Ideas and Reflections

Frederick Buechner says to pay attention to the things that make you cry. I cried, tears of joy that is, for the duration of this segment from last week’s 60 Minutes and this is why.

I know what music does in my soul. I have an idea of what music does in the souls of those around me. But given this glimpse of what music has done in the souls of 200 musicians living in the the world’s most impoverished country and who have endured the most deadly war since WWII, I’ve had to stop and pay attention. In this segment from 60 Minutes I saw something I’ve both hypothesized and questioned, hoped for and doubted. Christ uses music to birth beauty in the darkest most ugly corners of my soul, that I know; but what about the darkest most ugly corners of the world? Does music have the potential to enliven a community? To bring hope to a nation? Can music bring healing to the souls of those who have known rape and poverty and dehumanizing violence their whole life? Does Christ choose music and the arts for this work? Are they a valid means of bringing healing to the broken? This story answers with a resounding, “yes.”

Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle (click to view video)


I loved going to church as a kid. Not a common confession I know. I loved dancing around on slate floor patterns in the foyer, making games out of which color stones were “safe” to walk on. I liked getting dressed up in my twirly skirts, tying little ribbons in my hair, and wearing shiny shoes that clicked on the floor when I walked. But most of all I loved the stories. I loved the way our Sunday school teacher would make them come alive; alive in ways that made us part of the narrative. But as it goes, time passed, and I grew up. When I saw felt boards and puppets again as an adult I was surprised. There was a striking sense of being under-whelmed. I remember vividly how I saw them as a child, they were fantastical and captivating! So as silly as it may seem, I was a little sad. I think I may have even grieved a bit when I realized how much my eyes had changed. In reflection I began paying attention to how as children we are swept away by story and how our imagination is always eager, animated in participation. But somewhere along the way as we grow toward adulthood, we lose sight of our stories. Instead of imagination, we’re eager for facts and get by with the gist of things because the whole story just takes too long. While I’ve been a creative my whole life, and was even an arts director, I also got caught up in this. Tasks and schedules became too urgent for getting lost in wonder cross-legged on the floor. A few years ago that changed. Through a series of difficult life experiences, faith fell apart in one big swoop and life through the lens of “the gist” was no longer enough. I was once again drawn back to days of enchanted curiosity.

God draws us there, to curiosity and wonder. And like the Sunday school teacher, God makes our stories come alive by writing them into the grand narrative. And faith changes, grows, and moves amidst it. Frederick Buechner said, “From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention.  Pay attention to the frog.  Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.”[1] Buechner captures something quite special here: humanity is made for more than facts and quick exchanges. It’s why, despite the ways we choose to go about real life we can still watch a movie or read a book and get lost in it. We see ourselves in the personality quirks and fears, in the dreams and victories. We become the characters. And when the credits roll and there are no more pages to turn, we grieve the ending. In secret, we wish real life were just as enlivened. But this is exactly what God is inviting us to. There is a grand narrative! Furthermore, we are characters in it! But we have to pay attention. We have to slow down and lean in. And with imaginations engaged, we must listen. When we do, life in and around us saturated with God’s presence, will whisper a tale. There will be tales of tragedies and comedies and stories in between. And they will enliven lives once lost in hurried detachment.

[1] Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner is formatted in daily readings. February 20.

It was tonight that President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The news, Facebook, and assuredly the papers tomorrow, are and will be plastered with images and sounds and words of celebration. Osama’s death signifies the end to many things that are worthy of celebration. But, this is also a time to grieve and to pray because a life was lost.

It’s times like these I’m grateful Jesus gave us the words.

Up until recently the words of the Lord’s Prayer still spilled out of my mouth similarly to the way they did as a kid; in recitation mode, complete with all the pauses learned from trying to say it in sync (and monotone) like everyone else. Bible courses in college helped some. But it wasn’t until more recently, when a graduate professor of mine gave a lecture on it, that the truth began to grip me. With his exegesis and some poetic license, the prayer took on the life and beauty I believe Jesus may have intended for us to hear and keep close to our heart. So it’s with some rather clumsy paraphrasing that I will try to share what I’ve learned about the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13.

~  ~  ~

This, then, is how we should pray

Father, we know you are right here in the very air we breathe. We pray with your love and with love for all people, our brothers and sisters, in mind and heart.

Father we commit to live on earth in a way that makes it more and more like your nature. We commit to help bring in the kingdom through Christ in us. We commit to live, be motivated, and be empowered by your desires. And we commit to these things simply because it is what you hope for.

Father, the Kingdom is here. We know because we get glimpses of it from time to time. But it’s not finished yet and so we struggle to live like Jesus. So Father, give us what we need to make it happen.

Search us out and teach us how to forgive. Our hope is that we will also then learn how to be forgiven.

Father, do not test us. If you test us, we’ve had it. We will fail.
So free us from everything that trips us up. This is our confession and our calling out for grace.

We pray these things in unity.
We all say, yes. Yes. Yes.

– – –

In all our days, and in this day of conflicting thoughts and emotions, may we live the Lord’s Prayer.

Amongst a vast number of possible ways to approach Scripture, there is one with an overtone that suggests a counter-cultural self-awareness. This approach may also very well be vital to our engagement in all facets of the Christian life: we are incapable of mastering knowledge of God. Richard Rohr spoke most directly to this principle in chapter six of his book, Things Hidden. He says, “We are saying that it is important to have correct, orthodox teaching about God, but don’t for a moment presume you know everything or even most things about God.”[1] When examined this awareness creates a tension or a paradox. The other side of this paradox is a divinely imparted desire to indeed know God. Rohr continues by quoting Heinrich Zimmer saying, “the best things cannot be talked about,” and “the second-best things are almost always misunderstood.” The struggle is, the pursuit of knowing God is precisely one of those “best things that cannot be talked about.” Intensifying this is our culturally fueled association between knowledge and an aim for mastery. We earn degrees that claim mastery of a subject and are given titles like D.Mus., MD, and B.Phil to indicate how much mastery we’ve achieved. I’m not suggesting that this is at all a bad thing. Yet aiming for mastery in our pursuit to know God is counter-productive and ultimately destructive.

Our aim as a Christ-follower is to know God, and be known by God. Yet by nature, God is beyond the constructs and capacity of our understanding. In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” We are incapable of fully knowing God. So we must let the otherness of God, stand at the center. Without this subservient posture, we inadvertently elevate our own conclusions about God and create little self-made gods. As Thomas Merton said, “busy narcissism is turned within and feeds upon itself, in stillness and secret love [it] will make him believe that his experience of himself is an experience of God.”[2] In this we can begin to see why aiming for mastery in our pursuit to know God is counter-productive. Mastery becomes a ceiling that confines us to exploring the small spaces of our limited capacity.

Two notorious and severe examples of the destructive effects of this are the Crusades and African-Americans in pre-Civil war south. We ask, “How could this happen in the name of Jesus?” Yet, it all started from this common tendency to conclusively interpret Scripture and elevate it as finite knowledge of God. On the other hand, the most inventive and creative contributions throughout history have been because of openness to the unknown. This applies to all realms of knowledge. Benjamin Franklin, Rosa Parks, Claude Monet, all made great contributions that challenged and furthered common knowledge. It’s because they first dared to open themselves to realms of knowledge that existed beyond their own capacity of understanding.

So what does this mean for us? We can know God. This is God’s great desire. Furthermore, God is the one who instills and furthers this desire. But our knowing is a mere glimpse. The beauty is, the glimpse thrusts us further into the mystery of God’s great otherness. If our aim is mastery, this reality of faith feels like a dangled carrot. But if we put mastery aside, it becomes invigorating because we will never exhaust the potential to be challenged, to wonder in awe, to find new depths to explore. So, may we be people who set aside the need to master knowledge of God and set the site of our fervor and diligence towards infinite realms of exploration.

[1] Rohr, Richard. Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 2008. pp. 111.

[2] Merton, Thomas, and William H. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. HarperOne, 2004. pp. 5.

Right in the middle of your tears – that’s where the dance starts and joy is first felt. In this crazy world, there’s an enormous distinction between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. But in the eyes of God, they’re never separated. Where there is pain, there is healing. Where there is mourning, there is dancing. Where there is poverty, there is the kingdom.
– Henri Nouwen

I’ve had to think quite a bit lately about being fully present in both the good times and bad. Not necessarily by choice. I’ve had some trying times with my health and I oftentimes I just want to escape the reality of it. Sometimes I think back to days when I was pain free. Sometimes I think towards the future and the health I hope for. I’ve also tried to will myself better (and may have disproved the power of positive thinking). But through a gentle nudging from my friend Val, I’ve realized God wants me present right in the middle it all. Since then each day offers the choice to be present or escape. (thanks val)

So, the first time I read what Nouwen wrote above, I thought about how we are missing the point and become distracted by feelings of good and bad, sorrow and joy. During the hard times, we run with everything we’ve got. And during the good times, we cling with everything we’ve got. In all these determined efforts we end up putting these desires before our desire for God. But, if instead we slow down and start paying attention to these feelings, life could be less about the chaos of moving between emotional highs and lows, and more so about encountering God who is faithfully present in it all.

In this space, feelings of pain or anger or joy or peace, while valid and important, are not the end. Meaning, our feelings are not what fills us up. Instead, they become signposts that point us towards the movement God. As if they were signs saying, “Hey. Pay attention to this part of life. God has something to show you.” In practice it could look like asking yourself, “Why am I so angry about being sick? Do I feel wronged in some way? Why? God, what do you have to say about sickness?” It could also mean journaling observations during times of joy and reflecting on what helped cultivate this fruit from the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22-23) Whatever it looks like, our emotions are ultimately an outward manifestation of our inner reality and God is calling us to pay attention. When we do, we’re drawn into that inner reality where we can most intimately meet God.

I imagine I’ll be present in pain for bit. Yet, its not just pain anymore, there is hope. While the aim is to get better, my hope is not dependent upon that. I’d be back to escaping towards the future. The hope is from finding that God is right here in this moment

Pain can be a place for formational encounters with God if we are willing to be present in it. When we pay attention to life through this lens, the highs and lows will look less like the superficial drama of a soap opera, and more so like the life giving story of God’s presence at work in and around us.

Nouwen, Henri. Moving from Solitude to Community to Leadership. Leadership Journal, Spring 1995, Volume XVI, #2.

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