Tag 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.


7 Marks of a Decent Worship Song

So you’re a musician, worship leader or songwriter. At its best, what’s a song do? Worldmaking.net tries a riff.

Print a copy.

#7: Pan-generational
Gathering infants and elders.

There are two types of people in the world: those who like to divide people into groups and those who don’t. [Wait for chuckle.]

A decent worship song sings us into harmony across generations, noticing our diversity in age and blessing us together.

One of the fallouts of so-called “contemporary” worship since the 80’s (I was there– the one with the mullet and the fiery red strat) has been the dis-integration of the multi-generational worshiping assembly.

We think we’re smart to niche-market our worship. We try to give people what they want according to their preferences. We imagine teens desire something different than their parents and grandparents.

One result can be a fragmented (or neatly divided) worshiping community. It’s the biggest reason people call me for consultation.

A good worship song presents us as one global Christ-body, to use Paul’s metaphor. And it’s not only so we kindly include people in the room. It’s that we deeply affirm that there are gifts and challenges for each season of life, including tender babyhood, passionate adolescence, ambitious young adulthood, transitional “half-time” mid-life and wise elder years.

When we are together in worship, we pay attention to all that we are– tender, ambitious, transitional, wise. When our moments of song and prayer do not speak to all of these, we find ourselves in a body without an arm or an ear.

Contrary to what our surrounding pop culture preaches, it’s good to get old. Youth need to know this, as well as our elders. Imagine the alternative that is happening now.

Contrary to what our culture says, it’s good to be kids. Grown-ups need to know this, as well as youths. What happens to a civilization where this isn’t true?

Is your community’s repertoire speaking to all the seasons of life?

#6: Expansive
Because Christ-life is more than we think.

When I first heard Marty Haugen’s Psalm 23 song, I cracked open.

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life.”

Jesus Christ. [Don’t you love non-blasphemous invocations?] Psalm 23 will never be the same for me.

That song was both instructive and expansive. That is, it both taught the Psalm and expanded my reality. The song helped the Holy Spirit break through the borders I had set up around what was true.

In singing, we embody more than theology. We make the sound of a world-wide community transforming. Listen closely, and you can hear boundaries breaking.

Ask any United Methodist, they he or she will tell you a good song can be a sermon. The Wesleys had it down to a science. Some 21st-century writers are working at it, too.

A good worship song not only unpacks and prays our scripture, it takes a wrecking ball to our idolized ideas.

In worship we are meant to offer heart, mind, soul and strength to the Holy One of which we are a part. And you can bet these hearts, minds, souls and strengths won’t come back to us the same. I’m thinking of Jesus’ irritating, holy habit of saying, “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” and his metaphor of wineskins. Sometimes that old container has to go.

Take a careful look at your congregation’s singing repertoire. Are there enough songs that blessedly expand our ideas?

#5: Integrative
Some re-assembly required.

When Psalm 25 sings, “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” the Psalmist is not chipping out a wedge of life’s circle graph. In fact, in Hebrew there is no word for a separate spiritual part of the self. For it to ring true, the spiritual life is integrated with all dimensions of one’s experience. A better translation might be, “To You, YHWH, I open my life.” (Hear a progressive rendition of Ps. 25: “To You.”)

A good worship song helps us integrate aspects of our lives that are otherwise dis-integrated. Because our surrounding culture and the weather of life can fragment us, right?

A few examples: In a time of such fear as we are in right now, we may be told that certain people or particular nations are the problem. Worship snaps us out of such fear, antagonism and superiority, leveling us with the least of Jesus’ brothers- and sisters-in-Love.

In an era of global power struggles, we may be tempted to see our nation– wherever we may reside– in competition with the rest of the planet. Sunday morning offers us the vision of everything created and belonging to One, our common citizenship to the One Holy City (Ps. 87).

In a TV/mag/online culture celebrating individualism, we may feel alone. Experiencing spiritual community wrecks our walls and invites us to a powerfully vulnerable part of the Holy Whole.

A good worship song helps us integrate Holy Reality into our conscious lives. It pushes against the surrounding culture, and, as we sing it, helps us rehearse this integrated life and practice it with breath, words and gesture.

What great old hymns, Taize chants or new rock songs help you integrate Holy Reality (aka Kingdom of God, emerging Christ, Holy Spirit) into your life?

#4: Focused Function
We’re beings doing.

A worship song is folk art in the traditional sense.

When I took a Norwegian Woodcarving class at college (doesn’t everyone?), Harley Refsal taught that a true piece of folk art has a specific function. A beautifully crafted chair is meant to be sat in, not just to look pretty. That gorgeous quilt is for the bed, not the wall. A hand-thrown pottery bowl wants to contain soup, cereal or ice cream.

The design of the piece is not arbitrary; its form serves the needed function.

Same with decent worship songs. Songwriters take great care to craft a song that serves the community in a particular way. Where some songs are meant to proclaim grace or invite celebration, others stretch our minds and invite resistance. Good worship songs don’t parrot scripture or repeat a line eight times to force meaning. They make our imaginations pop around a specific point.

Worship leaders, knowing this, take great care to select songs that serve our transformation. He or she may choose a song to help us embody passionate praise in one moment, surrender in another. It’s not shoving any old song into the slots. Good worship leaders intentionally select music that engages our mind-body-spirit experience and carries us further into it.

But back to songs. Consider your most moving musical experiences, whether they be in church, on the dancefloor or driving your car. It was specific, right? The perfect song at the right time. Not general. A good story doesn’t mention tea; it’s a steaming orange mug of Earl Grey.

A Gathering song is inviting. It might remind us we re all in the same boat, and are welcome for exactly what we are. Maybe it sets up the theme for the day.

A good Offering song might remind us it’s good to share, and we all have a part.

A Prayer song offers sound to hold delicate spoken petitions. Or they disrupt our idolatrous ideas of how we think prayer works.

A Sending song might remind us that we bear the Christ out to the world, and we are each unique in the ways we are faithfully doing that.

A good worship song functions for a particular occasion, the right tool for the job at hand. Review the current Top 25 CCLI songs and test my theory amid the awful ones and the brilliant ones. (Here’s your pass to be judgmental. Enjoy.)

By the way, good worship songs are in every genre and form– liturgical, pop choruses, ancient hymns, contemplative chants, etc. Don’t resist any when they are called for.

The next time your worship team has an hour to kill, together make a list of the best songs that serve the movements of worship: Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, Sealing (the Sacraments) and Sending. Listen carefully to one another’s experiences with the songs. Honor the differences. When you see functional gaps — “Hey, we don’t have a really good song for _________,” email your local songwriters and we’ll get right on it in the workshop.

#3: Prophetic lyrics
Words that comfort us and mess with us.

The role of an artist in a community is to stir up imagination, invite people to stretch their minds.

A decent worship song does, too.

Just as scripture contains vital tensions of law & gospel, grace & discipleship, “easy as pie” & “give up your life,” our worship music challenges us to grow to maturity in Christ.

A good worship song wonders over our sense of what we’re sure of.

When I was in seminary, Marty Haugen helped me see that at the time I was good at writing songs that brought comfort and grace, but that I was short on the prophetic edge that offers the holy gift of bewilderment. (By the way, my friend Bono always tells me not to name-drop. It’s tacky.)

For example, it’s important for our growth to be reminded that our pet names for God aren’t the only game in town. As much as God may be like a father to us, God is also like a crooked judge, a woman kneading dough, and a still, small voice in the breeze. The alternative is the prospect of idolatry: worshipping a hedged-in idea about God instead of the Ever-Living God.

Does this mean we will not always agree with the words we are singing? Does this mean we won’t like all our songs?

It seems to me Jesus’ ministry was centered not in teaching information but delivering provocations that were seeds of renewal, forgiveness and restoration.

We need a steady diet of songs that don’t just reinforce the way we are thinking presently. Spiritual life is built to stretch.

Is your congregation’s repertoire sufficiently challenging?

#2: Singability
Because that’s the point, right?

A song enacts unity, and as such invites all present to participate.

This may be closer to the number one slot, because if a congregational song is not a place we can all meet, it’s useless. Scrap it for parts. We usually know a decent song when we hear it, but here are a few suggestions to an intentionally singable community song:

  • It’s in a good key for most voices to sing energetically. Otherwise, people are frustrated at the get go. This, however, doesn’t mean a song can’t ask you to stretch for a few notes. Sung prayer requires energy, after all. Christmas and Easter hymns call us up to a high D. The Star-Spangled Banner is sometimes done in a key leading us to a high E or F, making it, ironically, a lousy community song. Mostly, we sing well together between C and C.
  • Accessible melody. Whether it’s a chant from Taize, a Bach hymn or cutting-edge rock song, the tune engages all ages and all abilities. Rhythms are regular in pattern or at least This means contrary to what your praise band guitarist says, not everything you hear on the radio will work in your circle.
  • …But not too easy. If the song is simplistic, it’s not gonna last. A good song needs a little work to get right.
  • Vocabulary check. Our songs use language we understand or can come to understand. Sounds simple, but often with ancient texts or present-day jargon, we may not be on the same page without a little education. Not a bad thing if we’re aware.

#1: Ancient-Future Tension
So what time is it?

A decent community song reminds us that we have a heritage of faith going back generations. It also engages our present-day reality and pitches our imaginations into the future.

The number one mark of a decent worship song is also among the most important descriptors of faithful worship.

Tradition

A good song connects us to ancient things. Does your community know that faith is old? Roots are important. It’s a disservice to faith to have it look like a trendy thing, something we just discovered with the latest pop singer. Why? Because that’s so today’s media culture– here today, gone tomorrow– and it’s just the tip of the iceberg we are about subverting in worship.

Does your community’s repertoire have good old ground we can sink our roots into?

+

Innovation

While our roots of faith are deep and ancient, we have 21st-century imaginations. Let’s not pretend we don’t have cell phones.

Aren’t we genuinely curious how the spiritual life is faithfully lived in us, you know, now? If so, won’t we be experimenting constantly with the freshest language and music to pray, celebrate and lament? Our songwriters will be always riffing on the culture, asking us to attend to changes in our jobs, families, bodies and politics. A decent worship song always invites us to pay attention to our spiritual life, both communally and individually.

All this puts us in the now, leaning into the future. Inventive, adventurous words, grooves and symbols will always be part of our music.

Put another way, a good song does not parrot our ancestors. It honors our lineage by always reforming, always evolving into God’s future.

So. Discuss.

This article is a gathering of individual pieces around Worldmaking.net’s “Top Ten Marks of the Decent Worship Song” developed in the Worldmaking.net newsletter.

Thanks to the photographers giving permission to use their work above. From bottom to top, the photographers are Mircea Preda Struteanu, Aaron Schwab, Enrico Nunziati, Robert Linder, Adriana Cikopol, and anon.


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.


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.

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When Your Theology Changes

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Carl Jung wrote that a Circle is an archetype for wholeness or God. We are always drawn toward it, June Singer said, yet “to fly straight into it would be like a moth darting into a flame.”

I guess, like Moses, we don’t look directly at the Holy. We circle around. We admire its posterior, its profile, its moving shadow.

At seminary I heard all theology is autobiography. True, I think. If we’re paying attention, all our life experiences are naturally integrated into a Story of what’s holding them together. We come up with integral symbols, signs and words that help us make sense of it all: theology. God-talk. The witness of Scripture is that. We’re designed to do that, too.

We are God-seeking, tower-circling, hungry-by-design, circumnavigating-Life-by-instinct creatures.

You’re a falcon circling.
When Rilke describes circling around the Tower, it’s what all of us are always doing.

Whatever language and symbols you have going right now for the Holy One, it hasn’t always been this way. Your autobiography has grown with your years on the planet, and your theology has developed with you. Each time you’ve crystalized a personal belief, it’s been merely a stepping stone of long-haul enlightenment.

In other words, your theology has evolved.

You’re a storm circling.
Like a scientist in the lab, when something interesting happens, our definitions are disrupted and our Story of God grows beyond its previous borders. Bill Moyers’ Genesis: A Living Conversation project suggested the narrative of the Older Testament is really the Story of God evolving in the human experience. Your story is a kind of scripture, too. Everyone’s is.

We know change happens, yet when seasons of transformation dawn, we pretend to be surprised. As if life is supposed to be stagnant and smooth, and moments of transition are really messing it all up. Humans are funny.

Pete Seeger said we can’t know the whole Truth. We can only circle round the gorse-berry bush hearing the rabbit, pointing and saying, “It’s in there somewhere.” Observe a sculpture with three trusted friends at the compass points, and you have access to four different views, all true, all different. The community, friends, church, sanga, is a vital thing in your God-Story evolving.

Paul Tillich said the word “God” is so old and tired, it should be banished from our vocabulary for about a thousand years. Then that word might begin to mean something again. We outgrow language sometimes.

When you come to a place where old words don’t work anymore, tell someone. Because that’s the Christ story unfolding: death and resurrection, and old wineskins breaking. When a season of questioning moves through, share that story of Christ emerging. Don’t circle alone, at least not for long. Your story– everyone’s story– is something we need to hear. I’ve been part of some communities over the years where seasons of deep questioning are avoided as a failure of faith. I’ve been part of others that treat these seasons as holy moments where faith is growing. I hope you have a sense of being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses where your Story of God is welcomed, honored and treated as revelation. After all, didn’t he say something about being born again? And again?

You’re a song circling.
Who are you? After a thousand years, maybe we can say with Rilke, “I still don’t know.” Maybe the point of a creative, juicy life is to lose track of ourselves and know ourselves to be In Holy Process. We think we know what the point is; we think it’s all about the tower. But what about the circumnavigated path you’ve worn? Your favorite beverage on the journey? The weather lo these many years of orbiting? The company and the conversations? These are all parts of a spiritual life. The experiences of a true Christ life cannot always be neatly filed.

To conclude, let’s stretch the metaphor with Rilke:

You are circling ’round the One Holy Tower– a falcon, a storm, a song.

You’re a lover dancing round your Beloved.

You’re a storyteller wondering about the twist at the end,
a hawk patrolling her valley,
a youngster on the playground with one end of the  jumprope, whirling, whirling with your friend.

You’re an explorer of God downloading continuously to a universal core.

When your theology is changing, you are in the midst of a Holy Endeavor.


Introvert Practice: Good, Alone and Free

I went to strip away what I had been taught, to accept as true my own thinking…no one around to look at what I was doing, no one interested, no one to say anything about it one way or another.

I was alone and singularly free.

— Georgia O’Keeffe

.

Sometimes you need to get away to see yourself clearly. Pry yourself away from the impulse to please family and friends, watch yourself be a self-standing whole You, and feel what that feels like.

Much of my vocation orbits family life, to give myself to wife, son, parents, sister, friends. The feeling is cozy, immersed in a glorious web of color and song. I love this life.

And then there are seasons where I feel entangled, and I begin to feel derivative of these powerful forces to which I gladly give myself.

Imagine with me browns, greens and blues. I am thinking of one of my favorite solitude spots, a one-room, no-electricity cabin in the woods. I stand on the edge of the forest, swallow hard my Blair Witch-phobia, and exhale. “This is my time,” I speak out loud. Nothing to produce, no multi-tasking, no email. Nothing to keep up with, no meetings, no waiting. No, in fact, clock.

I step slowly on the path through the oaks, as to not cause a wake to disturb the leafy floor. Slow. Slow. Slow feet for this seasonal pilgrimage to meet myself. “Nice to meet you,” I’ll say. Deep smiling sigh. “Tea?”

I inhale the sounds of squirrels and birds and the leafybreeze. Wind, spirit, Ruach. I watch for deer and turkeys for their medicine. I look for the cabin to come into view like meeting an old friend.

There is absolutely no one interested in what I am doing, and I am for the moment singularly free. Like Georgia.

When I am in the midst of change, I need solitude to get my bearings. Shout it from the mountaintops: I am an Introvert.

I love people for whom the opposite is true: when they are overwhelmed, they need a party. Like my friend Doug who just about crawls out of skin when faced with a contemplative exercise. Both ways in the world are good, and it’s good to know who you are.

Georgia cultivated her artist’s life by getting away. Silence and space refreshed her imagination for her true life.

Introverts unite! Er, Disperse!  In this change of season, some of us are getting out of the current that’s been sweeping us along. Even for an overnight, or an afternoon. Shoot, maybe an hour would do it: to practice your alone-ness, your free-ness and your goodness.


Marriage 2.0 and Counting

Last weekend in Minneapolis I got a new wedding ring. Nothing wrong with the old one, it was just Time.

In our going-on-12-year partnership, Trish and I have gifted each other with new rings whenever there’s been an important change of season in our marriage. It helps us give deep attention to the subtleties of our relationship as it carries us like a river into new territory to discover.

As we shared this with the good people at Irish on Grand (where I found my ring) and the other artsy places along Grand Avenue (where I didn’t), they all said they’d never heard of this way of doing rings. Since I’m a blogger now, I could not hide the lightbulb above my head under a bushel basket. (I’ll pause a moment for you to enjoy that image.) Here’s the story:

Trish and I have realized from the beginning that our anam cara relationship is a spiritual practice. That is, it’s one of the primary ways we are transformed and enact transformation in the world. I love talking with people who do relationship this way. Each partnership is a unique dance, a one-of-a-kind jewel. When I hear stories from other couples, I see possibilities for what our own marriage might be up to. Relationship requires a rich imagination because, like my friend Jonathan Rundman sings, “Love is science and love is art.”

There are two parts to a lasting relationship: change and stability. To the first point, relationships are dynamic, flowing and often bewildering. They change all the time. You can’t step into them twice. No surprise here, since both parties are presumably living, breathing creatures, each of whom is evolving in their own unique way. But to the second part, there’s also the dimension of stability and trust that happens over time. Between the partners there is a heart-opening sense of safety and strength. If the needle goes too far one way, you have a dusty institution on your hands. Too far the other way, it’s chaos.

The mysterious weaving of these two juicy elements is one reason I am here on the planet.

Getting new wedding rings plays with this potent blend: Trish and I desire a sign of our relationship’s strength, AND we want that sign to change over time. To honor such glorious mystery, however you do it, is a gift to the world, because you know and I know there are plenty of places mystery is snuffed out. So instead of a lifetime ring on each of our hands, we decided it might serially evolve. The changing shape, style and color of the rings on our hands is part of the delight of paying close attention to what our Beloved is doing with us.

Side trip for liturgical geeks: This is not unlike the visible sign of the sacrament that represents an invisible grace. When you partake in Holy Communion, for example, you may experience the Meal differently every time. There’s the anamnesis element of remembrance alongside eschatological celebration, connection to the human story of existential isolation but also the salvation of community, connection to the Jesus Story in crucifixion lament as well as resurrection joy. Or when you witness Holy Baptism where we are both drowned to death and raised to New Life. There’s lots to unpack. In this way, I can appreciate why Roman Catholics see marriage as a sacrament. Sheesh, that ring’s got a lot to hold.

In my marriage with my partner, I think of these two entwined mysteries as being held not by either one of us, but by a kind of Third Holy Thing. Which brings me to the name we have for our marriage: Beloved. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying: Beloved. This Beloved holds us together.

It seems to have a wisdom, compassion and will all its own.

Sufis speak of Allah as the Beloved that is closer than we are to ourselves. The Christian tradition speaks of the Christ-life in which we live and move and have our being. In the Hebrew scriptures there is the Garden of Eden holding space for delight and holiness, and the Song of Songs with the dazzling dance between Lover and Beloved that is the passionate love of G-d for Israel. To me, our Beloved has that kind of heart.

As a spiritual practice, relationship can be both a magically ecstatic and nakedly terrifying place where you face the Truth. I am continually amazed at what our marriage brings to me (and asks of me) if I am paying attention. I’m amazed, I suppose, because I don’t quite get what’s going on here. For example, Midrash around the book of Genesis is rich with dialogue exploring human sexuality, equality and uniqueness among the genders. In the story of Eve and Adam, the Hebrew term for their partnership has a loaded connotation: “an adversary, as it were”. That is, your best life partner is one who will be against you in all the best ways. Wo. Is that what I signed up for? Truly, yes, because how else would I grow, but it’s good I didn’t think about it too much on the day I said “I do.”

When things get complicated, crazy or scary, the main temptation in our society is to oversimplify. Tame it. Control it. Kill the mystery in it so we can be sure where we stand. In other words, to keep from being overwhelmed by a thing, we overcome it with understanding. That’s often the urge in relationship: to box it up and label it. And, by the way, this is true for any relationship: parent-to-child, grandparent-to-grandchild, neighbors across the backyard fence, dorm room-mates, middle school frenemies, adult life partners. These interconnections are powerful because they are under no one’s control. They are a luscious blend of you, the other and some third thing in orbit around you both.

Side trip: There’s a Native American idea about this, that in any gathering there is a spirit created out of the unique persons present. The people’s intentions, moods, their choices to speak or listen, all of this is woven into the making of a spirit that has never existed before and never will again. Our presence and choices in community matter as much as if we were giving birth to a whole new being.

To consider a relationship an honest spiritual practice, you do a rare and amazing thing. You open yourself up to to be changed by this out-of-control thing. You give yourself to something Other than you. It’s really nothing short of a miracle for that to happen, survival-oriented, biological-success-driven beings that we are. To approach a relationship this way requires vibrant imagination, and a trust that this thing is alive and knows something you can’t access alone. I operate in life favoring and cherishing this mystery because I feel protective of it. The alternative is a relationship that has crystallized, under tight containment  in an effort to keep it the same through seasons. As Thomas Moore writes, literalism in any relationship is the end of it. Any time we think it’s arrived, it’s over. The fun is celebrating each moment while knowing full well that it will never be the same again.

When Trish and I got married 11 years ago (which we were privileged to do by law because we claimed to be heterosexuals) we noticed something about the service we designed. Whereas many beautiful weddings are a moment of ritual to bring a partnership into official being, ours was about celebrating what we knew was already true.

So back to the rings. How are our rings ringing true to our Beloved in this current season?

The last time we got new rings for one another was in Florida few years ago. In the midst of a retreat, we realized we were discovering something new about who we are for each other. My new ring had a silver swirl like an ocean wave or a curling arm.

The one I chose last weekend has a loose Celtic knot spinning in infinity (hey, hallelujah) like Pentecost wind and fire. It’s good. It’s perfect for how I’m stretching right now. And it will someday grow stale, ceasing to spark my imagination about what our Beloved is doing. Then it’ll be ring shopping time again.

Well.

I do go on, don’t I?

Your thoughts? You partnered people, how do you keep it fresh? How do you celebrate both the stability and change of your primary relationship?