GarThoma

The contemplative artist

Impasse

I just finished reading a wonderful book by Robert J. Wicks, called Living Simply in an Anxious World. I think it was the final chapter that spoke to me the most. In it, Wicks talks about being in an impasse situation. “An impasse situation is such that the more action one applies to escape it, the worse it gets…” An impasse requires one to change his or her normal way of doing things. It often requires a radical breaking out of our regular way of thinking. An impasse can be a way toward creative breakthrough. It shows us our real powerlessness to continue in the same way we always have. Sometimes, though it can lead to cynicism and bitterness if one does not discover a creative alternative. I have to admit, that this is where I have found myself on numerous occasions. And, quite likely, my own choice to give in to my own flesh and desire for comfort during these times has often caused me to enter into cynicism and bitterness. 

Even when we do our best and work our hardest, things may not work out the way we thought they would or the way we wanted. We try to reason things out to no avail. Human reason rarely works in an impasse situation, especially spiritual impasse situations. Wicks uses the example of how pilots navigate their planes in high altitude. When a pilot flies at high altitude they must rely on the instruments rather than their eyes. The horizon can appear inverted to them and if they are not careful to focus on what the plane’s instruments are telling them rather than their eyes they can end up flying upside down. In an impasse situation all may be inverted; all may be darkness and when we try to look with our human eyes; our eyes of reason, often all we will see is despair and hopelessness, but we  must not look with our natural eyes at the situation, we must not rely on our reason; we must use the instrument God has given us: “walk by faith, not by sight.” “If anything,” says Wicks, “impasse and helplessness… can dramatically drive us to recognize and embrace there reality of grace.” 

Wicks goes on to discuss the notion of security. The one thing many of us want more that anything else in the world is security. An impasse situation often threatens our security. Wicks quotes a little pamphlet about simplicity by Quaker writer Elaine Prevallet, “If security is our treasure,” says Prevallet, “then we need to look there to find our idols.” Prevallet goes on to say that it is our double-mindeness, our fractured self, that keeps us from being wholly devoted to God. The things that cause our double mindedness, she says, is “trying to find security in more than one thing.” Anytime I seek security in something less than God, I am making myself double-minded and fracturing myself in however many pieces as the things I am seeking find security in: success, riches, acceptance, being liked and admired by others, comfort… or any other thing that is less than God. Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters…” and it is in the time of impasse, the time of darkness and mystery, that I am most tempted to seek other “masters.” 

I want to be fully devoted to God; fully surrendered to his will and walk in his way even (perhaps especially) at the fime of impasse;  It is here in the darkness that the place of my devotion is most clearly seen. 

Prayer: 
Father, please help me to not look to the situation to find my peace. Help me to find it in you and you alone. Please forgive my cynicism and the bitterness that results from my seeking security and comfort in other things and people besides you. Please forgive me for trying to serve two masters. My hope is in you alone. Help me to look to the instruments you have given to help me get my bearings during the times of impasse. I choose to walk by faith rather than by sight. In Christ, Amen.

Limiting My Options

One of the greatest commodities I have in my day is time. When considering the notion of sacrifice time is one of my main concerns. Living a sacrificial life means giving up my time. Time is something that, when given, can never be retrieved.

What do I choose to do with my time? There are so many options out there. As one who wants to live my life for Christ, I must be willing to limit options to things that are pleasing to God. When I intentionally choose to give time to The Lord, rather than for my own selfish desires, I die to myself.

I am free to choose to do whatever I want with my time, but I rather choose, like St. Paul, to “make myself a slave” for the sake of others.

There is a Buddhist saying that for the beginners mind there are many options but for the zen mind there are few. I think I could relate this to discipleship: for the baby Christian there are many options, but for the mature follower of Christ, there are few.

It is my desire to come to the place in the Spirit that I will have fewer options; that I will live in simplicity of service to Christ.

Prayer:
Lord help me to be more fully myself in you. I know that I pray this often, but it seems apt for me to pray it again during this time of renewing my commitment to simplicity. May I be myself before you; before my family and friends; before my church; before my class… Help me to be integrated and whole, not fragmented and divided. Help me to simplify my life — to do away with all the unnecessary fluff that does nothing for me or others or your Kingdom. Help me choose to give my time to you.
Amen.

Inconvenient Faithfulness (or Why I Still Attend My Church)

I keep going to the same church. I could go to another cooler, more hip, more entertaining one. But, I keep staying in this one. Let me tell you about my church. I go to a church that is small. A church where the congregation is older, more traditional. I go to a church where the praise and worship band is not really very great– we miss a note sometimes; we are off key sometimes. I suppose i should add that I am part of that worship band and I am often the one missing notes and singing off key. Our praise band is not what I would call very entertaining. I go to a  church where the preaching is ok. Our church doesn’t have a great charismatic orator (sorry Pastor). He stumbles and stammers over his words sometimes; I don’t always “get something” out of the message. I sometimes have conflict with people in my church. Sometimes it’s my Pastor. My church doesn’t have the big programs that target my felt needs.

Why do I go? I mean, frankly, I could have all the things I want in a church somewhere down the road: more people my age; more programs to meet my needs; better, more entertaining music, led by a hip worship leader. I could go to a church where there would be no conflict; at least not that I would have to deal with. In a big church I could go in, be entertained by the music, get goosebumps from the “presence of the Lord,” hear a dynamic message, and go to Noodles afterward for lunch.

So, why am I still there? Oh, I have been tempted to leave; on a number of occasions. I even tried out a couple of churches a few times. But, I keep coming back to my church.

Here is what I think may be the cause of my continuing to return to the same church week after week; year after year: I am maturing. Maturity in the Christian life does not come from entertaining music, great teaching, or “holy goosebumps.” Maturity comes through inconvenient faithfulness. No sermon can make you faithful, even the really good ones. No one gets faithfulness by having their felt needs met through practical programing. One gets faithful by continuing to stick with one’s church even when it doesn’t feel good; even when there is conflict; even when you are “not being fed.”

One of the ways I have come to realize I am maturing in Christ is that I am learning to feed myself. I am reading the scriptures and spiritually enriching books for myself. Also, I came to realize that in the many years I have been a Christian, I have been fed… lots. And maturity asks of me to begin to find ways to, not only feed myself, but help feed others. At the end of time Jesus will say to those blessed by the Father, “I was hungry and you fed me.” Could it be Jesus is talking about being faithful to share with others the spiritual knowledge and resources he has given me?

When I was attending graduate school, I went to an awesome church. I gained so much rich Christian knowledge at that church. I cannot remember a time when I was not moved by the worship there. When I moved away to another state and got my first job, I visited several churches and could not find a single church to match up to what I had there. So, I called the pastor of that awesome church and told him of my dilemma. His response still echoes in my head: “You don’t go to a church for what you can get, but for what you can give.” I have never forgot that. That was about fifteen years ago and I have yet to find a church that “feeds” me in the way I was “fed” at that church, but I have been a part of three  churches (in the three states I have lived since grad school) where I have grown more mature and more faithful and, hopefully, more like Jesus.

I must add that I also find that I do get things from my church. You see, another benefit of staying faithful to a church is that the people of that  church become like family. A great preacher; awesome, hip worship, could never give me the kind of love I feel from my church family. Thank God for my church!

Starting a new series of woodcut prints…

Just finished carving this woodblock. Getting ready to print it. The image just sort of came to me, not sure what it might mean. It includes forms that I have used a long time ago; silhouette figure, intertwining form, repeated patterns. Would anyone love to share their interpretation?

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Mission: a very short poem

Silence is a blanket weaved in grace
shields from cold winds of distraction
In a quiet room I take my place
And rest in mercy before action

Slow Church Book Review

slow-church-book

I just finished reading a wonderful book called Slow Church, Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Slow Chursh is about taking the time to cherish the depth of life in the church. We live in a world that lives mostly on the surface. Smith and Pattison call us to go down into the center of ourselves and the church, and find the Lord working in and through his people in ways that one might not expect. Right after reading Slow Church I came across the following blog post from David Benner. I think it is an apt description of some of the things the authors were trying to get at in their book:

“The French novelist, George Baranos, described sin as the patterned way of being in which we remain on the surface of life. Living on the surface is a great waste of life. Something in us remains asleep when we prefer fast food to a gourmet meal or when boredom fuels an addiction to stimulation. These are signs that we are living on the circumference and far from the center. Moving to the center is a journey of awakening. The route to that awakening is presence.” David Benner http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/living-from-the-center/

The following comes from the introduction:

“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections—with people, culture, work, food, everything.”

This book brought me back home to my own church. I have to admit that there are times when I want to go to a “fast” church. It is easier in fast churches. I can go there and be entertained by professional quality music that suits my taste; I can hear a good message that speaks to my “felt needs.” I am tempted to leave my “slow” church but I continue to make the choice to remain there year after year. It is close to my home. I know the people there… I mean really know them. They are family. My church struggles some. But, it is the church family that the Lord has called me to.

As I member and volunteer minister in my own church, I can relate to the authors who call themselves amateurs. They define the word in the sense that seems to fit the Slow Church mentality, “…amateur comes to us from the French and it literally means ‘lover.’ It implies a passionate love for the thing itself, quite separate from any compensation (money, fame, career) that could come from it.”

Slow Church is a call to modern people to appreciate real church. By real, I mean genuine. It is challenging to me to really spend time in my church, getting to know the people there, the history of the church, the people in the neighborhood and most especially the God who has given birth to the church.

I appreciate the quote by Goethe from the beginning of chapter two:

“To live within limits. To want one thing.
Or a few things very much and love them dearly.
Cling to them, survey them from every angle.
Become one with them—that is what makes the poet,
the artist, the human being.”

I think the primary call that sounds the loudest in this book is the call to patience. It is even in the title: “Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.” The opposite of patience is, of course, impatience. The authors quote the book, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison who define impatience as an “inner restlessness . . . [that is,] experiencing the moment as empty, useless, meaningless. It is wanting to escape from the here and now as soon as possible.” Slow church is about learning to appreciate the here and now in the context of the church I am in; the one I am a part of here and now.

I highly recommend Slow Church. I think it has been aptly written for “such a time as this.” It is a great reminder to take the time to develop deep relationships with God and his people in the context of the local church; your local church. The book calls us to take ownership of our church and patiently engage in the life-changing message of the Gospel through our own church in our own neighborhoods.

 

Minister

I am still thinking a lot about the idea of being a minister. In simple definition, a minister is a person through which something is accomplished. I have always thought that to be a minister, I needed to fill myself up with all kinds of helpful knowledge. The more I can fill myself up, the more helpful I will be as a minster. I look to Jesus, who was (is) the ultimate minister. He seems to turn everything upside down and inside out. I see this when I look at the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…” It seems to me like those who are empty are the most blessed. And to be blessed is to be full. I am learning nowadays that to be an effective minister, I must not rely on all my knowledge. Certainly there is nothing wrong with knowledge, but I cannot think that all my learning and knowing will give people the answer they are seeking. Only God’s Spirit knows the spirit of humans. Only God’s Spirit can effectively help and bring healing to the souls of others. When I say I want to be a minister, I am saying that I want God’s Spirit to flow through me. I must surrender to him in order to allow this. I am slowly becoming a conduit for his Spirit.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Poverty of heart is required to face my truth. Encountering the truth in my soul is a painful experience. There is this excruciating wrenching of illusion from my heart. But, in order for me to be a vessel that the Kingdom of God can flow through, I must be cleansed of all impurity. I am not talking merely about chastity here, or a moral righteousness. I am talking about all the illusions that are brought in by the father of lies, Satan himself. Thomas Merton says that those lies reveal themselves in the following ways: fear, anxiety, conflicts, doubts, ambivalence, hesitation, self-contradictions, hatred, jealousy, compulsive needs, “and a thousand other ‘impurities’ that darken the light of the soul…” When the vessel of my soul is full of all these things, there is a stoppage that keeps God’s rightful rule from taking place in my heart. This stops the flow of the Kingdom of God through my life. It is in the poverty of spirit that the capacity of God’s Kingdom is given place in and through my soul.

This takes time. I am just beginning to scratch the surface of coming to the place of poverty of spirit. I am learning to listen to the Spirit of God in every moment. I am learning examine myself by asking God to show me the places where I am getting it right and where I am getting it wrong. I am receiving the love God offers me. This is the most important thing for me. Even in failure (perhaps especially in failure) God is working to carve out the places in my soul where he can fit and flow.

Thank you, Lord for your faithfulness and you patience. I am becoming more and more aware of your work in my life. You are shaping me into the image of Jesus. I rejoice to know that you are not finished; that you will bring your plan to completion in my life. Help me to be a vessel useful to you; one that you can flow through in order to bring healing to this broken world. In Christ, Amen.

Intinction

I love reading your book,
To lift the meaty pages, to caress its boney back
And hold the fleshy cover against my chest.

Let it whisper August breezes into my ears. 
I want that book to sink its teeth into my
Soul, to swallow the sour

And spit out sweetness for all the world 
To devour. I want to taste the crunchy
Words that define the darkness; 

To hold them in both my hands
To bury my face in the soil and 
Sprout tangled roots from my eyes

That go down into the hollowness of 
The earth and pull the truth out of 
Its dark caverns. To ask questions 

And have the wind answer back 
With substance shaped like 
Bread dipped in wine. 

A Reflection on Emptiness (revised)

A Haiku for Pentecost

Cleanse me from myself
Wind fills the clearest vessel
Yet leaves it empty

“Christ emptied himself.” Phil. 2:7

Kenosis, self-emptying in order to be receptive.

I wrote the above haiku inspired by a discussion I had with my friend, Erik Young, a hospital chaplain. He was reflecting on the notion of emptiness as a necessary component of chaplaincy. He said that entering into a situation where a person has just lost their loved one, full of our own knowledge of how to make things better is not helpful. The best thing one can do in those situations, says my friend, is to be empty.

Christ emptied himself in order to receive us into himself and heal our brokenness. I am one who represents Jesus on the earth. My human tendency, however, is to enter into human brokenness full of knowledge, ideas and ways to fix the problem or make a situation better by my own strength. What people need in situations of brokenness, is a place to deposit their pain, fear, grief or confusion.

We often speak of Jesus taking on all these things for us, and that is true. And yet, in a very real way Christ has called you and I, as his representatives on earth to be a vessel that is shaped like him. The problem is that I am too full of myself. I have needs of my own. I have issues that keep me from being that Christ-shaped vessel. That is why Christ baptizes us with his Holy Spirit. He came in the form of wind and fire in order to sculpt our inner lives into empty, receptive vessels that are able to receive the brokenness of others.

Prayer
Lord fill me with your Spirit in order to clear out the clutter of self and create a space where broken people can find healing for their souls.

Self-Emptying

Kenosis is the Greek word that describes what Paul spoke of in Philippians chapter 2 regarding Christ coming into the world as a human. When Christ came he “emptied himself” and took on our humanity in order to save us. He became like us so that we might become like him.

I want to be like him but I am so filled to overflowing with myself, the world and all its cares. I am like a sponge that has been placed under a running faucet. My soul is saturated with the stuff of life: desires of the flesh, fears, pain. I cannot take any more input. So, when I come to Christ his word is repelled by sheer density of things inside me. In order to hear from him, I must engage in a kind of self-emptying. I must empty myself of all the things of this world so that he can fill me; so that a space in my soul can be created where his word and his Spirit can dwell. It is through silent, contemplative prayer that I carve out the space where Christ, by his Spirit, can speak to me.

Whenever we are so full of hurt, pain, fleshly desires, unforgiveness — there is no room for God’s Word. We must engage in the ancient practices of silence, solitude, fasting, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, praying the psalms – in order to open up places in our lives where the Lord can enter in and do his transforming work in our hearts.

The purpose of self-emptying is not just so that we can be made into better people. When we are emptied of self and full of Christ, we are better able to show mercy, compassion and justice to others. It is by receiving Christ’s love that we are better able to give that love to others. We can then be like that sponge under a faucet, only this time it is the gracious love of God that pours out from the faucet. When we are full with this love, it can be squeezed out over the lives of others.

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