Friday, February 27, 2009

Ash Wednesday and Adoration [disciplines of the inner life]

Mortals join the mighty chorus
Which the morning stars began,
Father love is reigning o'er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us onward,
In the triumph song of life.
(Henry Van Dyke)

I will not tell a lie. The study and meditation in this particular discipline almost did me in. I debated whether or not to even write about it. I am an adoration flunky.

See for yourself.

journal entry: Beautiful and amazing! Mixed with His declaration of Himself as the only true God, the Creator and the only Savior for that Creation He also declares His personal love for each person He has created. His power and supremacy is matched and even defined in the context of His love for me. Thank you, Master Rest.

Day 2: Genesis 1

journal entry: Understanding the priority of living in the present presence of Christ is rooted in an understanding -- or at least an awareness -- that time is a creation of God. So much of my stress and distraction in life comes from me bowing down to a falsely perceived tyranny of Time. God created it and designed it. He works within it, but is not limited to it. I rest in Master Rest. I set goals by Father Time.

I wish You told us what You did on the seventh day. What does it look like for God to rest? I am intrigued by this statement:
God blessed the seventh day. He made it a holy day because on that day He rested from His work, all the creating God had done. (Genesis 2:3)
Was God tired? Scripturally, I know that is not true in the sense of Him being weak from exhaustion. But in His perfect state, He is a proactive rester? That, in fact, is an attribute of His holy, unending strength? Is it possible this omnipotent being actually exerted exhausting effort in the act of creation? God, show me Yourself in this. I would love to imagine You in your studio creating the universe. I'd love to see it in a music montage [what song would fit here?]. You with silvery hair askew, sleeves rolled up, sandwich untouched next to a stack of unopened mail. You enthralled by Your creative work. I love you, God.

Day 3: 1 Peter 1:3-9

I know when the Word is getting into the crevices of me when my journal entry consists of word for word transcriptions of entire passages.
What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we've been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you'll have it all—life healed and whole.
I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it's your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.
You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don't see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you'll get what you're looking forward to: total salvation.
journal entry: God, I love and hate this passage in Job. I love Your poetry; I love Your power and Your authority. But I can only describe my negative reaction as a sort of [jealousy?]. You are confident and sure and powerful and assertive and accomplished. I am exhausted. Obviously there is no competition between You and me. But I wish I could be a little more like You in this way. Where do I fit into the scheme of the universe You describe to Job?

Day 5: I can't move past Job...

journal entry: What does it say about me that this week's theme of adoration has just left me feeling inadequate, discouraged and resentful. I don't want to write prayers to You anymore, God. Something in me is obviously broken that I would respond to these accounts of Your Majesty and Power and Beauty with a cold shoulder. What is that?

Spirit, please don't turn Your back on me with this question. Please see me through to truth. Please.

God, You are great. And creative. And beautiful. And poetic. And strong. The fact that you plan to create a NEW JERUSALEM -- a new heaven and earth for Yourself and for us is so exciting! Talk about Your creative projects!

It would be so fun to brainstorm this one with You. Places where people can hang out together and create together and talk and drink wine and eat yummy fruits and nuts. Perhaps near a body of water with soft breezes that blow in and out through portico-type structures. People could sit with stringed instruments and rhythm instruments -- oh, and banjos and accordians!-- and write new melodies and lyrics together. Someone could be sitting at a potter's wheel, several others could sit around a quilting frame. Some could stand at stretched canvasses, their backs to the group, lost in the work of imagining through oils and acrylics and chalk. Others could be wandering in and out and around photographing and writing and discussing the essence of the day and the people gathered.

I could be happy to just sit and observe and journal this scene. (Could there be somewhere, something like this, please?)

Day 7: I'm back to that painful Job passage again.

journal entry: I'm conflicted by my ugly reaction to this week's Scripture passage in Job. When I think of that passage as a conversation between God and Job my response is You go, God! That's the way to tell him! All the while conveniently forgetting that Job is absolutely devastated by his own suffering. (Where's my merciful response?)

But, when I read the passage as a conversation between God and me, a sort of cranky distancing happens. I note with an objective arrogance, Well, You are cleverly poetic. That's pretty impressive. Mostly, though, I just can't believe You, God. Are You being sarcastic? Macho? Arrogant? Really? It can't be true, but I have no other frame to understand the way You get in Job's face. Then Job repents and You forgive and bless him hugely and call him Your friend. My brain doesn't know how to compute this.
...the highest adoration is not occupied with the recollection of favors received and mercies extended, though they do help one be aware of the true natrue of God. There is still, in all such recollection, a remnant of that self-centeredness which it should be the purpose of prayer to escape. In it, we are still thinking o fGod in terms of something done to "me" and for "me." We never really adore Him, until we arrive at the moment when we worship Him for what He is in Himself, apart from any consideration of the impact of His Divine Selfhood upon our desires and our welfare. Then we love Him for Himself alone. Then we adore Him, regardless of whether any personal benefit is in anticipation or not. (from An Autobiography of Prayer by Albert E. Day)
Father, I'm wondering what to do about this issue You've exposed in me? This issue with adoring You for You alone. The idea of adoration doesn't cause me stress; I know I've experienced moments of true adoration. Moments I am lost and all about me is faded into the glorious reality of You. I want this to be true as often as possible. I want it to be true for everyone I know.

And I understand You are worthy of adoration no matter the impact of Your Divine Selfhood on my own desires and welfare. The only thing I can guess is that some gross sense of insignificance in me is twisting my view of God's character in relationship to me as His child. When I get glimpses of its true nasty reality inside me I imagine it as a sort of parasitic-clinging to You, my husband, and, others for "crumbs off the table" of Your significance and theirs.
But acknowledging that foulness in me is not helping me. Not yet. I'm still feeling freaked out by statements like this:
Then it is not what He has done for us or what we expect Him to do for us, but what He has been from eternity before we existed, and what He is now even if we were not here to need Him, and what He will be forever whether that "forever" includes us or not. (Day)
Is it possible that I'm feeling rejected by this statement? And the obvious lack of need for Job (therefore, me) that He seems almost to flaunt in the passage? And, really, how can I seperate the love of God incarnated in His Son, Jesus, who pursued me with His life and death and life again. Or from the Creator Trinity who formed me in Their image. I'm feeling a little bit set up by this study of adoration. Like some of this discipline is a head game -- an exercise in seperating God into part-relational and part-cosmic-hermit. And it feels a little bit like a cruel evaluation separating the most spiritual gold-star worshippers from the worship flunkies like myself because I can't pass the test.

I will stand aside as a quiet observer until You, Spirit, show me Your Truth. I will not leave Your side while I wait for a deeper understanding of You.

This is something I believe God wants me to hunt down in community. I am talking with my husband and other saints. Blogging community, I welcome your insight.

Ash Wednesday
The LORD said: It isn't too late. You can still return to me with all your heart.Start crying and mourning! Go without eating. Don't rip your clothes to show your sorrow.Instead, turn back to me with broken hearts. I am merciful, kind, and caring. I don't easily lose my temper, and I don't like to punish. I am the LORD your God. Perhaps I will change my mind and treat you with mercy. Then you will be blessed with enough grain and wine for offering sacrifices to me. Sound the trumpet on Zion! Call the people together. Show your sorrow by going without food. Make sure that everyone is fit to worship me. (Job 2:12 - 16a, CEV)
This year marks the very first Ash Wednesday that I've remembered the beginning of Lent with more than just a passing thought. I gain no favor with my Father by attending mass, wearing chalk on my forehead or giving up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. But I pay closer attention the the days and hours and moments of my small crosses to share the suffering of Jesus.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-deinal; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer. (The Book of Common Prayer)
So Brian and I are walking together through Lent this year. I have given up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Even more of a challenge, I've given up facebook and blog-reading. Connecting with old and new friends on facebook and learning and enjoying the life-stories across the U.S. through a daily menu of blog-reading is a good part of my life -- at least as much as chicken wings on Friday nights! But I look forward to filling those gaps with more quiet, more face-to-face connection and more leafy green vegetables. I am a weak woman and am thankful that I do not have to cower in my weakness, but can kneel humbly before a good God and receive pardon and forgiveness.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

monday mixtape

i made you a mix tape of all my favorites this week!

Finding Tamara update:
As of this week, TEN AND A HALF POUNDS AND FIVE AND A HALF INCHES have disappeared from my body! I am so grateful. And amazed. And grateful. (and amazed)
  • Blogging for artists? This link looks like its full of great advice. (Florrie and Laurel, I was thinking about you lots when I read this.)

  • Speaking of Laurel, she is a featured artist on this site this week. And, extra bonus, one of her handpainted ceramic oranaments is being offered as a giveaway!

  • I'm doing this on Friday night. Want to join me??
    Makoto Fujimura Lecture - Live Webcast
    Host: International Arts Movement
    Start Time: Friday, February 27 at 7:30pm
    End Time: Friday, February 27 at 8:30pm
    Where: IAM Website
Books: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically is about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible.
I obey the famous ones:
The Ten Commandments
Love thy neighbor
Be fruitful and multiply

But also, the hundreds of oft-ignored ones.
Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers.
Do not shave your beard
Stone adulterers

Why? Well, I grew up in a very secular home (I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant). I’d always assumed religion would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world. I was, of course, spectacularly wrong. So was I missing something essential to being a human? Or was half the world deluded? (A. J. Jacobs)
I had a lot of fun reading this book. It's been a while since I became engrossed enough in a book that I stayed up too late reading. For one, I have an affinity for people who take these kind of crazy risks. And for people who love to make crazy lists. I share the author's admiration for the biblical prophets like Ezekiel and Hosea.
As I enter my third month, Ezekiel and his fellow prophets have become my heroes. They were fearless. They literalized metaphors. They turned their lives into protest pieces. They proved that, in the name of truth, sometimes you can't be afraid to take a left turn from polite society and look absurd. (p. 89)
But, most importantly, Jacobs is simply fun to read.

I remembered this book from a review I read in Relevent magazine. I remembered the book because I had the thought: Ahhh! If I ever try to write a book I want to follow this guy's system. Dive into a theme for a year and write the experience. I do have a dream of doing this some day. My current idea would be to spend a year absorbed in the experience of an autodidactic classical education -- you know Plato, Thomas Paine, Mein Kampf and the rest -- and write about the experience. Sort of a classical education for dummies book. Sounds great, right? I think so, too.

But it didn't take me long to care more deeply about Jacobs' quest than his writing method. I squirmed at his charmingly sincere attempt to obey the rule of Leviticus 15:19 without totally ticking off his wife. Or to dance like David in 2 Samuel 6:14 by joining a whirling dirvish of a party with a mess of Hasidic men in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

I rooted for him as he tried to apply Proverbs 22:6 to the way he disciplined his toddler son. And to the way he saw the beauty of the be fruitful and multiply command in the midst of the battle with infertility he and his wife were fighting. (By the end of the book they celebrate the birth of twin sons -- an event that allows him to uniquely ruminate on the famous twins in the OT.)

I admired him for taking Proverbs 11:6 seriously which was extra-difficult considering he is a man living in a raunchy-billboard-infested city and who is a columnist for Esquire.

But mostly, I ached for him to find the deepest meaning of the incarnational Jesus. Jacobs did his homework more than any person I've ever heard. He didn't just read material from different religious sectors, he actually shows up to aetheist study groups, handles snakes in an Appalachian Church of God, flies to Jerusalem to meet his crazy religious fanatic uncle (who incidentally led a small cult up the road from my house in Ithaca, NY during the sixties) and talks to shepherds in the Negev Desert. He slips incognito into the brand-new complex that houses Thomas Roads Baptist Church only a few months before Reverend Jerry Falwell dies and almost caves to the "disorienting friendliness" of the good old Southern Baptists he meets. (having heard my share of Rev. Falwell's sermons during my college stint at L.U., I think Jacobs description of listening to Falwell preach is absolutely spot-on. Oh the memories...)

Anyway, as I was saying. Jacobs makes no secret of his spiritual quest. That he wants to know the truth and if the truth is that there is a God who wants to have a personal relationship with him he wants in. Watching his discpline of praying to this God is heart-warming at the very least, and convicting at the most. Sadly, by the end of the book -- as he calls it, his year of living Project Bible -- he just can't quite get there. This made me sad. It made me little bit angry, too. I feel like after all his willingness to risk during this project (he walked around the streets of NY with a white robe after all!) he chooses a sort of intellectual awareness of all things Bible and religion that he can choose or not choose, much like the facial hair he grew during the year and lopped off with a razor when the year was over. Ultimately, faith in a saving Messiah was one risk too many for Jacobs. I pray that this true God the author pursued for a book project does not let go of him just because the project's gone to print.

The sermon takes place in an enormous room with comfy, Loews Cineplex-style seats; three swiveling TV cameras; and two huge screens that display the hymn lyrics karaoke-style over photos of seagulls and purple orchids.
On the side are two "Cry Rooms." When I saw the words Cry Room on the church map, I thought it was for parishioners who becamse too wildly emotional...
Falwell himself walks onto the stage. There he is: He's got that familiar silver hair with the tidy part. He's packing a few more pounds than he used to. As the three-hundred-person choir sings a hymn, Falwell leans way back on his heels, his hands clasped together in front of him, smiling beatifically.
Falwell starts with some announcements of his own -- that the cafe is open from eight in the morning to eleven at night, that Rick Stanley, the stepbrother of Elvis Presley is visiting today. And then Falwell puts his hand on the pulpit and begins his sermon proper. And here's the thing about the sermon. It is kind of...bland. There was no fire, no brimstone, no homophobic remarks, no warnings of the imminent Apocalypse. (pp. 261, 2)

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I wish one of my musician friends would write a new arrangement for this hymn. (hint, hint!) I discovered it this week while studying and praying through the discipline of intercession. If I were to sing this in corporate worship, I imagine a certain healing would take place.
In the meantime, I'll hum along on my own with the digitally condensed synthesizer on the hymnal sites. (verse 5 just about wrecks me)

Lord, as to thy dear cross we flee,
and plead to be forgiven,
so let thy life our pattern be,
and form our souls for heaven.

Help us through good report and ill
our daily cross to bear,
like thee to do our Father's will,
our brethren's grief to share.

Let grace our selfishness expel,
our earthliness refine,
and kindness in our being dwell,
as free and true as thine.

If joy shall at thy bidding fly,
and grief's dark day come on,
we in our turn would meekly cry,
Father, thy will be done.

Should friends misjudge, or foes defame,
or brethren faithless prove,
then, like thine own, be all our aim
to conquer them by love.

Kept peaceful in the midst of strife,
forgiving and forgiven,
O may we lead the pilgrim's life
and follow thee to heaven.

Words: John Hampden Gurney, 1838
Music: Windsor, St. Bernard, Westminster New, St. Frances

Monday, February 09, 2009

Silence - an epilogue [disciplines of the inner life]

EPILOGUE: a poem from my semi-silent retreat with my husband (semi- because the goal was not to spend time in fervent Bible-study and prayer, but to just be together and away from daily distractions (read: noisy, demanding, intrusive offspring); semi- also because the fire alarm in the Inn went off, not once, but twice during the night and I have never been so terrified by a noise in my entire life!)


Thank you also for the silence of the place --
the snow-covered,
untracked, frozen lake.
The lights on the dock. The
light reflected on the white
tile in the bathroom and
streaming across the crisp
white sheets in the bedroom.

Thank You for the empty
comfort of the Inn. The
richness of polished wood
at the front desk and up the
banister, around each door and
window and over the massive
fireplace in the silent lobby.
Up the stairs, another layer of
sound is stripped away like an

Thank You for the silent
sweetness of champagne
and fleshy, breathy kisses
from my husband. Thank
You for the beautiful
sound of water coursing
through rumbly pipes from the belly
of the aged building, plunking
now in driplets from the curved
elegance of the spout onto
the quiet feminity of polished
toes, lapping across my thawing skin, and bubbling
out again from eager jets into winter-knotted

Thank You for the secrative fire of candles
like smoky polka-dots scented in
orange blossom and vanilla. The silent,
sacred eighteen-year old dance dressed
in sheeted whispers from my

Silence drips and pools through my senses,
my mind, my veins.
Coursing through this aged body and lapping
up against my life-knotted thoughts--soothing
undressing each snarl of fear
and anxiety. Spreading me plain
and soft in the clean light again.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Silence - part three [disciplines for the inner life]

1. Silence, the fear of: here
2. Silence, suffering in: here

3. Silence, the beauty of:

Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille) is a documentary film directed by Philip Gröning that was first released in 2005. It is an intimate portrayal of the everyday lives of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, high in a remote corner of the French Alps (Chartreuse Mountains). The film was made 16 years after the director first requested permission to make it. He lived at the monastery for six months, and filmed all alone; behind the walls no "outsider" had ever before been allowed to enter. [from the film's Wikipedia page]

After reading Jeffrey Overstreet's warm review of the film I thought I was appropriately prepared for the experience of viewing it. I am not ashamed to say that I fell asleep during the middle; it was a truly peaceful nap. The sleep did not come because I was bored but because I had truly entered the great silence of the place and people represented. Plus it's almost three hours long so I still had plenty of time to absorb the overwhelming beauty of the film's artistry.

Of the three layers I discovered during meditation on this theme, this film depicts most accurately my first response to the word silence. I mean -- really -- what could be more monastic and mysterious than the lives of the Carthusian monks? And what could be more impossible for me to imitate? So, I guess I'm off the hook?

How convenient. [she says wryly]

God forbid I walk away from this meditation and miss the deeper truth of the monastic life. The truth learned well by the man featured in this clip. Go ahead and watch it; I'll wait here for you. (and I mean no disrespect but don't you think Jim Henson would have loved his face?!?)

When is the last time you believed someone who speaks of God's loving character with this kind of believability? Do we believe him just because he's old and adorable? Maybe. Do we believe him because he lives in the alps and wears a white robe? It depends on your view of the monastic life. Certainly, anyone who has given themselves so whole-heartedly to an ascetic life deserves, at the very least, our respect. We who can not make it to 9:02 without a super-size mug of caffeine. We who can not drive the .62 miles to the caffeine shop without searching 1, 2 or 3 radio stations. We who can not stand in a grocery line without the scrolling kaleidoscope of the 24/7 news channel. So, yes, a man who has willingly stripped his life of our contemporary cacophonous accouterments deserves a little bit of our attention. And trust.

But, for me, it comes down to this. Am I willing to live this entire three-score and ten years -- give or take a decade -- without experiencing at least a taste of this gentleman's simple assurance in God's good character? I want to believe the same things, experience the same peace, but without the same lifestyle. So I pile on more Christian radio, more book studies, more worship songs, more entertainment, more food, more chatting -- more noise -- in search of the the moment where I can truly believe God is good and God loves me. This is not a peaceful existence. You know it, too, don't you?

From the half of the film that I was awake for, here are a few ways I can model the monastic life.

1. Fear God when taking a vow.

Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God...When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! -- Ecclesiastes 5: 4-5

Under my father's counsel, Brian and I chose to include this Scripture reading in our marriage ceremony 18 years ago. And, honestly, there have been more than a few moments when the fear this passage induces was the only thread keeping me from snapping the line of commitment to this man, my husband.

But the Ecclesiastes passage speaks from a holistic perspective. My covenant relationship with the one true God is the foundation for every relationship I form.

2. Assume a posture of humility.

I don't need to stoop under the wight of a white robe or, even, a "I'm not perfect, just forgiven" T-shirt, to signal the rest of the world that I'm appropriately aware of my own smallness. It turns out that the perfect garment for humility is silence. Ecclesiastes 5 again:

Watch your step when you enter God's house. Enter to learn. That's far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, doing more harm than good.

Don't shoot off your mouth or speak before you think. Don't be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear.

God's in charge not you -- the less you speak, the better.

Imagine if our Sunday worship services took this passage seriously. Imagine if we let go of our pep-rally-as-a-means-to-God mentality. Maybe the Church suffers from the same malady that showed up in me when I tried to pray my way into silence . I do not conjure up the Presence of God with my chatter - no matter how doctrinally sound the words may be. If I pay total attention to the lessons of Scripture, which is the more demonic-friendly -- being quiet before God and trusting His Spirit to fill the space or filling the space with my own ritual of right-spoken chatter, Christianese chanting and clapping-on-command worship-jigs?

But, really, if I'm not practicing the discipline of silence in my daily worship why would I expect anything different from corporate worship?

I lay bare myself, my world, before you in the quietness. Brood over my spirit with your great tenderness and understanding and judgment...

--Howard Thurman in The Growing Edge

3. Receive the Word as my daily bread.

I would not pretend that I could say this better than Bonhoeffer. I only add my voice by bolding a few of the phrases. And, yes, I realize this quote breaks all the rules of brief blogging, but if ever there was a gentleman who has earned the right to be heard...

As there are definite hours in the Christian's day for the Word, particularly the time of common worship and prayer, so the day also needs definite times of silence, silence under the Word and silence that comes out of the Word. These will be especially the times before and after hearing the Word. The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him that holds his tongue. The stillness of the temple is the sign of the holy presence of God in His Word.

There is an indifferent, or even negative, attitude toward silence which sees in it a disparagement of God's revelation in the Word. This is to miss the essential relationship of silence to the Word. Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God. We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father's room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us. We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God. We keep silence solely for the sake of the Word, and therefore not in order to show disregard for the Word but rather to honor and receive it.

Silence is nothing else but waiting for God's Word and coming from God's Word with a blessing. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practiced and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails. Real silence, real stillness, really holding one's tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness.

-- From Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

4. Practice silence in the sanctuary, in community and in the ordinary tasks of life.

While the scenes of the monks' prayers and song in corporate gatherings was almost unbearably beautiful, some of my very favorite scenes followed the holy men through their ordinary, daily tasks. Making a meal, tending a garden, cutting a brother's hair -- all tasks that are familiar to me here in my home, with my family. I'm old enough to know that, while it would be easy to romanticize the image of monks at work, it is just not so. Heat and illness and hunger and callouses and jealousy and depression feel the same on a French mountain peak as they do here in upstate New York.

In other words, silence is a spiritual perspective. By spiritual I do not mean that it ignores the physical -- certainly time spent in a monastery, retreat center, or a walk on a country road may be an important part of practicing silence. But, you know as well as I, that if I do not exercise my will under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that pesky inner noise does not care about my outer environment. Practicing silence takes work.

If we can pass through these initial fears and remain silent, we may experience a gradual waning of inner chaos. Silence becomes like a creative space in which we regain perspective on the whole.

--From Pathways of Spiritual Living by Susan Annette Muto

Practicing silence also brings unspeakable reward. Oh, that I could echo the calm assurance of a bushy-eyebrowed monk: God is infinitely good, almighty, and He helps us.

In my week-long meditation (well, three weeks now if you count all the time it has taken me to write this post) no thought brought me more joy than these from another trust-worthy gentleman, the prophet Isaiah: In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength. And no words brought me more fear than the prophet's condemnation of God's people at the end of that verse: but you would have none of it.

May I obey the God of Isaiah, Bonhoeffer, and a Carthusain monk - the God who will lead me into the strength and rest of silence.

Silence - part two [disciplines for the inner life]

1. Silence, the fear of: here
2. Silence, suffering in:

OK, so this is not a movie...yet. But it will be soon. And I haven't even read the novel...yet. But I will soon.
The author Shusaku Endo, in his book, A Life of Jesus, states that Japanese culture "identifies with one who 'suffers with us' and who 'allows for our weakness.' With this fact always in mind, I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus. Silence, written mostly in the form of a letter by its central character, depicts the theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity."
Oh, and Endo's masterpiece inspired Scottish classical composer and conductor James MacMillan to create Symphony No. 3, Silence which is right now inspiring me as I write this post.

Consider Job, Moses in the desert with the sheep, Sarah waiting for the child, Hannah pleading for a child, Hosea chasing after his whore-wife, Israel waiting for a Messiah, Joseph thinking he might have a whore-wife, Mary and Martha standing by their brother's grave. Listen to the darkness before Jesus words: My God, My God. Listen to the shivering disciples in the upper room on Saturday. Silent Saturday.

The passage I was instructed to meditate during the week was none of these, but it was as familiar: I Kings 19. The characters in the Old Testament narrative are an evil queen, a wussy king, 450 massacred prophets of Baal, and one bone-weary prophet of Yahweh.
I imagine you also are familiar with this OT heroic tale. Elijah meets the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel with nothing but his gift of hearing God. He calls down fire from heaven that burns the entire ox carcass, stone altar, even the dirt and water surrounding the altar. The people respond by worshipping the one true God and killing off the frenzied, gesticulating, self-maiming prophets of Baal. God responds by sending rain after three years drought. It's a happy ending, right?

Wrong. Evil queen does not care about rain or the feelings of the people. She vows to kill Elijah anyway. Understandably, Elijah runs for dear life. The man who hears God can't take it any more.

God, like a knowing mama, sends a Samwise Gamgee sort of angel with a knapsack of food to chase Elijah across the desert to make sure he gets food, water and sleep. It must have been some kind of good food, too, since Elijah eats it and then walks for forty days and nights to a cave deep inside of Mt. Horeb. Maybe it's the silence of that walk, maybe its the nourishment of the food that brings clarity, but once God finally speaks again to Elijah the prophet has changed his tune from bleary despair (I can't do this anymore; I just want to curl up in a ball and die!) to a crystal-clear grievance with the King of the Universe.

God: Elijah, what are you doing here? (I sort of picture God sitting behind a mammoth desk, looking over a pair of spectacles at this man who opens the door of His office without knocking.)

Elijah: I've been working my heart out for You, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me. (Here Elijah, after delivering his legitimate appeal for help, drops down into the wing-back chair across from the desk, places a hand on each knee and watches God's face for an answer that makes sense. Instead God motions to his aide standing at the doorway and goes back to signing papers on His desk.)

God's Secretary: Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by. (The secretary opens the giant panelled oak door as he speaks and waves Elijah out of the room. Elijah looks at the aide, back at God who is bent over His desk seeming to have already forgotten Elijah's presence in the room, and back at the aide again. He slaps the arms of the chair, lets out an exasperated sigh, stands and walks out of the room, out of the building and onto a mountain ledge.)

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn't to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn't in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn't in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.

When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there.

God: So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here? (He says this in that quiet voice.)

Elijah: I've been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me. (I picture him taking a deep breath before he speaks. Not out of exasperation but out of determination. The text says "Elijah said it again..."; his grievance has not changed at all. No amount of hunger, exhaustion, travel, knee-knocking wind or quake, blistery heat of flame or God-forsaken silence has changed his original complaint. This is one determined man.)

God: Go back the way you came through the desert to Damascus. When you get there anoint Hazael; make him king over Aram. Then anoint Jehu son of Nimshi; make him king over Israel. Finally, anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Anyone who escapes death by Hazael will be killed by Jehu; and anyone who escapes death by Jehu will be killed by Elisha. Meanwhile, I'm preserving for myself seven thousand souls: the knees that haven't bowed to the god Baal, the mouths that haven't kissed his image.

God breaks His silence. And He does it in a small, quiet voice.

It will probably take a life-time of learning the truth found in this story. God's silence sometimes has to do with a kind of testing of my determination, focus, desire. If I'm telling God I have a desire I think He sometimes wants to know if I'm going to change my mind about it before lunch.

I have plenty of those short-attention-span kind of desires, believe me. When I look back in my old journals they are the ones I've written in scribbly all-caps across an entire page. The very ink on the page quivers with excitement and shortened breath. And often they are never mentioned again. I read them now and think: Really? I was that fired up about opening a bed and breakfast, having 10 children, earning a six-figure income, [fill in the blank with a desire of the month].

The thing is when I read back through those journals I also find other desires. Ones that are still at the front of my mind; that still keep me up at night. The verbiage may have changed as time brings clarity and helps me hone in on the core of the request. But that is exactly the point. As I walk through my own journey of exhaustion, sleep, hunger, food, thirst and water the determination to hear God's voice on the matter is sharpened, increased, developed. That determination - as it matures - become able to discern the true voice of God. To withstand all the whirlwind and storm and fires around and within me in order to wait for the powerful and tender voice of the Almighty.

Am I able to reconcile the truth that God is sometimes testing me with His silence? Am I willing to bear up under the hardship, and even suffering, that accompanies this testing? Or will I be side-tracked by my own irritability?

When I first read -- and I mean really read -- this account with Elijah I misunderstood his focused determination as petulance with the King of the Universe. I thought: How dare he be so bold to not cower and self-deprecate before the presence of God? Why doesn't he add some qualifiers to that complaint?

Something like this instead: God, I'm sure You've got this all worked out and I'm just not hearing it, but [cough, clear throat] is there any chance I could get some more help around here?

The truly hard part of the test is staying focused on the true character of God. He is not cruel. He is not capricious. He is not too busy to care. He is not like a little boy holding a magnifying glass over a tiny bug just to watch it squirm. He is clear enough about His good motives to risk me misunderstanding His silence.

It only makes sense that He would desire that same kind of clarity from me. And, in most cases, there hardly seems a better method than to let me sit with my request for awhile. And not just sit, but walk, sleep, drink, eat, suffer, struggle and lug around the desire waiting for the opportunity to hand it off to God. What a shame to allow all the inner noise of anger, peevishness, bitterness, busyness to drown out any chance of hearing the small, quiet voice of the Almighty. Even worse would be to not carry the burden at all. To look for cheap and quick ways to trade it off, say for a pot of stew or a plate of fries or something. Yes, this is a sure-fire way to dull the suffering of silence. Also the joy of desire.
A ... positive, meaning of silence is that it protects the inner fire. Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.
Diadochus of Photiki offers us a very concrete image: When the door of the steam bath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.
--From The Way of the Heart by Henri J. Nouwen

Oh mighty truth. When I follow God's silence, I too will develop the strength of silence.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Silence - part one [disciplines for the inner life]

But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him. --Habakkuk 2:20

What is it that you think of this when you think of this word? Silence. I'll bet you already had a thought flicker through your brain when you saw the title to this post. Silence.


The three words I think when I hear the word are mysterious, monastic and impossible. During this week's theme I realized I actually have several layers of understanding and preconception on the meaning of silence. (I can't get the Simon & Garfunkle tune out of my head now, This is the soouuunnd of silence.)

Following are three layers unearthed during my meditation and study. I've framed them in context of three movies bearing the word Silence in the title. I did this because I thought it would be fun. Plus it allowed me to procrastinate for two weeks on this post while searching Google image for cool movie posters.

1. Silence, the fear of:

Shiver, shiver, shiver. I didn't have to watch this movie in order to get goose bumps every time I see the poster. The Academy Award winning film (times five!) features two of my favorite actors, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, but I am a scary-movie chicken. The word Silence in the title insinuates the film's theme of death and depravity. The title, in its entirety, is the summary of traumatic childhood secrets.

One of the first days I meditated on this discipline a rush of child-like trust came over me and I penned this prayer:

Brood over me, Father Spirit.
Brood over micro-me with Your
macro-Self. Deep call to my
deep. Stir, Spirit of the living
God - the true Father of Jesus,
Spirit of the Creator.
Mother me.

Before I could move to my next thought -- like three seconds later -- that goose-bumpy feeling showed up, uninvited and cruel. What did you just do? What kind of prayer is that? Does such an open-ended invitation to a Spirit invite darkness rather than Light?

The truth is that there have been dark, silent spaces in my memory and invisible walls in my soul that have been marked up by wounds, lies, violations, and sin. If those markings could speak up, they would tell heartbreaking stories. But I think the trumped-up alliance between the act of silence and the invitation of horror occurs precisely because I don't exercise the discipline on any regular occasion.

In other words, if the only time I submit to silence is when I cave into old memory then I have no other understanding of silence. It is a misrepresentation of the gift of quiet confidence and comfort that can be found there.

In an upcoming post I'll share some thoughts about the discipline of confession that I'm currently studying. (Remember the two weeks procrastinating at Google image? Yeah, my blog post queue is stacking up.) Confession plays the super-hero to the villainous disguise of silence. More on that later....

For inner silence depends on a continual seeking, a continual crying in the night, a repeated bending over the abyss. If we cling to a silence we think we have found forever, we stop seeking God and the silence goes dead within us. For He is found when He is sought and when He is no longer sought He escapes us. He is heard only when we hope to hear Him, and if, thinking our hope to be fulfilled we cease to listen, He ceases to speak, His silence ceases to be valid and becomes dead, even though we recharge it with the echo of our own emotional noise.
--From Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton

There is substantial truth to this veiled abyss in each of us. We add to the invisible veil with busyness, emotional noise, episodic television, and in my case, french fries. To tear the veil in two and peer over the edge of the abyss, we must enter and rest in silence. Yes, we stand there, toes hanging over the edge, afraid. But the trouble is in the abyss and not in the act of looking there. And silent does not equal alone. He is in the silence and He is in the abyss and He split the veil that separates us from God.

Later in that same day of meditation, I realized my own complicity in the goose-bumpy clamminess. The part of me that allowed representatives of evil to think they had found a cooperative is this: relation to my own fears in prayer this morning -- that silence and quiet connection with the Spirit somehow leaves me vulnerable to danger and demonic influence. As if my safety and spiritual connection to God is dependent solely on my ability to think and speak right doctrine. That it is my thinking and speaking rightly that brings on the Presence of God. Hmmm...

Teach me Your wisdom, Spirit.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...