey is not ultimately one in which we search and apprehend the Divine Mystery. Rather, as in Frances Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven,” it is God who ultimately pursues us with the patience of a tireless detective, not to judge, punish, or destroy us, but to open our blind eyes to the blessedness that is already ours. The task of a spiritual director is to persuade us to stop running away and let ourselves be caught.

Mud

20170228_082511_001I was in the parking lot of the grocery store on my way back to the car, when I found myself having trouble finding it. It hadn’t been stolen, and I hadn’t forgotten where I’d left it — I just had trouble recognizing it. The previous week of warm weather had resulted in so much mud and slush on the roads that my car had changed color from all the grime. Even the green license plate had become a nondescript beige.

The day was sunny and the roads were now dry, so I decided it was time to head for the carwash across town. But as I got there, my heart sank. A lot of other people were similarly inspired. The line of cars was backed up all the way out to the road. There were at least a dozen cars ahead of me. For a moment, I considered leaving and coming back next week, but the weather is so unpredictable this time of year that I decided to stay and wait my turn. Needless to say, it gave me a lot of time to think.

As I sat there, it occurred to me that the experience I was having was not unlike the spiritual journey many of us find themselves on. Our lives, just like our cars, occasionally need to be cleansed from the accumulated “mud” that we’ve picked up along Life’s way. Stress, illness, workplace disappointments, financial problems, losses (large or small) all leave their marks on our souls. Just as it’s hard to live in Vermont without ever having to drive on dirt roads, it’s hard to get through Life without hitting some rough, “muddy patches” along the way. Sooner or later, we find ourselves in need of a “spiritual carwash.”

Expect Temptation

20170308_152442_002But like my carwash experience, we’ll often be tempted to give up and go home prematurely. For various reasons, we conclude that there are too many obstacles standing in our way. Finding the cleansing we need will definitely require a commitment – a firm decision that it’s all worth the trouble. It requires a degree of discipline to get in line when there are so many more enjoyable things that we’d rather be doing. Are we ready to inconvenience ourselves or do we just want to go home and stay the way we are?

Be Patient

Once we decide to take that first important step, then we need to be prepared to wait. Slowing down from our hectic pace is essential. The line to the “spiritual carwash” moves slowly. We don’t usually reach our goal instantly. Having overcome our initial reticence, we now have time to anticipate the benefits that lie ahead of us. Just as washing a car not only improves its appearance but also increases its longevity, so our spiritual cleansing offers us release from the burdensome grit and grime that threatens our overall welfare. Spiritual practices don’t often bear their fruit overnight but emerge gradually over time. If we want the benefits of God’s cleansing, then we have to be willing to wait to see the results. In that sense, waiting is an act of faith.

Select Wash Options

20170303_080648_001Once we finally are ready to enter the carwash, we have to decide what type of wash cycle to use. Will it be just a light, superficial wash, or one that cleans the undercarriage as well? Will we be satisfied with removing surface dirt, or will we also want to prolong the cleaning with a coat of wax?

Will our spiritual cleansing be quick drive-through experience, or will we expose the unseen and unseemly parts of ourselves to the cleansing waters? That decision is often harder to make than we expect. But it’s a decision that will make a big difference in the long run.

Get Washed

The same is true spiritually. We don’t cleanse ourselves but put ourselves in a position to let the Divine Mystery have its way with us. We don’t like to admit that it’s something that we can’t do for ourselves, but it’s true. (We’ve tried, and if that had worked, we wouldn’t need to be here today . . . but obviously, we do!) And even though we’re just sitting there, the change we see afterward is dramatic!

Repeat . . . Often

20170228_083328_001Of course, this cleansing won’t last forever. We’ll drive through the mud again and eventually need to repeat the process. (Here in Vermont, that will probably be sooner rather than later!)

The same is true with our spiritual lives. Life happens. Mud happens. God happens. The Divine carwash stands ready to get us back on the road again in much better condition than before. It makes the next stage of the journey much more enjoyable for us and for others. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. Visit your local “spiritual carwash” today!

Tracks and Trails

20170221_083112_001If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you already know how fascinated I am by the tracks of animals I see around my house. I get a thrill from these visible signs of the beings that surround me every day, even though I usually never actually see more than a passing glimpse of them in the flesh. The marks of their silent, ghost-like passage help me remember that my life is part of a much bigger reality than I can see or understand.

As I see these animal tracks in the snow or dirt, I can’t help but wonder where these creatures came from and went. Although they converge at common food sources, they come from many different directions and diverge in an equally diverse manner. They never seem to come or go by retracing their previous footsteps, as if their paths and destinations were constantly changing. (I’m sure that some naturalist can explain the mysterious movements of my nocturnal visitors for me, but that’s not the point of this reflection.)

Each time I see these animal trails, as fascinating as they are, they can only tell me something about the past, not about the present or future. At some point, these animals stand before an unmarked trail and have to decide which way to go from there. Perhaps their previous food source has been depleted and they have to explore new places. Perhaps a predator chases them into unfamiliar territory. Or perhaps they simply decide to wander aimlessly in a new direction, hoping to make some fortuitous discovery.

20170225_072507_005Although we humans have a greater tendency to follow familiar paths, well-trodden by ourselves and others, we too eventually come to open fields, steep hills, or dark valleys where familiar paths no longer exist. A serious illness, the loss of a job, the birth of a child can all leave us pondering our next tentative steps into uncharted territory. At such a time, our previous experience may not be enough to guide us forward. Others may offer us their advice, but ultimately we must listen to the voice of our own soul to guide us where to go from here. Such moments can feel both terrifying and exhilarating. We afraid of taking a misstep, but also feel excited by the chance to blaze a new trail. We are afraid of letting go of the familiar, but simultaneously feel liberated to make a new beginning.

Such turning points are not always forced upon us by external circumstances, but may also arise from within. Burnout, boredom or a new flash of spiritual insight may lead us to set out in a new direction. And while such shifts can be sudden and dramatic, more often they take place slowly, with only slight adjustments at any one time. But then, when we look back on the path we’ve traveled, we realize the significant turn our lives have taken.

20170225_072553_001Often the inertia of our movement in a familiar direction is out of sync with the inner impulses and longings that arise from within. It may take us some time to become aware of that tension and to make the necessary changes to realign our inner and outer worlds. This reintegration is an inherently spiritual process. There is a Wholeness – an Integrity – that whispers to all of us. The question is whether we are ready, willing, and able to hear it. That is the point where a Spiritual Guide can help to sharpen our awareness of what that Voice is saying. It’s not about doctrines or abstract ideas, but about where the “rubber” of the inner life of your Spirit meets the “road” of your outer life. And as much as I enjoy the trails of the wild animals around my house, I enjoy even more following the tracks of God in the lives of those willing to seek them!

Sugaring

20170219_074050_001With the recent arrival of warm days and cool nights, my neighbors were out opening their tap lines on their sugar maple trees to begin this year’s sugaring season. As I watched them check their lines and prepare their collection tanks, I was struck by some of the similarities between sugaring and the process of spiritual development.

Tapping

The process of producing maple syrup begins with tapping the trees. It involves driving a small metal tube through the outer bark of the tree to allow the tree’s sap to flow out and be collected. Done properly, the tapping doesn’t harm the tree but allows some of its sugar-rich “lifeblood” to be used for a special purpose. This small “wound” to the tree opens a way for the tree to share its life and share itself with the world.

In a similar way, our spiritual development is also usually stimulated by some sort of wound. Whether it is an outward trauma such as an illness or tragic loss, or whether it’s more of an eruption of the Life Force within us that causes an opening in the protective “bark” of our lives, a process is set in motion that will eventually touch the lives of those around us. Such “tapping” is often an uncomfortable experience since it won’t let us continue to be comfortable, self-contained units, isolated from the larger world around us. But just as donating blood can involve a painful prick and a temporary loss of our most precious bodily fluid, it also makes it possible for wonderful blessings to take place in the lives of others that we may never see.

Collecting

The20170218_143051 raw sap that pours from the tapped trees must be carefully collected. It takes between 20 and 50 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup. Therefore, each drop of raw sap is extremely precious and shouldn’t be wasted.

Likewise, the experiences – both pleasant and unpleasant – that have shaped the course of our lives also need to be treated as precio20170221_082315_001us and to be carefully collected. This doesn’t mean wallowing in our painful moments or longing for the return of “the good old days.” Nor does it mean repressing things that we’d rather not remember. Rather, it means accepting the full range of events that have shaped our journey, convinced that God has used all these things to bring about a marvelous alchemical transformation.

Boiling

The final, crucial step in turning sap into syrup involves boiling the sap in large pans over a hot fire. Boiling (also known as “sugaring off”) is a process that can’t be rushed. It takes time. Only by lowering the water content of the sap is the goal of this procedure achieved (not to mention producing the most heavenly smell in and around the sugar house!)

And here again, this process parallels that of our spiritual journeys. All the experiences that we’ve collected over the course of a lifetime need to be boiled long enough to bring out their spiritual sweetness. That can sometimes take a lot of boiling. Depending on our age and the nature of our experiences, it may take a lot of time and work to turn the raw sap into syrup. But the time and effort needed are definitely worth it. Every life carries within it the capacity of blessing others with incomparable sweetness and flavor. It may also be a blessing to us to know how much our lives can contribute to the enjoyment of others.

It is in this boilin20170219_075349g down stage that spiritual direction can be most helpful. While it can assist in the tapping and collecting phases as well, it’s in the boiling stage that it can offer its greatest benefit. The range and intensity of experience collected may feel overwhelming. It may be difficult to know where to start. A Spiritual  Director can help us to know where to focus our attention. The time it takes to do the work may often seem boring and tedious. A Spiritual Director can provide encouragement, support, and the assurance that the work is not in vain.

But perhaps the most wonderful part of all is the otherworldly fragrance that arises from our spiritual “boiling,” much as it does from a sugar house. As we engage in distilling the spiritual “syrup” of our lives, an intangible but unmistakable change in the atmosphere around us occurs. Some will say that we give off a different “vibe” or “aura.” The apostle Paul described it as the “aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15). But whatever language you may use to describe it, I invite you to begin this process of “spiritual sugaring.” You (and those around you) will be glad you did!

Signs

My wife 20170215_163708and I recently returned from a trip out of state. During our time away, nearly a foot of snow had fallen, and the tracks of the animals that had visited in our absence were clearly visible. We often see signs of the deer who swing by almost nightly to see what they can find beneath our apple trees. But this time, the house was literally surrounded by tracks of various kinds and sizes. The fact that our dog wasn’t around to alarm them meant that the wildlife came much closer to the house than usual, giving the distinct impression that we are in the presence of other beings that most of the time are invisible to us. Deer, foxes, cats, dogs, coyotes, chipmunks, turkeys, bears and squirrels all flow around us like a river of vitality that is only rarely seen and appreciated. Despite our endless efforts to make plans and control the circumstances of our lives, there remains a mysterious “wildness” that stands much closer to us than we realize.

 

For many of us, that “mysterious wildness” we sense seems much too close and threatening. Whether it’s medical issues, financial problems, political dysfunction, or the creeping onslaught of age that dog our footsteps, it rarely occurs to us that an even greater and wilder Mystery also walks beside us and is tender, loving and benevolent. The great spiritual leaders of various traditions continually remind us that such a Mystery is nearer to us than anything that might frighten or harm us. Rather than signs of danger, the footprints in the snow need to remind us of the One who comes looking for us, wanting to be our intimate Companion and to delight us with the sense of being part of something much larger than ourselves.

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* * *

Several days later, I was sitting facing a window that looked out on an open field that led up to a wooded hill about 100 yards behind the house. Suddenly, something caught my eye, and I wasn’t sure at first what it was. Then, looking more carefully, I saw three deer slowly making their way across the tree line. With their dark winter coats and slender limbs, they were almost invisible against the rocks, saplings and young trees behind them. Although it was early afternoon, there they were – creatures who usually walked near us only in shadows, but now visible to those with the eyes attentive enough to see them. My wife and I watched, transfixed, for nearly 30 minutes as they graced us with their gentle presence.

For me, this was a reminder that the Mysterious Presence which usually walk20170218_075106_001s among us unseen, can be revealed to those who are ready and willing to see something more than what they’ve come to expect. Such vision, while surprising, is not disturbing, but rather conveys a profound sense of wonder, peace, and reverence for the beauty of Life. The essence of our spiritual journey is to prepare ourselves to not only recognize belatedly the tracks of the One who walks beside us when our attention was focused elsewhere but to also be prepared to appreciate those holy moments when Divinity is revealed directly. And as any Spiritual Director will tell you, those revelations are much more frequent than you might expect, especially once your spiritual eyesight has grown accustomed to the Light that shines amid the shadows.

What About Worship?

In20170204_081819_001 my last post, I described a spiritually-based approach to revitalizing religious institutions. I suspect that some who read that article were surprised (or even appalled!) by the fact that I made no mention of corporate worship. I know from experience that some religious institutions consider it their primary mission to offer public worship to their local communities. That purpose is often explicitly stated in their By-Laws or constituting documents. Nevertheless, my failure to mention worship as a central part of the spiritual renewal of religious institutions was not an oversight, but intentional. Having led weekly worship services for more than 40 years, I’m not saying that worship has no value. Following my retirement as a pastor, there were many things about the institutional church that I was happy to leave behind, but worship was not one of them. I continue to long for and participate in meaningful corporate worship.

But as important as worship may be, I’m convinced that it must be considered a secondary development to what I described in my previous article. While healthy spirituality will always have a certain social “magnetism” that draws us into loving relationships with others, we must never forget that it is the intimacy of each person’s relationship with the Divine that is foundational to the life of religious institutions. It is that relationship which forms the basis of every other relationship in a person’s life. That is why, as Jim Wallis has often said, “faith is always personal but never private.” But if a worship service becomes impersonal and routine, then the religious institution has lost its connection to the Source of its vitality.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens when traditions and rituals take the place of a personal experience of the Divine. Too often, worship services have become just a comforting, familiar routine instead of a deep response to a God that has already transformed the lives of the participants. For many, worship is more of a social event than a spiritual one. It’s as if someone decided to throw a party, and went to great lengths to decorate the room, set the table with the finest tablecloth, dishes, and silverware, and carefully select appropriate dinner music. But after making sure everything was in its proper place, failed to give any attention to the nutritional value of the meal to be served!

20170204_081755Corporate worship must emerge from the ways that we experience the Divine breaking into our everyday lives. Those are the events that unexpectedly hit us with such force that we are involuntarily drawn to share and celebrate them with friends and strangers alike. Such experiences will always be more than words alone can express, and we will need to use poetry, art, music and drama to convey how our minds, hearts, and bodies have all been affected. But whatever form those expressions initially take, they will need to continually evolve on the basis of the spontaneous ways we find ourselves encountering God in unexpected situations day by day.

Jesus, for instance, on the eve of Passover – the traditional observance of God’s liberation of Hebrews from slavery in Egypt – found the common mealtime process of sharing bread and wine offered a profound symbolism that could help his disciples experience a new kind of freedom in their own lives. His spontaneous words and actions have been remembered and reenacted ever since in the Christian sacrament variously known as “The Lord’s Supper,” “The Holy Eucharist,” or simply “Holy Communion.” But the value of that now-highly-stylized ritual can only be determined by the degree to which it enables us to access a God-given freedom from our own deepest fears and limitations.

Worship can never be taken for granted or allowed to calcify into anything less than a heartfelt response to an encounter with Divine Reality. Once it loses its ability to evoke the power of such personal experiences, we must return to the drawing board and rediscover them. (I described a process for doing that in my previous article.) Worship can enhance our personal experience of the Divine and enable us to share it, but it can never become a mechanical substitute for it!

Some may argue that corporate worship is where we go to discover God’s presence in our lives, but I doubt that it happens that way for most people. Rather, it’s because of what God has already been doing within us that makes it possible for worship to sharpen and intensify those experiences in ways that reconcile our differences and generates community. Moses, for example, was confronted by God in the Burning Bush long before he gave any thought to building a portable worship space or organizing a worship service. (Exodus 3). Likewise, the Hebrew people had to experience God’s power to set them free from slavery before they were motivated to worship together . . . and even then, their first attempt required some major modifications afterward! (Exodus 32)

20161228_owlThat’s why I believe that Spiritual Direction can be instrumental, not only for renewing the spiritual lives of individuals but also for renewing the vitality of corporate worship. It’s no secret that worship attendance is declining and is increasingly regarded as both meaningless and irrelevant. If those trends are ever going to change, it will not come from tinkering with the Order of Worship, but from deepening our spirituality and creating greater openness to Divine interventions in our everyday lives. Consequently, religious institutions (including both their present constituents and those they hope to reach) probably need the assistance of Spiritual Directors much more than they currently realize!