Monday, September 11, 2006

Fresh Bread and Other Gifts of Spiritual Nourishment

The Call to Discipleship," from "Fresh Bread and Other Gifts of Spiritual Nourishment", by Joyce Rupp.

On one of my retreat days last summer, I stooped to pick up a fallen cottonwood leaf. My heart had been deep in reflection on discipleship and the leaf suddenly symbolised all that I had been praying. Very neatly eaten out of the leaf was a hole, thumbprint size. The tiny chomp marks of a caterpillar or some avaricious insect could be easily seen. My worn spirit looked long at that leaf. I said to myself, "I feel like that: eaten up by my work; the events of my calendar have taken a large space in me."

I have since asked myself many questions about ministry and the feeling that I sometimes get of being "eaten up." I have gone to God in prayer and questioned how much of myself I can afford to give and how much I need to keep. No easy answers have come but gradually I have learned some lessons about the "holes" I sometimes feel in my spirit.

Morton Kelsey so wisely states in Reaching for the Real, "To one person hard work is only pain; to another it is the opportunity to create something of value." To this I'd add, "To some, hard work is just a chomped out hole in one's spirit; to another, it is an opportunity to create something of value for the Kingdom of God. The secret to living with those empty spaces is to have the attitude of a disciple of Jesus.

I have never gotten used to the truth of discipleship: that to belong to Jesus means more than just a good feeling of being cherished and loved. I still struggle with the fact that there are conditions for discipleship and that "following" means some hard demands and some constant conversion:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? Or what has a man to offer in exchange for his life?" (Mt 16: 24-26)

Too often I wish for a call free from obstacles, hurt, pain, disturbance, anxiety.

To follow Jesus in discipleship means that sometimes I will be rejected and misunderstood; I may not see results in ministry and I will need to give when nothing seems to be returned. "To follow" is to live with mystery and to walk in faith, knowing we are deeply loved. Even though discipleship is not always easy and even though sometimes we feel like there's a part of us that been eaten out or chewed on, we can still live with a heart of peace and deep joy. The secret is that attitude which Kelsey spoke of: We know we are creating something of value because our hearts are set on the one who invites us to follow.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Wounded Healer

"The Wounded Healer." By Henri Nouwen: from Chapter 4 "Ministry by a lonely minister."

We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation. This awareness has in turn left man with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community. It has also led people to ask anew how love, friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood can free them from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging. All around us we see the many ways by which people of the western world are trying to escape this loneliness. Psychotherapy, the many institutes which offer group experiences with verbal and nonverbal communication techniques, summer courses and conferences supported by scholars, trainers and "huggers" where people can share common problems, and the many experiments which seek to create intimate liturgies where peace is not only announced but also felt - these increasingly popular phenomena are all signs of a painful attempt to break through the immobilizing wall of loneliness.

But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon - a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.

Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness that we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge - that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and so painful that we are prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we will can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing can live up to our absolutistic expectations.

Beginning Again

From Chapter 4 "Beginning again with church" in "Beginning Again" by John Pritchard

Our expectations of the church should be high but realistic. Every church is a gathering of the walking wounded, some doing better than others but all of us damaged in one way or another. This is what makes churches potentially such places of healing. The church is a laboratory of the human, the place where we find out and experiment with the glorious task of becoming fully human and alive - ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven. But there will be disappointments along the way and we must not throw out the baby of faith with the dirty bath water of the church.

It may help to think of a room where young children have been playing all day. When we go in after they have gone to their tea the room looks like a disaster area. Toys and games lie everywhere, scattered around chaotically. What we may be conscious of is simply a mess. There is no life in these discarded objects lying knee-deep across the floor. However, when the children come back after tea and begin playing again, the whole situation changes. Life returns. The chaos becomes meaningful; the mess is actually an area of purpose and pleasure for children and their parents. Similarly, the church, when viewed by an outsider, may appear a mess. This is the way it is sometimes portrayed in the media. All that appears is muddle and confusion - lifeless objects covering the floor. However, when you see in the midst of the mess the presence of Christ, it all begins to make sense. This is the area of divine play, of the rich and colourful life of God, poured out for us in reckless love. In response to that love we play the best we can, and try to keep hitting each other to a minimum! But what was formerly unintelligible, now becomes marvellously alive. Our expectations of the church therefore have to be high, but realistic enough to recognize that it often appears to be a bit of a mixed bag, both to us and to others.

Expectancy, on the other hand, can never be high enough. When we come to church to worship, we are coming to meet with God. Worship is the technicolour film of our faith. It is offering all of ourselves to all God has revealed himself to be, and the outcome should be change. The result of truly encountering the terror and beauty of God is not conformity but transformation. We are broken open to the invasion of the Spirit, to the mystery of each other, and to the wounds of the world. When we come to worship we don't come to twiddle our thumbs. Expectancy is fully justified because it is directed towards God's activity and not ours.