Poetic Dialectic

Poems and Writings reflecting a search for truth


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Lives in Tension

While at St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, Californa for a weekend with my seminary class on Henri Nouwen, I was able to spend time in silence and solitude outdoors.  Today it was breezy and for me that was an irritant. There was only one interior space available which we had been in the whole time so that wasn’t where I wanted to go either. I started the experience perplexed. I decided to drive to the local county park called the Devil’s Punch Bowl to see if that would be my “happy spot”. En route just a quarter mile from the Abbey I saw another irritation, a sign that indicated that I was on the San Andreas Fault. I realized that the Abbey itself is likely sitting right on top of it. In 1994, the Northridge earthquake rocked my world. The roof of our home lifted off so that you could see daylight from the front to the rear of the home. We sustained about $30,000 worth of damage to the interior of our home, including the loss of family heirlooms. I was unable to sleep for days and began to experience anxiety attacks. Once again the inability to find solitude and irritation returned.

The route to the park was not clearly marked and at the end of the road I was not sure which way to turn, but decided to go left. As soon as a rounded the first turn in the road I knew I had chosen correctly as I could see the huge white rocks jutting out of the ground at a 45 degree angle from the rolling terrain. These rocks once were underground and as a result to the violence of the fault activity have been forced out of their normal place and now form a natural wonder for people to photograph and to climb on. Upon arrival I noticed the juxtaposition of the landscape, vibrant Joshua trees next to dead mesquite bushes and vibrant Pinyon pines next to dead white branched leafless creosote bushes. Death and life were noticeably in tension with each other. I began to hike a short trail and could not relax and enjoy it as there was the looming possibility of encountering a rattlesnake. I asked God for courage to continue and completed the short trail only encountering one of my favorite birds, a blue jay. You may ask where is your solitude? Where is your silence? But it is there in my mind, in my observation and in my reflection and dialogue with God on my journey to the Devil’s Punch Bowl.

I returned to the Abbey and found a relatively breezeless spot near the pond to sit. I reflect upon the state of my soul. I have been experiencing a great deal of sorrow and challenges. I reflected on the monks bowing from the waist as they speak the names of our God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I see the Cottonwood Trees around me bending and bowing in the wind, I see their twigs broken on the ground around me. I reflect on my brokenness and how I am asking God to put it into his service for the comfort of others. I ask for his strength to stand and allow others to observe and explore God’s faithfulness in the midst of my suffering. I wrote the poem in honor of the experience.

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Lives in Tension

The cactus and the evergreen tree

The San Andreas running through my life

The irritating wind

The restful water

Seasons change

Leaves fall

Twigs lie broken on the ground

How can I let the winds blow?

How can I be broken like a twig?

How can the violence of sorrow shake my life?

Under my feet the ground is shaky.

I cannot stand.

I must bow.

I must let my life be lifted up

With all its shattered angles for all to look upon

In my brokenness you cause me to stand.

devils-punchbowl


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Hearing God With Your Community

“Group Spiritual Direction is the practice of seeking God’s guidance together through communal discernment, theological reflection, support, and experimental actions in order to  understand how God might be inviting the community and individual persons to particular forms of work” (Lim, Syllabus for Practices of Christian Community, Fuller Seminary, Fall 2016). When we consider church history it is easy to wonder whether communal discernment is a viable process. The church has a troubled history when dealing with its internal conflicts. If you visit Rome you are reminded of this when visiting historical sites. In the church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola stands a sculpture of Mary whipping Martin Luther and Jan Hus because they had been labeled heretics. Near the Pantheon is a church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva where Galileo was declared a heretic. Two summers ago when I was visiting these places in Rome I received an email from our church stating that our well-loved worship leader was asked to step down. The decision was shocking to the worship leader and the congregation. The decision was made by the pastor and supported by three people on session. There was no discussion with the general session. The worship leader was so devastated by the decision she no longer felt welcome at church. The leaders of the church were unwilling to reach out to her or attempt any reconciliation with her. I felt like I was witnessing a horror like the one depicted in the sculpture below. There is certainly an inherent danger in the discernment process, it is limited due our individual experiences or lack thereof and our ability to hear God for our time and place.  As Nancy Bedford reminds us in her article called Little Moves Against Destructiveness, we need to have an “awareness of the human tendency toward self-deception: This is understood by the group as a particular danger in “discernment,” especially when recourse is made to phrases such as “God told me this or that” (p. 171). Because of our inherent vulnerabilities we need to approach the process of Group Spiritual Direction with sobriety and humility.

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On a broader note, the church today is faced with divisive issues of racism and gender. These issues have resulted in strained interpersonal relationships and at times violence between Christians. How is your community discerning these issues? They are certainly works in progress.

Closer to home, within the seminary walls, and in the community of theologians, there has been observed at times. a lack of respect for those holding opinions that differ from one’s own. Perhaps the practice of Group Spiritual Direction can offer some guidance in navigating these often tenuous relationships.

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“I am not suggesting that Christians should never disagree robustly or that tolerance should become our highest value. Good arguments, shaped by love and fidelity, can build community” (Living into Community, Pohl, p.83). Perhaps your church or small group is wrestling with interpersonal conflicts.  Have you considered how to begin to hear God in these situations? Pohl says that how we deal with people that we have disagreements with reveals our commitments and values (p.83).These are issues that Group Spiritual Direction can help us process.

Our Values and Commitments for Group Spiritual Direction

Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Grapes take at least three years before they produce grapes for wine production. We need to take some cues from God’s creation. There is the need to slow down. Conflicts won’t be resolved overnight. We need to be faithful to attend to our conflicts like a vine dresser does his vines.

Application:”What are our shared practices for intentionally nurturing the formation of our congregation as a local church community” (Slow Church:Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Smith & Pattison, p.35)? Implementing shared practices takes time.

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One practice that is helpful for group spiritual direction is the one used in the Quaker Tradition called Consensus. “Everyone has a chance to reflect on the decision at hand and to speak into the process of making the decision” (Smith & Pattison, p 117).Here’s a video on the Quaker Tradition of Consensus which demonstrates the careful and prayerful manner by which each decision is attended.

The process of consensus is time consuming, but without the willingness to take the time needed you are forfeiting the opportunity for the community to be formed and God to do his slow work.

Application:“What is your congregational process for decision making? How do you ensure that as many people as possible can speak into the decision-making process if they so desire” (Smith & Pattison,  p. 120)?

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As the process of Consensus unfolds discernment is needed. “By discernment I mean figuring out what to do, all together as a church, with the help of God’s Spirit” (Bedford, Nancy. Little Moves Again Destructiveness, p.167). A helpful tool for the discernment process is called Theological Reflection. This process uses the eyes of faith when reflecting on an issue needing discernment.

Application: Give Theological Reflection a test run. There are three stages: Attending, Assertion, and Decision Making Stage. The Attending Stage considers one’s Christian Tradition, scripture, historical trends and current practices as it applies to the the issue. It also explores the personal experiences of the group, feelings and values that contribute to the issue. It also considers what cultural influences may be at play in the situation. The second stage is Assertion, which brings all the items discovered in the Attending Stage and puts them in dialogue with each other. What key principles emerge and why? The Final Stage is Decision Making,  which answers questions such as: What are we going to do? Where do we see God in this? What values are driving our decision? What are our goals? What steps of courage and faith will we need to make this decision? The model of Theological Reflection described was designed by David Ward and Willy Hernandez as part of the curriculum in the class called Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection held at Fuller Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2013. A word of wisdom, if this process is being led by a pastor, it would be best if “the pastor does not push the discussion or try to manipulate conclusions, “it would be helpful if he”(sic) does sum up what has been said and “tries”(sic) to reduce the anxiety levels of those who are overly eager to reach immediate conclusions despite the complexity of the issues discussed”(Bedford, p. 170). There is tremendous protection for the pastor if he does not use his authority to dominate others. This is certainly counter-intuitive for many leaders who are anxious to move things forward quickly. Our results oriented culture does not serve us well in forming healthy community.

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A key commitment and value for a healthy community is to seek reconciliation if there are interpersonal conflicts. “If we believe God is indeed reconciling all humanity and all creation, we must be willing to extend hospitality and open the gate on the way toward reconciliation: no one should categorically be barred from moving in this direction with us” ( Smith & Pattison, p. 114). When we pick and choose who we will extend hospitality and reconciliation to, we will harm the entire church community. Offended individuals in a church community will experience a breach of promise in some way. It is common for people to slip away from our churches when they have been hurt. Rather than reaching out to the offended party we can be tempted to turn our energy to a new person and move on. “Silence and inattention provide a convenient cover for irresponsibility and abandonment” (Pohl, p.97). Our inability or unwillingness to get involved in conflict resolution does a great injustice to the entire community. “The early church did not consider serious offenses by an individual member of the community a private affair for the individual to take care of alone with God. The early church was rather convinced that such offenses weighed upon the local church, detracting from community and weakening it. This conception of sin surely presupposes a very intensive consciousness of community” (Jesus and Community, Lohfink, p.105). Group Spiritual Direction is a helpful practice to discover how as a community we will work toward reconciliation and fidelity in our relationship with each other.

good_shepherd

Application: What practices and processes do we have in place to identify people who are hurt and drifting away? How to we care for these hurt people? Are we good shepherds who go after the lost sheep?

In conclusion, Group Spiritual Direction, is a process that is imperfect and dynamic. The good news is that on October 32, 1992, “Pope John Paul II acknowledged in a speech today that the Roman Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo 359 years ago for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun”

(http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/01/world/vatican-science-panel-told-by-pope-galileo-was-right.html).

galileo

Another example of the dynamics of the process is that this year, 2016, “nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic Church”

(http://religionnews.com/2016/08/15/u-s-lutherans-approve-document-recognizing-agreement-with-the-catholic-church/).

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Baltimore Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden (at lectern) receives an ovation Aug. 10, 2016 during the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American Church wide Assembly in New Orleans.

These examples serve to reinforce the need to embrace the slow work of God in our Christian communities as we seek God in group discernment.

Footnote: I personally was a bit confused by the use of the term “Group Spiritual Direction” as this term is also used in the field of Spiritual Direction to refer to spiritual direction done in the context of a small group rather than one on one. I think the term Group Spiritual Discernment or Reflection would be less confusing. 

Since it is advent season I am listening to my Christmas music. This song has always brought tears to my eyes and certainly captures the desire for peace in relationships and peace on earth. Merry Christmas!


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He’s wild, you know, not like a tame lion.

It is the wildness of God, the untamable nature of God which causes my heart to stir. It is my trust in this untamable God, which helps me come to realize that he if wants to call me “his Beloved” he has every right to do so. I in turn, have every right to be in constant awe and amazement that he chooses to say this to me and about me. It is wonderful beyond words.

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C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe


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Roses and Shadows

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This would have been the perfect photograph if my shadow had not been captured in the lower right corner. My life is like this picture; the shadows creep in and ruin a perfectly good day.  When things do not go right in my life and I feel out of control, the shadows form and cover me. I have a sense of powerlessness that frightens and depresses me. What I am learning is that shadows come and go, but the roses are still blooming. I need to embrace my world, shadows and all, and be thankful for its shadowy beauty.


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Today I gathered the courage to play God.

Today I gathered the courage to play God.

It is one of the few times that I realized that it would take great courage on my part to act like God.

Most days I fancy myself to be in control of my world and have many schemes at work in my mind. I think I know how someone else should live their lives. I think I have all wisdom and insight to direct them accordingly.  I am comfortable with my God-like plans for those around me.  I may even try to orchestrate a few conversations to set my plan in motion.  When it does not go well, I turn to God to complain.  It is in these moments that God asks me, do you really want to be God? Do you think you are up for the job?

Today I am second guessing myself, feeling guilty, feeling powerful, and feeling sad, at the idea that I can play God by ending a life. It is the hardest day in a pet owner’s life, the day you decide your beloved pet is suffering more than they are enjoying life. Today we are putting our beloved Labrador retriever to sleep. I dread being in this God-like position. It is a heavy responsibility, and at the same time, he is just a dog. Yet I am like a God to him. He is dependent on me for his food and his health. I can make significant choices that impact his life. I have been a good and kind God to him, just like my God is good and kind to me. My dog trusts me to do what is best for him.  I know he loves me and has been a loyal companion. He has had his share of mischievous behavior, such as eating food off the counter, letting the cats outside, being stubborn at bath time, and hating to have his nails trimmed. In spite of his flaws, I can say he is a good dog.  I hope that when God decides my day has come that he can say the same about me.

For now, on days like today, I am reminded that I should not so easily fall into my God-like ways, thinking I can possibly do His job, better than He can. I am humbled and weak today. I do not want to play God.

Dear God, Please help me to remember that you are in charge. I only desire to trust you and love you and remain loyal to you. Please forgive me for thinking I can play God in the lives of those I love.  Help me to remember that our lives are in your hands, not mine. Thank you for the wonderful gift of my dog; he has been a good boy.  Our lives are in your hands, where they belong.  I want you to be God today and always.

2014 and remodel 087


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Reflections

light-on-the-water

As I was sitting near a fountain, I saw the reflection of the moving water on the ceiling of the shelter I was sitting in. It did not look like water, instead it appeared as a white shimmering light on the dark ceiling. I knew it was a reflection of the water because of its motion, its actions.
We are each reflections of God in the world. We are just like the white shimmering light on the ceiling, we do not look like God, but how we move and how we act in the world can reflect him.


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A Dappled World

dappled world 2
We live in a dappled world
Brief glimpses of light
Play on
The ground of my life
They are fleeting
Uncertain
Yet predictably present
God you are ever present
Your light plays
Through the darkness
Giving
Delight
Hope