Friday, October 31, 2008

SSU October 30, 2008

This is the last of my four modules here at SSU. This has been, without a doubt, one of the most life-impacting events I have ever experienced. For one, it is the fulfillment of a life-long dream to go to school, to study in a challenging academic setting, to be exposed to ideas and thoughts beyond the normal boundaries of my life. That dream could not have been fulfilled in a more profound way.

For another, the personal work that God has accomplished in my life through this course has been nothing short of miraculous. In particular, this module He has spoken to me about some personal areas of my life in such a pointed, specific way that I believe I am moving into some areas of freedom and healing that I have been seeking for a long time. Time will tell if that is true or not.

Speaking of time, I want to close this series of writings with a poem that I received while here at St. Stephens. It is about the processes of life, the processes of change. It is a perfect description for me of these last two years of study at SSU.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally
impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability –
And that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually –
let them grow, let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

SSU October 29, 2008

It was pitch black. The storm clouds swallowed any moonlight there might have been. The wind was vicious. There wasn't much you could do but just hang on. There was almost no chance of controlling the boat. The will of the waves was reigning.

There was a level of desperation in the voice that hepled it pierce the thundering sound of a violent sea. "Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water." And the voice of peace replied, "Come."

What in the world was Peter thinking to request such a thing? I can come up with much better questions. "Lord, if it's you, stop the storm!" "Lord, if it's you, get in the boat with us!" But the sensible response was never heard. Instead, an insane request passes Peter's lips: "Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water!?"

Peter never seemed to me to be the sharpest tool in the shed. From one perspective, this incident reinforces that opinion, but another perspective has been unfolding in my heart. It is so natural in the time of crisis to seek God's intervention. Why didn't Peter do so? His request is not for intervention. He seems to be asking Jesus to take him from the frying pan to the fire! "Remove me from the relative safety of the boat and put me in an environment in which I have less control than I do right now." How much sense can that make?

Today God rephrased Peter's question for me. "Jesus, in this time of danger I want to be where you are but I can't get there. Will you help me? Lord, if it's you, tell me to come."

Where did this question come from? What possessed him in a time of crisis, a time of imminent danger, that he was willing to attempt the humanly impossible to get to Jesus? The question is not "Jesus come join us!" That seems the logical request seeing as Jesus was already walking on the water. No. Peter's desire was to get to Jesus, and Jesus' response was, "Come."

The question can be stated in other ways. Jesus, empower me to do something I can only do with your help. Jesus, I want to be like you but I can't without your help. Jesus, I want to do what you can do, but it's beyond my ability. Will you help me? Jesus' response? Come.

I'm not sure, in my stormy seasons, I have been asking the right questions or praying the right prayers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SSU October 28, 2008

It's been a wet day in St. Stephens, raining intermittently all day long. It was rather dark and gloomy. I haven't seen the sun all day...yet it was still there, obscured from my sight.

Just a few days after arriving in St. Stephens I received a call from home that our neighbor had been taken to the hospital. Testing revealed he had pancreatic cancer. It's hard to see God in a situation like that. Pancreatic cancer is almost always fatal, but we lifted our eyes and looked to the cloudy skies...and He was still there.

Our friend had surgery today at 2 pm. I just received a call. It was great news. The cancer was in early stages and confined. The surgeon believes he removed it all.

I can still hear the rain falling outside my bedroom window. It sounds so much better now than it did today. There's a nice sleeping rhythm to it. It feels like a gift...and it smells like life.

Quote of the Day
"For it is better for them to find you and leave the question unanswered
than to find the answer without finding you."
St. Augustine
The Confessions

Monday, October 27, 2008

SSU October 27, 2008

It was a breath-taking late-October day. The sky wasn’t just blue, it radiated blue. Several frosts had already prophesied the coming of winter and robbed some of the trees of their fall colors. The stubborn ones still held a weakening grip on their gold, yellow and orange. There was just enough crispness in the air to make you feel alive, but not enough to chill you. I was seated on the patio with twelve fellow students as we had accepted autumn’s irresistible invitation to hold our class outdoors. It was just too beautiful to stay inside.

In our last contemplative prayer class (last Thursday), we had practiced an exercise known as “stepping stones.” The goal of the exercise is to allow God, in a time of quiet meditation, to bring up a memory from our past, either recent or distant. We were then to permit God to give us his perspective of that event. We were to allow Him to tell us our story, rather than tell our story to Him. It’s a rather amazing experience. Our assignment over the weekend was to spend some additional time alone repeating this exercise and allowing God to expand on what He was already saying and doing in us.

Today we met again. We were to share with the group what we had experienced over the weekend. Prior to doing that, our spiritual director read the passage she has used as a theme throughout our time here. Joshua 1:3 “I will give you every place where you set your foot.” As she read it, I found God opening my heart to this passage in a way I had never experienced.

I clearly heard God tell me that my past, my memories, every event I had ever experienced, these were the places that I had walked upon, the places I had set my foot, and they were mine. They belonged to me. I owned them. One of the things we often mean when we say we “own” something is that we take responsibility for it. That is not what I mean in this instance. I mean I possess it. My memories were my memories. My experiences were my experiences. They belonged to me.

As these thoughts were racing through my mind, I felt something happening in me. Though I was not yet clear about the implications of what I was hearing, they were nevertheless having an impact upon me. I literally felt something changing inside of me. It seemed as if I had been internally seated and I was slowly standing up.

I shared my thoughts with the group. I did it a little reluctantly as I was not able to articulate it like I was feeling it and I did not yet know what it really meant. I shared it anyway. As others began to share around the circle, some of them began to refer back to what I said. They reported that when I spoke the words impacted them. One person said something exploded in them. Another relayed that they immediately began to look at their past differently.

It was clear that something was happening to others in the group. As each one spoke, it seemed that my understanding increased. I owned the moments of my past, they did not own me. Because I owned them, they did not have power over me, I had power over them. As the minutes passed, it was clearer and clearer that something was shifting inside of me. God was taking me to a place I had been seeking but hadn’t been able to find. I did not belong to those moments in my past, those moments belonged to me. I could do with them what I wanted.

In some ways, I had become a victim of those moments. Though they had occurred many years in the past, I was still attempting simply to survive them. Today…that all changed.

At this writing, I do not yet know the extent of what has happened to me. I have tried in the previous paragraphs to articulate it but feel woefully short of having done so. However, the attempt at this point is important. My sense is that as I continue my attempts to explain it that it will continue to unfold for me.

The real test is yet to come. I am returning home this next Friday. I will walk back into the challenges of life that are mine to live right now. As I live them, I will either be different or I won’t. No one will have to tell me which of those is true. I will, without a shadow of doubt, know. If my experience today was any indication, I am excited at the prospects.

As we closed our prayer time today, I realized that owning my past affected how I viewed my future. There was an anticipation brewing in me regarding my moments yet to be lived. I have a feeling that I will experience them in a dramatically different way than I ever thought possible. They haven’t happened yet…and I already own them!

Friday, October 24, 2008

SSU October 24, 2008

One of the things that we have done this week in our counseling class (the subject is the Addictive Life) is present a paper regarding our experience with addiction, either our own or someone elses. One of the students relayed to us that he had wanted to write something regarding himself, but was not sure what, if any, part of his life might fall into that category. One of his close friends had suggested to him that he should ask those who knew him best what that might be. When he did just that, they were able to share with him what they saw, something that was not evident to him.

Living in authentic community has many benefits. One of them is highlighted by this student's experience. We need community to find out who we really are. We cannot accurately self-assess. We cannot, without bias, receive a complete picture of ourselves from God. We see ourselves through a lens and we hear God's voice concerning us through a filter. We can’t even be who we are outside of community. It is in the context of community that our true self is discovered and released.

I don't mean to imply that we do not have an ability to see things about ourselves. We do have that ability. However, each of us have blind spots, those areas about which we are self-deceived. I don't mean to imply that we cannot hear from God about ourselves. We can and we do, but those same blind-spots become deaf-spots regarding some areas of our lives. Things concerning our attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of which we are totally unaware are very evident to the members of our community. I have no doubts that if we designed a questionaire whose object was to measure people's perspective regarding our life, if we than passed it out to ten of our best friends and insisted on total honesty, there is not a one of us that would not discover some things about ourselves that we were totally ignorant of. That is a remarkable gift the community can give to us if we will receive it.

Such a process is not entered into without risk, but risk is an unavoidable part of the equation. As Luke 19:26 states in The Message: "Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe and end up holding the bag." Left holding the bag is not where I want to wind up. The risk is worth the potential reward.

Quote of the Day
"He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself
becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may
be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Life Together

Thursday, October 23, 2008

SSU October 23, 2008

The time I spent this morning with the contemplative prayer group I am a part of for this module was probably the most profound time I have ever experienced in a group prayer context. You need to understand that contemplative prayer is not your typical petition/request sort of meeting that many of us grew up in. Contemplative prayer is a completely different animal. It's purpose is to encounter God in whatever ways God desires.

There are many ways to do that. Probably the most common is through scripture. This morning, in addition to scripture, we included a piece of music. After quietly waiting with Him in His word (Psalms 23) and the song, we took a time to share with the group the places He took us and the things He communicated to us.

Before each session, our spiritual director generally reminds us that we are to receive the things that each member of the group shares as a gift to us. In the past, I have experienced that to some degree but it was never more obvious or more profound than it was today. The stories of pain and healing, failure and triumph, weakness and fear were remarkable. They truly felt like gifts from the sharer. The vulnerability before the group was a gift in and of itself. The stories felt like treasures that were being entrusted to us for safe keeping. I really have no words to describe the privilege I felt to be present for the occasion.

An experience like that amazingly bonds you together. It seemed that there was some kind of divine linkage of hearts. I left the room a different person than I entered. I have been in and led many of these kinds of prayer times and have always been changed by the experience, but never so dramatically as today. The memories I take from today have become for me the stones of memorial, much like those gathered by Abraham, Issac and Jacob, erected to commemorate significant encounters with God.

In the second half of our meeting, we encountered God through events of our personal history. In our heart, we allowed him to take us to an event from our past, a remembrance of his choosing. Rather than us telling our story to Him or to others, we allowed Him to tell us our story from His perspective. What a remarkable thing to allow God to give you His perspective of an event or events from your life. Each of us is to allow that process to continue to unfold in our private times with Him over the next few days.

This morning's meeting was worth the entire trip to me. I believe the experience is a living experience and will continue to impact me into the future. The living God speaks living words to living spirits. I'm not sure what eternal life is, but if this isn't it it will do until it comes.

Quote of the Day
"Bearing the image of God is not just a fact, it's a vocation."
N. T. Wright The Challenge of Jesus

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

SSU October 22, 2008

One of the really enjoyable things for me when I come to SSU is that I can walk wherever I go: to school, to church, to the grocery store, to the local pizza dive. People often offer me rides which I cheerfully decline. There is something about walking that translates into a slower pace of life. I can literally feel my thoughts slowing and my emotions calming. That would be a marked contrast to my thoughts racing and my emotions raging. I'm convinced we would be in better emotional shape as a society if walking was our major means of getting around.

Meister Eckhard, a fourteenth century mystic, said, "Nothing resembles the language of God so much as silence." We live in a world of sensory overload. Mostly it is by choice that we do. All of the electronic devices which have become a staple of life have an off switch. We could do a great deal to improve our lives by availing ourselves of that button from time to time.

In what way is silence the language of God? One answer to that question might be that it is in our silence that the voice of God is heard. Silence is not the equivalent of the absence of communication. Someone has observed that the language of our deepest intimacy is often unspoken. Another answer to that question could be that it is often what is not said that communicates the loudest.

With that in mind, I'll keep this post short.

Quote of the Day

"A man who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silences the significance of speech." Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians 2nd Century AD

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SSU October 21, 2008

NAS Jeremiah 15:19 "If you return...I will restore...if you will become..."

Extraction is not an easy task. I remember a phrase from my youth. "Getting you to _______ is like pulling teeth!" You can fill in the blank, but the point of the phrase is that whatever it is you are attempting to do, it is a hard and difficult process that often involves pain. I have had a tooth extracted before. It required a pair of pliers and a lot of pain medication!

Extracting truth, extracting what is precious often involves a similar effort. However, the pain is worth it. Actually, if you leave the infected tooth in place you will discover what real pain is. The pain of the extraction will pale in comparison to the pain of a decaying, infected tooth.

It probably isn't good PR for the processes of God to reveal the role of pain, but it seems to me that Jesus was never in the PR business. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. He continued to say difficult things to his listeners (Eat my flesh, drink my blood!), to the point that many walked away. "If you will become..." The walk with Christ is all about becoming. I was created in the image of God and I am becoming the likeness of Christ. Pain is a part of the process. It is one of the tools God uses to shape us into Christ's image.

In our time of contemplative prayer today, I believe I heard God speak to me. My wife and I are walking through a very challenging season. The demands upon us are very high. Our strength is ebbing. The reading today was Psalm 23. When read to us, the phrase that was prominent to me was: "Surely goodness and kindness shall follow you all the days of your life." (NRSV)

I felt God speak to me that this season Janet and I are walking through is the kindness of the Lord for us. I must admit, I was not too thrilled at this thought. I was reminded of a comment that Theresa of Avila made to God, "If this is the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder you don't have very many." Our contemplative prayer leader put the question to us: "Can you embrace what God is saying (the leader of our group did not know what God was saying to me)?" Can I embrace what God is saying? "If you embrace what God is saying, what will it look like?" My answer to that question was that I would have a great deal of peace, that is if I embraced the notion that this challenging season was a kindness from good to me. Peace was an appealing thought. Can I embrace what God is saying?

Time will tell the answer to that question. My heart is seeking peace...and rest...and relief...and restoration. "If you will return...I will restore." Will I return? Will I embrace? Will I extract so I can become? Great questions. They sound like questions that will lead to a journey.

Monday, October 20, 2008

SSU October 20, 2008

NAS Jeremiah 15:19 "Therefore, thus says the LORD, 'If you return, then I will restore you-- Before Me you will stand; And if you extract the precious from the worthless, You will become My spokesman. They for their part may turn to you, But as for you, you must not turn to them.'"

This is the theme verse for St. Stephens University. They have dedicated themselves to the extraction of "the precious from the worthless." Extraction is an interesting word. It implies a mingling, a mixture, in need of separation. It seems (at least from the verse as rendered in NAS) that the precious can be found in or among the worthless. Our ability to find the precious in or among the worthless and extract it determines our readiness to be His spokesperson.

Perspective is everything. However, it can only be found in returning. "If you return, then I will restore..." SSU has become a place of restoration for me. The film of society accumulates by layers upon the lense through which I see. St. Stephens has become a place of cleansing, where the varnish of the culture can be wiped from the windows of my soul and God's perspective can again be clearly seen. Yet a cleansing, though vital, is not enough. It must be accompanied by a desire to see for yourself. The old adage is certainly true. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to see and guide him for a lifetime. It's not that I have never been able to see, but I feel like I am learning to see all over again.

I heard today that scientific advancements usually occur when someone discovers a new way to look at a problem. A new paradigm. A new perspective. We become so used to looking at things from the same angle and the answer continues to elude us.

My journal entry yesterday: "I'm not sure getting the right answers is as important as asking the right questions. In some ways, getting answers brings an end whereas asking questions is always a beginning, initiating a search. I think this emphasizes the fact that it is the journey and not the destination that is most important. Answers (which I am certainly not against) tend to be destinations and questions tend to be journeys. Arriving at a destination often leads to a sitting down, an end to activity. They (answers) stop the process...unless answers lead to more questions and the destination leads to more journeys."

Quote for the day: "The mystery of the gospel is this: it is always the same (content), and it is always changing (the container). In fact, for the gospel to remain the same, it has to change.
The old, old story needs to be told in new, new ways. In fact, one of the ways you know the old, old truths are true is their ability to assume amazing and unfamiliar shapes while remaining themselves and without compromising their integrity." Leonard Sweet Aqua Church

"If you return, I will restore...if you will become..."

So...the journey continues.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

SSU October 19, 2008

I arrived in St. Stephens last evening for my final module at SSU. It was with a mixture of joy and sorrow that I rode into town across the international bridge between the US and Canada. The source of joy was the renewal of relationships that I was about to experience, spending time again with those whom I had shared the pleasure of learning and growing. Those intimate and vulnerable times that we shared together in our contemplative classes was a remarkable bonding experience. Inevitably, our fears and sources of pain would emerge in those quiet moments of waiting in God's presence. Sharing your own and hearing those of others created a connection between us that is hard to explain. It somehow created family. The thought of being with that family again makes me smile on the inside and the outside.

I also have a pleasurable expectation of meeting new friends. One of the biggest changes that has occurred in me over these past two years of attending SSU is an increased openness and acceptance of others. The acceptance that I have received in the process has gradually worked its way into my own heart. You can only be truly accepting when you have experienced acceptance yourself, for exactly who and what you are. I actually anticipate making new friends in this module. That is nothing short of a miracle. I generally prefer a book and a quiet corner. However, the enrichment I have received from the relationships I have made here have created a hunger in me for more of the same. In some ways, I feel like I am jumping into the deep end of the pool without my "floaties" on, scared stiff but really wanting to swim on my own.

My sorrow stems from the fact that this is my last module. Unless God has a plan that I am unaware of at this point (which is altogether probable), this will be my last trip to St. Stephens. The thought of not seeing these people again makes everything in me "droop." It seems we constantly live in such tension. Joy and sorrow, rest and stress...occurring almost simultaneously. We certainly are "fearfully and wonderfully made," our capacity to experience these emotions in the same breath.

In some sense, I grieve thinking of not being in the learning environment that exists here. My first experience of that almost two years ago now was like a shot of cocaine. The addiction took hold and I had to feed it! Hence, many miles traveled and several thousand dollars spent I have continued to get my fixes. Though I may not be making anymore trips to St. Stephens, the addiction remains. I am sure God will provide me with a new "dealer."

As we drove up yesterday from Bangor through the northern countryside of Maine, the burning colors of Fall reminded me that changing seasons is a part of life. The brilliant greens of summer had given way to the flaming reds and oranges of autumn. These would soon give way to the bare branches of Winter. It is inevitable. The cycle of life continues. However, unlike the predictable cycles of the season, I do not know what the next season holds for me. That brings a certain measure of excitement and expectation accompanied with an equal measure of uncertainty. Yet I have walked with Him long enough to know that whatever the season before me it will contribute to the growth he desires.

For now I will enjoy and cherish, perhaps more than any of my other modules, these next two weeks. I want to fully live in each moment and receive the life that each one offers. In fact, that sounds like a pretty good recipe for life in general. Who knows. This experience my actually rub off on me. The changes I have experienced give me hope that I may yet experience the changes I seek.