Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faith in adversity

Artist: Thomas Eakins

For a long time I've been troubled by the sort of Christian formation that essentially tells people to live right and have faith so nothing bad will ever happen. Then, of course, when something bad does happen, people who have been formed in this way lose their faith. I count myself very fortunate that my early formation emphasized faith not as an insurance against difficulty but as a way of being strengthened to withstand difficulty when it happens. Here's a good way of expressing what I mean by that:

The purpose of Christianity is not to avoid difficulty, but to produce a character adequate to meet it when it comes. It does not make life easy; rather it tries to make us great enough for life.

-- James L. Christensen

Monday, September 27, 2010

Prayer as relationship

Artist: Wilhelm Maria Hubertus Leibl
Yes to this:

Like all good things, prayer requires some discipline. Yet I believe that life with God should seem more like friendship than duty. Prayer includes moments of ecstasy and also dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, prayer has features in common with all relationships that matter.

--Philip Yancey

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Artist: Eduard von Gebhardt

This morning's gospel was, of course, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. I heard it at Fellowship Lutheran Church here in Tulsa where I'm teaching a series of classes on prayer for the next six weeks. I think I'll probably worship with them for the duration so I can make an effort to tie in what I say during the prayer classes with what they hear in the sermon. What interested me the most this morning was the dimissal. The assistant minister said, "Go in peace and remember the poor." I experienced that as very powerful. Very powerful, indeed.

Suppose we all trained ourselves to do that after each Sunday celebration of the Eucharist? Suppose we trained ourselves to make remembering the poor a true priority?

It's just something I'm thinking about today.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The grace of boundaries

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Each morning is a new beginning of our life. Each day is a finished whole. The present day marks the boundary of our cares and concerns. It is long enough to find God or lose Him, to keep faith or fall into disgrace.

God created day and night for us so we need not wander without boundaries, but may be able to see in every morning the goal of the evening ahead.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friday, September 24, 2010

How hatred affects the soul

I well remember the event referenced here:
"Hate is a very big and very hungry thing with lots of sharp teeth, and it will eat up your whole heart and leave no room for love."

These words [were] spoken by a grieving father to his young daughter in the movie Amish Grace... This movie, based on the bestselling book, dramatizes the response of an Amish community in Pennsylvania when a local man killed five school girls and wounded five others. Shocked and grieving, their first act was to practice forgiveness.
I found the above on the front page of the website Spirituality and Practice which is, to my mind, one of the best spiritually focused sites going.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Just listening

Artist: Il Sodoma

This may well be the best thing Mother Teresa ever said on the subject of prayer:
Reporter: When you pray, what do you say to God?
Mother Teresa: Nothing. I just listen.
Reporter: What does God say to you?
Mother Teresa: Nothing. God just listens, too. And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A salutary and consoling discipline

Artist: Vittore Carpaccio (1455-1526)

If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. No other practice so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

-- Muriel Spark

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Praying through overwhelm

Artist: Ivan Semenovich Kulikov

This is a prayer that I found on the website:
Gracious God, when I look at the mound of papers on my desk, see the length of my to-do list, think about the state of the economy, I feel a deep malaise washing over my soul. It is as if I am being tossed about by waves of anxiety, and I can no longer find firm ground on which to stand. Come with your mighty wind and blow the wave back to sea that I may be still in the wake you leave behind. I ask this for the sake of your love. Amen.
I know that quite a number of people who come to talk to me are going through that feeling of being overwhelmed. Cultivating tools for handling this feeling skillfully and learning to trust God for our sense of well being will help. Truly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

To pray is to notice

Artist: John Liston Byam Shaw
Image from Wikimedia Commons

My dear friend David in Montreal sent around the following this morning:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

-- Abraham Joshua Heschel

If we take on board the classic understanding of the spiritual life as one of cultivating recollection, then not noticing is the very antithesis of spiritual practice, isn't it?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

O Virtue of Wisdom

This is a truly luminous performance.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The cry of faith

Artist: Herbert William Weekes
Image from Wikimedia Commons

There's a great misunderstanding afloat in our times about the real meaning of the word "faith". Many people are convinced that faith involves struggling to believe something that they find hard to believe in the first place. Here's another approach, however:

The Hebrew word for faith in the Old Testament is emoonah. What makes that word interesting is that it’s the sound that a baby donkey makes when it is calling for its mother. To appreciate that, you have to say emoonah so it sounds like that.…I sometimes think to myself, if you say it soft, it’s almost like braying. The point being that faith in the Hebrew Bible is like a baby donkey calling out or crying for its mother. There’s something kind of wonderful about that. There is an element…I don’t know if you want to say of desperation in it or not, but there certainly is an element of confidence also that the cry will be heard.

- Marcus Borg

The above paragraph is from a longer essay on faith by Marcus Borg that you can find right here. I really recommend that you click through and read the whole thing. Very illuminating on the subject.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Reflection for the Fall

Artist: Leander Engström

My dear friend, Liz, sent me the following today. Even though it's quite hot right now in Tulsa, fall is nevertheless upon us:

God of the Fall, the trees are saying good-bye to their green. Letting go of what has been. We, too, have our moments of surrender, with all their insecurity and risk. Help us to let go when we need to do so.

God of fallen leaves lying in coloured patterns on the ground, our lives have their own patterns. As we see the patterns of our own growth, may we learn from them.

God of misty days and harvest-moon nights, there is always the dimension of mystery and wonder in our lives. May we gain strength from this.

God of geese going south for another season, your wisdom enables us to know what needs to be left behind and what needs to be carried into the future. We yearn for insight and vision.

God of flowers touched with frost and windows wearing white designs, may your love keep our hearts from growing cold in the empty seasons.

God of life, you believe in us, you enrich us, you entrust us with the freedom to choose life. For all this, we are grateful.

-- Joyce Rupp

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Something about perseverence

Hmmm. This is really the old "fake it till you make it" principle, isn't it? Except that it's much more eloquently expressed:

To be sure, our mental processes often go wrong, so that we imagine God to have gone away. What should be done then? Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. Learn to behave thus even in deepest distress and keep yourself that way in any and every estate of life. I can give you no better advice than to find God where you lost him.

-- Meister Eckhart

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Observations on mysticism

Artist: Arthur Hughes

I want to assert that both of these are very true:

Just as in earthly life lovers long for the moment when they are able to breathe forth their love for each other, to let their souls blend in a soft whisper, so the mystic longs for the moment when in prayer he can, as it were, creep into God.

-- Søren Kierkegaard


Mysticism has been in the past and probably ever will be one of the great powers of the world and it is bad scholarship to pretend the contrary. You may argue against it but you should no more treat it with disrespect than a perfectly cultivated writer would treat (say) the Catholic Church or the Church of Luther no matter how much he disliked them.

-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The difference between "talking about" and "being"

Oh, this is so, so, so true:

Sure, people need Jesus, but most of the time, what they really need is for someone to be Jesus to them.

Reuben Welch

Monday, September 13, 2010

Very brief; very beautiful

Please take the time to listen to this ethereally lovely and moving chant. The video is only one minute and forty-two seconds long. You won't regret it!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Te Deum!

Simply stunning performance. English liturgical music at its very best.

Seeking the lost

Artist: Domenico Fetti

Today's gospel reading includes both the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.

I just have to bring you this quip:
Q: Why did Jesus portray the tireless searcher as a woman?
A: A guy would stand in the center of the room and say, "HONEY, HAVE YOU SEEN MY COIN??"
(No offense, guys....) :-)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On building Jerusalem

"Christ as the Redeemer of Man" by William Blake

This afternoon I happened to hear part of the NPR broadcast of the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2010 (UK summer concert series). Toward the very end, the orchestra sounded the opening strains of "And did those feet" set to the tune "Jerusalem" and I found myself moved to tears. I don't know whether this was some kind of primal homesickness for "the Mother Country" or a deep longing for the new Jerusalem that is yet to be manifest. I just know it was truly meaningful.

The whole audience sang and the voices simply soared.

Here are those exalted words:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

- William Blake

May it be so for England and, yes, for every land on this green and pleasant Earth.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Walking contemplation

Artist: Gustave Caillebotte

You might like to pray while you're walking. Or, you might like to walk while you're praying. Either way, here's an approach that will help with both focus and awareness:

Walking uplifts the spirit. Breathe out the poisons of tension, stress, and worry; breathe in the power of God. Send forth little silent prayers of goodwill toward those you meet. Walk with a sense of being a part of a vast universe. Consider the thousands of miles of earth beneath your feet; think of the limitless expanse of space above your head. Walk in awe, wonder, and humility. Walk at all times of day. In the early morning when the world is just waking up. Late at night under the stars. Along a busy city street at noontime.

-- Wilferd A. Peterson

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A world crowded with God

12th Century illumination

A little girl once told me that she learned a slogan in Sunday School that goes like this: "There is no spot where God is not."

The quotation below is simply another way of saying the same thing:

We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always easy to penetrate. The real labor is to remember to attend. In fact to come awake. Still more to remain awake.

-- C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

God's everything

Artist: Ekaterina Iliynskaya

I have always cherished the biblical teaching that Christ is the "all in all" (see Colossians 3:11) and so you can see why this pithy little quotation appealed to me:

Jesus Christ is God's everything for man's total need.

-- Richard Halverson

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The mind and heart in concert

Over the years it has become quite common for me to hear people invalidate something they actually know because, as they complain, they only understand it "intellectually". I often find myself recommending that they go ahead and use the intellect to coach the parts of them that don't understand yet.

I really like the way Kierkegaard expresses this:

It is a wonderful thing to see a first-rate philosopher at prayer. Tough-minded thinking and tenderhearted reverence are friends, not enemies. We have for too long separated the head from the heart, and we are the lesser for it. We love God with the mind and we love God with the heart. In reality, we are descending with the mind into the heart and there standing before God in ceaseless wonder and endless praise. As the mind and the heart work in concert, a kind of loving rationality pervades all we say and do. This brings unity to us and glory to God.

-- Søren Kierkegaard

Monday, September 6, 2010

To the glory of God

The above just happens to be the "Picture of the Day" over at Wikimedia Commons (where I get most of the images for my three blogs). When I saw this photograph, it simply knocked my socks off and I wanted to share it with you all.

You can click on the image here to see an enlarged version and I really recommend doing so.

The church is in Bavaria. Seeing the exposed pipes here also makes me want to know what that organ sounds like!

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Artist: Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes

Oh my. I think I can spend a long, long time pondering this one:

It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.

-- Tagore

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What is a saint anyway?

Among Orthodox, a "champion of spiritual practice" wouldn’t necessarily mean a mystic. We don’t really have the concept of "mysticism." It would mean someone who was being taken over, inch by inch, by the flame of Christ. It’s expected that the presence of Christ is already within us, and what we have to do is get out of the way, removing fear and sin that block its spread. A spiritual athlete may have extraordinary spiritual events going on internally, but what would be seen on the outside is superhuman love, patience, humility, a presence that transforms others. Saints make everyone they meet more able to be themselves.

- Frederica Mathewes-Green

I truly love that last sentence. I also am consoled by the "inch by inch" point that Mathewes-Green makes.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The courtesy and respect of God

A synagogue in Berlin

Cynthia (friend and administrative assistant extraordinaire) sent me the following this morning:
A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, "Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It's the inside of my heart that needs God." The rabbi answered, "God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in." Whatever you hold sacred, you'll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.
I believe it was Julian of Norwich who said, "He is a courteous Lord."

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Artist: Abbott Handerson Thayer

I've admired the late William Sloane Coffin (chaplain at Yale University and later senior minister of Riverside Church in New York) for many, many years now. Here's something he said that is very encouraging, really. Many people believe that courage means having no fear. It doesn't mean that at all:
Courage means being well aware of the worst that can happen, being scared almost to death, and then doing the right thing anyhow.