On Disturbing the Universe

960D000A-3175-4D6F-9A36-3881E1569289You have no doubt heard about the mid life crisis. Perhaps you have even had one. I did at mid life. However, what’s more critical to me at this stage of my life is more appropriately called a late life crisis. And, lo and behold, I’m having one of those right now!

Am I in the right place? Do I need to retire nearer to my son and grandchildren? How do I live a fulfilled life while facing so many health challenges? Why did I move away from my best friend? How do I give back as I have always done now that my ministry career is over? Is it over? Is there more I could be doing? Should I write more, cook more, paint more, garden more? What in the world do I do with myself?

I recently read a book by Sue Monk Kidd,  When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions. I was stopped in my tracks by her words:

For some months I had been lost in a baffling crisis of spirit. Back in the autumn I had awakened to a growing darkness and cacophony, as if something in my depths were crying out. A whole chorus of voices. Orphaned voices. They seemed to speak for all the unlived parts of me . . . I know now that they were the clamor of a new self struggling to be born. I was standing on the shifting ground of midlife, having come upon that time in life when one is summoned to an inner transformation, to a crossing over from one identity to another. When change-winds swirl through our lives . . . they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey.

I am there. Not in midlife, but in late life, and it is for me an existential crisis of spirit, definitely the time of “a new self struggling to be born.” To be sure, there are unlived parts of me, and I want to understand what exactly they are and how I can coax them to life. The ground beneath me is shifting, calling out to me to cross over from one identity to another. An inner transformation is most definitely in order for me, but how do I begin? Where do I begin? These are the questions of late life. And the symptoms? Dragging out old photos, very old photos. Looking up old friends. Examining your grandmother’s vintage jewelry. Scanning school yearbooks. All in a useless attempt at making the present as meaningful as you remember the past to be.

I sometimes agonize over my current life, wishing to dream just one more dream and to make it a reality. I worry about the future and wonder what the years ahead will bring. I want to still be relevant. I want to keep trying to change the world just as I used to. I want to stir things up and make waves in the quest for justice, just as I did in the past. I feel as if I have only two choices: to languish in the present or to find a way to be the me I used to be. And yet, something tells me that there is a third choice that involves some sort of transformation and the renewal of life, not as it used to be, but as it can be now, in the present season.

It is a quiet agony that I am experiencing. It happened to me when I came upon an unsuspecting darkness buried in late life and met the same overwhelming question that Sue Monk Kidd met: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

My family could be scandalized if I found new life. They might wonder if I had taken too much of a medication. They might worry that I will do something inappropriate. They might know that I simply do not have the kind of energy required for dreaming big, new, important dreams. And they would be mostly right.

And yet I refuse to measure out my life with coffee spoons. It’s way too safe for me. It’s not who I am, and I am completely convinced that there are unlived parts of me looking for a way to come to life. I have no idea what that would look like. I have no idea how I will manage to pull it off. But I need to disturb the universe. And the universe needs some disturbing!

May God guide me on the way, pour blessings on my dreams, and show me just how I might disturb the universe.

Beauty. Serenity. And a Spark of the Divine

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Loon Park on Arkansas’ Lake Maumelle. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk. Entitled “Beauty. Serenity.”

In the middle of the natural beauty of Arkansas, my friend took a photograph and entitled it “Beauty. Serenity.” It prompted me to ponder that for a few moments.

Beauty. Serenity.

I wondered what in my life brings beauty and serenity to me and to those around me. The questions trickled through my mind slowly as I tried to place qualitative and quantitative strictures on beauty and serenity. (As if one could really quantify the whole of what beauty is or see pure serenity through a human lens.) My quest to try to interpret beauty and serenity went on into the night and into the rise of a new day. Still I could not nail it down. It is as elusive as a butterfly in flight, defying explanation.

As for beauty, it seems to be something I can see, something I can look at and see what lies beneath shapes and colors and texture and form. It is when something I see takes on life, and in it, I see a spark of the Divine.

To truly see beauty, I must intentionally expose myself to it and to its full potential. The blossom of a flower. The trees in a verdant forest. The ocean waves moving gently upon the shore. The sparkle of a flowing stream. The majesty of a range of mountains and the vibrant green of a valley.

In each of these visual images, I might very well see a spark of the Divine. But I must first look, and see, and linger before such beauty long enough to see its depth. I must look into a blossom and into the leaves of a forest. I must gaze upon the glory of a mountaintop and walk slowly through a valley of green. I must sit at the edge of the sea and watch the waves greet the shore.

And then there’s serenity, the state of being that always seems to escape me. Serenity is the peaceful sense of calm that envelops a person’s soul and spirit. But I must first allow it, embrace it, and welcome it. When I can do that — and I readily admit that I seldom can — the spark of the Divine I will see most clearly is the light of the spark within myself. I love the wonderfully positive affirmation written by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

We have in us a divine spark that you can see. It’s a Light that shines in the human being. It’s our direct access to truth, our direct access to God. The purpose of all the spiritual practices that exist are to awaken that spark, to give it life, to give it energy, so that it can transform you. 

God, I would be transformed. Awaken that spark within me, so that its light will become a part of my very soul, Enliven in me the spark that brings transformation to every part of me that yearns for your Divine impulse.

The spark of the Divine is beauty and serenity all at once. It is in the moments that stop us in our tracks that we can truly see the beauty around us and within us.

It is in those unforgettable moments of life’s splendor, when we allow serenity to fully embrace us in gentle arms of peace, that we finally know deep rest.

It is when beauty and serenity link arms to surround us that we can truly know the spark of the Divine within. I recognize that spark, ever so often, in just a handful of my best moments. Even for that seldom-experienced grace, I am most thankful. 

So I wish for you the same kind of grace, that you might see beauty, know serenity, and visualize, within yourself, the spark of the Divine. The blessing I leave with you is best expressed by the 14th Century Persian poet, Hafiz.

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

 

 

 

 

 

Beside Still Waters

 

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Still waters near Pulaski County, Arkansas. Photo by Steve Nawojczyk.

I long each day to live beside still waters, to dwell in serenity, to find peace in the depths of my soul. Not such a simple task, that. 

The problem is that life is not that much about still waters. It’s more often about churning waters and swelling currents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of waves crashing in the ocean and then coming to the shoreline with a special kind of energy. I love the rolling of a mighty river, the trickling sounds of creeks, and the splashing sounds that streams make as  they ripple over stones.

But the sheer silence of still waters . . . That’s when you can skip a rock across the top of the water and watch its antics. In still waters, you can hear the sounds of fish flying up to the surface and turtles paddling almost silently acreoss the waters with only their heads visible in search for a morsel of food. In still waters, a family of ducklings can move through the waters with just a hint of a sound and the graceful swan can glide by with hardly any sound at all while its webbed feet move swiftly to push the waters aside.

Those still waters! Their silence and their calm show us how to be.

The truth is that rushing waters do describe our lives at times. That is our reality. Life brings what feels like raging storms. Life assails us with a power that reminds us of the breaking waves of the ocean. In this life, we come upon rivers too deep and too wide and too turbulent to cross. We will feel a force against us that may come because of serious illness or the loss of a loved one. It may come with the pain of broken relationships or with devastating financial hardship.

Life brings brokenheartedness, but it brings brokenheartedness in the midst of grace. For on this journey we call life, we travel with a divine guide, One who does lead us beside still waters. And it is there that our soul is restored and comforted in the midst of green pastures of sacred serenity and holy calm.

I am thinking, of course, of the words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

       he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;

        your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

— Psalm 23:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

I also think of my friend, Steven Nawojczyk, who is finding his much-needed peace in the forests, mountains and valleys of Arkansas. His stunning photograph illustrates today’s blog post. With his beautiful dog and companion, Feebi, he follows a path of serenity and healing, hiking through nature’s beauty most every day.

His life has not been an easy one. As a public servant — many years as Pulaski County Coroner — he has seen far too much anguish for one person. He was integrally involved, literally in the trenches, with ending and preventing Little Rock gang violence, and has been a staunch champion for young people.

He faces serious illness and harsh treatment in his retirement. but he knows that life really does have a pathway that goes around the dangers, toils and snares. He knows that he and Feebi will find lightheartedness in exploring a forest or watching a flowing stream. He knows that the simple joy of a mountain view can bring transformation. He knows about peace, and he has chosen to follow the life path that passes beside still waters. I admire him. I have always admired him, but even more so now as I witness his unwavering commitment to serenity.

That’s what it’s all about in the end — a commitment to serenity, a firm resolve to walk beside the still waters of life, and in that intentional journey, to find our souls.

May the grace and peace of God fill your soul, and may your journey, wherever it leads, bring you serenity.

 

 

 

Magical

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Magical Night: A painting by Teressa Nichole

Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
 ― L.R. Knost

These words of LR. Knost are so very true.

During the weeks of Lent, I helped lead a writing group at my church. What a rich experience it was for me — watching each group member spending quiet moments meditating and contemplating the ripples of his/her life. Then witnessing one person after another begin to write as if they were expecting transformation, telling their stories, writing down the highs and lows. It was almost magical.

It seemed as if I saw the throes of stress leave their spirits. It seemed as if I watched their expressions of pain ease as pen flowed across paper. It seemed at times as if a weight was lifted, an emotion discovered, a community created, a sense of understanding settled in.

I know this: no one left the room with a broken spirit or a weight they could not carry. Instead, they left the room in covenant with one another, knowing that someone cared deeply about their story. They left the room knowing that, in this intimate space, they could spew out whatever they needed to release or they could be silent in a peaceful sanctuary of acceptance.

That Sunday School room in the tall-steepled church at the top of a street in Macon, Georgia known as High Place became a sacred space for just a brief time. It became a place almost magical, a place of rest, a place of comfort, a place where each person could feel that they were not alone and that they would never feel alone again. Truly, that was magical.

I end today’s blog post with these words written by L.R. Knost:

Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
Some won’t understand it.
Some will outright reject it.
But many will
thank you for it.
And then the most
magical thing will happen.
One by one, voices will start
whispering, ‘Me, too.’
And your tribe will gather.
And you will never
feel alone again.

Amen.

Transformation, Pursuits and Productions

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A Recolor page that brought me fond memories of my beloved Uganda

My mind needs rest and renewal. My soul needs trasformation. My heart needs peace and serenity.

The problem is that not many activities relax me. Being the wretched Type A personality that I am, I turn every pursuit into a production. A dear friend has a saying that she uses when a task morphs into more than it should have been. “That was a production!” she would say, and we all knew what she meant — a project got way out of hand!

Such is my life. Compulsive. Driven. Perfectionist. All words that have often been used to describe me. I have to work on it diligently, this need for serenity and the renewal of my mind. Reading Scripture leads to writing a sermon, an opinion piece, or a blog post. Praying leads to a plethora of things I feel I must do. Swinging in the sunshine leads to working in flower beds that need tending.

My first waking thought is always about what project I will do or what meal I will cook. That decision influences my day. When I have decided what I will do, I’m off. I’m all in to get it done.

My greatest need is to find my way to peacefulness and serenity, to experience a renewal of my mind, to learn to be quiet and still so that in the stillness, I might find God in new ways. And I might even find myself in new ways and learn some things about the depth of my “self” snd the longings of my soul.

It is my soul, of course, that craves the serenity. I work on it often — deep breathing, brief praying at many times during the day, singing hymns (to myself) as I fall asleep at night. All of it helps. None of it makes a permanent difference.

Interestingly, I have found a pursuit that does not lead to a production. It is a computer app called Recolor, which is simply for coloring on devices like the IPad. Each day, Recolor adds two or more pages for coloring with your finger or a stylus. I have found nothing that relaxes me more than getting lost on a coloring page. As of today, I have colored 1,062 pages and have received 66 thousand “likes.”

One might observe that this pursuit is not at all a spiritual practice, not a contemplative activity, and is pretty much a waste of time. The thing is, it really is a spiritual practice for me because I am learning how to waste time. I needed to find a way to immerse myself into a creative activity that did not consume me. I needed an activity that would clear and renew my mind. As the Scripture urges, I need to be transformed by the renewal of my mind.

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

— Romans 12:2 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

So I will continue coloring to clear my mind and slow me down. And I will keep working on the renewal of my very busy mind. Who knows? Someday I might find myself transformed.

 

The Truth Is

3F006831-75A4-4D11-AABD-DDA91B9AF938The truth is I never expected to have an illness with the ominous descriptor “end stage.” I never saw it coming, but after a very brief, sudden and inexplicable illness, I was diagnosed in 2014 with end stage kidney disease. I was put on dialysis immediately and spent the rest of that year struggling and suffering.

The truth is I lost myself that year. For a time, I lost the ability to walk, think, name my colors, write my name. I lost my ministry and my ability to engage in the work I so loved. I ended up on seven and a half hours of dialysis daily.

The truth is that those many days, most of them spent in the hospital, may well have been sent to me as a call to awaken from my predictable existence. It was as if an inner, divine grace was demanding my spiritual growth. The truth is I was plunged deeply into a state of being filled with questions and voices I did not really want to hear. If all of this was a message from God, it was the message that all of my illusions, realities and identities were about to spill over the sides of my life, forcing me to stand still in the chaos.

The truth is that apart from this level of life upheaval, I would have lived on as usual, comfortable in the life I had built for myself. But in the middle of those long nights in the hospital, I asked God if this was a new summons to me, an urgent summons that called for my transformation.

I have trouble describing that time of my life. I have struggled for the words to express what was going on in me. Then I found a brilliant description written by one of my favorite authors. This is how she described a similar season in her life.

For months I had been lost in a baffling crisis of spirit . . . I had awakened to a growing darkness and cacophony, as if something in my depths were crying out. A whole chorus of voices. Orphaned voices. They seemed to speak for all the unlived parts of me, and they came with a force and dazzle that I couldn’t contain. They seemed to explode the boundaries of my existence. I know now that they were the clamor of a new self struggling to be born.

– From When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions by Sue Monk Kidd

Bingo! Whatever my year of illness was about, I knew it was about “the clamor of a new self struggling to be born.” The truth is that is exactly what occurred in me. The new self was about to show itself. It was on the verge of emerging and morphing so that “who I am” became someone I hardly recognized. My family commented often that I had become very quiet, that I seldom spoke (very unlike the person they knew).

The truth is I really was quiet, even silent at times. But I see now that it was all about this season in my life, my time to listen to God, to listen to my deepest self, to hear those “orphaned voices” that had been silent for a lifetime. Would this be a transformative experience for me?

The truth is I did not want to be so sick. I did not want to feel that bone-deep fatigue. I did not want to be tethered to a dialysis machine for so many hours every single day. I did not want to lose my ministry. I did not want to lose the self I was so comfortable with. I did not want to lose my gregarious personality, becoming quiet, introspective and silent. I did not want to live this season of life.

The truth is I did not want to build a cocoon around my life and wait, wait, and wait, and wait some more for my new life to emerge. And I did not want to give thanks to a God who employed such a severe means of transformation for me.

But the real truth is that I found this tiny scripture passage to be completely and mercifully true.

In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

On Being a Mystic

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A breathtaking sunset over Arkansas’ Mount Nebo photographed by Josh McCray.

Some Christians tend to be frightened by the word “mysticism.” The word “mystic” raises irrational fears based on a misunderstanding of mysticism as a part of the Christian’s spiritual experience. So what exactly is a mystic? A mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief systems to an actual inner experience with God.

That brings us to the sticky concept of belief systems. Christians definitely have belief systems, sometimes rigid and judgmental belief systems. The reality is that there is never a shortage of persons spouting out their beliefs, beliefs that are often based on systems of fake religious piety.

A life lived in the spiritual realm of God is much, much more than a set of rigid beliefs. Spirituality is much more than what we think or what we say. Spirituality is who we are, our inner spirit, our soul that dances to the rhythms of the God who dwells within us.

Richard Rohr understands the inner spiritual experience.

Until people have had some mystical, inner spiritual experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand religious beliefs beyond the level of formula. At most, such moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only a source of deeper anxiety because we don’t have the power to follow any of Jesus’ major teachings about forgiveness, love of enemies, nonviolence, humble use of power, and so on, except in and through radical union with God. Further, doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, and the significance of Incarnation itself have little active power. They are just “believed” at the rational level.

– Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Any of us can believe at the rational level. We can easily formulate a set of personal doctrines, doctrines that often hold us captive to self-righteousness and rigid relationships with others. To be truly free is to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to rest in the presence of God, to follow Christ into places of deep need, to give ourselves over to inner spiritual experiences.

When we live in the comforting place of the mysticism of spirituality, we will not find in ourselves a judgmental spirit that uses our beliefs to denigrate those whose beliefs differ from ours. We will not find in ourselves the need for the criticism and condemnation that results in divisions.

What we will find within ourselves is the ability to love as Christ loved, the longing to bury our souls in the gentle grace of God, the deepest desire to transform the world around us and thus create the “beloved community.”

So I, for one, want to be a mystic. I want to live in the very center God’s spiritual realm, to be moved by the Spirit, to scatter the love of Christ in all the places I walk.

May God make it so.

The Power of a Whisper

IMG_5727Speak your mind. Don’t be afraid. Don’t whisper in the deep.

These words, composed by Ray Phiri, the South African guitarist and anti-apartheid bandleader who played behind Paul Simon on “Graceland,” opened my mind and heart to a stark reality— that hate hovers ominously all around. That hate’s power can dessimate all that is right and just and good in the world. That hate can be conquered only by a courageous people willing to speak truth and love whatever the cost.

Ray Phiri died last week at age 70, but in this seventy years, his controversial ideas made an impact. His song,”Whispers in the Deep” was banned from broadcast on the South African government-controlled radio station, SABC, when it was released in 1986.

Stand up! Wake up!
Call me angry, call me mad.
A soul that whispers in the deep.
I’m inspired.
But I can’t understand hate.

I imagine that is exactly where we find ourselves, unable to understand hate. We see enough of it, to be sure. We hear about it every day. We know about the dry, brittle bones that remain when a person experiences enough hate.

Hate is war. It is hunger and poverty. It is racism and homophobia and xenophobia. It is violence and abuse. It is unbridled anger. It is injustice in many forms, injustice that shatters lives and leaves dust and ashes in its wake.

Standing amidst hate is not unlike standing in a personal hell. Hate, whether around us or within us, has the power to crush the soul. And yet, always present with us is a protective God who can deliver us from hate’s destruction.

For me, it is true that I do not always know that God is nearby. I seldom see God as my personal vanquishing superhero that destroys the power of hate. Rather, the God I know is much more like the God in the story of Elijah. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

As the story goes, Elijah clings to a cave while God unleashes natural forces far beyond anything Elijah has ever seen or heard. But even in the midst of the tempest, Elijah realizes that something is terribly wrong. The text tells us three times that God is nowhere to be found. But the text also insists that God is passing by.

Elijah looked for God in the great whirlwind, in the shattering earthquake, in the blazing fire. But Elijah did not experience God’s presence in any of those mighty and supernatural happenings. Elijah experienced God in the sound of a light whisper. Biblical translators have often called it “the still, small voice.”

The question I ask myself is whether or not I will gather enough strength from God’s tentative presence with me to wake up, to stand up against hate. As in Ray Phiri’s compelling lyric, I do not understand hate. He warns against whispering in the deep, probably a warning against being too quiet in a world that needs to hear confident voices. But it seems to me that even a whisper can be full of power. A persevering whisper can vanquish hate. A persistent whisper can transform the world.

May God make it so.

 

Reconciliation: The Heart’s Repentance

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The long and arduous presidential campaign left behind a fractured nation. The political parties displayed unprecedented enmity between Democrats and Republicans. The citizenry followed their lead, and the result was broken relationships among friends and even within families. My own family exchanged sharp and hurtful words during the campaign, words that continue to affect our relationships.

We have made enemies of other nations. Some among us have made enemies based on race, culture, gender, national identity, religious practice, sexual orientation. And we remain divided and hostile, with no apparent desire to reconcile. And yet, we desperately need true reconciliation.

The Biblical concept of reconciliation suggests the presence of spiritual, divine intervention that creates reconciliation in the hearts of those who are estranged. Reconciliation assumes there has been a breakdown in a relationship, but through the heart’s repentance, there is a change from a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.

It is going to require the heart’s repentance to restore a climate of unity, mutual respect, love and peace. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, offers these insightful thoughts about reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t just singing Kumbaya and everyone being nice. Reconciliation is about the hard work of working through our differences, maybe acknowledging them and not changing them, necessarily. Working through our differences, honestly and with integrity, and sometimes repenting of where our differences or my differences or yours has actually hurt relationship and not helped the human family.

Shall we just leave everything as it is? Shall we allow the distance to continue between us and those we have lost because of our differences? Shall we accept a fractured world and the divisiveness that now assails us? Or shall we instead commit ourselves to the holy work of reconciliation?

Our sacred calling is to restore peace within the human family, creating a world that can nurture our children and grandchildren, striving for genuine reconciliation among those from whom we are estranged, restoring peace and a community of love, transforming fractured and hurting humanity. This is what God implores us to do.

. . . This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19

 

Telling My Myth

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The village of Aperi, Karparthos, Dodecanese, Greece

A myth is a story that’s told again and again and serves to explain why something is the way it is. (vocabulary.com)

Our stories, the stories that emerge from living our lives, are myths. I tell a number of stories that my grandmother told me, from stories her grandmother told her. My Yiayia shared stories of life joys and life tragedies. She told stories of her losses and her fears. In tears, she told me about weddings and funerals, birthdays and name days. She told stories of faith and worship. She told me about all the ways God ordered her life.

Her stories, from her tiny island of Aperi in Greece to her later years in Alabama, became her life myth. So as I retold her stories and they became mine, my myth. It’s interesting that both my grandmother’s stories and mine tell of loss and pain, of dark moments that indelibly mark life.

Those dark moments make us who we are. They become an eternal part of our myth, our story that is told again and again as the years pass. The myth we tell reveals why  life is the way it is. The telling is the cleansing that makes life bearable and meaningful. The myth we tell is full of the kind of power that propels us and gives us wings.

The truth is that we are our tragedies, even more than we are our joys. Joseph Campbell writes about the power of myth.

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

(From The Edge, a beautifully written blog; https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/05/19/contemplative2017-myth-ix/)

I will always tell my myth, because in the telling, I find boldness and perseverance for my life. In the telling, I find inspiration. The myth I tell definitely speaks of “the bottom of the abyss.” It also tells of the transformation that I find in the abyss. My myth proclaims with strong certainty that, in my darkest moments, I always found the light.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?

– Psalm 27:1, New International Version