Category Archives: Spiritual Practice

Give Me a Word for 2016

Portrait by my frolleague Roy DeLeon

My word arrived the other day: qavah.

At the turn of the year, Abbey of the Arts offers a free mini-retreat— twelve moments to imagine the next season of one’s life and ask for a word.

In the tradition of the old desert moms and pops, the Abbey’s Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks consider what word or phrase might be a compass, seed or traveling companion for the coming year. In past years for me it’s been a koan-thing– an idea to chew on over months.


Richard’s Word History:
2011 Stretch
2012 Empty
2013 Salmon
2014 Turn
2015 Edge


Which brings us to what 2016 seems to be serving up: qavah. (keh-VAH)

It’s a Hebrew word used a lot in the psalms, meaning wait, hope, expect. As in,

Wait/hope for God.
Be strong and let your heart take courage
and wait/hope for God.
(Psalm 27.14)

It’s root means gather.

As this word and I claim each other, here’s what I’m wondering about in a stream way:

Wait Patience Time
Weight
Loss Longing
Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!
Okay! Tell me!

Expecting, Pregnant. Growing with Life
How exquisite and terrifying to have growing life within you.
Incubation takes time. What do I expect?
Surrendering, Giving one’s self.
Nutrition for a womb-person, energy for new ideas, new mysteries.
Will it be born? Borne away? Will it be what I expect?
What will its lifespan be? Is this how I value fresh, new things?

What comes to those who wait?
Sometimes good things. Sometimes nothing. Or worse.
What do I expect?
What am I waiting for?
My waiting and longing– is it hope-full and expectant of goodness, or am I tapping my foot offended like it’s a waste of my time.

Hmm. Could be an interesting year!

If you’re interested, try a “Give Me a Word” thing at the Abbey.

All best blessings to you, my friends, as we ease into a new year.


Give Me a Word

IMG_2256It’s happened the past three years at this same time.

I’ve discovered a centering, resonating, challenging word as a kind of companion for the coming year. And it happened again this morning. Thought I’d share.

Following the tradition of desert pilgrims, hundreds of my fellow Dancing Monks at Abbey of the Arts have been seeking their own words, too, with the question:

“What is your word for the year ahead? A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold in your life?”

It’s a powerful moment when we put ourselves in a position of open-hearted vulnerability. In this case, it’s surrender to a piece of vocabulary, a part of speech. I’ve lost some of you by now, but some of you are curious as to what manner of weirdness this be.

In 2011, my word was Stretch.

2012: Empty.

2013: Salmon.

My word for 2014 arrived this morning: Turn.

Turn.

To commit a switch on or off,
to flip over a piece of grilling salmon.

Autumn maples.

Milk on its last day,
to repent and move again,
to reach for the corner of the page you’ve finished.

His face was set toward Jerusalem.

To respond to magnetic attraction,
to move a screw deeper,
to switch moments: is it mine or yours now?

To evolve in season.
To reorient.
To be romanced.

Turn.

What’s on your mind as 2013 closes up shop?

What hopes and fears are with you about 2014?

In which areas of your life are you excited and curious? Which ones carry anxiety?

If you want to try “Give Me a Word” yourself, Abbey of the Arts has a free 7-day mini-retreat that guides you through a contemplative process of discovering your word.

Here’s entering a new calendar year with hope. May you welcome all the goodness coming your way.


Pregnant with Holy

Ben Earwicker Garrison Photography, Boise, ID www.garrisonphoto.orgThe Christian liturgical year spins the same every year. Advent marks the beginning, so by now the Christian community has already flipped its calendar. Identical seasons as ever, but, being a species of continual re-newal, it’s a time of discovery. If we’re paying attention, wonder even.

In Advent, we hear stories of Mary and Elizabeth, and some of us are uncomfortable.

In this most “feminine” of seasons, we hear stories of pregnancy and all the natural wildness that is creation emerging into the world. If you’ve ever been pregnant– and I know I haven’t– that season was marked by transformation in mind, body and spirit. Evident to the whole wide world, something changed in your life forever.

For our family, as our son Sam was ripening, Trish experienced freak-out as well as hope. Peace as well as terror. Her somewhat snooty vegetarianism found her eating beef and chicken, and life was out of control.

She felt the summons to surrender everything.

This is not a XX chromosome thing; this is a human thing. So– heads up, pastors and worship leaders– if we’re not emphasizing the spirituality of women in Advent, we’re missing something essential.

One text I wish were part of Advent is Psalm 27. (No one asked me). It has several distinct chunks. In fact, some scholars say it was originally two or three separate songs.

The last line goes,

Wait for God; be strong and take heart.
And wait for God.

I think our midwife spoke those words years ago during our home birth.

In Hebrew, the word translated wait could just as aptly be hope. In Advent, we are invited to prepare, wait and look forward. Good practice for life in general, right?

So.

What is ripening in you right now?

How is your community swelling with new life?

Does it feel joyful? Solemn? Scary?

Any of that would be expected in a life-changing endeavor.

There’s something alive, growing in you. Ripening in its time. Welcome to Advent, the perfect season to practice this pivotal time as holy.

May we pay attention as G-d brings us to term.

Listen now to “Wait For God,” a Psalm 27 belly-softening song for Advent hope.

Pic by Ben Earwicker Garrison Photography. http://www.garrisonphoto.org


To Give Yourself

When our ten-year-old son comes to ask me to play, I am sometimes more willing than others.

To be honest, sometimes I agree with an inward sigh because I want to be a good dad and putting in my time is important.

Other times, I fully give myself to Sam with a wide-open heart smile.

I give myself.

I let go of my agenda and allow myself to swept away. I’m clearly not in control and into it, whether it’s dominos, chess, a light saber duel or freestyle wrestling. Whatever the play, I am so There. I will not be a spectator this time. I will not be juggling the thoughts of my little projects. I am in it for a real encounter with my beloved boy, not to check a box when the task is done. Not this time.

There are two ways to approach the spiritual life:

1. Disciplined and goal-driven.

2. Mystical and Experientially-driven.

Neither is wrong. They are two sides of an important coin. However, I think the first mode is what our consumer society imposes, so the latter is more deeply needed in this time.

In the first case, our ambition and desire motivate change. Through discipline, we take the wheel with some measure of assurance that we have what we need to navigate the watercourses of our lives. The positive is that we draw from the strength of our personhood. In this current season of Lent, there are disciplines that may shape the design of a faith-full life. It’s good. Spiritual practice can show us it’s possible to live consciously, intentionally.

The downside of this perspective is that the sense of responsibility for one’s life makes us prone to feel either pain in failure or pride in success. Grace and mystery are kind of bottom shelf.

In the second mode, we are immersed in Great Mystery and, like a daddy with his kid, we give ourselves to It. We are All In. As one theologian puts it, God is shaping us “like water shapes a rock.”

Like a bride to her bridegroom, a mama nursing her baby, a passionate student to her studies, we give ourselves.

The downside is that mystics may be so good at opening, allowing and surrendering, that we neglect agency. (Talk to Neo about that.) Martin Luther wrote that even the will to make the tiniest choice originates from God’s Holy Spirit.

But in every spiritual tradition I can think of, there’s a dimension of surrender where we put ourselves in the flow of something we trust is bigger than ourselves and watch ourselves be part of it.

In Lent, I suggest there is more to give ourselves to than be in charge of. as we hear the stories of Jesus and soak in the Psalms, we might open our imaginations to what transformation looks like in us. There might be some work to do, but maybe most of it is allowing stuff to happen to us. One could make a case that the whole of Jesus’ ministry was about these two words: “Give yourself.” Give yourself to me and share abundant life. Give yourself away to one another and discover a large, round filled-to-overflowing life. You are seasoning for the earth and light for the planet, after all.

It’s human to want to give ourselves. We desire to see our existence expand past our perceived personal borders. A rich life means losing track of our individuality sometimes to know ourselves large, as Uncle Walt wrote.

Rumi:
“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.”

What this means is that giving yourself is a spiritual practice. When we do it, we are magnetically drawn to Fullness and Goodness and Holy.

So we give ourselves to our kids and to our parents. We give ourselves to our neighbors, to our community, to our leaders because we witness life being more full.

We give ourselves to strangers, to the poor, to the widow, because that’s where we are most certainly present.

We give ourselves to the Samaritan, to the Muslim, to the bullied because we get clear on who we are.

We offer ourselves gift-wrapped to our unique and sometimes hard-to-explain callings.

When you eat, be mindful and completely savor. When you make love, be totally There. In fact, whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Holiness.

Teachers, give yourself to your students. Nurses, give yourselves to your patients. Dentists, serve as unto the Holy One.

If you fish, consider yourself a fisher of humanity. Surrender to fishing, to the lake, to the fish. Make yourself part of the circle of life. Your life will lure the Holy, your fish will feed the world. Your heart, so present.

Like a gardener, full of hope and trust, plant seeds. Your nests will gather immigrants and strangers into Love.

We are up for anything the spirit of the Living God puts in our way today. We may set aside our preferences in order to serve. We may set aside our theological commitments to say yes to stretching and growing. We offer ourselves as students, disciples–  teachable, shapeable ones.

To One we lay ourselves open to service, open to healing, open to surprise and to an ever-emerging future.


The Dark Party

A decade ago, Trish and I gathered some of our favorite people on earth to our house. We invited them to wear dark clothes, bring dark-coloured food to share, and be prepared to share a real-life story of the past year.

It was our first Dark Party.

Though guests may have looked prepared for a goth rave, the occasion was Winter Solstice, one of our favorite moments of the year. It’s the longest night (or shortest day, if you like) of the year, when the sun hits our planet at 23° 26′, the steepest it’s gonna get.

And Winter officially begins.

If you’re like me, you have mixed feelings about the season’s turning.

I grew up in Minnesota, so the contrast of seasons is a vital experience for my soul. Boiling-hot and humid summers, butt-clenching cold winters, planting and harvest in between. Exhilarating!  On the other hand, winter calls me to pay careful attention to my mood, making sure I’m taking my anti-depressant, getting good light and getting exercise (snow shoveling often does the trick).

It is indeed a season of contrasts. My faith heritage celebrates Christmas as the breakthrough of God’s presence. Advent builds to it, Epiphany cools down from it. Most Christ-traditions welcome the light of the world as the highest festival day of the liturgical year. Excepting maybe Easter, depending on if your theology runs more incarnational or resurrectional.

Our first Dark Party came about because our friends and we had a damn rough year, and we wanted to recognize the gifts of the dark. Not desperately wait for the light, not avoid the dark, but to honor the rich stuff that happens when things are bleak, veiled and mysterious.

We sat in a circle and listened carefully to one another speak about the past year. There was a lot of rich silence. There were stories of cancer, divorce, exile, grief and wonder. There was weeping and some laughter, too. There was dancing. On this quiet night, we witnessed for one another the description of deep humanity with all its brokenness and hope-fullness.

At the end of our story-sharing, people were invited to light a candle. Some did, trusting that change was on their horizon; some did not, honoring the mystery of the present moment.

And there was food. (Did I mention the food?) Trish’s famous Edgar Allen Bean Dip, my “fear not the valley of the shadow ” fudge, big blackberries, pumpernickel bread… you get the picture. As a Lutheran, fellowship just can’t happen without a potluck.

Deep breath now.

That gathering remains one of the deepest, wonder-filled, most intimate, truly human and unforgettable moments of my life. As I bring up the faces of those who have joined us over the years, I am touched at the honesty and the open-hearted listening.

How is it with your soul here at the end of this year?

You may have had a hell of a year.

Maybe you have sadness, terror or deep grief. Maybe there are loose ends where resolution is unknown. What you may need is a kind of Dark Party, a moment to be in awe of your life, as crazy as it may be.

May I invite you to call someone to share your story? Or ask your friends to pray with you?  Or maybe solitude in darkness would be a true companion for you. Not because gloominess suits you, but because harmony can happen in shadows.

To close, a benediction for you from David Whyte:

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
tonight.
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Our family celebrates Solstice because we are citizens of the planet. And because we desire honesty with and from our friends, especially when life is hard and a lot of our culture is about denial. (Lest you think me morbidly dismal, I also enjoy the celebration of light in its time.)
May you receive all the gifts of this season you can bear, whether they be excavated in the mystery of darkness or placed in your hand with the sunrise. Both are the realm of Holy.
And you are right in it.

Richard’s Christmas Fudge

It’s that time of year again. Oh, the goodness.

Fudge is one of the first things I learned to make well, and my recipe has evolved for two decades.

It requires patience, so cooking a batch each Advent for me is a spiritual practice of the season.

Share and enjoy, share and enjoy.

__________________________________________

Richard’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 12 oz evaporated milk
  • 1 cup butter
  • 12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 8 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1 7-oz. container marshmallow creme
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Slather up a 13x9x2 pan with butter and set aside. Reflect a moment at the wonder of butter.

Butter sides of a 3-quart saucepan, humming as you do so. In it, combine sugar, butter and milk.

Cook and stir over med-high heat to boiling. Stir more, changing now from humming to singing. Stir, my friend. Stir like the wind. Stir until cows actually come home. Cook and stir to 236 degrees, soft-ball stage (about 14 minutes).

Remove pan from heat. Add chocolate, marshmallow creme and vanilla. Stir until it all melts. Feel your tricep and bicep muscles and nod at your buffosity.

Spread the chocolatey goodness into the pan. (Optional: If you like peanut butter cup flavor, sprinkle peanut butter chips in the bottom of the pan before adding the fudge. Sprinkle more on top and run a spoon through it a few times to spread as you desire). When finished, lick spoon like a 6-year-old, allowing some chocolate to remain on your nose and chin all day.

Cool in fridge or on that shelf on the porch. Do not neatly slice into cubes. Instead, chisel generous odd-sized slabs to serve in a big pile on a platter.

Makes 3.5 pounds or so. Just enough.

__________________________________________


The Church of Used Books and CDs


Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses means living in the fog of others’ holy breath.

In seminary, a Roman Catholic friend told me, “To Catholics, the world is a crowded place. Saints are everywhere.” Her words rise in my memory around All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, and Dia De Los Muertos.

Among my experiences of the saints? Browsing used book and CD stores.

Maybe more a 12-step meeting than church, I am anonymous, but welcomed as one who belongs. Though baptized as a youth, I am now at home among the many denominations of used book and CD shops ’round the world, the local parishes of the invisible small-“c”-catholic church. I know the lingo and the culture; I chat with the help. If not the precise local liturgy, I know the sacramental intention of this place: communing with authors and artists across space and time with other seekers.

Among authors and artists who remind me what matters to me, I browse Religion, Philosophy, and Old Testament first. Today I am prepared to meet with Dogen, Thomas Moore, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Making my way to Nature Writings and Poetry/Essays, I seek a word of prayer with Gretel Ehrlich and David Whyte.

Always a visit to Music Biographies, these days to check for anything on June Carter Cash for Trishy. Always to Youth Series to check for the next Fablehaven and Pseudonymous Bosch for Sam.

In the CD area, there are mixed emotions. I shake my head sadly to see a Beatles CD, praying for the lost soul who gave it up. But then, in the great circle of life, maybe a tween Justin Bieber fan will attain enlightenment today.

I unfold the scrap of paper in my wallet reminding me which Dylan titles I am missing. Browse Bluegrass for Punch Brothers. Lament that there has never been an AC/DC Greatest Hits compilation. Hoping against hope that I may run across a rare P. Hux. I pull out jewel cases from the clearance bin with mixed emotions: “What great deals!” but also “Why does no one appreciate the genius of Michael Penn the way I do?” And always a quick glance to check for Sarah Vowell books on CD, because why would you read her when you can hear her amazing voice?

I am fellowshipping with the world of seekers.

I pull books off shelves which I have no intention of buying; I just want to feel their weight and shape and be close to the words, feel the breath of the saints.

I am part of a world where holy scripture is everywhere. And I am in good company.

“That which you are seeking,” writes Sheri Huber, “is causing you to seek.”

Blessings to you this All Saints week.