Search This Blog

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Prayer and the Welcoming Stillness of Place.

A few days ago I wrote fondly of the experience I had co-leading with Tricia a Listening in Christ Immersion Retreat at the CFR in Simsbury, CT. I noted it was a balm to my soul, and showed me how much I'm still suited for the "quiet journey" embedded in following Christ.

Because of a conversation I had yesterday, I realized I needed to say a bit about the reality of what years of prayer in a particular place seems to leave behind. I've noticed a curious numinal phenomena: places dedicated to prayer, set aside for the discipline of praying such as retreat centers, monastery's, prayer closets, worship sanctuaries, etc., manifest an environmental stillness palpable, as if in the air. If you take time to settle in such a space, the feel is unmistakably one of peace, an abiding quiet. an inviting sense of spiritual rest and welcome. The atmosphere is unhurried, with an order gentle and gracious -- a "light weightiness," if you will.

It seems to me hours and hours and hours of sojourning  with God in loving silence, listening, praying, worshiping in the heart, and reflecting on the ravishing beauty and goodness of God leaves a residue, or "fragrance" of the Spirit.and heaven's unity. It's feels to me akin to the Celtic notion of "thin places:"

"In the Celtic tradition such places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of that Presence are called “Thin Places.” There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description:
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy."
                                                        Sylvia Maddox, "Where Can I Touch Heaven?"

However we try to characterize the experience, I know such experience is real, substantial; in these places the mysterium tremendum (the mystery wholly other) is also the mysterium inter nos (the mystery among us). I knew it in Simsbury, Nashville, Jemez, Boston, and Holyoke, in places set aside for prayer at one time, or on-going. Maybe I'm just sensitive to it, or I'm wired for such resonance.

All I know is such awareness elevates my spirit much in the same way helium in a balloon causes it to rise. I'm calmed and yet freed inside, at home, located and eager for the possibility of being near God with my guard down, receptive. Such places invite me to pray and listen. I don't see it as a battle or routine; it is an offering and a receiving. I sit with my Lord and he sits with me - friendship, but not among equals. His loving graciousness and peace open the way for such relating.

So, I'm curious what you think about this. Have you ever or do you experience what I do in such places? Do you think it's nonsense?

BTW: I hope you know I don't think prayer is dependent on a particular place for it to be real or efficacious. It's not and I don't. We are to pray everywhere, all the time . . . but I'm convinced there are these peculiar  "thin places" where prayer persisted, and the welcoming stillness abiding unlocks our hearts and opens our mouths to listen and pray.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Returning to the "Unforced Rhythms of Grace" in Simsbury.

Just this past weekend, Tricia and I had the privilege of leading someone on a Listening in Christ Immersion Retreat at the Center For Renewal Retreat House on the lovely, pastoral grounds of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Simsbury, CT. (

For me and our retreatant, it was a return: she to her second retreat, and I to my "old stomping grounds" where we'd led retreats for groups and individuals for 20 years before coming to Northampton. Tricia and I also lived at the Retreat House, raised our family there, and were members of the church. Tricia had been back a couple of times prior to lead Listening in Christ Retreats for Women. I'd not.

I have to say just being in that still space on those grounds set aside to gently help people seek God, pray, contemplate, refresh, heal, or renew spiritually was an unbinding and freeing experience for my soul. It was as if I found again something I'd lost or inadvertently let go of. In a weird way, I felt home again. I was found and embraced by the place. And not merely because it was our family home for 20 years, or that it looked just as it had when we left -- it didn't. The feeling was deeply existential. I was returning to an essential piece of me, of my spiritual life and sensibility. A large part of my being knows itself most freely and intimately in the contemplative setting where the "unforced rhythms of grace," (borrowing a phrase from Eugene Peterson's The Message) deny the world's frantic slavery to "hurry up" and "have it all."

I'm not made for "hurry up" and "have it all," . . . never have been. In fact, when I allow myself to open to its vain imaginings, I disappear spiritually. When I disappear spiritually, I'm irritable, impulsive and disoriented, as if my spiritual moorings have been tossed off, and I'm on a fast wave to nowhere.

I know full well God has made me to feel most at home in the calm and quiet spaces of life, especially when nature has center stage, reflecting God's beauty, creativity, majesty and grace. Growing up in the open spaces of New Mexico where the vistas are long and wide, and the pace used to be slow, I immersed in a southwestern groove. Droppin' by and settin' a spell with my musician friends was normal. It suited my temperament perfectly, still does.

While the property surrounding the CFR Retreat House is in the middle of suburbia, it had been a dairy farm until the mid-60's when became a church-hence the nickname "The BARN.". It is 40 acres with a full view of the traprock hills on the western horizon, open fields of high grass, lush surrounding woods, and a babbling brook traversing it's southern boundary. The pace is generally relaxed, retreat-like. This rhythm offers room to breathe, listen and reflect. And God gave the space for such purposes. His presence is felt there even by folks who don't know him.

The easy flow of the retreat, the natural beauty awash in "let there be life," and the palpable sense of peace gave me sharp contrast to the beaten up mental/spiritual state I'd been in the last 2-3 weeks. Tricia mentioned, more than once, I was not myself, and I wasn't. I felt anxious, really disoriented, and tentative about my life and work. My state of mind was disturbingly uncomfortable, but I also felt detached from the true me. There were reasons for feeling so, but I couldn't detach and get perspective. I was slowly sinking to the bottom.

Being at the CFR and hearing God gave me a view of where I'd drifted because the responsibilities I have. I realize I have adjustments to make with how I spend my days, and what I give my best to. I have to restore spiritual and missional balance to how I work or I'll disappear inside. So, I'll make more time for being alone -- and frequently -- with God. I'll make more time for reflection and prayer.I'll strive less and let God build the work as it pleases him. Others need to carry more of the load or we need to reduce it together.

The "unforced rhythms of grace" which uplift and sustain me will restore equilibrium for the mission I accepted 5 years ago. My eyes were opened by the Holy Spirit this weekend; time to let go and let God. I've seen it what he does with folks on our retreats. We just set the stage. He opens their ears and the eyes of their hearts. He can do it in Northampton on the streets as well. So I need to pray, listen, reflect and settle.

The urgency I feel must be balanced with persisting parentheses of sojourning with God all the time. Holding everything loosely. Noting when I'm being forced to respond or take initiative, but not from God. Keeping my mouth shut as much or more than speaking. Listening to actually hear. Taking notes. Asking questions more than declaring or expositing.





Not having answers.

Letting others carry the load; not assuming I should.

Enjoying God and his Presence frequently.

Taking time to notice.

. . . I feel peace about this, even a smile.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Sense of Urgency for the Mission I Embrace.

I am 63.

Five years ago when I began to detect a faint but persistent enticing to head in another ministry direction, there was no urgency. It was began as a intriguing feeling of "what if?" and interesting possibility - a window cracked open, and while I saw dimly, I also saw glimmers of a new leg of the journey for Tricia and me. An unfamiliar potential came knocking. God sent an invitation.

5 years later, a palpable sense of urgency abides, taking permanent residence in me. I will finish my race running as hard as my 63 year old legs will allow because God has graciously granted this task to me (and others at imagine). I know without a doubt the missional Kingdom way is my spiritual, ecclesiological imperative; the clock is ticking, and I still have far to go before I can set down my bag and rest.

Some of this urgency has to do with being 63. I am not old in heart, but I am aging; old is a learned attitude; aging is an inevitable reality for all living beings. I know I am young in spirit, heart, attitude, and will. It's a different variety of young than for a 33 year-old, for instance. It's largely attitudinal: possibility, potential, opportunity, hope, creativity and exploration still captivate my heart. Urgency keeps it all simmering.

Nevertheless, 63 has conditions through which my sense of urgency compels me: 

  • I have urgency because I tire sooner and it lasts longer if I don't take time to rest well.
  • I have urgency because I am more aware the clock is ticking than when I was a younger man.
  • I have urgency because there is a real sense of the physical/mental diminishing that inexorably overtakes everyone through the aging process, even if I take good care of myself.
  • I have urgency because I want to keep in step with the Spirit on my watch and miss nothing he has for me before my last breath - time's a-wastin'.
  • I have urgency because people desperately need the freeing truth, hope, and love in this world awash in such creeping darkness and inhumanity.
  • I have urgency because I am in the early evening of my life, but the sun will set sooner than I realize perhaps.
  • I have urgency because I want to hear my LORD greet me upon seeing him with, "Well done, good and faithful servant." 
Urgency is good; complacency sucks and is cowardice married to sloth.

Urgency with wisdom, grace, and love creates the possibility of true life in others.
Urgency fuels resolve and determination.

Urgency makes imperative the everyone's need for salvation, healing and true liberty.

Urgency blends a holy discontent with a need to "do something about this mess."

Urgency lends the perspective that we all only have so much timer to bring the Kingdom on our watch.

Urgency makes 63 seem not a day too soon to make a difference.