Suffering!


SufferingLast week David Brooks wrote a great op-ed in The New York Times entitled What Suffering Does.  I encourage all to read it. We are preparing to enter into Holy Week. We will hear the story of the Passion of Jesus. We will be reminded of His suffering and rejection. For many it raises difficult questions about the nature of suffering itself. This article is good because brooks takes pains to underline that suffering and pain for sufferings sake is not good. In the same breath he shows how we are a culture obsessed with happiness, particularly with respect to our future.

Our past, however, when recounted to others, is often the story of how we have survived pain or suffering. When we look back, our stories are often about our greatest struggles. For me as a Christian, the story of the Passion has great power for me because in it, I am reminded of how God understands and knows suffering and is abundantly present to me when I am at my worst.  The Passion reminds me of how God enters into my suffering. My life has been shaped in no small measure by moments in my life that have been difficult, making me certain that the better parts of who I am today have been shaped by some of my most heartbreaking moments. In The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen writes “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”  There is a great deal of truth in Andersen’s words about a fanciful being.

Brooks writes in his op-ed piece:

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

I am by nature a joyful guy! I love ‘having fun’ as much as anyone. Happiness is a goal in my life as it should be in all our lives. But I am not naive. I find the words of David Brooks and others who hold up the role of suffering to be liberating. As I enter into the Sunday of the Passion and the Holy week that follows, I do so assured that our God knows what suffering is all about and chooses to enter in our suffering. With that encouragement in mind, let us be willing to enter in another’s pain and be present with compassion and with mercy. I do not ‘look forward’ to suffering, but I am grateful to be able to ‘look back’ and see how my life has been shaped and changed because of suffering and how God and others helped me get through that which was so unjust, unkind, or unfair. I am so thankful that God became ‘One with us!’

 

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A Little Point of Nothingness


Following on the heels of yesterday’s post regarding Thomas Merton’s  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander I wanted to share this gem…

 “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is every- where.” 

That is beautiful. At the very center of our being is God’s name written in us. It is pure, it is unhindered by our insecurities and unstained by our own actions. It is, I believe, the center of what Henri Nouwen calls our belovedness. That very center of who we are is where God’s name is written as our poverty, our indigence, our dependence, our sonship. I love that! I really love that.

I find these words to be reassuring. Reassuring, because I think it is often true that we cannot access that most pure and dazzling part of ourselves. What we access is often governed by our insecurities. When we mine into our sense of self what we often dig up is less that a precious gem. Merton’s words serve as a reassurance and a promise that despite the fact that we can be guilty of succumbing to the words that tear us down or play on our weaknesses – the very essence of who we are is a beloved and pure point of truth. When the world declares that we are not good enough, it would do well to have the above words on a card that we might read and remind ourselves that within us is a spark which belongs entirely to God. We need to be reminded often that within us is the pure glory of God.

This sort of incarnational thinking is also hopeful for this world. Hopeful, because it is true that collectively the light supplanted in all of us can become a Light which dispels the darkness of the world. When we bring together people in an environment where people are honour and dignity is restored – new life and hope and healing is made manifest. When we are at our best together we give life to the pure glory of God. The gate of heaven becomes present everywhere.

Merton is wonderful reading – especially in Lent! I highly recommend this book!

Glory

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Succumbing to Pervasive Violence


I am re-reading Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It’s a wonderful book to read during Lent. As I expressed in an earlier post, I really love reading authors who invite readers to be suspended in the questions. Faith and its expression is often lived out in mystery. This is not a comfortable place for some. Merton has a way of expressing the many ways that we are connected as people and the many ways in which God is connected to our daily journeys.

 

Tonight I read these words about the pervasiveness of violence in our lives.

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

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These are powerful words. They speak a deep and difficult truth. The lives that we are living are indeed the form of innate violence. Now this is not easy to accept. Being an idealist myself and wanting to do all that I can to work for justice as I see it, it is hard to imagine that being the idealist makes me so susceptible to this contemporary violence. That’s why these words are so very powerful to me. Stepping back from it for a moment and allowing Merton’s words to soak into my being, I can see the wisdom offered in them. Merton is asking if we succumb to; too many concerns, too many demands, too many projects, helping everyone in everything? I am forced to answer; yes, yes, yes, and yes! And I feel pretty certain that I am not alone.

Merton uses powerful language, suggesting that or overzealousness to do good, to help others, and to complete every project is a form of violence. The pressure imposed from others, and from ourselves, to accomplish all things does indeed disrupt and even destroy our inner peace. Sometimes our efforts can indeed tear us from the reassurance that we are God’s beloved. When we get frustrated from our inability to do all things and fulfill all the demands we take on, we also risk succumbing to destructive thoughts of inadequacy.  There is no doubt in my mind ‘of the pervasiveness of the contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs.’

We have just a couple of weeks left in our Lenten journey. Yet there is still time for us to evaluate how we might be succumbing to this innate violence.  Can we identify places in our lives where we are fighting ourselves and others to meet unrealistic expectations? Are we losing ourselves while trying to save the world? Are we able to be present to the injustices of the world if we lose ourselves in the violence of our efforts?  Have we removed our inner capacities for peace and in the process destroyed the fretfulness of our efforts? If we can identify the ways that we have succumbed to the quiet violence – perhaps we might also be able to identify how we might find ways to meet the goals of God’s love in measured and realistic ways.

God heal us of the violence conflicting concerns, busy day planners, and many projects. Give us patience to seek your presence deep within. Grant us inner peace and the wisdom to find fruitful ways to deliver love and justice and your quiet presence to a world obsessed being busy.

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For Those in Peril on the Sea


The end of March for Newfoundlanders marks a sad centennial.  On march 30, 1914, Captain Westbury Kean sent 166 Newfoundland sealers over the side of his ship the SS Newfoundland to hit the ice floes, hunt seals, and walk the four to seven kilometres to SS Stephano which was captained by his father, legendary sealing captain Abram Kean. The Stephano was further into the ice flow as it was steel, unlike The Newfoundland which was an older wooden ship and was trapped in the ice.  Some of the men did not make the trip. Uneasy about the approaching storm 34 turned back, leaving 132 men off to meet Captain Abram Kean’s vessel. The Younger Kean assumed his men would spend the night aboard his father’s ship. Instead they were welcomed aboard for a mug up of tea and hard bread and sent back out to the hunt in a mounting storm. That cruel decision to order these men to secure 1500 pelts before returning to the Newfoundland was one that would have deadly consequences.  The storm worsened that the men would not make it back to the Newfoundland. Of the 166 who left, 77 perished.  It would be April 2 before Westbury Kean would realize what had happened. The SS Bellaventure dispatched some of its crew to rescue survivors and retrieve bodies. At the same time this disaster was unfolding another sealing vessel the SS Southern Cross was lost at sea in the same storm – 173 men lost at sea!

This chapter in the history of the Dominion of Newfoundland is one that we all learned about in school, in poetry and in song. It is a part of the collective consciousness of Newfoundlanders. As children in school, Cassie Brown’s Book Death On the Ice was required reading. HIS2292It is a book that I would recommend to you. You can order it here – Death On the Ice
The annual trip to the ice floes was the only hope for money for most of the men who made the journey. They would walk, some of them one hundred miles or more, for the possibility to board one of those vessels. Sure the risk was great but the possibility of earning actual cash was a great motivator to people who had no money and saw no cash; people whose lives were governed by the merchants with whom they had to trade in barter in the inshore fishery. By spring cupboards were often very bare – it was work. The conditions were terrible and safety was not a concern.  There was little food, no real bunks, no bathroom facilities, and often no clean drinking water. But a successful hunt would give the sealer $30-40 in 1914 which was the mind of money that could make a difference. Desperate times call for desperate measures – and the merchants and their captains were more than aware of that desperation and were all too happy to take advantage of it.  The conditions and terms of employment were not much more than slavery. We can only imagine the magnitude of loss from the Sealing Disaster of 1914 to a colony the size of Newfoundland whose population was just over 200 000.

The National Film Board has produced a very well done video that can be views by visiting this page.

https://www.nfb.ca/film/54_hours?hpen=feature_1#temp-share-panel

It is a powerful retelling of the story in the words of survivors.

As we remember those lost at sea so long ago we pray for those who work at sea today.  While the conditions are no longer as terrible, those who make a living on the water still do so at considerable risk. The sea can be merciless.

Prayer for seafarers

Lord God, Creator of land and sea, bless those who work at sea. Be with them in fair weather and foul, in danger or distress. Strengthen them when weary, lift them up when down and comfort them when far from their loved ones. In this life, bring them safely to shore and, in the life to come, welcome them to your kingdom. For Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen

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“Judge a Man by his Questions Rather Than by his Answers.” ― Voltaire


Often Lent is portrayed as that time of wrestling with the devil. After all the season itself began with the story of Jesus himself being sent into the wilderness where he would struggle with the devil. We learn early on that like Jesus in the wilderness, our lives are marked by times when we face the evil enticements of the devil. We are urged to resist and choose God. Lent, we learn from our youth, is a time when we can take account of the ways that we are challenged by Old Scratch and lean on God for strength to resist his tantalizing temptations.

Of course, it is good for us to give care and attention to how we struggle with the dark and sinister forces of this world. There is no doubt, that fighting our Common Enemy is a noble Lenten discipline. As we have just passed week four of this season, you may be tiring of your daily reflections of how to keep back the darkness. Is it possible that Lent might be calling us to enter into a deeper and broader conversation than the singular focus on our struggle with our own Archfiend? What if we took some time in Lent to struggle not just with the forces of darkness but to ask honest and difficult questions about how we experience God or how we struggle to know what God is doing or where God is?

I am reading a book entitled Losing your Faith, Finding Your Soul by David Robert Anderson. 9780307731203
The author offers an honest reflection about how life with its many seasons impacted his own ministry and his own practice of faith. He writes about the joy of knowing that God is so abundantly present and feeling immersed in the Spirit. He also is quite candid about how difficult it was for him at times to ascend the pulpit when he struggled with God and how God was present/or not in his life. This book is not for those who see doubt as an affront to a life of faith. Anderson is quite comfortable expressing his own crises of faith and is not only unapologetic for those times in his life, he articulates well how those dry moments on his journey became useful and instructive in his ministry. Perhaps one of the more powerful stories that he writes about was about Nikos Kazantzakis.

Nikos Kazantzakis was the Greek philosopher who wrote Zorba the Greek. Anderson retells a story found in Kazantzakis’ memoir Report to Greco. The writer took a trip, in his youth, up Mount Athos to seek counsel from Father Makarios who was known for his deep wisdom.

Young Kazantzakis asks the monk,
“Do you still wrestle with the devil?”
“Not any longer my child,” says the monk. “I have grown old, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength.”
Nikos assumes that to mean the battle is over, and that the monk now lives in ease. Not so, replies Father Makarios. Now He explains,
“I wrestle with God
“With God!” exclaims the young man. “And you hope to win?”
“I hope to lose, my child.”

I love this story. One of the many reasons I like this story is the notion that Old Scratch eventually tires of struggling with the faithful — but God never tires of the struggle. God has been with us from the start and has promised to never abandon us. That is not to suggest that there have not been plenty of times when we have abandoned God. Good News: God is good with that! The wisdom of the old monk is rooted in a self-awareness that we often wrestle with God. In that battle of wills it the monk’s hope that he lose that struggle.

Life has a way of burdening us with many challenges. We can for a time live life as if all matters of faith are black and white. But eventually, inevitably, we all face loss, disappointment, judgement, unspeakable pain, the list goes on. Faith somehow seems easier when all things are well. But what do we do when it all turns to a pile of steaming crap?  Anderson posits that its in those moments that we become ready for the gift of divine life. “Only people who have faltered, lost a step, suffered and died a little are ready for the divine life that cannot be earned or grasped but can only be received as a gift.” Losing-Your-Faith-background_fb-square
When we come to those moments it is important to remember the wise words of the monk. We are going to wrestle with God and God will wrestle with us. It is in that time that we hope to lose. The willingness to struggle is in itself a step toward God.  We can make it a matter of prayer. I think it is a prayer that we might all embrace. On this journey we would do well to access the honesty to admit that we do wrestle with God and embrace a faithfulness to pray that we will lose that struggle. Greater people than me have identified that struggle. Consider C.S Lewis who wrote about his willingness to engage God in the difficult questions in A Grief Observed:

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

I am so thankful that God is content to wrestle with me. As a result I am more than content to wrestle with God. I am taking time this Lenten season to spend time battling with the questions that are difficult to answer. Mystery is a great gift of God’s giving. It can be vexing when we want the answers with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Perhaps having the patience to be suspended for a time in that vexation and wrestling with God, will birth in a faithful response to the world around us; a response where God is made real for another who hears of our God who loves us enough to engage us, wrestle with us, and encourage us to ask the difficult questions.

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Running out of Fuel


When I first got my drivers license 27 years ago and was driving my father’s car it would perturb him to no end if I brought the vehicle back with less than half a tank of gas. You see, he never really let his car get much below half a tank before he would fill it up. He could never understand why I would let my own cars get so low on gas. On the many trips he and Mom made to Ontario, right at about this time of year, he will be traveling with me in the car and always ask the obvious question, “Why do you let your car get so low on gas? There’s no need of it! You pass all these has stations every day and you still wait.” He would shake his head upward, lips pursed, and eyes closed as if to say – it’s no use telling you anything.
He knew me!

Dad was really on my mind today. I had pulled over to return an email on my cell phone when I noticed that the fuel light on my car was not just low, but was flashing. Then I remembered that it originally showed low fuel three days ago. O dear!!! I was about three quarters of a kilometer from the Shell station. Thankfully it was downhill. As I pulled back on the road the car actually sputtered but then gained some momentum as the car tipped downward. I pulled into the Shell station and literally sputtered up to the pumps on fumes and stalled out!!!!!!! Close call. The image of my father shaking his head, resigned to the fact that I do not listen, came right before me.

Coasted in on Fumes

Coasted in on Fumes

Not long after I first moved to London and purchased this car, I actually ran flat out of gas and had to be rescued. That happened to me once in Windsor as well. One would think that I might learn from my mistakes. One would be so wrong. There is no need for me to run out of gas. As dad told me all those years ago, I pass gas stations all day long in this city. Bad habits are hard to break sometimes. But I commit there and now to not let my car get that low again.

Having fueled the car up and having avoided the embarrassment of being out of gas again, I began to think about the other ways that we run out of fuel. How often do we move through our days mindlessly, knowing full well that we are getting pretty low and our energy is at a place where it will be hard to imagine how we could keep going? We fail to take the necessary steps to make sure we have the energy to continue. Or how often do we spiritually feel that our tank is getting pretty low? There are times I am sure that most of us feel as though we may be drifting further away from God and not closer.

A couple of weeks ago I became aware of the fact that I was not taking the time to do things that replenish me. I cannot tell you how I got there – but I can tell you that I was feeling as though I was not as in touch with my Creator as I normally like to be. As I engaged in my Lenten reflections it became painfully obvious that in the busy day to day grind of life, that for a number of weeks I was not taking the time to do the things that were spiritually life-giving for me. As much as I needed to get to Shell today for petrol I needed to name what fuels me – and go get it. I love to read, and two weeks ago I came to the stark realization that I had gone a couple of months without reading a book at all. I also love to write. My writing had all but stopped. Again I could see my father saying to me why do you let your tank get so low? Just as I sputtered to the tanks today, I sputtered to the book store a couple of weeks ago and have been reading and writing in an attempt to keep things moving?

Dad was right! We have no need to let our tank get so very low. The car and our spirits need ‘regular’ attention in order to keep running smoothly.

I would be interested in hearing what fuels you. What do you need, to keep you moving forward. If you feel comfortable, comment on this blog and share the things that are life-giving for you. When you feel a little low, or lacking energy spiritually or otherwise, where do you go to fill up as it were?

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Do you Wear a Pointy Hat in Bed?


One of the books I am reading this Lent is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton.  The book is a collection of insights and observations and reflections of Thomas Merton that he complied from notebooks he had kept from 1956.  He described the book in his introduction as ‘a personal and monastic meditation, a testimony of Christian reflection in the mid-twentieth century, a confrontation of twentieth century questions in the light of a monastic commitment, which inevitably makes one something of a bystander.’ I love reading Merton because he was very ‘real.’ He had no reservations about expressing his own excitement for God as well as his own struggles with faith.

Tonight as I read I found a short piece he wrote about having to listen to recorded sessions or lectures about the liturgy. He laments the speaker’s way of yelling the word – ca-ROSS, and how such a short but powerful word could be delivered in two syllables instead of one. But beyond just being annoyed with the over zealousness of the voice on the recorded lecture, he moves to remind himself and all of us that we can all be guilty of overly pious behaviour.

Pontiffs! Pontiffs! We are all pontiffs haranguing one another, brandishing our crosiers at one another, dogmatizing, threatening anathemas!

[I read of] a saint who, at the point of death, removed his pontifical vestments and got out of bed. He died on the floor, which is only right: but one hardly has time to be edified by it – one is still musing over the fact that he had pontifical vestments on in bed.

Let us examine our consciences. Do we wear our mitres even to bed? I am afraid we sometimes do.

[Let me pause here to say, I am pretty sure I have met clergy over the years who wear their collars to bed! - Kidding --- It is entirely more likely that they have clerical PJs! ;-D]

But seriously – This is a powerful question, particularly for those of us who work in the church, where we love to argue and nitpick about what ‘right church’ looks like. This malady affects lay and ordained alike. One does not need to be Bishop of Rome to behave as if he/she is. I have certainly been on the wrong end of that crosier and have felt the threat of those who might not appreciate my approach to church. [Not that you would think as much, but I am not talking about my bishop here by the way.] I know how it feels to have clergy and/or lay people make you feel pretty small in the face of their superior ‘churchmanship.’

Do we wear our mitres to bed? Are we like the saint of whom Merton read who held so firmly to his clerical identity that he wore it to bed? Is it possible that we hold onto the ‘mitres’ that we wear in order to pontificate to others, that we can never take them off? We are all guilty of this from time to time. crosier miter

I realize that it is hard remove the garments that cover the nakedness of our vulnerabilities! We feel protected and secure behind our fixed beliefs. ‘If everyone else would just believe the way I do and worship the way I do….’ Or take it away from the realm of church and apply it to other aspects of life. How do we wear mitres in our family? Taking away our own pontifical vestments and baring it all as it were, to sibling, parents, friends is vulnerable. It takes courage to lay aside that which is so important to me in order to take genuine interest to you. But I think we are called to take that risk. We are called to listen more and speak less.

I find that when we become most pontifical is when we compare the best of ourselves to the worst of someone else. In those moments we stand tall, mitre pointing to the heavens,  and our very posture speaks our disdain. It might be time for us to take direction from Jesus who took the form of a servant. Jesus, whose posture spoke of vulnerability, servanthood, and brokeness. Jesus, who rather than impose himself on those he encountered, entered into relationship and taught others with acts of love. Knowing that Christ himself disrobed and washed the disciples feet, we might also lay down garments that mask our vulnerability and be present with God’s people in their complexity and diversity. What do

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go rest – Its hard work pontificating to the world on a blog what I believe we are called to do….

You know, I was just going to wear this stuff to bed…. but…..

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