Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Make straight the way of the Lord

John the Baptist quotes from Isaiah 40 in his declaration in John 1:21, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” There is much in our world that is crooked. It is full of injustice, violence and fear. There is much that needs straightening. Our world is a wasteland; a desert, a wilderness. We can become overwhelmed by despair when we think of the condition of our world. We need a straight path to find our way through the wilderness.

We often feel as hopeless as the Children of Israel in Babylonian captivity. How we need to hear the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Yet, if we are to believe the Good News of the New Testament, our “hard service has [already] been completed, [our] sin has been paid for.”

Mary proclaims in Luke 1:52, “ He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This echoes Isaiah 4: 4, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” In Jesus’ kingdom, things have been turned around. What our culture counts as high is really low. What our culture sees as rugged is now plain.

Mary continues, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Isaiah says in verse 11, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart.” In Jesus’ kingdom, the poor and the disenfranchised are close to his heart. It is the powerful and the rich, through their oppressive systems of inequality, who cause most of the fear in our world. When we enter God’s fold, we are held close to Jesus’ heart.

“My soul glorifies the Lord,” declares Mary, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” while Isaiah states, “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” That the world has been turned upside down is cause for rejoicing and worship. The glory of the Lord has been revealed through his kingdom. The world is about to turn!*

My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant's plight, and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest, Could the world be about to turn?

Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.

From the halls of pow'r to the fortress tow'r, not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears ev'ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,
Till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.

Hope is already here! The Kingdom of God has arrived! A straight path as been carved through the despair of the wilderness! Rejoice where we see God’s “will done on earth as it is in heaven!”

*Words and arrangement of traditional Irish tune by Rory Cooney.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lucky To Be Alive?

I was watching my cousins dipping their feet into the water from a set of steps leading into the park’s lake. I wanted to join them. I was seven years old at a family reunion. When I stepped down from the pier I slipped. Then everything went black. The next thing I remembered was my Dad carrying me back to the car slapping my back as I spit out water from my lungs.

Apparently my older sister saw me go under and screamed until a cousin, swimming nearby, saw a tuft of hair sticking out of the water and pulled me to safety. I was told that the older cousin who saved my life had pulled me out by my that little tuft of hair. I am lucky to be alive.

Many years later, a younger sibling about the same age as I was, slipped into the water of a lake at a church reunion. She had been on a hand-pushed merry-go-round with some other children and got very dizzy. She wondered off to a pier on the lake where a combination of her wooziness and the swirling water of a drain in the man-made lake made her slip into the water.

The same older sister, now a teenager, screamed as our Dad, in a row boat, rowed as fast as he could while encouraging her to pull her sister out. Like me, my younger sister went black. The next thing she remembered was our Dad pounding her on her back while spitting out water from her lungs. The sister who rescued her said she pulled her out by her hair. She is lucky to be alive.

Sharon and I at a recent book signing event.
The stories are eerily similar. That younger sibling, Sharon Clymer Landis, is the co-author of our book The Spacious Heart. The screaming sister, Jeanette Clymer Bueno, recently brought this parallel life event to our attention when she posted on Facebook:

“I have no idea why this came to me in my time of meditation and prayer the other day. Just like that it floated up in my spirit—the realization that I had a major hand in saving these exact two siblings—in separate instances—from an accidental drowning death in different but deep man-made lakes. And now these two lives have converged in a shared story that is reaching the world over. I’m still pondering and reflecting on the possible significance of this. If you feel like your faith is ‘drowning’ in a high tide of cultural shift, their book, The Spacious Heart, is for you.”

I deliberately used the word “lucky” to describe our being alive today. But was luck involved, or was it the hand of God? Did God save us for a purpose? And was that purpose to have us write a book together? Did the brush with death develop a longing in our souls to search more deeply, to ponder the mysteries of life more deliberately, to experience God in more profound ways?

Indeed, except for the near drowning incident, our lives couldn’t have been more different. She is female, I am male. She is an introvert, I am an extrovert. She is reserved and quiet, I am loud and boisterous. She spent her adult life on the same farm, I have lived in four states and four different countries. She shuns public or private attention. I love the limelight.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, says there is no such thing as a coincidence. When events seem coincidental, like our near drowning, Jung would see it as part of a universal collective unconscious connection. I call it a God moment.

From what is seemingly divergent experiences and personalities, Sharon’s and my lives have converged in a search for an experience of God beyond the typical religious forms and practices. This convergence produced a book. Is that a coincidence or a God moment?

Are we lucky to be alive? Yes. But we are also using that “coincidence” to proclaim the wonder and mysteries of God. Although I was completely unconscious of the synchronicity (Jung’s word for coincidence) until my sister Jeanette pointed it out, I believe that the near drowning played a direct role in bringing Sharon’s and my divergent lives together to produce a book.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

United by Silence

Early morning rays were beginning to filter into the small chapel at the Jesuit Retreat Center. There were about 40 chairs crammed into a small space, half of the facing chairs split by an aisle leading to a small altar at the front of the chapel. As I entered, the room was already full. I had to scramble over several people to find a space to sit. I was there to do twenty minutes (or was it thirty?) of centering prayer.

Jesuit Center, Wernersville, Pa.
I was attending a silent retreat that was put on by Kairos School for Spiritual Formation, Lancaster, Pa. The Jesuit Center, where Kairos held the retreat, is in Wernersville, Pa. Every nook and cranny of the retreat center is an invitation to be present to the Other. Not only inside the building, but the woods, pond and gardens nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania invite the visitor to prayer and contemplation.

The real purpose of my attending the retreat was not silence or presence, but signing. My sister, Sharon Clymer Landis, had been trained in spiritual direction by this school, and was asked to do a book signing for our new book, The Spacious Heart. Sharon asked me to join her so I agreed. Part of my payment for the overnight stay and two meals allowed me to take in any of the sessions that appealed to me.

On a whim, I decided to attend the crack-of-dawn centering prayer activity. I barely arrived when a man introduced the concept for any of the uninitiated. He told us to take a word, a phrase, a short portion of scripture, or some means to bring us back to the center (Center) when our thoughts wandered. While dressing I was listening to a requiem mass on my iPod. The words “Mother Mary, full of grace, have mercy,” were echoing in my mind through the music of the mass as I got ready to center myself in prayer.

Now I am not Catholic nor do I believe in Mary’s intercession on our behalf, but the music was so gorgeous I could not get this short musical phrase and words out of my head. Somehow, being surrounded by mostly women in a Catholic retreat center, these words seemed to make sense, so I used them as my centering medium.

Except for the occasional cough, the silence in the room, despite the presence of nearly 40 people, was so thick you could slice it with a knife. I often do centering prayer alone at home. I learned the practice of centering prayer at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation in a small class of maybe five participants. I had never been in the presence of so many people at one time sitting in silence.

Time stood still. The hunger for God in that small space was palpable. I was moved to tears. When the chimes sounded signaling the end of the twenty (thirty?) minutes, I could hardly believe it. I wanted to remain in silence, united with forty other souls basking in the eternal embrace of God’s love. Slowly people got up to leave, breaking my reverie. It was time to get back to the tasks at hand.

Our church (I’m not just referring to my denomination) is being torn apart by many issues dealing with the interpretation of scripture. There are workshops, conferences, meeting after meeting, sermons and Bible studies “discussing” the issues. It seems that little progress is made toward unity. In fact, it seems that the extreme sides of each debate gets increasingly more rigid in their “correct” interpretations. I wonder what it would be like for us to throw out our heavy agendas and to sit together with each other in silence for thirty minutes. Not once during a meeting or a conference, but continually until the voice of God becomes clear.

We were not trying to solve any issue, but there we were, nearly forty people from some ten different dominations, sitting together in a packed room united by silence; seeking God’s presence, feeling his embrace and eternal love. The sweet fragrance of the Spirit permeated the room. My God-likeness was connected by silence to forty other God images. I was born anew. Would churches and church conferences have enough patience to do this?  

Oh, and we sold and signed 23 books. Yes, we do mention Centering Prayer in the book as a way to develop a Spacious Heart. Could there be a spacious heart for a church or conference of churches?

Monday, October 20, 2014

How majestic is your name in all the earth?

 Every year in late October, a group of my friends and I get together for two days of immersing ourselves in nature. It began as a one-day hike in the hills of the Appalachia, somewhere from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, but mostly in Virginia where most of us reside.

Somewhere along the way, because of the interest of new members of our group, a day of bike riding was added to the hike, so the one-day excursion became a two-day event. The group has expanded from six to ten or twelve members. We have been doing this for close to twenty years.

This year we spent one of the days fishing on a charter boat. The chance to experience a different kind of nature than the forests and mountains was wonderful. Being able to experience the water, the gulls, the fish, the sunrise and the stories of the captain and his mate brought a different perspective on nature than in previous years.

The interplay between human kind and the environment is never clearer than on the water. The men who make their living on the water are directly affected by what is done. For instance, on the Chesapeake Bay, there is a fish called the menhaden that is used to make fish oil for supplements. They are also the fish that stripers and blues feed on. Because they are over fished for the supplement industry, there are fewer fish for the watermen on the Chesapeake to catch.

In spite of these problems, the chance for a group of men to enter nature in a significant way each year is a treat. Most of us work in environments that are replete with computers and other technological environments where nature is far removed from us. Because of how nature is continually being exploited, like the menhaden in the Chesapeake, we need to be reminded that we are a part of nature, not above it. We should be stewards of the natural world, not abusers of it. Psalm 24: 1-2 states:

1 The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.
The world and all its people belong to him.
2 For he laid the earth’s foundation on the seas
and built it on the ocean depths.

Many of us “moderns” could learn from native peoples around the world who have much more of a reverence for nature than we do. To learn to be awestruck by the incredible surroundings that sustain our very existence on the planet. From the blood eclipse several weeks ago, to the sunrise over the water this morning, everyday, every hour, is filled with wonders that we need to pause in order to observe and honor.

Psalm 4: 1-4
1 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

My Journey with Ronald Rolheiser

 Father Ronald Rolheiser is a well-known Catholic writer on spirituality who wrote a book titled The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. The book really made more sense to me that many books on spirituality I had read. I started buying all his other books, but kept coming back to The Holy Longing for more inspiration.

I used the chapter called “A Spirituality of Sexuality” in mentoring several couples for getting married. I used the chapter called “A Spirituality of Justice and Peacemaking” as required reading for my cross-cultural groups. I took many quotes from the book to share in a course I teach at EMU called dealing with suffering and loss. To say that I was influenced by his writing would be an understatement.

But the way it most influenced my thinking had to deal with his “four nonnegotiable essentials of a healthy spirituality” outlined in chapter three of his book. The four are: 1) Private prayer and private morality. This has to do with our relationship with God, and deals with deeper contemplative prayer forms than “now I lay me down to sleep” before going to bed. 2) Social justice. This deals with our relationship to the poor and marginalized. 3) Mellowness of heart and spirit. This looks at how legalistic and uptight we become in our religious practices and helps us to avoid such uptightness. Finally, 4) Association with a community of faith for true worship and communion.

Few Christians would argue about the relationship to God or meeting for worship in a community of faith, but social justice would cause a few to doubt Rolheiser’s definition of an essential of a healthy spirituality. I buy wholeheartedly these three essentials, but was caught up short by “mellowness of heart and spirit.” Nowhere in my study of Christian spirituality had I come across this concept. I decided it was worthy of further development and decided to write a book on the concept.

I wrote to Father Ron from an email address on his website. I was hoping that he would endorse my project and get one of his publishers to consider the concept since my work was to be based on his ideas. I never heard directly from him, but his assistant answered every email and was very courteous. According to her, he was very supportive of the idea, and even suggested books for me that had influenced his own thoughts on the idea of mellowness. He also said he wanted to read my book when it was published.

I received the name of an agent with whom he worked, but after an initial expression of interest, never received anything back from that agent in spite of several attempts at opening communication again.

In the meantime, I cajoled my sister into writing the book with me. After writing an introduction and several chapters, we set out on our own to seek a publisher. To our great delight, Herald Press, the publisher for Mennonite Church USA and Canada, agreed to publish it.

Herald Press contacted Rolheiser to do an endorsement of the book for us since we had borrowed so heavily from his ideas and quoted him a lot. He graciously declined stating the amount of such requests he receives and his limited time. Quite understandable.

So the book is now published with the title The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening. I asked Herald Press if they wouldn’t send Rolheiser a copy of the book since we based our book one of his basic ideas. They agreed.

Imagine my delight when today I received a personal letter in the mail signed by him. “Thank you for writing this and developing the concept of a ‘spacious heart,’” he wrote in his letter. “I much enjoyed the book.” In addition he wrote, “thank you for your wonderful insight and balance.”

I must confess, that after reading so many of his books, and admiring his view of spirituality, to receive these complimentary words from him made me more than a little proud.