Active Waiting

I don’t know about you, but it seems as though nothing has gone according to plan this year. We’ve all experienced a series of disappointments caused by this dangerous and determined virus. From church closures, to holiday plans missed, to annual shopping fun cancelled it has been a great challenge to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Such an unprecedented time we’re living through! Even the Oxford English Dictionary announced that it couldn’t select merely one Word of the Year for 2020, instead offering a list of words or phrases that marked a “rapidly and repeatedly changing” cultural landscape, including the word blursday — when you’ve been sheltering in place for so long because of a global pandemic you have no idea what day it is as they all blur together.

So much of this year has been about waiting… waiting because we don’t know what’s coming next, or when we can return to church, or when a vaccine will be released. This is the typical way that we think of ‘waiting’, as a passive nothingness when circumstances are out of our hands. But this is not the spiritual waiting we are invited into in the season of Advent. Advent, like Lent, is about expectation because we believe in the promise that something is coming because something has already begun. I was rereading The Path of Waiting by Henri Nouwen and he perfectly articulates this kind of spiritual waiting when he notes, “We can really wait only if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So, waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.” Spiritual waiting is never passive!

Jesus himself beckons us into this active waiting in the Gospel this Sunday, ” Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come … And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” We can wait because we know that God’s unfolding plan is not only unfolding all around us, but it includes us! “Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment …” Nouwen says. I often spend a lot of effort trying to feel like I’m in control of more in my life than I actually am– and this pandemic has brought me face-to-face with that reality. But I deeply believe in God’s unfolding plan and so I don’t seem to struggle with active waiting in the season of Advent or Lent. The seeds have already been sown and while I await the harvest, I continue to tend the field. This year my goal is to take that spiritual practice outward into the rest of my life, and hopefully I’ll learn to rest a little less in my own need for control and more in God’s waiting embrace.

Seventy-Seven Times

How hard is it for you to forgive someone?

When I ask myself that question I immediately start to qualify– well, what did they do? Is it is my family, my friend, someone I don’t really know? We often associate the ease of forgiveness with the severity of the offence or the level of intimacy of the relationship, but in the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus makes no such distinction.

“…how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

I was asked recently to imagine what the world would be like if the Church had only maintained the tenant of forgiveness (especially to one’s enemy) as its core teaching for the last 2000 years. Sadly, once an underdog moves to the top, as was the case when Christianity was officially adopted by the Roman Empire and used as a means of control and identity across Europe (313 AD), it becomes almost impossible to hear Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness. The Church neglected to teach the loving and non-violent message from the Sermon on the Mount, favoring instead much of the stone laws of the Old Testament. We shifted away from bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now in this life (as Jesus instructed) and instead made everything about preparing for the next life, and most certainly how to use fear and shame to illicit obedience.

How far have we really come from those dark ages of spiritual co-dependence and fear mongering? How much have we really matured from the times when wars were waged in the name of religion, in the name of God? What would this world be like if we had been teaching this Gospel message? What would this country be like if those who claim the ministry of Jesus had been, from the beginning, sharing the message of forgiveness. Thank God for our Quaker and Mennonite brothers and sisters who did indeed hold this in high value. How much could we learn from them?

I do not claim to have mastered the practice of forgiveness, but I am convinced it is one of the most important steps to salvation, or higher consciousness. In it’s action lies the central point of all great spirituality… learning to let go— learning to unshackle yourself from the burden of suffering, from the illusion of separation, from the sting of death itself.

In this time where a cold civil war rages in this country, I believe reclaiming the wisdom of forgiveness is the Churches greatest challenge and it’s most important responsibility. And each of us carry that same calling to forgive “from your heart” as Jesus says, and that same invitation into the Kingdom, here and now. Thank God we are given countless opportunities to practice each and every day.

I Am Love

Author, mystic, and teacher, James Finley said, “In the light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time, really. We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny.”

What I love about this statement is that it points to an absolute indwelling of God in us and us in God. If God is love and love is our origin, our very substance, and our destiny, then we cannot/do not dwell apart from the love of God. Think of all the times scripture points out that we are God’s own– that we belong to God. This is not a claim of possession. This is a true statement of inseparable existence– utter interdependence.

What else could God mean when God says, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26) As Richard Rohr says, “We have heard the phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what ‘created in the image and likeness of God’ is saying about us. If this is true—and I believe it is—our family of origin is divine. We were created by a loving God to be love in the world.”

My point in sharing this is that love is not an action that you ‘do’. Love is what and who you are in your deepest self. Love is already at your core, and yet it is also far beyond you. That is the paradox– just like when we say that God is both hidden and revealed. There is no access to the hidden God except by way of God manifested in creation. We long for God because God longs for us; God eternally desires to give God’s self away in love so we can give ourselves away in love.

In accepting this mutual indwelling found in love, we can begin to grasp the reality that divine love is unconditional. There is nothing to be earned or bargained for, because it is already a part of the Creator and the created– Love and the beloved. And once you can begin to grasp unconditional love, you cannot help but give yourself away, just as God does. This is why love is at once our origin and our destiny.

I hope you have felt such intimacy alone with God. I promise you it is available to you. Maybe a lot of us just need to be told that this divine intimacy is what we should expect and seek. We’re afraid to ask for it; we’re afraid to seek it. It feels presumptuous. We can’t trust that such a love exists—and for us. But it does and it’s already inside you.

Peace,
Br. Will

This Known Unknown

Remnants of something previously known
Or was it?
A post-apocalyptic expression
Now covering a familiar scene
Windows scream, “LOOK!”
At empty sidewalks… or nearly
A lone explorer traveling at dusk
In search of what?
What solace will you find in this barren place?
Beware the wolves that lurk
No longer safe he dives into a canyon
Heart racing, out of breath, the tears fall
Like tiny streams of pain feeding an empty desert
That agony returns, chest pounding
Cracked open like a ripe pomegranate
Exposed and raw
Beautiful and dangerous
The seeds bleed
And stain the surface they’ve fallen on
How to mend this broken body
How to replace what’s lost
Self inflected
With polished replies
And sharpened fear
And was this real?
Is it desolation
This main street
Or merely a moment in time
The sun emerges again
And life… as it is… attempts to move
But masked in worry
Fails to step forth
Seeds had been planted
But no shoots have sprung up
Even as summer approaches
Spring… Aye
That is the missing piece
He picks up his hat which had blown off his head
And re-entering remembers what he was seeking
Yet still unsure where he will find it
He continues into this known unknown

Change Is Here

I have been attending an annual conference for religious this week. The conference was scheduled to be in Cincinnati, but was moved online to Zoom, like so many other things these days. Our key note speaker was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael Curry. He and his staff meet virtually with the leaders of the associations organizing the conference and had a discussion about religious life and the current state of the Episcopal church which was shared with the conference attendees Thursday morning.

If you haven’t seen or heard Michael Curry– you should look him up on YouTube (go ahead, I’ll wait). He’s a very charismatic speaker, perhaps more globally known for the homily he delivered at the royal wedding of HRH Prince Harry. This conversation for the conference was another example of his energizing and stirring elocutionary skills.

While I watched this conversation unfold I was struck by the fearlessness with which Bishop Curry approaches his role as the “head” of the Episcopal Church USA. He views his position as an kind of ambassador– a true evangelist, sharing Jesus’ love with the world and speaking from the perspective of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. He is brimming over with joy! He doesn’t fear parochial reports and the numbers declining in churches. While he acknowledges there are things we can learn from that, he stated unequivocally, “the Church has changed, the Church is changing, the Church will change.” Our job is to step right into the midst of that change, take the hand of of God, and walk on boldly into the Churches next chapter together. It was exhilarating. He said that “he believes that a Church where the people really are praying and living in that Living relationship with God … who we know in Jesus, that kind of Church is a movement that Pilot could’t stop in the first century and the coronavirus will not stop in the 21st, no matter how secular a society may be.”

Personally I have seen this Church do things in one month that I hadn’t thought were possible. Churches with no staff, few parishioners, scarce resources pulling together virtual worship experience all over the world. Small groups of morning prayer, bible studies, pastoral messages, group fellowship, forming seemingly out of thin air! Now believe me, I know full well how much work it takes to organize and produce this type of content– and it was almost comical how clumsy some of the roll out was for some communities, with poor lighting, out of focus cameras, inaudible voices, but it’s come together in miraculous ways, and brothers and sisters– people are being CHANGED! A few weeks ago, many churches didn’t even know how they would pull of Holy Week. Yet, I would dare say that more people attended Easter services at Episcopal churches this year than in recent memory.

What better example of the power of resurrection than this!? The disciples and followers, in their distress and dismay, couldn’t have imagined what was waiting them, and Jesus showed them that the power of God’s love has no holds, that death and disease cannot stop the miracle of resurrection! and they were forever CHANGED.

Even while I weep for those who are suffering and those who have died in this chaotic time, I will REJOICE. For I know that God’s love is more powerful still, and the change we have felt is but a foretaste of the glorious and hope-filled change that is to come.

Be safe and be well.

A New Journey

I remember when the internet was this new ‘thing.’ No one was quite sure what to make of it. I can’t fully remember how it was “marketed” initially, but I recall that there were few things you could search for, in the beginning– some recipes, some business listings– it was pretty boring. But, before you knew it, this strange new tool seemed to explode with websites and information. Eventually, these funny things called “chat rooms” appeared on the scene, where you could discuss cooking or hobbies or news-of-the-day with total strangers halfway around the world! I was amazed. Suddenly, the entire globe started to feel smaller, more accessible. As the internet grew and grew I was more and more fascinated with the seemingly limitless technology at my fingertips! I could research information about history and science in an instant. I could watch videos on culture and goofy cats. And, the first time I used Google Earth to look up a location like the Great Pyramids of Egypt and watched as the Earth on the screen spun and I seemed to descend downward towards the surface, rapidly approaching my destination like a rocket crashing in from orbit, until eventually I was looking at recent actual satellite images of the pyramids– it was as if I had seen the Hubble Telescope images for the first time.

Fast forward more years than I care to think about, and I have greatly taken the internet and technology for granted– using it everyday of my life in some capacity. All of the apps and information at my fingertips seem more my right than my privilege. Can you imagine lugging around street maps or, God forbid, stopping in a gas station to ask for directions? Can you imagine waiting for weeks for packages to be delivered, instead of the precious Prime 2-days?

Suddenly, the stable structure of my daily life, which I rarely think about in totality, is turned upside down. Shelter-in-place means the technology of ordering groceries online or setting up virtual meetings in cyberspace becomes a necessity not just one of many regular options for ‘fun.’ I no longer take the internet for granted these days. The world feels smaller again, more accessible, as I consciously consent to allow the outside world into my home. My church, my spiritual family, must visit me while I sit at my dining table instead of my pew. Recordings of sacred music transform my private space into a sanctuary of sorts. And so, Holy Week takes shape in 2020.

I just finished a beautiful, virtual, Maundy Thursday experience where we gathered via Zoom and shared an agape-style meal, prayed together, shared scripture together, fellowshipped together. It is an entirely different Holy Week. Like my Jewish family, who celebrated a virtual Passover Seder, we are asked– expected– to participate in ancient liturgies from a place we’ve never been before. Suddenly, familiar journeys seem strange and unusual, and everything feels, somehow– new. I find myself moving beyond my rekindled gratitude for the technology that allows us to stay ‘connected’ during all of this, and into an unknown space where I hear the words of these stories, the prayers of these nights, in a totally new way.

What a strange gift to be so shaken out of my comfort zone that these precious moments– this ‘Holy’ week, takes on a new life and makes new demands of us. Whether you join online worship experiences this week or you simply find a quiet time and space to pray, we are all still on this journey together and God is revealing God’s self to us in every moment and in every place. May we be a people transformed by this experience, more conscious of the ties that bind us together– virtual or otherwise, and when we eventually emerge from our tombs, may resurrection be truly felt throughout creation.

This Is the Wilderness

Christians are a people used to waiting. The two pivotal seasons for us each year, Easter and Christmas, are each preceded by a period of waiting and journeying. In both Lent and Advent we change our behavior, our worship, our focus. We reflect and prepare for the breaking-in of God into our space and time– the incarnation of the Divine. These annual pilgrimages have become familiar to many of us, comfortable even, but why? I myself am a rather impatient person by nature, but even I find that I relish and enjoy these seasons of waiting and wanting. I think we can manage the waiting because we still believe we are in control. We know what’s coming. We’ve walked this road before. We get to decide how we spend our time– what we’re going to “give up”. We can tell you the outcome before it even happens. It seems… known. But really… it only seems that way.

The reality is that we can never ‘know’ what will come on the journey to incarnation. Every moment that God breaks into our lives is a unique and new experience. Understandably, there can be a sense of fear around that ‘unknowing’– which I think is why the first thing we often hear accompanying those moments in scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” But incarnation always comes… and it always comes with great love. Our opportunity to ‘let go and let God’, as it were, becomes a journey of hope and freedom.

In these uncertain times of social distance, shelter-in-place, no contact– when businesses are closed, many people find themselves on the verge of unemployment or are already there, news of disease and death, social upheaval and financial distress dominate the airwaves, and we are told we must wait before life can ‘return to normal’, I can’t help but think about Lent and Advent. I am reminded of just how often we are asked to wait for the unknown.

These last few weeks have been a great test for me. I am normally a very social person and to find myself suddenly told to avoid others, was like running into a brick wall. I have struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep sense of isolation. I share this not for your pity or sympathy but because I know many of you have also been struggling. Lent calls us into the wilderness– into that deep place, alone with ourselves, and for most that is a hard place to be. Well– here we are my friends. In this wilderness I have confronted demons and temptations. I have prayed and I have fought. I have reflected and I know I have grown.

We’re not out of the desert yet, and right now the end is unknown. But we are a people of waiting, and what we do know is that God is walking right beside each and every one of us, in this place and everywhere. We are not alone. We are never left in the wilderness. As sure as we are taken to this place of isolation and introspection, we are called out again and back into the loving arms of community and joy and that cycle continues over and over again. So… we can rest in this space for a time. We can struggle in this space for a time, but we will be transformed and resurrected again and again, and each time find ourselves closer and closer to the authentic and life-giving love of God.

Be kind with yourselves right now. Be safe. Be healthy. Be not afraid.

Dust

“The seeker of truth should be humbler than the dust.” – Gandhi

There is a common dynamic in most world religions, that one must go “down” before one can go “up.” It’s counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural, but many wisdom teachers including Jesus pointed to this pattern. Sadly, much of the world views this approach of humility as weak, fragile, or feeble. In a society that puts power before thought, it’s no wonder this path would seem less desirable. GOOD NEWS!! There is nothing to fear about spiritual humility! In fact, when we train ourselves to enter into a space of humility we find we can more easily access the fruits of the spirit-such as love, JOY, peace, patience kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we go inward (or down) and find our truest self we can rise into a new consciousness.

Lent provides the perfect space to slow down, look inward, and then move outward into the world again-hopefully a little changed. Humility is not about shame or guilt. Humility is about “grounding” oneself in the truth of things. The Latin humus, literally means ground or dirt! When we root ourselves in the truth we can move more freely and love more deeply. Humility is one of the four vows of my own religious community, The Community of the Mother of Jesus, and I practice a number of different exercises around humility. The best place to start is to listen more than you speak. I find that I am able to perceive wisdom much faster when I am simply listening to what is going on around me. Truth revealed through humility is rooted in the present moment, the way things really are at that space in time. Only then can we move into another great exercise in humility: seeking and expressing gratitude (this is where the joy comes in). Each time we can orient our minds and souls to the many ways we are grateful we bring ourselves more and more inline with the very nature of God. To operate from sincere gratitude is to operate from divine love.

Think about the dust that Gandhi mentioned in the quote above. It exists exactly as it is, and even when it is blown about by the wind it is unchangeable-its identity is secure. So when you hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return” on Ash Wednesday, how will you reflect on that truth? I hope you will allow yourself to be grounded in the wonderful reality of God, that all things come from and return to the Creator. And remember, dust is eternal, and so are you.

Mixed Blessings

This Christmas season was unusually difficult for me. I typically become so busy with work and preparations that it can feel as though Christmas and New Years is gone within a ‘blink’! But, this year I found my heart was heavy and my mind distracted. I was still busy, but there was this constant hum in the background which pulled me into moments of sadness and anxiety, and I couldn’t seem to pinpoint an exact cause. Most likely it was a lot of different concerns and fears that somehow became all entwined together and kept weighing me down like pulling an anchor along behind me. Some days I merely found it exhausting while other days I had to simply find a space to cry. It’s not as though I were completely miserable this season. There moments of laughter and fun with friends, but I just couldn’t seem to shake this anxious sadness.

I tried my usual techniques for managing stress and anxiety with meditation and exercise, and of course I already pray– a lot, so bringing my concerns to God was front and center. But that was just it, even though I asked God for help I kept feeling that sadness creep back in. Was I not letting go? Was God not paying attention? Was there some higher purpose for my suffering? When you’re feeling crummy it really doesn’t matter, you just don’t want to feel crummy anymore. I just had to keep telling myself to ‘just keep swimming’. After all, I had a lot of responsibilities over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The services at my church were magnificent, as always, with soaring music and beautiful rituals. I continued to struggle with some difficult emotional moments, but what was interesting was the homily on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. At that same moment in each service it was as if the preacher were speaking directly to me. I know some of you have had those experiences, when the message just strikes a chord in your heart. It was strong enough that I sat up and took notice. It was as if God, as if a friend, were tugging on my sleeve and saying, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m right here… I’m right with you.” My heaviness seemed a little lighter in that moment. I didn’t feel alone in my pain.

Isn’t that what what the entire biblical narrative is really all about? No matter what is happening, no matter how people are hurting inside or causing each other pain– isn’t God constantly saying and showing us, “Hey! I’m right here… I’m with you. I never leave you.”

I held my sorrow a little differently from that point on. I realized that I could at once feel my pain and believe that God’s love was enfolding me, protecting me, and guiding me onward. My suffering did not exist in the absence of God, nor was it possible because I was not faithful enough. Sometimes we just hurt. It’s real, it matters, and it deserves attention, but it need not overshadow our capacity to walk with God and each other each. That gift was offered to creation from the very beginning.

Divine Love didn’t begin at Christmas. That sweet manger scene in Bethlehem was another ‘beginning’ to a ongoing, unending, display of God’s miraculous mercy and love. There were countless people hurting, one way or another, on the night in which Jesus was born. There were countless people suffering on that bright Easter morning when an empty tomb heralded Christ’s resurrection once more. I believe God’s persistent Emmanuel reminder is not an end to human suffering, but to show us that no matter what we are experiencing we can know that we are not alone– That God is in us, experiencing our sorrow, and working through us in every moment.

The end-of-the-year holidays can be a challenging time for many people and sometimes in the hustle and bustle of carols and cookies, shopping and church, we can become blind to our fellow brothers and sisters who are hurting right in our midst. So keep your eyes open to those around you who are vulnerable this season. Offer them kindness and prayers of peace, and if you are hurting this Christmastide, know that God is with you now and always. That is the true peace that passes all understanding.

Pregnant Pause

Advent has begun and the journey from darkness to light, Nazareth to Bethlehem, empty manger to the birth of Jesus is upon us. These familiar patterns are always full of possibility and challenge, and I have to say I’ve grown quite fond of Advent for that very reason. However, I always have to resist the urge to jump past the journey directly to Christmas! I mean… come on… ‘Christmas’ is all around us even from before Thanksgiving; many churches have even begun singing Christmas carols! But our Church tradition provides a very important period of reflection and preparation before we even reach the manger and the Christ-child. I only wish more of our culture embraced this season of waiting and wanting, and it’s opportunities to slow down, not speed up.

Full disclosure: I always struggle with patience myself, and find it much easier to reflect upon than to actually put it into practice. But for some reason in my prayer life recently, I keep coming back to the imagery of pregnancy. I have never been pregnant, nor am I a woman, but we’re all fairly familiar with the process. (If you haven’t watched the BBC series, “Call the Midwife” – you must!)

There are many, many passages in scripture which reference birth, from the literal act to the metaphorical such as being ‘born again’ in spirit and so on, and I am reminded that an important part of pregnancy is that it shouldn’t be rushed. In its healthiest capacity, it has to unfold naturally allowing time for the mother and the child to prepare for the violent and often dangerous act of the birth itself. Mothers I have spoken to mention all of the changes for which they had to adapt, leading up to birth and the expectation, excitement, and fear as the day drew ever closer. For many, labor is painful and even terrifying, but as John 16 reminds us, “when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.”

So, if you’re able, enjoy this ‘pregnant pause’ before the birth of Jesus. This necessary, hopeful, waiting which allows our hearts and minds to prepare for the wonderful and tremendous intrusion of God into our very midst. Open the hymnal and relish over the beautiful Advent hymns that come before the well-beloved Christmas favorites. Let the light of the Advent wreath dance in your heart as the darkness is peeled back layer by layer each week. And, finally, rejoice in the birth of new hope and unending possibility that comes with Emmanuel, God with us!