Thursday, August 30, 2012

On accepting our losses courageously (and hairlessly)

I love St. Francis de Sales. Although his classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, was originally published in 1609, I continue to find in it grace for living today. But maybe the real reason I like this book so much is that it makes me laugh. I don’t know if St. Francis deliberately sprinkled his writing with jokes, or if it’s the clash of cultures and centuries that so tickles my funny bone, but his metaphors and comparisons are often so strange that I’m frequently doing double-takes and asking, is this monk crazy? Or sometimes his analogies are just slightly askew, and I wonder, did he really mean that? 
Here’s one of those passages that caused a double-take. The subject is serious, but…
“If you meet with losses that impoverish you either very much or a little, as in the case of tempests, fires, floods, droughts, thefts, or lawsuits, that is the proper time to practice poverty by accepting your losses meekly and patiently and by courageously submitting to such impoverishment. Esau presented himself to his father with his hands covered with hair, and Jacob did the same, but because the hair on Jacob’s hands did not belong to his skin but only to his gloves it might be taken away without injuring his skin. On the contrary, the hair on Esau’s hands adhered to his skin, which was naturally very hairy, so if anyone had tried to pluck it off it would have hurt him and he would have cried out, been angry, and defended himself. Thus when our worldly goods cleave to our hearts, what complaints, what trouble and what impatience do we fall into if a storm, a thief, or a cheat takes any part of them away from us. When our goods do not cleave to our hearts and we think of them only because of such care as God wants us to have for them, we don’t lose reason or peace of mind if they are taken away from us. Hence the difference as to clothing between men and beasts. The garments of beasts, namely, their skins, adhere to their flesh, while those of men are merely put on them and can be taken off at will.”
Thinking in the same logical vein, I wonder if women are better able to accept losses than men because women shave their legs.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Custom-tailoring the disciplines

It seems a bit risky to blog about the spiritual disciplines, as though I’m saying, “This is what I do; read and learn.” I don’t mean that; I don’t even dare suggest it. For me the spiritual disciplines are both a joy and a struggle, and struggle often has the upper hand. But I believe the disciplines are vital for a healthy relationship with God, so I’m committed to the struggle (accepting the joy whenever it surprises me). Writing helps to solidify the gains and clarify the growth points.
The list of possible spiritual disciplines grows every time I read a new book on the subject. That alone discourages. But somewhere along the way I learned the importance of custom-tailoring the disciplines, finding the specific practices that best help me walk with Jesus. In some way or other these match my personality or my situation in life. Some writers refer to a “rule of life,” a term that has monastic roots. Since I squirm under the word “rule,” and since practicing the disciplines can so easily become legalistic, I don’t use that term, but the meaning may approximate what I do.
I’ve recognized five basic disciplines that probably will a part of my life until I die. These are the spiritual exercises I intentionally practice every day/week, in some form or other: engagement with Scripture, prayer, writing, memorization and gratitude. I will write on each of these separately over the next several weeks.
Behind the whole concept of the disciplines, I see the amazing New Testament message that God calls us into partnership, whether for the fulfillment of God’s mission in the world or for our own personal transformation.  I see the exercise of the disciplines as doing my part in this partnership with God for my formation and growth. I do my part and that puts me in the path of grace, God’s part.  Of course grace seems to come whether or not I do my part (which is why we call it grace), but somehow my faithfulness opens me to whatever God wants to do.  It helps me recognize and receive the grace. Transformation and grace are what God does.
It’s not a magic formula. It’s a mystery. I just want to get closer to it. Closer to Jesus.
I need the Spirit’s help to be faithful. And I need the Spirit’s help to keep legalism from creeping in. I need the help of my friends (one of the main ways the Spirit helps me), spiritual partners who keep me accountable. 
In my practice of the disciplines, I have good weeks and I have crummy weeks. I’m learning to go easy on myself (which doesn’t sound much like “discipline,” but if I can’t forgive myself, who will?  Oh, yes. God will. Ok. But it’s still a good thing for me to do, too.)
It looks like I need to discipline myself now and bring this to a close. To be continued. I’d love to hear about others’ custom-tailored spiritual disciplines.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

At the end of my rope

The cliché, “at the end of my rope,” was graphically illustrated for me by a Netflix movie I watched the other night. It’s not one I would have chosen. Hal and I were in Springfield to help Jon and Kristin re-shingle the roof, a gigantic end-of-the-rope task whose successful execution was made possible by the small army of volunteers that showed up, among whom were ourselves. But we did it, plus a few other tasks. We decided to relax with a movie Tuesday night, and the men chose the “adventure” category. (Kristin and I, left to ourselves, would have opted for “romance.”)
We came up with “North Face,” a blind choice about mountain climbers. A German film, complete with subtitles, it portrayed the true story of four young men who attempted a difficult peak in the Alps in the early 1940s, all to the honor of Hitler and the Cause. They didn’t make it, and one of the final scenes showed the remaining climber literally dangling in the freezing air from the end of his rope while his girlfriend, part of the rescue party, clung to the side of the cliff watching him slowly turn black and die. Her tears froze to her face. So did mine, even though it’s summer here.
That image continues to spin in the spaces inside my head. I’m facing several situations that, while not quite so dramatic, make me feel at the end of my rope. One has to do with young Peter, my four-year-old autistic grandson. I spent most of my time this week with Peter and his siblings, while Hal played around on the roof. As he grows older, Peter’s autism seems to manifest in stronger forms. Or maybe it’s just the combination of the condition with the normally strong will of a four-year-old who is learning to test the limits. We’re learning, too. We’re learning how to work with him to help him develop life skills and relational abilities. But sometimes I wonder if I don’t over compensate for the autism, and let him get away with things I wouldn’t tolerate in his brother or sister. I narrowly averted several meltdowns this week, and this leaves me exhausted. I love him, and I sometimes feel like I don’t know how to help him. Am I the one dangling at the end of the rope or the one on the cliff with frozen tears on her face? (Just putting it that way makes me laugh at myself. I feel perspective returning. I’m really nowhere near that cliff, but I am perplexed and troubled.)
The other end-of-the-rope situation has to do with our up-coming trip to Bolivia. We leave in two weeks and we are far from ready. I’ve dangled from this particular cliff before, and I should be used to it. But I’m not. By invitation of the Bolivian Friends Church we will be facilitating a consultation on the gospel and Aymara culture. It’s a crucial theme at this time in Bolivia’s history with an indigenous revitalization movement in full swing and pressure on Aymara Christians to return to the old ways, offer the sacrifices to mother earth and engage in numerous animistic practices. Some respond by capitulating. Others by completely rejecting their traditional culture. A few are finding ways to be Aymara and, at the same time, follow Jesus. This, of course, is the path we want to encourage our brothers and sisters to explore.
The consultation is to be a two-weekend intensive time to gather around the Scriptures, consider the values of the context, weigh the challenges, and prayerfully find healthy ways forward. Several institutions are co-sponsoring the event, with Hal leading and coordinating. While this is the area he has been working in for years (even doing a doctoral dissertation), we don’t feel ready. It’s been hard to virtually coordinate our team, and we’re probably looking at a lot of last-minute face-to-face assembling of the program. That makes us nervous.
Since starting this blog and finishing it, we ate breakfast and read Colossians 1. We decided to read and pray the book of Colossians these next few weeks as a means of spiritual preparation. I again find my perspective shifting. Rather than focus all this nervous energy on getting ourselves prepared, we will lift up our beloved Aymara brothers and sisters, using the words of Paul’s prayer: We are “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.”
Of course we will do the hard work of study and preparation, but finding the right perspective makes all the difference.
We’re nowhere near that dangling rope.

 Note: Several months ago I came to the realization that for me writing is a spiritual discipline. It’s one of the ways (along with prayer and the Scriptures) that I do my part toward spiritual maturity, so that the Holy Spirit will do her part. This morning’s blog illustrates that. I literally wrote my way from the end of that rope to insight and hope.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Conversation with Hal on waste removal

On the way home
from our early morning walk,
Hal pointed to the vacant lot
across the street, drawing
my attention to a Black Thing
resting in the weeds.
He asked, “Is that a crow
or a cat?” “Or a garbage
bag?” I wondered out
loud, adding to the list
of Mysteries. I was half-way
convinced of my own perspective,
when the garbage
bag levitated, twitched
its tail, and casually
ambled off. “Too bad
it really wasn’t a garbage
bag,” I offered. “You’re crazy,”
wasn’t spoken out loud,
but he said it nonetheless. “Look
at it this way,” I posited.
“What an option this
would give us for waste
removal. Just say to the trash,
‘Go there,’ and it would arise
and go, without expensive
vehicles or the cost
of personnel. Just think.”
He conceded my point with a grin
as we, imitating the garbage
bag, ambled on home.