Sunday, September 19, 2010

Henri Nouwen: A Friend and Mentor I Never Met

Henri Nouwen was a wise and compassionate man. A prolific author. A very spiritual man without all the "Christian-ese" vocabulary. A brilliant man who left a teaching career at Yale and Harvard to work with and serve the mentally handicapped. A man of a plethora of profound words working with those incapable of speech. I have greatly benefited from his writings and share some of his thoughts with you now.

The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.

**It is tragic to see how the religious sentiment of the West has become so individualized that concepts such as "a contrite heart," have come to refer only to the personal experiences of guilt and willingness to do penance for it. The awareness of our impurity in thoughts, words and deeds can indeed put us in a remorseful mood and create in us the hope for a forgiving gesture. But if the catastrophic events of our days, the wars, mass murders, unbridled violence, crowded prisons, torture chambers, the hunger and the illness of millions of people and the unnameable misery of a major part of the human race is safely kept outside the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remains no more than a pious emotion.

**Waiting is a dry desert between where we are and where we want to be.

**Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

**As soon as we are alone,...inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.

**Dear God, I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.
And what you want to give me is love,
unconditional, everlasting love.

**He who thinks that he is finished is finished. How true. Those who think that they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it. Those who think they are saints, are demons.

**Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.

**When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

**Much violence is based on the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not to be shared.

**The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares.

**Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.

**Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Silencing the Shame by Giving Voice to It

I'm cheap, which means I seldom go to a movie theater and pay a minimum of $7 for a ticket, $17.95 for popcorn in a paper cup, and a $5 Coke in a cup smaller than what my doctor provides for a urine sample. I had heard good things about a particular movie and I really appreciate Robert Duvall as an actor. So I went extravagant and purchased a ticket, minus the handful of popcorn and the gargle of Coke. It was the best 7 bucks I've spent in quite a while.

Staged in the 1930's, Duvall portrays backwoods hermit Felix Bush--a mean, haggard, eccentric old man who can't live with himself or others because of something in his past. He's the talk of not only the town but neighboring counties. He has many more rumors about him than friends around him. He's a recluse confined in his own self-imposed prison. He decides he wants someone to perform his funeral while he's still alive--for poignant reasons that you will have to discover for yourself.

His sin and the consequent shame drive him to a desperate point where he acknowledges he needs to "get low," i.e. get down to business and deal with the skeletons in his closet. All his life he has done everything regarding his sinfulness but face it.

I know that feeling. Many of us live with, we think and feel, unspeakable sin. Shameful acts done
by us; irretrievable words we have inflicted on another. Hideous abuse done to us; demeaning, soul-searing words spewed at us.

We deal with the unspoken sin done by us or to us in many ways.

Some of us run in an effort to avoid it. If I don't think about then it didn't happen, so my mind tries to convince me. And it works. . . at times. But if there is any unoccupied time of any duration you and I know what surfaces.

Others of us engage in distraction. We keep busy. As long as I don't stop, I don't have to think about it. This coping mechanism of distraction looks virtuous. It's the workaholic that rises up the corporate ladder. We accomplish so much; all the doing is an attempt to soothe my being.

Some of us punish ourselves in an attempt to atone for our sin. You deprive yourself of everyday needs and joys to which everyone else seems entitled. Felix Bush lived alone for decades, depriving himself of wife and children as one means of punishing himself. Some of us inflict physical pain on ourselves. Short-term relief, but no long-term release.

A lot of us engage in numbing/soothing means to assuage our pain. Our addictions serve this purpose. The rush of the gambling, the sedation of the alcohol, the intoxication of the porn--whatever the activity may be--they can all serve as attempts at escaping the pain of what I've done or what's been done to me. Sadly, the pain soon returns after the addictive activity or substance loses its impact, and the deadly cycle is set in motion.

Old, old man Felix has lived with the shame of his sin a long, long time. He's facing death and not only needing but wanting forgiveness. He gets low--and not in any way you'd expect.

We need to "get low" if we are to ever live "high" above our shame, our sin.

Telling our sin, our shame--confession--to someone trustworthy sets us on a path of healing. It is healing to confess to someone who still looks us in the eye, someone who doesn't gasp at what we've done, but grieves with us over what we've done. It is a profound step toward healing to speak the unspeakable things done to us--things we've kept silent since childhood-- and have someone grieve for us and take the responsibility for that sin off of ourselves and on the perpetrator. It mediates forgiveness to confess to someone who does not shrink back in horror, but reaches out in compassion. Their response is God's response to and regard for us. God mediates and bestows his forgiveness through his people. This hearing and caring brother assures me God is hearing and caring. That compassionate sister mirrors God's forgiveness as she listens to your story.

I need to
get low with God if I am ever to get above and beyond the sins done by me or to me.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Grandparents: They're "Special"

Who knew?? September 12 was National Grandparents Day. I mean, it's not like it ranks up there with Christmas or Halloween. "Let's see. . . Christmas is Dec. 25 and Halloween is Oct. 31 and Grandparents Day? Of course, the first Sunday after Labor Day. EVERYBODY knows that!"

My wife and I did receive a card from a particular grandson. In six year old style printing he wrote that he loves us, and then a p.s.

"Diaper boy--You are weird. Nana--your hair smells like bacon."

An explanation. I'm confident that in referring to me as "Diaper boy," it is not a term of derision he has concocted, but an expression of affection and appreciation. I'm still not sure where he came up with that. On the other hand, maybe he found out, even though I'm very careful; when he's visiting I always go out of my way and inconvenience myself by wearing pants over my Depends. So, how would he know?

And I take "weird" to be a compliment, as well. Weird as in "not being like everybody else, but standing above the boring crowd." Weird as in strangely wonderful. Weird as in uniquely fantastic. Not weird as in "what's up with Papa?" Not weird as in "Why does he act like that?" Never weird like

As to his reference to his grandma's hair smelling like bacon. I've repeatedly told her that the daily porkchop she straps on top of her head is not stylish and that people are not gawking in admiration. But I can't convince her. Monday through Saturday, a chop on top. And Sunday? She dresses up for church. Filet Mignon.

Well, she just yelled at me to crank up the Beltones, which means that she's been trying to get my attention for the past hour but I haven't heard a thing. We have to go to the store and get groceries. Me barefoot and in my Depends. Her and her porkchop. We'll spend the first 30 minutes talking with the WalMart greeter. You'd think it was a Kentucky family reunion.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Creating God In My Image

Revisionism is in vogue these days. We revise history to fit our biases. We can also revise the very heart and soul of Jesus' intent by insisting on OUR way of doing life and religion. I've created a couple examples of gospel revisionism.

Jesus' words: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Revised version: " You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." I tell you to go for it, even if you end up blind and toothless. I tell you, resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you don't have to take that from anybody--tap him out. And if someone wants to sue you, drag his butt into court before he can even spell "litigation." If someone forces you to go one mile kick your heels into the ground and his groin for two miles. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Remember, you will have the last laugh; payback shall be yours. After you have gotten revenge, rejoice and be glad because it feels so good here on earth and great is your reward in heaven."

Jesus' words: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Revised version: " You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' I tell you-- you have heard correctly. Hate your enemies and prey upon those who persecute you, that you may be pawns of your culture on earth. God causes his sun to rise on the good people and earthquakes and hurricanes to fall upon the evil ones. If you love those who hate you, where will that get you? What's the reward in that? And it is all about you, after all. And if you greet only your brothers it's a lot safer. Do not even pagans do that? Catch on!! Be perturbed, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perturbed.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Glenn Beck and Jesus: Civil Religion Is Anything But

Glenn Beck held a rally a couple weekends in D.C. Estimates of the number of people attending varied significantly. Liberal Democrats counted 117 people gathered, including family pets. Beck, on the other hand, says he personally shook hands with 5.7 billion people, thus leaving only a remote Himalayan village accessible by yak to miss the festivities. Numbers aside, something concerns me. I acknowledge I listened to a small segment of his speech, not its entirety.

At his rally on the Washington Mall, Fox News host Glenn Beck brought 240 clergy onstage. Harkening back to the Revolutionary War, Beck called the group a "Black Robe Regiment." He said the clergy "all locked arms saying the principles of America need to be taught from the pulpit." This troubles me. Here's why.

The "pulpit" serves as the vehicle for pastors to proclaim the message of salvation and healing, as found or located in Jesus Christ. If I pause for any length of time and take that introspective "look in the mirror" I am aware of not only my worth and human dignity but also my sinfulness. I need "saved" from my sinfulness. I am also marred psycho-emotionally. Regardless of how lofty some principles of America may be, they do not have the capability of either saving me or healing me. They might inspire me, but a drowning man doesn't need inspiration; he needs rescued.

His statement also troubles me in that if the pulpit is the vehicle whereby men and women speak on behalf of God as his representatives then Beck appears to be elevating the principles of America to a sacred and transcendent level. Sacred and holy things come from the pulpit and to proclaim America's principles from the pulpit would appear to make them of a divine and holy nature. No nation has the right or prerogative to do that; that smacks of idolatry, i.e. a nation setting itself up to be the source of "good news," the gospel to be proclaimed from the pulpit. It makes the nation God-like. Sadly, any nation, even our own, is merely human-like. This country that I love and for which I am grateful is as "fallen" and sinful as I am. And 240 pastors, as a sign of solidarity, locked arms agreeing that the principles of America need to be taught from the pulpit?? Really? That may sound and feel patriotic, but is that not endorsing the nation as God's "kingdom?" If I recall, Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, not the Roman empire.

May we all exercise discernment when Beckoned to respond.