I am at Peace with My Becoming

Advent is the season of angelic visitations, miraculous births and joyful expectation. It is the season to mark not what is but what will be. The valleys have been raised up and every mountain brought low—the way is being made for the New. We are mindful and attentive, watching the signs. A baby will be born, a star will die and its brilliant light will ignite the night sky. Soon shepherds will encounter luminous messengers who burst with angel song, “Glory to God in the highest, shalom to women and men who find favor with God!”

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. Advent is a song building to a glorious crescendo. It stokes our expectations. We anticipate Christ’s coming, eager that in meeting again the Divine, we may be changed. The road is open, and there is now real potential:  illumination, enlightenment, change, union. 

Rami Shapiro is a Jewish Rabbi and a Zen poet (he studying Zen Buddhism with Leonard Cohen). His poem “There is a Hunger”(from Accidental Grace, Paraclete Press, 2015, pp 32-33), illustrates this sense of expectancy:

There is a hunger in me that no thing can fill;

a gnawing emptiness that calls forth dreams

dark and unfathomable.

My Soul is whispering; Deep calling Deep,

and I know not how to respond.

The Beloved is near—as near as my breath,

as close as my breathing—

The World Soul of

which my soul is but a sliver of light.

Let me run to it in love,

Embracing the One who is me,

That I may embrace others who are One.

Enwrapped in your Being,

I am at peace with my becoming.

Engulfed in your flame

I am cleared and unclouded.

I am a window for the Light,

a lens by which You see Yourself;

a slight of Mind

that lets me know me as You

and lets me know You as me.

How wonderous this One

Who is the face of all things.

Of course, Shapiro’s spirituality, as a  Zen Buddhist Rabbi, is not particularly Christocentric. He didn’t pen these words in anticipation of some Christmas miracle. Certain lines hint at a pantheist union with all nature—the World Soul. However, if we believe as Christians that in Christ we glimpse the face of God, then our Christmas waiting opens up the potential of seeing Christ a new, in ourselves, in others, in the groaning creation.  We will become a window for others to sense Christ’s presence. How wonderous this One/ who is the face of all things!

The way is open for God’s shalom. Peace is the promise. Swords will be plowshares, spears will be pruning hooks. Predation will cease. All will be safe and secure. 

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. I am at peace with my becoming.

Interview with David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit

I posted a (p)review and giveaway of Wounded In Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations early this week, and congratulations to the three winners:

  1. L. Jackson
  2. Melanie Turner
  3. Diane Roth

I hope you find reading this book meaningful and receive a measure of comfort in the coming season!

David Bannon was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his new book via email. Here are his responses:

The season of Advent is both a season of hope and joy and one which touches our pains and longings. How do you think Advent makes space for those of us who are hurting and grieving?

We live in a society that has a tragic “get on with it, get over it” attitude toward grief.  Yet Advent teaches us a different lesson: the importance of accepting our sorrow exactly as it is each moment; the validity of our yearning and pain; the communion of placing our grief in a God who mourns with us; the unexpected consolation of light coming into darkness despite all reason. For those who know loss, our joy is tinged with sorrow. I think of Anna in the Gospel of Luke. A widow of many years, Anna surely felt the weight of loneliness and heartbreak: her gratitude at the sight of Jesus in the temple was hard-earned. In the same book, Simeon concluded his celebratory hymn with a realistic word for Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  In our grief during Advent, we seek rare moments of peace, an assurance that our hope is not ill-founded, and to know that we are not alone.

Bartolome Estaban Murillo, Holy Family with a Bird, c. 1650
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

You lost your only child. In what ways do you find this season hard? What brings you joy in the midst of sorrow?

We all find ways to make peace with our loss.  I  pray for one happy memory each day. Another bereaved parent wrote that she made it a daily goal to find one thing for which to be thankful.  This is not a glib “positive attitude” antidote. Rather, it may well be a prescription for survival.  I am reminded of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  He lost his wife and four of his five children yet the majority of his work is deeply joyful.  We sense in his paintings an assurance of peace.  His religious pieces, however, are steeped in profound sorrow.  Modern research tells us that Bouguereau’s persistent grief was normal; that the continuing bond he felt with his loved ones is healthy and to be expected.  He did not deny his mourning, he expressed it, just as he expressed the moments of joy he found in each day.  This is typical of bereaved parents.  We experience life as we live it, rejoicing in each happy memory, pausing over the simplest pleasures with gratitude.  Sorrow will return unbidden, it is inevitable. We are changed. Our souls have taken harm. It is in this harm that I experience the silence of God; it is in His silence that I find true peace.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

The art chosen for your book is beautiful and I love hearing snippets of the artist’s stories. You speak of these artists as providing for you a ‘communion of grief.’ Are there pieces that particularly resonate with you?

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jeanne, 1888
Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

William-Adolphe Bouguereau waited some twenty years after his daughter’s death to paint her portrait, Jeanne.  In it, we sense his longing, tears, joy, memory, and hope. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Karl Thylmann have vastly different stories: Murillo was orphaned and found peace in creating a family of his own; Thylmann was color blind yet found a way to give us stark, incisive religious imagery that lives on today. The self-portraits of one of the great masters, Jean-Siméon Chardin, reflect brutal honesty.  Before his son took his own life, Chardin’sportraits were robust, energetic, intriguing. After his son’s death, Chardin described his inconsolable grief and regret in Self-portrait Wearing Glasses. Today the work holds pride of place in the Louvre.  We who have experienced loss recognize that look in Chardin’s eyes: ineffable yet wholly and completely known to those who mourn. 

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Self Portrait Wearing Glasses, 1775
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The artists you chose name the darkness, but some also experienced peace and light. Others were haunted by hard circumstance and accepted no easy answers. There is a quite a variety. How did you decide which artists to include in this devotional?

In their religious work, great artists expressed the truth of their wounds. I am reminded of French historian Marc Bloch’s injunction: “When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. . . . ‘Understanding,’in all honesty, is a word pregnant with difficulties, but also with hope. Moreover, it is a friendly word.” I selected artists whose lives speak to me, that gives me pause, that resonates with recognition and communion. In the end, I chose those artists for whom I felt a surprising friendliness.  

How has writing this book affected you? How have you experienced God’s healing in the midst of this project?

Bereaved parents who have contracted cancer, or lost a limb, report that losing a child was far more difficult. The loss defies comparison. We rarely tell an amputee that he lacks faith: that if he only believes his leg will grow back.  To say such a thing would be thoughtless and unrealistic.  The death of a child is permanent. Our wounds will be healed the moment we hold our children in our arms again.  In the here and now, our healing is to make peace with that.  I believe that God hears us in our grief.  In communion, we may find meaning and reasons to go on.

What is your hope for those who readWounded in Spirit?

Our wounds are our own. No one can understand our individual grief yet surely many of us travel the same dark paths, stumbling and crawling through the same shadowed valley.  Somewhere in this book, there may be a hurt, an artist, a painting or a bit of grief research that resonates with us, that makes us think: “Oh yeah, I know how that feels.”  These artists were broken and wounded, as many of us are, yet they found ways to speak to us across the centuries, to assure us that we are not alone. 

__________

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester University Press, 1954): 118.

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You can order Wounded in Spirit from:

Wounded In Spirit: an Advent Devotional (p)review and GIVEAWAY!!!

The secular and liturgical calendars nearly converge this year, so whether you mark the start of Advent with those calendars of chalky, cheap chocolate from your local supermarket, or through participation in Sunday worship, the season begins this weekend. During Advent I always look for a devotional to read through, as I attempt to wait well. Friends at Paraclete Press were nice enough to share with me Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a new devotional by David Bannon. Bannon combines reflections on grief, hope, wounds and waiting with beautiful works of art. It is an exquisite book!

9781640601451But Advent is the season of waiting. To wait is to note that things are not yet as they should be. And so, this is a difficult season for a lot of us. For all the promise of holiday cheer, these are long dark nights, often touched by heartache, loneliness, estrangement, deep wounds, and mourning. Bannon is no stranger to grief and heartache. In 2006 he was convicted for criminal impersonation. In 2015 his daughter died of a heroin overdose (introduction, XVI).  He know what it means to be broken and bereaved, to long for wholeness, healing and the coming of God’s shalom. He doesn’t speak explicitly about his own story in these meditations. He focuses instead on the stories of the artists—their stories, wounds and the works they produced.

The art in this book is varied in style, though exclusively Western European,ranging from the Renaissance era to about mid 20th Century. There are works by celebrated artists like Gauguin, Tissot, Caravaggio, Tanner, Delacroix, Van Gogh and Dürer, as well as notable pieces from artists with less household name recognition. Bannon describes the artist’s life, and the ways their wounds bleed onto the canvas. He invites us to stop and pay attention, to really see the artist and their work, to experience healing and perchance commune. Each daily meditation includes quotations for reflection from notable artists, writers, philosophers or theologians.

Art is something that has been healing for me on my own spiritual journey so I am looking forward to sitting with these artists and their work. I have not read the whole book yet, just introduction and several entries, though Bannon appears to be a good guide.

Waiting is painful. Things are not yet as they should be. But waiting doesn’t have to be dull and dreary, it can be a sensory experience, a time of entering more fully into Life. A time to grieve, yes, but joy comes in the morning.

Paraclete Press, has graciously allowed me to run a giveaway on my blog of 3 copies of the book? Yeah, James, but how can I win? 

There are 2 ways to enter:

  1. Comment below and tell me what do you find most difficult about this time of year.
  2. Share this giveaway on Social Media by hitting the share button below, Be sure to comment and share the link in the comment section, so I see your entry!

Winners will be chosen Thursday, 11/29 at 9pm Pacific Time.

Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Get Naked . . . and Unashamed: a book review

My wife and I have been married for 16 years. Over that time, and in my role as an erstwhile and intermittent pastor, I have read my share of marriage books. There are some good ones, but a lot of them are pretty terrible. I am always on the hunt for a good marriage book which will help couples, especially those who are engaged, think about how to be married, and do it well, particularly from a Christian faith perspective. So I was pretty excited to read Naked and Unashamed by Jerry & Claudia Root with Jeremy Rios. Naked and unashamed are literally my two favorite ways to be married! I’m kidding (no I’m not).

Naked-and-UnashamedJerry Root was Jeremy Rios’s mentor and professor when he attended Wheaton College.  The material in this book parallels the material which Jerry and Claudia had used for Jeremy and his wife Liesel’s premarital counseling. Later when Jeremy became a pastor, they used this same material for premarital counseling with other engaged couples, corresponding with Jerry to fill in the gaps in what he was missing in their notes. Jerry had a manuscript for a book he and Claudia wrote which he sent Jeremy to use in counseling. Jeremy used it in counseling, refined it and helped prepare the material for publication. As Rios says, “Jerry and Claudia’s wisdom is the beating heart of the book, and it is the wisdom I have sought to inhabit and live in my own marriage” (201).  The Roots bring wisdom won by 42 years of marriage. Jeremy and Liesel Rios have been married for 14 years.

The premise of the book is that marriage asks each of us to reveal ourselves wholly to our spouses. Rios and Roots encourage couples to open up about our histories, our understandings, our spiritual lives, our understanding and experience of gender, our expectations for family and parenting, expectations of finances, and of course, sex.  The hope is that women and men would enter into marriage fully, holding nothing back from their spouse, and entering into the sort of relational covenant which God intended for marriage.

Rios and the Roots describe this opening up and revealing’ in four sections of their book. In part 1,  they describe undressing the areas that allow for greater relational intimacy for couples: sharing our stories (personal histories), our hearts (how we give and receive love), our minds (our goals and dreams), and our souls (our relationship with God). In part 2, they unpack gender, dynamics of communication and woundedness, Part 3 is about exploring expectations shaped by our family and cultural identities (race, nationality, etc), our expectations about parenthood and child raising, and finances.  Part 4, intentionally left to the end, describes undressing our sexual selves for the life of sex, and expectations for the wedding night.

The Roots and Rios operate from a conservative, evangelical perspective on marriage and they say a lot that is really helpful. In fact every area they address, or. . . ahem . . . undress, is necessary for the type of life sharing which enables the sort of covenantal life-sharing where the two become one. There is not a single area they discuss, which is unimportant. Part 1 of their book  “Unmasking for Intimacy” is really good and they say some wonderful things about exploring each others’ histories, how we express intimacy, our life goals, and our spiritual life. They also explore communication well, drawing on the research of John Gottman. Throughout the book, the chapters each end with an assignment for couples to explore together their thoughts on the topic. A couple who reads this book on their own or in the context of premarital counseling would share with one another their hopes and hang-ups, expectations and understanding. This is all really good stuff.

This is a book I could use as a pastor in leading others through premarital counseling, but not without some caveats. I didn’t agree with everything Rios and the Roots had to say. For example, I am a Biblical egalitarian, and what I read in the chapter on gender advocated a sort of soft complementarianism, advocating for gender roles, where my tendency is to see mutuality. They quote Ephesians 5:22-33 to show that wives are called to “submit” and husbands are called to “sacrifice” (73-74), without referencing Ephesians 5:21 which describes mutual submission and supplies the whole ‘submit’ verb for the phrase, “wives submit to your husband” in Ephesians 5:22—the more literal rendering being simply, ‘wives, to your husband’. They describe male headship as the husband getting to cast the final vote if the couple is at loggerheads and can’t agree on a big decision(76). However, the Roots and Rios do present their views on gender humbly and acknowledge you could be complementarian, egalitarian, or not identify with either camp and have a successful marriage “so long as you acknowledge the complexities of gender, discuss them together and are striving to love one another sacrificially according to the command of Scripture” (74).

One of my pet peeves about marriage books is that I don’t always find myself in their description of the characteristics of ‘the genders.’ Now, I am a cis-gender heterosexual man, and not a particularly feminine one, but whenever someone says ‘men are more like this’ and ‘women generally are more like this,’ I discover I am the exception to their rule. Rios and the Roots do this a little bit, sometimes gendering things which were perplexing for me, such as making Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 4:26 a  description of how the  genders get angry (103-105): “Be angry, but do not sin (men lash out), and do not let the sun go down on your anger (women hold grudges). I didn’t find this description of the male and female halves of anger a helpful distinction at all.  I can hold a grudge with the best of them.

Another area some will find disagreeable is their discussion of the discipline of children, they make the case for physical punishment of kids, ” One of the principles of the world, it seems evident that where you will not be taught by reason or reward you will be taught by pain. This is simply a principle of how the world operates and in parenting we are instructing our children in these rules” (144-45).  How they frame it, they are careful to underscore the purpose of discipline (training a child) and they bracket out an abusive lashing out, but readers who are suspicious of the value of corporal punishment will disagree on this point.

But agreeing with the Roots and Rios on every point is not the point. The point is getting naked . . . and unashamed. There is a lot of wisdom in what the Roots and Rios discuss here, and even when you disagree with the authors, they have framed the discussion so couples can explore together what their convictions are and understand each other in each of these areas. I give this four stars. ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review. I also know Jeremy Rios, having attended Regent College with him.

 

Having the Horse Sense to Hear the Divine: a ★★★★★ book review.

One of my earliest memories involves a horse. I would have been 2. My family lived on an acreage underneath the big sky of central Alberta. We had two horses, a mare, and her yearling colt. Cinnabar. One afternoon I was in the sandbox behind our house and decided to go down the hill and visit with the horses. They watched me disinterestedly from behind their barbwire fence, glancing sideways at me, munching the pasture grass. I crawled under the fence to get closer to them. The yearling turned and ran and kicked me in the face. His rear hoofs scraped across my cheeks, just below my temples. Had I been one step closer, or the horse a little older, I may not be here today.  My mom tells me that I ran up the hill with more rage than pain screaming, “Cinnabar kicked me!”

 horses-speak-of-godMy family moved to the city and we didn’t have horses after that, but I would ride them, some, at the nearby dude ranch, or on my grandparent’s farm in the summertime if they happened to be watching their neighbors’ horses.  I love horses. They are majestic creatures, and I’ve since learned to not climb under fences and walk behind them, to respect their size and give them a wide berth.

Laurie Brock, an Episcopal priest and crisis chaplain, has a better relationship to horses than I ever had. In Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed, she shares the things she has learned from the horses she rides: balance, steadfastness, vocation, trust, routine, love. Brock writes, “I began to ride as a hobby. I did not expect to learn a language that spoke of God” (9).

Throughout these seventeen mediations, Brock weaves together stories of riding lessons, the horses she’s ridden, ministry, the church calendar, Scripture and the liturgy.  She is the student and she honors horses as her teacher. She learns from them. Sometimes the horses teach her about losing control, about having courage, and empathy:

As I reflected on the moment when I’d walked away from my dirty dishes and into the midst of tragedy in the aftermath of a death, I knew they were the same emoitions similar experineces. I could be in the presence of  grief and its wildness because I rode Izzy. And suddenly, I realized that the rearranging that hapened inside of my soul had to do with the words that horses had opened to me. (5).

Sometimes a particular horse would reveal something for Brock about facing fear, or discovering vocation. Sometimes the process of learning to ride illuminates an aspect of her own faith journey. For example, ‘collecting’ a horse—raising the horse’s head while keeping it’s weight slightly on its hind legs so that its movements are focused and directed—becomes a metaphor for own soul, as she finds for her soul the balance between control, energy, and direction in the Collect of the Eucharistic liturgy. (67-71).

Brock is both priest and chaplain but this is not a book about discovering God in the church. It is a book about wrestling with God and learning faith while learning to ride, It is about experiencing the grace of God in the face of a horse, and seeing the face of God in the grace of a horse. This is poetic prose. I highly recommend this book, especially for animal lovers and for those who connect with God outside of the church. Brock does a great job of translating the wisdom of the Christian experience into the language of horse and rider. The lessons she learned from horses are kinder and more generative than getting kicked in the face by a horse. God’s grandeur and grace. The divine and the equine. I give this five stars. – ★★★★★

I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

 

Sacred Dying: a journal review

Once upon a time, Christians had a good deal to say about dying well. Saints of old (e.g. Augustine, Polycarp, Thomas More, Thomas Aquinas, etc.) had a good deal to about death, as did Anglican Divine, Jeremy Taylor, in his classic, Holy Dying. But our age is an era characterized more by the denial of death than any thoughtful preparation for it. We spend our days distracting ourselves from our own mortality. I’m now past forty, and statistically as close to death as I am to my birth, but I still think of myself as on my journey to self-actualization, not on my way to the grave. I’m more likely to contemplate the death of a character on my current Netflix binge-watch then I am to prepare for my own demise.

Sacred-Dying-JournalMegory Anderson, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Sacred Dying Foundation in San Francisco. She is a theologian, scholar in comparative religion, an author and educator. She has created the Sacred Dying Journal: Reflections on Embracing the End of Life, a journal that includes inspirational quotes, and question prompts, designed to help us reflect on aging, sickness, time, our legacy, and making arrangements to be laid to rest (e.g. our funeral and burial plans).   

The book is divided into four sections: Caring for the Body and the Soul, Sacred Dying in Time and Space, Legacies, and Honoring the Body/Commending the Soul. Because this is a journal and not a book. Anderson doesn’t prescribe a particular response from us. Instead, her questions, probe and are designed to help us clarify our own beliefs about life, death, the afterlife, and what we leave behind.

As such, this journal (or workbook) is appropriate for anyone, regardless of religious tradition or stage of life. We are all going to die. I appreciated looking through this and reflecting on where I want my life to end up.  Nevertheless, those who more readily sense death within his bending sickle compass come, either from age or because of some terminal diagnosis, will find this journal a helpful resource for preparing for death.  I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.