To You we say, “Come…”

A Prayer for people walking in darkness yet seeking light:

Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness,

Send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas:

We who have so much to do and seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day;

We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us;

We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom;

We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence;

We are you people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light;

To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

A prayer by Henri Nouwen

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Little things with great love

Little things with great love

(Written by Audrey Assad, feat. Madison Cunningham)

In the garden of our Savior no flower grows unseen

His kindness rains like water on every humble seed

No simple act of mercy escapes His watchful eye

For there is One who loves me – His hand is over mine

 

In the kingdom of the heavens no suffering is unknown

Each tear that falls is holy, each breaking heart a throne

There is a song of beauty in every weeping eye

For there is One who loves me – His heart, it breaks with mine

 

O the deeds forgotten, O the works unseen

Every drink of water flowing graciously

Every tender mercy You’re making glorious

This You have asked of us:

Do little things with great love – Little things with great love

 

At the table of our Savior, no mouth will go unfed

And His children in the shadows stream in and raise their heads

O give us ears to hear them, and give us eyes that see

For there is One who loves them. I am His hands and feet


This is a plaintive melody with such an inviting first line… “in the garden of our Saviour no flower goes unseen…” To be seen, to be known, to know the One who knows you – all this resonates with us and speaks to how God has set eternity in our hearts, but we have not fathomed it.

In June, 2017, musicians, pastors, writers, and scholars from around the U.S. gathered together in NYC to collaborate on a series of worship songs for a new worship record themed around faith and vocation. This song was written by Audrey Assad, with additional lyrics and melody by Isaac Wardell and Madison Cunningham. It is a meditation on the words of Mother Teresa

“God does not call us all to great things, but calls us to do small things with great love.”

 

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Centered on the Potter’s Wheel

Image: Roger Charity/Getty Images

Centering, writes Mary Caroline Richards, is the act that ‘precedes all others on the potter’s wheel. The bringing of the clay into a spinning, unwobbling pivot, which will then be free to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts’.”

Lauren F. Winner, Creative Nonfiction Editor for Image Journal made these observations from reading Mary Caroline Richards’s Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person:

“None of this [reading] is quite the same as taking a class and sitting at the wheel. But it’s nonetheless helpful as I look at the various clay jars and jugs wedged onto my bookcases. And it’s been helpful as I consider the biblical trope of God as potter in Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Romans: God is a potter, and the people God has elected for peculiar intimacy are God’s clay, being shaped by God into pots. Most of what I’ve read about that biblical trope treats it straightforwardly as a picture of one-directional sovereignty and control: to be the right kind of pot, we need to yield to God’s plan. Perhaps. But that is not quite how it seems to me after listening to actual potters. Their process entails potter and clay pressing against each other; the pressure of the potter’s hand yields as much as it asserts.”

If centering is the act that precedes all others on the potter’s wheel, then no matter how I press against the potter’s hands, I confess that I did not put myself there – I was placed with care at the centre, and there:

I want to enter into this peculiar intimacy of being shaped by the One who made me for Himself;

I want to find that unwobbling pivot wherein I discover the shape unique to me and not hidden from God;

I want to begin where all pottery begins: at the centre of God’s intentions.

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Humility and the Authentic Self

In one of James K.A. Smith’s newsletters he comments on one of the threads of Merton’s reflections that had, as he puts it, “burrowed its way into [my] psyche: his unique reflections on humility.”

Below are entirely Smith’s thoughts based on his reading of Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation“:

[Merton] is a remarkable diagnostician of various forms of false humility. For example: Merton notes that there is a way of “being humble” that is really just conformity to the expectations of others. But that, he says, is not humility. In fact, “there can be an intense egoism in following everybody else.” In other words, sometimes “being humble” (or “acting” humble) in terms of what others expect humility should look like is actually a form of self-interest, an intense desire to be seen as humble.

It is interesting that when he first discusses this, Merton associates the saint and the artist, the monk and the poet. The great temptation for the monk, he says, is to cloak oneself in what one assumes the crowd expects humility to look like. “If they do this job thoroughly,” he notes, “their spiritual disguises are apt to be much admired. Like successful artists, they become commercial.” These “spiritual disguises” that pass themselves off as humility are anything but; they still have their eye too much on others. At root, this is still a posture of self-interest: I see you seeing me and I want to be seen well. Merton continues:

“A clever kind of insolvent servility, a peculiar combination of ambition, stubbornness and flexibility, a “third ear” keenly attuned to the subtlest modulations of the fashionable cliché–with all this you can pass as a saint or a genius if you conform to the right group.”

I think Merton’s keen insight is this: humility is not comparative. Humility, strangely enough, is not fundamentally a matter of how I look or relate to other people; it is, instead, about the posture of my being toward God. Like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, what it means for me (and you) to be humble is somehow utterly singular–a secret, of sorts. Thus Merton cautions that the saint isn’t always the one who conforms to our expectation of what it means to be humble.

“One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do to know what to make of him. In fact, they are not sure whether he is crazy or only proud; but it must at least be pride to be haunted by some individual ideal which nobody but God really comprehends.”

True humility, Merton says, can be mistaken for pride precisely because one who is truly humble is answering a singular call that is a secret wrestling of another soul with God. Merton ventures a definition: “humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are alike, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe.”

Humility is not pretending to be less than you are; humility is submission to one’s utter dependence on God to be who you are called to be. “And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself,” Merton says, “and to be nobody but the [person], or the artist, that God intended you to be.” And if you do that, “you will be made to feel that your honesty is only pride.”

It may seem strange, given our collective assumptions about what counts as humility, but this sort of humility requires courage. It requires a certain kind of refusal of expected norms. It requires courage to answer a call. It requires courage to wrestle with a God others cannot see. It requires courage to detach oneself from the expectations of others and say: this is not about you. “True humility excludes self-consciousness,” Merton later observes, “but false humility intensifies our awareness of ourselves to such a point that we are crippled, and can no longer make any movement or perform any action without putting to work a whole complex mechanism of apologies and formulas of self-accusation.”

True humility, in other words, starts to sound like liberation. Which isn’t to say it’s easy.


I thought this post on humility should not be missed in a time when the self looms so large in our day, and the love of comfort and consumerism marks our culture, and even our faith.

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Trust in the Slow Work of God

Image by Hengki Koentjoro. Man alone in boat

Trust in the slow work of God

by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.


In this fast paced frenetic world, we ever need encouragement to slow down. But this prayer isn’t merely about slowing down – it is about trusting in the slow work of God, which will enable us to slow down and me mindful of God, His creation, and His ongoing creative impulse. And along the way, we will be able to “pass through all the stages of life” without the temptation to shortcuts or blunting forcefulness.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest, scientist, paleontologist, theologian, philosopher and teacher.

“Teilhard’s interest in the world of nature began when he was a child. As he grew up he studied geology and the natural sciences. After he entered the Jesuits, he was ready to give up these interests in order to devote himself to his spiritual vocation. But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was dissuaded by his wise Jesuit spiritual director, who advised him that following his intellectual interests also gave glory to God. Through his theological studies and continued studies in the natural sciences, Teilhard sought to create intellectual space in which the physical and spiritual world could be appreciated for their unique contribution to human life.”

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A River is only a River if there is a Valley

Source: National Park Services

Writing in his 100th year, my friend and mentor James M. Houston reflects on Psalm 1, as he says, “from his hospital bed.”

Dear Friends;

For generations, God’s people, especially in hardship, turn to the Psalms. At this moment, pandemics, ‘hot wars’ in Europe, oil and food price shocks, to mention but a few, seem quite enough reasons to search from some comfort in the chaos. Yet, for many of us, Psalm 1, the gateway to the psalter, is rocky ground on whose hard words we hurt our feet, with sounds that do not resonate in our ears. Much of its language is discordant, uncomfortable, even overly harsh for our politically corrected ears. We are greeted in its early verses by the ‘counsel of the wicked’, the ‘way of sinners’ and the ‘seat of scoffers’. Then, after a brief interlude, sent on our way with ‘chaff which the wind drives away’, and more ‘wicked’, more ‘sinners’, new judgement, all building to a crescendo in the dire prediction that ‘the wicked will perish’. Surrounded as we are by pandemic induced chaos, geo-political turmoil, and a seething form of PTSD that seems to have strangled us all in some way or another, why would I ever bother to pick up the psalter, if this is how I am greeted? And yet, through this wasteland of discouragement and even deep discord, a river of life runs.

A river is only a river if there is a valley, if there are mountains between which it can meander, if at the edge of its vibrant flow, there are dark and even dirty banks. The river is only a river when it is not the surrounding landscape, when it carves its way through the rocky detritus which it may itself have uncovered from the earth. In the centre of this psalm is the metaphor of tree and river. As if hearkening back to the precious but remote first word “Blessed”, which seems soon lost in the din of wicked, sinners and scoffers, the psalm comes to vibrant signs of life, of choice, profound, gritty, determined, choice to root by and in the river. And as like parched pilgrims in this darkened wasteland that threatens to consume, we find at the epicentre of the psalm – literally the word that stands at the linguistic centre with as many words before as after – the reality of vibrant fruit and all the promise of future life it entails…

There is something stunningly defiant in the essential character of all fruit. It is borne to hold the seeds of new life. To be scattered all about… Its purpose is to stretch forward, beyond even its own death, to a new life, to wrench a new generation from the decaying present. Here, in this metaphor of the fruitful tree, nourished by a river that gives life and flows in spite of, and perhaps even, for a time, because of the surrounding misery, lies the precious promise of this threshold psalm. For us all, we have this choice; where will I root, what fruit will I bear? It would be so lovely if the tree stood by the river and bore its happy fruit amidst the smiling sunshine of a breezy day as fluffy clouds scudded across the friendly sky. Instead, to bear fruit ‘in season’ is to wait for that season to come. For the leaf to ‘not wither’ it must endure withering forces or how can it ‘not wither’? How can there be prospering if there is no pressing on, in spite of the overwhelming rationale to despair of the encroaching darkness? This is a defiant, rooted, persistent, obedient, radically hopeful tree that, amidst all the abundant rationale to shrink back, chooses to bear fruit! This is what I choose to wake into every day, even as so many of my days are now past. This persistence drives me to ask Chris so often, what can I write now? Once resolved to live, how can I still bear fruit for the One who has so rooted me in His grace?

Here, in this welcoming psalm is our daily choice, to choose to live a fruitful life, today, in this moment, amidst all the surrounding discordance. Hope is surely not a method, but it is a choice. There is no more profound choice for each day than to root deeper, draw more nourishment still from the streams of living water by which we have chosen to be planted. Thus rooted, defying all the encroaching and angry darkness, with every quaking breath we can summon, with all the saints who have for generations pondered these words, we declare for ourselves, I am “Blessed” and so, by Grace, bear much fruit, for His glory.

My prayer for as you find your own encouragement in this psalm is to look forward, beyond the profound and sometimes deep disappointment of today, into a season of fruit-bearing. For that, we must each find a ‘new song’ to sing unto the Lord and to the singing of those new songs, we shall now turn.

With my blessing that you each be “Blessed!”

Jim


Remarkable to have such profound insight, squeezed out, as it were, from the winepress of a long life.  Or to be more consistent with the metaphor: wisdom gathered along the meandering river of a life that has gone through its own valleys, as he says:

“A river is only a river if there is a valley… the river is only a river… when it carves its way through the rocky detritus which it may itself have uncovered from the earth.”

Perhaps Jim cannot help but use geographical metaphors since he has been a “geographer of ideas” – but then he would balk against the inherent reductionism of being labelled by one’s career. He is, as he beckons all his students, much more in Christ than in oneself alone.

To read the letter in full, go to “Letters from a Hospital Bed #29“.


For more on the Psalms, you may be interested in his commentaries:

The Psalms as Christian Worship

The Psalms as Christian Lament

The Psalms as Christian Praise

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It’s like she left…

Image from Neilsquire.ca

In the image above it appears that the son is fading from his mother’s memory, or from her ability to recognize him. It is not that she is fading, it is rather that everything around her is. The image seems to illustrate for us that it is we who care for our suffering parent/partner who are leaving; in reality it she who is failing to capture the memories, the likeness, the image.

It seems fitting then to commemorate National Alzheimer’s Awareness Day (September 21 each year), by offering one of the poems written by Michael Mark. His collection – “Visiting Her in Queens is more enlightening than a month in a monastery in Tibet” – is written in the theme of his late mother’s diminishments from Alzheimer’s.

For anyone who has walked with or is walking with a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s or Dementia, you may recognize the portrait:

Portrait in Alzheimer’s Disease

It’s like she left and came back with a new haircut

left and came back with a scar

left and came back with different eyes, not

the eyes everyone said we shared

but the scar was gone

and she spoke a strange language and

left and came back without a son and

left and came back and never came back.

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Poem from Michael Mark’s book:

Visiting Her in Queens is more enlightening than a month in a monastery in Tibet.”

This Rattle Chaptbook Prize winning collection is “a kind of family photo album for the final years of a life. As dementia progresses in Michael’s mother, each poem is at once a snapshot, a foreshadowing and a memory. And like memories, each is revealing, accurate, and blurry.”

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To learn more about Alzheimer’s go to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

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