Sunday, September 25, 2005

Making a Place in the World ::

I remember the feeling of purchasing my first home. As a thirty-year-old doctoral candidate, I took a pastorate in a traditional, urban neighborhood of my hometown. I felt a profound settledness. It was my place, not a landlord's house, nor my parents' home. The age of Jesus at the outset of his ministry, I was carving out my own niche in the world. Would the Son of Man, who had "no place to lay his head," call me away from such a place? Five years later, I discerned that God was calling me to leave. Not only did I leave this place, but I gave up having a place of my own while I finished an internship in counseling. The crisis of adjust­ment for my family was stressful. I now have a deeper appreciation for the difficulty the invited guest had in leaving a field to go to God's party.

We must make our place in the world. We will do it either in a manner that enhances our lives spiritually or in a way that detracts from our true humanness. Place-making requires the elements of time, depth and creativity. Time enough to establish oneself. Depth enough to put our roots down to the water tables of community. Creativity enough to fashion our place as an expression of our truest nature.

I've met persons who seem to have never fully landed. They are caught up in dream-chasing to the extent that they carry through with few of their creative notions. The stories of their lives are disjointed series of half-written fairy tales without the depth of meaning found in a cohesive narrative. This is distraction in its negative, shadow sense.

As in many spiritual realities, truth exists between the extremes. At the other extremity of distracted place-making are root-bound individ­uals. They are so tied to the earth of their place that they can no longer make it their own. Their place is defined by mothers and fathers, mother-figures and father-figures, in such a way that it stifles their own self-definition. The chief symptom of their stagnation is a persistent, simmering anger. Sometimes masked in depression, the bitterness can be heard in the cynical powerlessness of their language and self-assess­ments. Otherwise, it spells out a choking moralism and judgmental disposition toward others, especially toward the free-spirited. Their story is the story of their clan: canonical, sacred, unquestioned, hiding shameful wounds behind secrets and secret sin. Like the age-old incantations of a ritual, the spell-binding story defines the person and his or her place in life.

Our life’s story is the account of our finding our place in the world. Jesus told the story of a person who found a treasure hidden in a field, reburied it and gladly went and bought the field. This kingdom parable is a picture of distraction. Do we find the kingdom or does it find us? Did the man become a treasure hunter or a treasure finder? Did he compulsively go digging in fields the rest of his life or did he settle down on his treasured field? The treasure is not the field of our lives, but what we find in the field. Our place in this world is the gift found in distraction. The serendipity of the find became the story of the man's life—The Man Who Found the Treasure in the Field. Likewise, our story reflects our basic disposition toward our place in life: hunting or finding.

While hiking in the Texas hill country, I was discussing with my wife Thomas Moore’s book, The Enchantment of Everyday Life. Moore refers to the ancient religious practices of discerning the spirits of a place before deciding to build. Just then, Marlena pointed to a large flat rock under our feet on the trail. The rock’s natural indentations formed the clear picture of a face—to us a scowling face. “Looks like we just met one of the spirits of this place,” I remarked as I took a photo. The developed picture sits on my desktop, but now the rock’s face is more inviting and happy. Perhaps the rock was reflecting my spirit at the time.

One's story can either reveal or conceal. I grew up in a religion that valued stories. It was important to be able to "give a testimony" of God's work in our lives, past or present. In the formality of this storytell­ing, I heard the self-descriptions of my fellow congregants. Some testimonies were full of stock phrases and cliché mean­ings, finished and polished in neat packaging, designed to impress and uphold carefully-crafted self images. They either whitewashed the obvious or hurtfully broadcast secrets in a public confessional. Other testimonies had a richness and individuality—works in progress—bearing the signature of grace. These stories rang true with an authentic tone, giving greater light into the soul of the storyteller.

Our story portrays our place in the world and our aspirations for enriching our place. A good story enlightens both teller and hearer to the sense of journey. The story of a life-enhancing place carries both the thread of meaning spun from the wheel of generations and the recipes of healing potions distilled from the laboratory of life's experi­ments. It offers a bookbinding for the journey's saga of mountains and valleys, conflicts and covenants. It is a display case for artifacts of legends and a drawing board for blurry blueprints of visions. Standing in such a place is like attending a celebration.

For Israel, the place of greatest distractibility was the Exodus, a life-defining journey from slavery to promise. This story embodies the soul of the nation and many stories were spun from this central legend: stories of mighty kings and captivities, victory chants and lamentations. Israel's greatest figures were sojourners. Abraham, a "stranger in a strange land." Sarah, the mother of a nation. Moses, the leader of the migration and his mother who courageously cast him afloat in the Nile to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Elijah, the prophet who discov­ered God in the stillness of Horeb. Daniel, who in Babylonia discovered that God’s power and presence is not limited to a certain land. Though focused on the land, Israel's soul was not in the land, but in the journey of God with the people who traversed the land. The Scriptures record the epic of God's recurrent distraction of the nation from their land to the journey—and the many heroes who caught sight of the vision.

The outset of the journey of Christ could be described as a call to begin forming the story of one's relationship with God. As our story forms, so our place in the world takes shape.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Root of Bitterness ::

I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of his wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
He has filled me with bitter herbs
and sated me with gall.
You have covered yourself with a cloud
so that no prayer can get through.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3

Disillusionment may entail a bitter response but does not necessarily end there. Bitterness, on the other hand, can be a spiritual black hole that devours the soul and consumes faith. The writer of Hebrews urges us to give special care to those who, in their pain, turn a hard face against God: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Rather, we are to consider Christ’s suffering so that we do “not grow weary and lose heart.” This was Teresa of Avila’s advice to those who encounter difficulties in prayer: embrace the cross.

In my conversations with disillusioned persons, I perhaps err at times on the side of encouragement and confrontation. When I see bitter herbs growing in the garden of a person’s spirit, I want to reach down and pluck them out. My mentors have cautioned me about this tendency, but I know what devastation a root of bitterness can wreak.

For five long years I was not on speaking terms with God because I was so bitter. I didn’t recognize it as bitterness at first, but, I thought of my dryness in prayer as a grief reaction to what I perceived as mistreatment. Although I told myself that others have had far worse experiences than mine and have emerged with faith intact, in honest moments I held God responsible for this injustice and felt betrayed. It was an arduous journey for me, including therapy for depression and panic attacks, before I was able to connect this experience with my childhood and see a pattern of revictimization in my life.

Eventually, I instinctively did what Teresa of Avila advised: I embraced the cross. When there were no satisfactory answers to my angry “why” questions, the incarnation and death of Christ took on a new meaning.

Embracing the cross,
Let us follow Jesus,
He is our way and light
Abounding in consolations . . .


God did not help me to make sense of my world but entered into its senselessness with me. While I could no longer trust in the theologically tidy God of my youth, I could trust this God who entered fully into the messy quandary of human existence and death. God has never looked the same since, and I never want to go back to that black hole again.

Rescuing others from their bitterness can be like helping a butterfly out of its cocoon. The results can be harmful, if not disastrous. I’m learning to face this propensity to rescue others for what it is: a lack of faith that God is present and active even in the darkness and an idolatry of my own need to be needed. Nothing gets me into my own shadow like being with people in their darkness.

What, then, are we to make of experiences that defy any semblance of divine order? What about tragedy? What about oppressive, diabolical abuse? Dark faith makes no excuses for God; dark faith holds nothing back from God. The danger lies not in our anger over our victimization, but rather in allowing the victimization to become our identity. By taking on the identity of a victim, we unconsciously destine ourselves to experience the victimization over and over in order to confirm who we are as a victim. Victimization becomes revictimization: an insidious root of bitterness.

Naomi, in the book of Ruth, lost not only her husband but her sons as well. Left in dire poverty, she changed her name from Naomi, or “pleasant,” to Mara, which means “bitter.” “The Almighty has made my life very bitter,” she lamented. “I went away full, but the Lord has
brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:20-22).

Thérèse of Lisieux struggled her life long with victimization and a pervasive feeling of being unloved and abandoned. Having lost her mother at the age of four, she was extremely insecure and hypersensitive to any slight. She transformed her own sense of victimization through her faith in the merciful love of God and her desire “to be His victim of love,” perhaps reminiscent of Job’s statement of faith, “though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). Like Job, and in spite of her own persistent dark night and a religious climate that emphasized the punitive nature of God, Thérèse asserted that “God knows only how to love and be loved.”

Some persons have the depth of spirit to find a piton of faith on the sheer cliffs of despair. Like Bunyan’s pilgrim faced with death in the dark dungeon of Doubting Castle, they find within themselves the key to their own release. It is at such times that the faith gifts we’ve received along the way become golden.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Learning to be Distracted ::

Distraction is a paradox. The value of distraction as a place on the journey of Christ is its ability to help us break out of our ruts and pick up the trail of God's new direction. These distractions are what James Hillman, in The Soul’s Code, refers to as “trivial gusts that take you off course and seem to be delaying your projected arrival in the teleological harbor.” Don’t point your compass “too fixedly on the far horizon,” he warns. These accidental gusts have purpose, which can be seen only by the purposive eye. Life is about learning to make the little corrections in our course as a consequence of these gusts—adjustments that shape the form of our soul.

Making these course adjustments is one of the arts of the spiritual life. We set our course, then alter it; set it, then alter it—always with an eye on the horizon where our home port lies.

Distractions are the comets of the night sky. The expert astrono­mers know the orbits of the planets and the coordinates of the constella­tions. With legions of huge telescopes they study the heavens nightly. But, every now and again comes a new comet. Some have been discovered by amateur stargazers with mere binoculars. Coming out of nowhere, they evoke our awe and fear.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist or theologian to be encountered by God. In the spiritual universe of the soul, the star maps are drawn by the surveyors of religion, but the most exciting discoveries are made by the explorers of experience. One knows the book of God; the other knows God. One knows the laws of God; the other, the love of God. One knows how things should be; the other wonders how things could be.

Distraction is an intersection of colliding views of God and life. At this crossroads staid predictability gets sideswiped by mystery.

Distraction is invitation. Think back to the precursors of the significant events in your life. Were they planned or discovered? Your first encounter with the person you married. A big break in your career. A turn in your health. First encounters with persons who now are good friends.

In what ways are the currents of God's distractions stirring your life these days?