Remembering Isaac – a prayer

May you rise from the place where you are bound
as Isaac did from the altar where he was bound –
as one forever changed.
With a new sense of self
a new love of life
a new understanding of God’s love for you
a new sense of God’s presence with you.

And may you rise from the trauma of your altar –
the loss of control
the fear
the pain
the despair
As Isaac did,
resurrected to a new life
a changed life
a life redeemed again
in a second, more powerful, deeper conversion.
To a life transformed
an experience transcended
a place not known before.
To a deep place of satisfaction in God
confidence in his care
and in his love for you.
To a body profoundly healed.

– for Tina, and for all of us

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Richard Rohr On Downward Mobility

“The path of descent is the path of transformation.
Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.”

“The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel (Genesis 32:26-32), and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity. The loss and renewal pattern is so constant and ubiquitous that it should hardly be called a secret at all. Yet it is still a secret, probably because we do not want to see it. We do not want to embark on a further journey (the second half of life) if it feels like going down, especially after having put so much sound and fury into going up (the first half of life). This is surely the first and primary reason why many people never get to the fullness of their own lives.”

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“Soul knowledge sends you in the opposite direction from consumerism. It’s not addition that makes one holy, but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of the pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously. Conversion is more about unlearning than learning. In a certain sense we are on the utterly wrong track. We are climbing while Jesus is descending, and in that we reflect the pride and the arrogance of Western civilization, usually trying to accomplish, perform, and achieve. This is our real operative religion. Success is holy! We transferred much of that to our version of Christianity and made the Gospel into spiritual consumerism. The ego is still in charge. There is not much room left for God when the false self takes itself and its private self-development that seriously. All we can really do is get ourselves out of the way, and honestly we can’t even do that. It is done to us through this terrible thing called suffering.”

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“Some have called this principle of going down to go up a “spirituality of imperfection” or “the way of the wound.” It has been affirmed in Christianity by St. Thérèse of Lisieux as her Little Way, by St. Francis as the way of poverty, and by Alcoholics Anonymous as the necessary First Step. St. Paul taught this unwelcome message with his enigmatic “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, in saying that, he was merely building on what he called the “folly” of the crucifixion of Jesus—a tragic and absurd dying that became resurrection itself. You will not know for sure that this message is true until you are on the “up” side. You will never imagine it to be true until you have gone through the “down” yourself and come out on the other side in larger form. You must be pressured from on high, by fate, circumstance, love, or God, because nothing in you wants to believe it, or wants to go through it. Falling upward is a secret of the soul, known not by thinking about it or proving it but only by risking it—at least once. And by allowing yourself to be led—at least once. Those who have allowed it know it is true, but only after the fact.”

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Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
pp. xxiii-xxiv and pp. xviii-xix, and from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 46, day 49
(Available through Franciscan Media)

The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available
in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . . .

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A Good Friday Meditation

I hadn’t been a good son for years. I had my reasons, so I just stayed away. Now I was going home for the holiday. It was dark and wet and cold, and as usual, I was late. To save time I cut through a baseball field near the house. Before I reached the infield, the smell hit me – I had forgotten how the geese love these fields, and now their “dirt” was jammed into the soles of my shoes. Then, in my hurry and with the wet grass, I stepped in a muddy puddle and slipped. My hands were full with bags of food for the evening – my contribution to the reconciliation meal so long in coming. I went down face first into the disgusting grass, soiling my clothes and dumping the food. It couldn’t be worse. I smelled like a sewer, and the carefully chosen peace-offering was ruined.

As I mounted the front steps and knocked, it crossed my mind to turn back. As the porch light came on, I no longer wondered. Now I saw how disgustingly filthy I was.

Before I could move, the door swung open and I saw my father’s face. He quickly scanned me from head to toe and exclaimed, “Come in my son. We have a wonderful meal for you, and we’ve all been waiting. I can’t tell you how great it is to see you. Nothing could make me happier than you’re being here with me tonight. I thought my heart would break from missing you.”

Shame or Conviction? Choose Carefully

“Got my feet on the earth, but my face to the sky.”
Toby Mac in Hey Devil

Imagine that next Sunday, your pastor or priest begins his morning talk like this:

“The longer I live, the more I am aware of my sinfulness, faithlessness, lack of courage, narrow-mindedness; the more I feel the surging waves of greed, lust, violence, and indignation roaring in my innermost self. Growing older has not made life with God easier. In fact, it has become harder to experience his presence, to feel his love, to taste his goodness, to touch his caring hands.”

Or imagine if instead it was a missionary that your church supported, laying bare his heart like this:

“As I said, I want a woman – just one to hold and press against me, to feel and fondle with my lips and fingers. Disgustingly, it could be any woman, as I cannot seem to bring her [his fiancée] fixedly to mind, and it is just the woman want [sic] that plagues me, the craving to feel one close to me.”

Or the same man recounting this near misadventure:

“Yesterday, walking back from Angu’s house after injecting Augostine (who, praise God is better after his near death struggle with pneumonia), I was alone in the cool, dark forest, and I knew then how vulnerable I am just now to attacks of fleshly temptations. Even then, I don’t know how it would have been had I met an Indian woman alone in the trail. O God, what a ferocious thing is sexual desire, and how often it is on me now.”

You’d probably be consulting the bulletin to see if you mistakenly wandered into a 12-step meeting, right? Or wondering, “Where do they get these guys? This is a pastor?! This is a missionary?!”

Imagine again then, that just when you thought you were as surprised as you could be at church, that you learn that the pastor (priest) speaking about his “greed, lust and violence” was Henri Nouwen, beloved and admired as a spiritual director around the world, and that the missionary suffering with “ferocious” sexual desire (which he calls “woman want”) was the martyred and revered missionary Jim Elliot.

We’re shocked. The church admires and loves these men. They’re supposed to be so much better than us. It turns out they have some pretty ugly desires. It turns out they might succumb to some pretty ugly behavior. We might even say of them, as we sometimes say of ourselves, “They ought to be ashamed.”

That’s how it works, right? When we become so powerfully aware of our sin, we beat up on ourselves, wrap ourselves in shame, and begin to distance ourselves from God. We understand why Judas hung himself. We understand why, after the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, he quit the ministry.

But this predictable response is a bad choice. The sin-shame cycle leads to a worsened spiritual walk and therefore to even more failure. It also causes us to run from God like Jonah tried to do. We can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, or God in the face. Gradually, if we perform well, we begin to feel more worthy (i.e., less shameful), and we move back towards God again – at least until the cycle repeats itself, which it inevitably does.

Fortunately,  we can choose another response when we sin. Instead of receiving shame, we can accept conviction. Shame comes from our enemy – “the accuser of the brethren” and is destructive in its intent and poisonous in its experience. Conviction, on the other hand, comes from the Spirit of God and is therapeutic in its intent and healing in its experience.

* When I sin, God lovingly convicts me because he wants to restore me to fellowship with him and prevent my spiraling headlong into even more or worse sin. I can wholehearted “agree” with God in his verdict – “You’re right. I have sinned. It’s bad.”, and give myself to God’s healing work in me.

* When I sin, “the accuser” maliciously shames me because he wants to make he hate myself, and cause me to distance myself from God and become unhappy and ineffective. This sin-shame-loathing paradigm is the one I have to reject – rejecting both the shame and the loathing.

It’s not that we take our sin lightly. Just listen to Nouwen’s words. They convey pain and a longing to do better – to be better, healthier. It’s just that we refuse to beat ourselves up. We refuse to listen to our enemy instead of our God. Think about King David’s response to his sin in Psalm 51. Confession yes, shame no. And if we reread Jim Elliot’s words, they are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words about being the “chief of sinners” – or “doing the things that he hates.” In each case we’re hearing a profound angst, a shockingly honest and bitter confession, but no self-flagellation.

It’s possible to be serious about sin, and to feel profound remorse for it, and angst when you look in the mirror, and yet not to embrace shame. These words from St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) who had retreated to the desert to seek after God, illustrate that powerfully. He writes, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome…. Many times I imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. … I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations.” Notice, that he confesses that he has failed “many times” – and yet explicitly rejects shame: “I am not ashamed ….”

The choice to reject self-shaming is an important one. God doesn’t require self-shaming or want it. It’s counterproductive going forward, and it bypasses the path to healing. But what’s the alternative?

First, we need to allow for counterintuition. Self-shaming comes naturally to us. Refusing self-shaming and instead embracing conviction is counterintuitive. In high altitude mountain climbing you begin to feel sick, and desperately want to lay down, but that’s the worse thing you can do. You have to fight your instincts. You have to keep moving. In a similar way we have to renounce the shame that seems so natural.

Secondly, we have to embrace the conviction. For most of my Christian life, I’ve been taught to think at this point of 1 John 1:9. It’s a great verse, and appropriate here. But simply “confessing [naming] my sin” before God to enter back into fellowship with him is a treatment unequal to the disease. The confession brings the promised forgivenessbut doesn’t address the need for healing.

Third, we need to make ourselves available to God for healing. This is where we can return to Henri Nouwen. He tells us often of the need to find solitude and enter into silence. He tells us to spend time just being with God, offering up to him any weaknesses God reveals to us, and submitting ourselves to him for healing. In this way, our sin, rather than pushing us away from God, actually draws us to him. We come without fear of rejection. Indeed, we come because we have sinned. We come allowing him to reveal the harshest reality about us (Not just “What did I do?”, but “Why do I do that?”). We come “with expectation” that he will do this inner work in us. His care for me brings me to the point of a despair which is not despair, since in it I “… despair of myself in order that I may hope entirely in [God].” (Thomas Merton) In this process, if all goes well, we become “poor in spirit” – those who have nothing in themselves to commend themselves to God, but who can nevertheless feel confidence before him.

When we do this God responds with love and acceptance, and gently heals and restores us. (Like what Jesus did for Peter.) What we do transcends confession and petition. Instead we make time simply “to be” in God’s presence. We are just the “innkeeper, making room for the guest.” We attempt simply be present to him, and to whatever he wants to show us. He is in charge. Eugene Peterson’s words about worship apply to this kind of contemplative prayer. It’s what we do, he writes, to “… interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [It’s the] time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God … because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.” Selah.

Author Gary Moon explains that when we approach God in this way – in solitude, in silent listening, waiting humbly and with willingness to hear the worst about our condition, that this “… holds our shame at bay long enough for us to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.” This is how the shame can be dispensed, and this is how we can become healthier. When we give God the “time and place” that Peterson speaks of, God is able to deal with the root issues of our sin – in addition to forgiving their nasty fruit.

What remains to be seen is – who will we believe? Whose estimate will we embrace? Jesus explained that the devil is our sworn enemy. His ministry is destruction and death. That’s why he tells us we are worthless. Jesus is our advocate. He loves us more than we know. His ministry is truth and life. That’s why he tells us we are precious. Only one of these can be true.

So, every time I am overtaken by some serious, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, slap-your-head kind of sin, I have to choose. I should remember the stories about Nouwen and Elliot, and about King David and the Apostle Peter. Who did they listen to? Did they embrace shaming? No, it’s clear they didn’t. If they had we never would have heard of them.

And so how about me? Whose voice with I heed? Will I listen to the liar or the Lover? Who speaks the truth to me?

In that moment of testing I’m truly at a “two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood” type crossroads. Much is at stake. I need to choose carefully. We all do.

Using Failure to “Trigger” Patient Waiting

“Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Simone Weil in her book Waiting for God

Prayer is the “… receptive attitude out of which all of life can receive new vitality.” Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out

“To be a believer is, by definition, to be one who waits.”  Ben Patterson in Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent

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I’ve been trying to develop a “next steps” approach to supplement Nouwen’s more conceptual  approach to “waiting on God.” My goal is to train myself to see failures in my day as “triggers” to bring me back to a place of waiting.

Hopefully, after I’ve “waited quietly before God” (Psalm 62:5,6), I head back into the world with a renewed sense of equilibrium and peace. But as soon as I do, it’s guaranteed that many of my circumstances will conspire against me and try to spoil the peace and sense of preparation in my heart. The following are reminders to me of what to do when this starts to occur. Hopefully, these further reminders clarify the idea of “waiting” and made it practical in a different way. Here are my examples:

ANGER – I practice waiting as I refuse to … take matters into my own hands (like revenge). I wait upon God to do as he sees fit. (cf. the Psalms!)

DESPAIR – I practice waiting as I refuse to … indulge in despair or cynicism. I choose to look with hope for God’s present and coming Kingdom.

HURRY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … forge ahead as if I know what to do. I admit my limitations and really try to slow myself down.

LETHARGY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … do nothing. From the outside “waiting” may look like “doing nothing”, but it’s not. Waiting is giving God space and time to do things his way.

TEMPTATION – I practice waiting as I refuse to … give in to temptation. I “refer the problem” to God, and instead of insisting on what I want, or feel I need, I wait for what he wants to give me or do in me.

COMPLAINT – I practice waiting as I refuse to … complain bitterly (or worse) curse angrily. In my anger over the fact that things aren’t going as I planned, I remind myself that things aren’t necessarily supposed to go as I planned. I can wait to see what God wants.

SADNESS – I practice waiting as I refuse to … make my happiness my primary motivation for the day. God undoubtedly has better things planned for me – and it’s not about me anyway.

WORRY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … worry. I remind myself that he is at work for good. My worrying won’t add anything to that, but my patient waiting can keep me from messing it up and creating needless anxiety for myself.

I find these pairings helpful because succumbing to revenge, despair, cynicism, arrogance, lethargy, complaining, cursing, temptation or worry become “triggers”, reminding me that something is happening –  I’m drifting away from waiting and into some type of nonsense. I started my day well, and with the best intentions, but it’s beginning to get the better of me – and it’s guaranteed to drag me downhill from there. These unproductive behaviors (sins) can act as triggers, ministering to me, reminding me to return to my original and best intentions.

Why work so hard at waiting? Let me offer one more quote from Ben Patterson: “What we become as we wait is at least as important as the thing we wait for. To wait in hope is not just to pass the time until the wait is over. It is to see the time passing as part of the process God is using to make us into the people he created us to be. Job emerges from his wait dazzled and transformed. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.” As we wait, we will be transformed also.

Examen for an “Overachiever” – a postscript

Out of curiosity, I did a google search to see if I would find my blog post, and found a handful of places where others were discussing “overachieving” and the “examen” of St. Ignatius. (I separated these references from my examen prayer page because I wanted it to be free of distractions. At the same time, I wanted to share just a few resources with interested readers. Obviously, the materials available on the examen itself, and contemplative spirituality are endless.)

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Is there within me, beneath all of life’s surface issues, a quiet stream that flows continually from the heart of God? Is there a solid place to which my life is riveted and from which I can reach out to others with kindness and compassion?”

These are the questions posed by Fil Anderson, who actually has a book on our exact topic: Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers . He himself highly recommends Thomas R. Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, which also targets our topic by “gathering together five compelling essays that urge us to center our lives on God’s presence, to find quiet and stillness within modern life, and to discover the deeply satisfying and lasting peace of the inner spiritual journey.” (Amazon)

I also found this: Journey With Jesus: Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, a book highly recommended by Dallas Willard, who says,  “The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius is one of very few works produced by followers of Christ that reliably guides those who have seriously put their confidence in Christ onto a path where what we Christians endlessly talk about becomes the reality of daily existence.”

I hope this is helpful. If you want to suggest other resources that you have found helpful on the interface of overachieving and spirituality, or on using the examen, please do. The whole idea is to learn from and encourage each other in these things.

The Examen of an “Overachiever”

Years ago someone called me an overachiever. I suppose it’s true in the sense that I have distinguished myself at times in spite of my limited gifts and natural abilities. Early in life I learned that I could compensate for a lack of natural talent by hard work. I ran cross country in high school rather than being a sprinter – and I set a new school record. In Seminary I wrote a thesis that was more than twice as long as necessary (Have I mentioned about my OCD tendencies?) – and I won an award. As a pastor, when I became convinced of the importance of prayer, I preached several series on it – one must have been 16 weeks long, and started praying with people from the church for hours and hours each week. For me, success has always meant working harder than the other guy. More was always better. Faster was better too. There was definitely no time to waste. “Daylight”, as they say, was “burnin’.”

I’ve been in recovery now for some time, but it’s tough going. I recently wrote out a prayer for use as an “examen.”* I need to pray this like I do the Lord’s Prayer – “daily”, and I find it helpful when I do. If you can find something useful in it, that’s great too. Here it is:

“In the morning O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (Ps. 5:3,2)

Today I leave to you …
what I do or don’t accomplish
what others think of me
my comfort and my pleasure
my health and my happiness
my sense of satisfaction and my success
my impact and my importance.

Today I will hallow your name by  …
leaving enough silent spaces to hear from you
living in calmness of spirit, not in haste
looking for transformational moments in the events of the day
waiting for my turn to speak
talking less and listening more
acting and speaking only out of love
remembering the poor and marginalized
depending on you rather than myself for success, and working to further your agenda and enhance your reputation, not my own.

May I do this by your grace and Spirit, desiring to experience and increase your kingdom rule. May I persist in all my weakness, and in spite of all my failures, as I depend on your unfailing love to see me through. Amen.

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* “The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.” My version involves using this morning prayer at the start of the day, and then returning to it at the end of the day for the “prayerful reflection on the events of the day” that is the essence of the examen.

I have posted other resources on the interface between overachieving and the examen elsewhere for those who are looking for more help.