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“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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
I have done this before – revised parts of Scripture to capture and emphasize points – but felt the need to do it again as we come to the close of a very long, tough, confusing and tumultuous year (at least for me and those whom I call family). It has been another year of growth and pain, joy and hope, loss and life and as I do every year (like most others), I take stock of my life, my faith, and my mission.
I am reminded that my mission is to help people grow spiritually and to do the same for myself. I am reminded that I am in relationship with Jesus who for me is Life and Resurrection, the only hope that outlasts all my dread and despairing.
So, I needed a reminder – a condensed version if you will – of exactly WHO Jesus is.
I believe that 1 Corinthians 13 is the most succinct and descriptive theological dissertation on the nature of Jesus and God.
And in a year, where we all seemed to focus more on our differences, and did so with intense vitriol and hatred, I also thought it appropriate to do my revision. God is love and in Jesus we see all the glory of God, so I took out the word “love” and replaced it with Jesus.
So when you are wondering who Jesus is and how he thinks, feels and would respond to you, read this…
1 Corinthians 13 (New International Version – NIV) – Revised by Niles Comer
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have Jesus, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have Jesus, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have Jesus, I gain nothing.
4 Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy, nor does He boast, and He is not proud. 5 Jesus does not dishonor others, and is not self-seeking, Jesus is not easily angered, and Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Jesus never fails.
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and Jesus. But the greatest of these is Jesus.
“Suffering of any kind can be a compelling opportunity to see and experience the face of Jesus in places where otherwise we might be blind. We find and are shown Grace at the margins of life.” N.C. (the author)
“In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love.” Chaplain Mike (Internet Monk)
As I sit basking in the warmth of a cozy, cuddly Juno, a warm cup of coffee and some good music on in the background, I also sit in awe and wonder at the grace of God.
As I marvel at God’s grace, shown to us most poignantly in Jesus the Nazarene, I am taken back to Christmas Day 2010 in West Virginia. I had worked a 16 hour day at Maya Angelou House, a 90-day residential addiction treatment program for homeless women from Washington, DC who have hit rock bottom in almost every way. Being with the women of Maya Angelou House on that Christmas Day reminded me of the two truths quoted above.
Maya Angelou House is run by a group I worked previously with back in the early 19090s as the AIDS case manager for the addictions program and the addictions counselor to the AIDS Program – the place is called SOME, Inc. SOME stands for So Others Might Eat and was started by Fr. Horace McKenna 40 years ago as a soup kitchen in the basement of St. Aloysius Church barely a mile from the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Since then it has grown into a variety of programs, from feeding the hungry and homeless, to addictions treatment, to medical and dental and counseling services to the poor and uninsured, as well as various housing programs for the formerly homeless (women with children, men, families, the elderly, and those in recovery).
I love what SOME does for they do Gospel work – the works of mercy, by showing mercy and walking with the poor and dispossessed, in solidarity. I see the face of Jesus in what they do and in whom they serve. But I digress…
Christmas Day 2010 was for me a day for finding grace at the margins. Being with and listening to the stories of these courageous women who had lost, had taken away or in some cases – under the influence – had resigned certain parts of themselves to feed their addictions was painful and inspiring. But there we all were on that Christmas Day, hanging out and cooking, speaking of God’s goodness and grace.
It was and still is a deeply humbling thing to listen to people (who in the eyes of the world) have lost everything, speak so gratefully of the goodness and grace of God. It definitely put me in a different perspective and it also put me in my place…it still does thinking back.
I am grateful for the women of Maya Angelou House, as I am grateful for my addiction (and my recovery) as I am shown again and again God’s grace at the margins of life. I am shown time and again just how “irresponsible” God is with his grace and love, pouring it out lavishly on the just and the unjust, the addicted and the petulant.
God truly is “sloppy” with his amazing grace, and it is in Jesus that I discover this truth. On days like Christmas, when the new and unknown is almost unbearable, it truly does not make any sense how abundant God is with his love. For even as I find myself still filled with doubt and confusion (fearing a dream may once again be deferred), I am showered in the goodness and love of God.
The challenge is to “let go” of the assumption that in times of confusion, despair, sadness or lostness that we are being punished by God for some action (see Luke 13:1 – 5 to dispel that myth).
No, it is quite the opposite: God is fully present at the margins lavishing grace upon those, who in their own eyes or the eyes of the world, do not ‘deserve’ it; God is in the confusion and the lostness, being fully present to us, wrapping his love around us like a warm blanket on a cold night.
So this Christmas, I challenge you to ‘surrender but never give up’ – to stop wrestling with God and start nestling with God, to let his grace pour over you, lavishly, unexpectedly, and with reckless abandon.
I challenge all of us to surrender to the ‘sloppiness’ of God’s love shown to us in Jesus.
So, let’s all go love and live, basking in the grace that is found at the margins and in the manger, knowing that in Jesus we are totally accepted and completely acceptable.
Author’s Note: Today is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day in terms or actual daylight. So in honor of the Creator’s grand order of changing Seasons and in celebrating them, I offer these poems.
Autumn is slumbering into winter,
messy and graceful like God’s ongoing
Advent within us.
And the World stands
Like it did once on a Holy Night
thousands of years ago.
Winter Solstice Luna
Brilliant ivory friend of mine,
rising with quiet passion over the
you, all fecund…
me, all lost, empty and searching…
You light my way, oh gracious Luna,
Lighting the splendid darkness of my
night with Divine light.
The late afternoon sky reminded
me of old, worn out bones,
ashen gray but filled with a holy Spirit,
mine and God’s.
and I wondered if my life would be as
much of a gift to those who have
been such a Gift to me…