“Doubt is a gift. It means the way you see God is fraying at the edges, and maybe it needed to.”

– Mike McHargue

Musing One…

I have often felt that one of the paradoxes of God is that in order to experience God we must simultaneously truly let go of every single image of God we have, to drop every ‘box’ we have put God in.

In essence, we must pray the prayer that the 15th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart prayed, “I pray God to rid you of God.”  We must do this because all that we use to define God often comes from flawed and pained sources – mostly childhood ones for me.  You see having an alcoholic father can make trust in God a difficult thing.  I struggle with trusting God, trusting his love, fidelity.  I do not struggle with believing in God’s love or power; I struggle with believing God desires to shed those qualities on me.

In A.A., the 3rd Step states that we must make a decision “to turn our will and the care of our lives over to God, as we understand Him.”  The funny thing is that not only did I have an alcoholic father; I also am one in recovery.  So what is hard is not actually the surrendering over to God all of my will and being and living my life for God; what the struggle is comes in the words “care.”

In order to surrender my life to God’s care, I must first trust that God indeed does care.

And I often doubt that one… that God does care.

I know, I know.  How can I call myself a Jesus follower and doubt God’s care?  How can I doubt that I am loved when all the cross Jesus hung upon says to me is love, love, love.

I see Jesus forgiving all sorts of untouchables and unlovables and yet I doubt with some regularity that God cares for me.

So, I pray often for God to “rid” me of God.  I pray for God to remove from me all the idolatrous and graven images I have set up to be a poor substitute for him.  My father, whom I love very much, is still a poor lens through which to view and experience God.  My addiction is another poor choice; people in power and people with presumed power are also poor lens through which to experience God.

It is why I return again and again to Jesus.  In him, I see all that I need to see of God; in Jesus I see love unfathomable, grace unlimited, and mercy unmitigated.  It is why time and time again I go to Jesus when I am lost, scared, and most of all when I am in doubt.  Jesus is God with flesh on.  When I wonder how God would ‘act’ and what God would do or say to the situations and circumstances of my life (and the world), I return to the words of Jesus, to the life of Jesus to get Truth.

For in Jesus, I find all that I need to learn to be still in my doubt, tender in my fears, and embrace all of me, even as I see the me that needs embracing is dark and wounded.

###

Musing Two…

Saying God is not in my doubt is sort of like saying God was not in my past – in my drunken stupors and bleary-eyed cocaine hazes – and it is an insult to God.  It limits God and God’s love and grace.  It is about the same as if I am saying God only exists when I say God exists; as if God does not start being real until I say God is real.  Leaving God out of my doubt, or fearing my doubt, is an ego-based act of attrition.

Saying God does not exist in the doubt is an insult.

And when people are uncomfortable with my doubt, and speak with words like backsliding, or faithless, or heretic or not a true believer, I just tell them their discomfort with my doubt, and my truth does not negate my truth; that no one defines me but God alone, and no one truly knows the faith or lack thereof that dwells in my heart.

For people who say that doubt is the opposite of faith, and the lack thereof, are people who have made God two sizes too small.  For God is everywhere.  There is nowhere (no where) that God is not so that means that there is nowhere that God’s love is not.

My doubt and the crazy cracks in my faith are the very spaces God uses to let his light in to shine my world up.  The same is true for you.  My doubts, and my cracks, are truly gifts from God.  And for them I thank God and sing praises to him.

“I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing for the fact, even to myself…  I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.”

Thomas Merton

Truth…after all these years, I am still afraid of the dark.

Oh, I talk a good game, stating proudly that I love the dark that I am okay with it, with not knowing, with the unknown.  But that’s a load of crap.  I hate the dark.  Specifically, I loathe the reality of “not knowing.”  I find no comfort in that sacred place.

I have found that the words of Dorothy Day ring true, reminding us that it is best to travel light through the darkness.  I say it is good to do so because I need my hands in the darkness, groping for security, feeling my way through it the way a newly blind person fumbles through Braille. Slowly, methodically, with intention.

The darkness of my heart – the anger, the fear, the lack of trust in God despite evidence to the contrary – makes my life ‘feel’ messy.  I want my life, and my faith, to be neat and tidy.  But that it would seem is as improbable as it is impossible.

When my life feels messy, there is this thought that rattles around my head with jarring significance and it goes like this – sometimes I feel that God is this All-pervasive Reality I have yet to actually experience, much less “know.”

I mean, I “know” Jesus.  I love Him.  I follow Him, however feebly.  But I do so like a child in a mud puddle – messy, splashing about, mud and earth and water colliding all about me.

But then that noise subsides, and above the din I hear the repetitive whisper, “mercy, mercy, mercy, all is enveloped in Mercy…”

One thing is certain, the messier my life gets the more merciful God seems.  I sense the reason that is due to this truth: the messier and more mistake prone I get, the more I am in dire need of God’s Mercy that is available always and forever.  The more I am ‘human’ the more I need and therefore am open to Divine Love.  When I am at my lowest, it is ‘easier’ to look up and ask for mercy.

It’s easier to surrender when I run out of bullets.

It’s a shame that it takes my increased messiness and mistakes to be the catalyst provoking my need of God’s divine mercy, but I am human.  I am trying daily to put myself in a position living conscious of and present to God’s infinite mercy rather than waiting for fox holes and disasters.

Spiritual crisis prevention is far better than crisis management.  In prevention mode, I am more aware of God in all my dealings rather than my usual state of forgetfulness.  And as I grow in a deeper daily awareness of God, the self made messiness seems to give way to a mercy filled life; still messy, but steeped in the ever-present reality called the mercy of God.

 

 

The all-important central emptiness
which is filled
with the presence of God alone.”

Jean Danielou

I am learning more deeply in these days that emptiness is necessary; it is also quite scary for most of us. I could lie and say that emptiness no longer scares me the way it did as a child, but I would be lying. As I grow older, and death becomes more a part of my intentional consciousness, emptiness brings some level of fear, for far too often I confuse emptiness with loneliness.

Like many, I fear growing old alone.  I fear the dark emptiness that this could bring.  But there is an emptiness which has nothing to do with a partner, for I have been with others and simultaneously felt alone.

Emptiness is not only necessary it is also good. Emptiness is the only space that can truly ‘contain’ God; emptiness is the space for God and God alone. In emptiness there are no leaks or cracks, just pure and endless space. I fill the emptiness far too often with things that are not meant for it. For years, to the point of addiction, I filled emptiness with drugs, alcohol, sex, excitement, drama, darkness. You name it…and I could try and use it to fill the void known as emptiness.

Everywhere I look I see this same symptom of addiction: fill the void, fill the emptiness. Marketers, admen, corporations, news programs, and pharmaceutical companies will tell me – without actually telling me – that the hole in the center of my being was created for their specific products. And if I listen to them I have no shortage of deluge of things to fill this emptiness – antidepressants, sleep aids, pain meds, meds to keep me paying attention, to keep me skinny, to keep me young or hard as a rock.  Then throw in the 24 hour a day channels that spew endless upon endless means for consumption be it news, sports, or shopping networks.

And at the end of the day, that is the true enemy of emptiness, not evil or addiction, but consumption; the never ending obsession with “more”.

But that pining emptiness within me tells me there is another way, a way of divine love, a way that says my emptiness is the portal for God as much as it is a reminder that I am fallible and finite.

Emptiness reminds me of my place in the grand scheme of things. I was created before I was anything else; I am created before I am anything else.  Emptiness teaches me that I am an image of God and not God. Emptiness reminds me that I am finite yet a dwelling place for the Infinite. Emptiness is necessary if I am to encounter God on a daily basis for in my emptiness God in his fullness comes near, reminding me I am both child and beloved.

So, today I will try and face my fear of emptiness and in the mere confronting of it I know I will experience the One who is the Fullness of unconditional Love.

 

I love Frederick Buechner; his faith is earthy and alive – he loves Jesus, the world, the arts, and all that is Life.  He writes like a man who has touched and been touched by doubt, faith, pain, sadness, joy and hope, and most definitely by God.  Rev. Buechner has tasted deeply of this life and found it full of God and God’s glory.

Frederick Buechner has been a rich and somewhat hidden part of my story and the Story of God in my life.  I like his writings on “Denominations” thoughtful and in this time of much separation and “differences”, I wanted to post his wisdom to the Earthy Monk.  Enjoy.

THERE ARE BAPTISTS, Methodists, Episcopalians. There are Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists. There are Disciples of Christ. There are Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are Moravians. There are Quakers. And that’s only for starters. New denominations spring up. Old denominations split up and form new branches. The question is not, Are you a Baptist? but, What kind of a Baptist? It is not, Are you a member of the Presbyterian church? but Which Presbyterian church? A town with a population of less than five hundred may have churches of three or four denominations and none of them more than a quarter full on a good Sunday.

There are some genuine differences between them, of course. The methods of church government differ. They tend to worship in different forms all the way from chanting, incense, and saints’ days to a service that is virtually indistinguishable from a New England town meeting with musical interludes. Some read the Bible more literally than others. If you examine the fine print, you may even come across some relatively minor theological differences among them, some stressing one aspect of the faith, some stressing others. But if you were to ask the average member of any congregation to explain those differences, you would be apt to be met with a long, unpregnant silence. By and large they all believe pretty much the same things and are confused about the same things and keep their fingers crossed during the same parts of the Nicene Creed.

However, it is not so much differences like these that keep the denominations apart as it is something more nearly approaching team spirit. Somebody from a long line of Congregationalists would no more consider crossing over to the Methodists than a Red Sox fan would consider rooting for the Mets. And even bricks and mortar have a lot to do with it. Your mother was married in this church building and so were you, and so was your oldest son. Your grandparents are buried in the cemetery just beyond the Sunday School wing. What on earth would ever persuade you to leave all that and join forces with the Lutherans in their building down the street? So what if neither of you can pay the minister more than a pittance and both of you have as hard a time getting more than thirty to fill the sanctuary built for two hundred as you do raising money to cover the annual heating bill.

All the duplication of effort and waste of human resources. All the confusion about what the Church is, both within the ranks and without. All the counterproductive competition. All the unnecessarily empty pews and unnecessary expense. Then add to that picture the Roman Catholic Church, still more divided from the Protestant denominations than they are from each other, and by the time you’re through, you don’t know whether to burst into laughter or into tears.

When Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body which is broken for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24), it’s hard to believe that even in his wildest dreams he foresaw the tragic and ludicrous brokenness of the Church as his body. There’s no reason why everyone should be Christian in the same way and every reason to leave room for differences, but if all the competing factions of Christendom were to give as much of themselves to the high calling and holy hope that unites them as they do now to the relative inconsequentialities that divide them, the Church would look more like the Kingdom of God for a change and less like an ungodly mess.

– Written by Frederick Buechner, originally published in Whistling in the Dark 

Back in 1996, I had the good fortune of literally sitting at the feet of the great Vermont Poet, David Budbill, as he shared his poems with my Cohort at Vermont College of Norwich University in Montpelier, Vermont.  He was so earthy, in fact, David was as much as “earthy monk” as any person I ever met.  He was amazing, humble, down to earth, true blue Vermonter (although he was born in Cleveland, OH).  I love his words and this spectacular poem came into my Inbox and I looked David up online only to learn that he died back in September 2016.

Saddened by this, it is right and fitting that one of my favorite poems of David Budbill be shared here…especially since I now reside in the neighboring state of New Hampshire and I am deep in the soulful state of Winter

Enjoy David Budbill

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.


Source:

“Because the Word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word – a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and the movies we see – the chances are we will never get it just right.

We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear [God], he is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, his word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling.

In that sense autobiography becomes a way of praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a call to prayer.”

– Originally published in Now and Then

“Those who look to the law of love as Jesus taught it, as the law of perfect liberty, and act accordingly as doers, whose acts are motivated by that love, will be blessed by God for living by that teaching.”

– Br. David Allen

“Jesus risked reputation and dignity in order to love—risked loving even a sinner.  “O Lord, who risks everything to love, show us compassion that does not count the cost, and teach us to share it without hesitation.” 

Thomas HoffmanA Child in Winter

Do I?

Do I risk ‘everything’ to love like Jesus?  Do I follow a royal law of Love at all costs?

Do I risk my pithy reputation to love like Jesus loved?  I sit in churches so often and all I hear is sermons majoring on the minors (so to speak), but rarely do I hear sermons about loving like Jesus did.  Some say love the sinner and hate the sin, but I am only human and do not possess the surgical precision needed to separate the “sin” from the sinner, so I end up hating the sinner even as I say I am only hating the sin.

I can sit in the rooms and listen to others share their experience, strength and hope and I slice my fellow alcoholics to bits with the surgical knife of my mind.

Plain and simply put, I am afraid to love like this.

I am aware that most followers of Jesus are afraid to love like this: we fear being called gay, radical, Muslim, liberal, drunk, addict, loser, sinner, scum, one of “them” if I am in proximity to “them” attempting feebly to love like Jesus.

Or even worse, I fear being called “Jesus freak” – which is actually a grand compliment.

The old adage says, visiting someone with cancer does not mean I condone smoking; but I fear if I love those different from me, then I will be accused of being one of “them.”

But is that so bad?

Jesus was accused of being a sinner, a glutton, a drunk, a ‘friend’ of sinners, one who dined with traitors and whores…  And yet, all he did was love, love, love.

Do I…?

 

Here is a simple truth: prayer works.  And it works always (in all ways).  I make a statement like that because in my three decades of being a ‘novice’ pray-er, combined with what I am learning daily about prayer is this:

  • Either prayer works on me changing me and my responses; or
  • Prayer works in me transforming my heart and my perspective; or
  • Prayer works through the events and circumstances for which I am praying sometimes altering them.

But the bottom line about prayer working is that prayer always, always, moves me closer to God and to those around me.

Prayer can turn burdens into blessings and obstacles into opportunities.

Prayer can heal my heart and the heart of another.

Prayer is the name of the constant, ongoing conversation I am having with God.

Prayer opens my eyes to see the holiness of all creation.

Prayer moves my heart from resentment to gratitude.

Prayer leads me to embrace the truth that all that happens to me and within me is the will of my loving God.

Prayers helps me see and taste God in the mundane and the profane as well as the profound and the cursory.

Prayer can move mountains, open doors, lead to the miraculous, soften the hardness, and turn wrestling into nestling.

But for me, today, above all, prayer is the language and movement of love I use to speak to my Holy Beloved.

 

Brother Curtis Almquist is an Anglican monk who lives in Massachusetts and is part of a community known as The Society of St. John the Evangelist.  Every morning I am greeted by wisdom from the monks who spend their days in prayer and work, every morning they move me.  So, I encourage  you to sign up for their email “Brother, give us a Word” service.

But in the mean time, these words about Jesus seemed so perfect for this blessed day.

May we all grow closer to God and in doing so become more like Jesus, the Living Flame of Love!

We need not change to be loved by Jesus; but by being loved by Jesus we will change.

What we see and hear in Jesus is God’s love – for you: love without qualification. Love, only love, heals.

-Br. Curtis Almquist

Author’s Warning: the following diatribe may step on your toes, anger you, disgust you, challenge you, or cause you to judge me, lose respect for me, make you give off a sigh of relief…or you may merely shrug your shoulders and say ‘big deal, get original.”  

Here is my starting point: we do not find God in church.

Before anyone starts sifting through stones to see which ones is best for casting, pause and permit me a moment to expound on what I see as the truth that we do not find God in church.

For you see, I believe, it is the other way around.  We ‘find’ God (a misnomer) and out of that flows a living community incarnation called church.  For no “model” of church will produce God or God’s life in us.  It is in fact our life in God – our shared life in and through Jesus – that becomes the building blocks of the expression called ‘church.’

Because we have gotten it backwards (thinking we find God in church) has led us to become dependent, or codependent, upon church – both the building and the denominations – as well as church leaders for ‘creating’ God’s life in us.  We have done this so much so that we become passive in our own spiritual growth.  When we rely upon others to “impart” God’s life to us, we become spiritually lazy; veritable spiritual coach potatoes.

We not only end up waiting for others to show us how to grow spiritually but we even begin expecting others to do the work for us (as if spiritual growth can be imparted magically with no effort or desire on our part).  And to top it off, we then end up complaining about the lack of “fruit” or growth and as a result of our spiritual passivity we then tend to give up on the most important relationship we will ever have in our lives – the one we have with God.

It is vital that we become active in our spiritual journeys; we must hunger for Jesus and desire to experience what it means to live deeply in God and to follow and imitate Jesus (the word “Christian” means “little Messiah”).   And the great work that we do is the mere desire; for grace comes and draws us closer to the One Who is closer than our own skin.

I can tell you about my experience of God, but I cannot impart my experience of God into you; you have to have your own experience of God.  Others can offer guidance, but the truth be told, there should be 8 billion spiritual experiences happening, namely each and every person in the world must have their own personal (and therefore unique) experience with God.

In our modern age, it seems everything has become too easy, too fast to obtain that we have surrendered the daily, lifelong journey of a life with God.  We have settled.  We have settled when we allow our relationship with God to become an historical event instead of what it has always been meant to be – what Jesus showed us it could be – a dynamic, living, breathing, loving, bare bones to the wall, intimacy with God!

And this relationship is about God sorting things out within us.  God transforms us and by God’s grace and doing (not ours), we learn to live contentedly in God’s love and Providence instead of in the realm of worry, hurry, and religious structures.  But to have this life, to be this type of people, we must each and every one of us be friends with God.  Reading spiritual giants, reading about spiritual giants is all good, but at the end of the day, I am held accountable for my own spiritual growth.

I must actually have a relationship with Jesus rather than merely talking about having one.

Paradoxically, I cannot do this alone, but I do this within myself.  Community of some sort nurtures our connections to God, but we must in some form of solitude come face to face with God Who is the Ground of All Being (see Paul Tillich).  And rest assured, God longs to have this dynamic intimacy with each of us.  God pines for you and me more than we desire God.

So hold on to this Truth: God starts it; God sustains it; God waters it; God nurtures it; and God completes it.  Our role is to “show up” and surrender to this Living God of love.

Here come some toes stomping: forget the rules, the rigidity, the exclusiveness, the holy rollers club techniques, the loopholes that allow the church to reject me because I’m a democrat, a republican, an anarchist, gay, black, white, yellow, red, brown, poor, rich, a dope fiend or a drunk, all tatted up or whatever.

Jesus longs for you, as you are, where you are.  And it is up to God to do the transforming, not me.  If we seek Jesus we will be rewarded with an intimacy that is beyond comprehension, beyond words, beyond being.  But for this kind of intimacy, there is one basic “requirement” – we must surrender to God, plain and simple.

And as we surrender (daily, if you are me), we learn to depend upon the power of God’s in all things and for all things.  And as we do this we gradually learn and discover the fullness of life – the fullness of God’s life – within us.  I believe that when Jesus said that he came to bring life and to bring it abundantly, that is what this aspect of life first and foremost that he was talking about (see Gospel of John 10:9-11).

This abundance of God’s life, both in and through us, is not based on circumstances.  For circumstances do not make or break us, they merely reveal us.  And in this ‘revelation’, God reveals more and more of the divine life to us, and the more God reveals to us, the more we grow in love with and become more like Jesus.

This reality – this dynamic of all of us experiencing God and having Christ’s life in us – leads us to experience called “church.” And rather than trying to figure out how to “do” church, force community to happen, or even worse creating a place where a false sense of community and conformity is commonplace, something else happens – we begin to focus on God’s love and what Jesus is doing inside each of us and through this, we learn to be with each other in God’s love and from this comes authentic community – a living church.

God is the God of community.  Some examples include the Trinity (God in relationship with God’s own self), the ancient Hebrews who were brought together by YAHWEH – which literally means I AM WHO I AM – and were made into a people by this I AM and of the I AM; and then there are the apostles, the disciples, and the early church.  All these forms of community, of “church”, flowed from people being called into deep, intimate relationship with God and concurrently with each other.

The paradox here is that we must have our own intimate encounter with God, but what authenticates it is our connection to and relationship with others.

“Church” is our experience of God and God’s love flowing freely into us, through us, and out of us through Jesus – and towards a wounded world in desperate need of God’s grace.

The world does not need the experiment called “church” that is about being rudely right, or smug or pious or having a holier-than-thou attitude that has become so symbolic of the frozen chosen lost in a holy huddle – that is not what Church is supposed to be.  Church is meant to be a symbol of our collective experience of God and the unconditional love found in Jesus.  Without God’s life in us, in each of us, our expressions of church can become administratively-based religious country clubs, where the broken, hurting, and addicted are excluded from membership.  Without authentic intimacy with God, church becomes a place of self-righteous ethics dictated by appearances rather based on the crazy love of God.

We sometimes forget the very people that hung out with Jesus when he walked the earth would nowadays be frowned upon and judged right out of our congregations.  And lest we forget, Jesus – the man who said if you have seen me, you have seen God – hung out with the whores, the traitorious, the forgotten, the poor, the unclean and the ostracized, and the unholy not the righteous.  The only occurrences we know of Jesus ever judging anyone is when he was confronted by the pious hypocrites of his day, those who thought they held the keys to the rule and reign of God’s love and grace.

God’s life in us – coming from our intimacy and friendship with Jesus – will by default pour into us the very nature and love of this God Whose love is relentless and Whose mercies are never-ending.  As we become a people filled with this God, we are bound to imitate the lives of the early followers of Jesus: turning the world upside-down with divine love.

Now that is Church.

When we are with God, allowing the Spirit to change and mold us like the Master Potter, we are transformed.  And when we share what God is doing inside of us – instead of focusing on what we think others “should” be doing – God uses that to draw us all together, to grow the circle of a place called “Church.”

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