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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good Friday, Polly's Move and the Common Heart.

Something deeply lovely happens when Jesus followers gather around a table for a meal, and stay at that same table to share the Meal of all meals.

Last night, a number of us, gathered at Jim and Karin LaMontagne's house in South Hadley to have dinner together, and then share a Good Friday Lord's Supper. We recognize a meal with friends and spiritual brethren seems most often to create a way to knit relationships. We get to know each other in a manner special to that atmosphere. People let down their guard a bit, and talk to one another, seeking to connect. Friendships are formed or strengthened over a grace-filled table.

So we spent 3 hours eating, sharing stories, laughing and reinforcing our communitas. We revealed a common heart by interacting over good food and drink. It continued and deepened when shared the meal prepared for us by the sacrifice of Lord.

Most moving to me was when we, after taking the Communion bread, were invited to share what Good Friday meant to us - how we'd experienced it. As we did, I could the sense that unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit as if he came to listen and felt welcomed by how moved we were because of Jesus suffering and sacrifice for us. There is a spiritual stillness and reverence pervading the space after someone who speaks such things. We were one in those moments of recollecting together.

 Today, some of us shared a different sort of connecting, but from a common heart as well. We have an older woman in our church named Polly. She's been living in subsidized housing since we met her. She's also had serious and chronic health problems. Polly is funny, opinionated, full of spit and vinegar; she's one spunky, Christian septuagenarian.

She's been waiting to leave where she's been living for months. Let's just say it's not the nicest place for her. Just the cigarette and marijuana smoke in her hallway suggests she doesn't fit. She needs oxygen to breathe, so we were all glad when her opportunity finally came to get into a much better place.

Today was Polly's moving day for some of us. Jim LaMontagne, Kevin Williams and I did most of the schlepping. Janet Williams did the lion-share of organizing on both ends what we moved, and their daughter, Karen, pitched in all day as well. Karin LaMontagne did  preliminary work as well, and was there at the end of the day helping put things in order.

Again, the highlight for me was how Jim, Kevin and I enjoyed being with each other. Even though Polly lived in a small apartment, there was all sorts of stuff to move, and not all of it packed when we got there.We knew we'd be making a number of trips to get it all done, but the time passed pleasantly as we moved 15-20 dolly and grocery cart (yup, from Walmart and Stop & Shop) loads up stairs, into and out of elevators, down halls and between two small apartments. Each load had to be transported by truck and trailer a mile or so, back and forth.

We gradually tired as 3 hours of moving turned into 9 hours of moving with a half hour break for pizza Tricia brought. Yet for the duration, we laughed many, many times, talked with residents of both housing complexes often as we came and went, and seemed to just enjoy helping Polly make the move. We could see the overwhelmed look on her face in the morning when we arrived turn to relief and happiness that it all got done as her knew place took shape. She was finally where she had wanted to be for a long time, and it was better. I think she felt loved too.

I think Christians have long known when we co-labor on helping projects, relationships form or deepen, and natural barriers soften because we are just doing good stuff together for somebody. We share the load with no animus. It just feels good. Love is simply expressed.

Friday night and Saturday were gatherings of a common heart but a different sort.

Both were good; in fact, very good.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Do You Have Wonder Deficit Disorder?

Definition: Wonder Deficit Disorder is an acute inability to apprehend the wonderful, sublime, beautiful, or transcendent in any part of experiencing life because of chronic loss, disappointment, acute boredom, bitterness or despair. The person suffering with WDD no longer is sensitive to or looks for the wondrous in the magnificent, or the ordinary. They have narrowed their gaze to accept the mundane, the routine, the predictable, or maudlin as all of reality we can experience.

Who experiences Wonder Deficit Disorder?

  • Men and women, but more prevalent in men.
  • More prevalent in middle-aged to older adults, but can be experienced by children of abuse or profound neglect.
  • Men or women who suffered shattered expectations repeatedly for at least one year.
  • Children who were taught their bent for wonder, creative expression, and delight was foolishness to be discarded.
  • Children who were never allowed to be children, but made to shoulder responsibilities as, or for adults.
  • Hurried children or children who grew up in a household trapped in fear.
  • Men or women who've suffered life-threatening trauma altering their sense of power or freedom or safety.
  1. Uncharacteristic (for the person) attitude for, and focus on the practical, efficient, realistic or functional, but without energy.
  2. Loss of the sense in the potential of the extraordinary surfacing; jadedness, sarcasm.
  3. Diminished ability to laugh easily, be surprised or playful, feel joy, appreciate the fantastic  behind creation and life.
  4. Diminished sensitivity to feel truly alive or passionate. physically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, relationally or spiritually.
  5. Muted ability to create or respond creatively to inspiration.
  6. Loss of ability to dream, fantasize toward the enchanting, the lovely, the whimsical or delightful. 
  7. Maladaptive attempts to heighten sensitivity through drugs, alcohol, elevated risk-taking, binging on sex or food, etc.
  8. Diminished ability to be fascinated by or notice the ineffable all around.
  9. Little or no response to grandeur or the astounding. 
  10. Robotically living an experience of unexamined distraction, hurry and task management. 
For many if not most people, wonder is slowly unlearned and set aside. If people give less and less time to:

  • noticing, lifting their heads and looking around (and closely to actually see) the bounty of colors, shapes, textures, lights and shadows filling their experience,  
  • listening to the rhythms, poly-rhythms and varying textures of their daily sounds so they can learn the exquisite, extraordinary "music" in each day,  
  • experiencing the physical sensations which heighten awareness of movement, balance and touch, warmth, coolness, pleasure, 
  • tasting the subtleties of one bite of food from another, rather than slamming food down the gullet while doing something else,
they become radically desensitized to the wonderful all around them. They never develop or seek how to ponder the meaning behind what they are experiencing. It whispers only to the attentive who have learned how to recognize wonders when they encounter it in their "ordinary" days.

Wonder requires a belief in the possibility of some sort of enticing MEANING or ORDER or MYSTERY behind all meaning, including what the senses apprehend as design or pattern. A mystery hides in the fact there is anything wonderful at all. People experience it, if they pay attention or give thought, moments of joy or delight or beauty which can transport them into a momentary lightness of being they want to repeat. Wonder is experiencing a deep pleasure of the heart and a magnificent delight to the senses, or the mind. The heart was made with a natural capacity for wonder, and enchantment and delight. The mind wants to "see" what it is and apprehend its meaning. That's not all the heart or mind were made for, but few of us cultivate their abilities to respond with wonder easily at all the miraculous populating our days.

Wonder Deficit Disorder keeps its victims from closely looking, deeply listening, richly tasting, exquisitely feeling, or pondering contemplatively. They live as surface dwellers unaware, creatures of habit caught in an affective sleepwalk - blind to much beyond the prurient, entertaining, or "shocking".


Counseling, therapy or spiritual direction can be effective in uncovering how a person is motivated to experience wonder though the senses and the mind. The goal is to look for what people naturally are drawn to; what motivates them without having to think about it, and when do they feel most alive or most engaged. What makes them laugh? What gives them surprise? What do they call beautiful or funny or riveting? Why? Where do they look for meaning? When do they feel relaxed, or what draws their attention easily? When were they stunned by greatness or a sense of the sublime and ineffable? What took their breath-away? When did they encounter God? How did it happen?

The next step is to examine closely when and where their capacity for wonder was neglected, wounded or abused. What were they experiencing, and when did they let it fade, or how did it get crushed. Most times it will come at an early age. Certainly, kids with rich imaginations, fantasy lives and creative sensibilities can be victimized more readily because they communicate what they see, hear, imagine and feel as if it's normal. Other kids will let it go when they pick up cues from family it is time to grow up, or turn to other pursuits everyone else their age are doing.

Also, learning to pray and contemplate in silence seem to re-awaken the ability to notice the exquisite hidden in plain sight in the ordinary, the simple or the majestic. The settling and being which grows from praying, makes the person more and more awake to what lies all around. People learn to notice by praying and contemplating. Wonder comes from noticing, recognizing apprehending and pondering sufficiently to be ravished by it.

Many thanks to Abraham Joshua Heschel who reminded the world (and me) that the God of the Bible is the Source of all that is sublime, enchanting, wonderful and ineffable. It is He we must seek to recognize and apprehend the riches of wonder in Creation and the mysterium tremendum animating it all. I couldn't agree more. 

This week of Passover, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection Day) would not be a bad place for you to start.

May it become so...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Samana and Sacred Little

Have you ever had an experience where the first time you saw someone you instantly disliked him or her for no rational reason at all? They immediately seemed to embody some value, way of life, look, or attitude distasteful in your mind?

Well, I responded to Samana that way from the first time I saw him in Northampton.

He's a tall, lanky man in his 50's. He dresses in an understated way. Up until a few months ago, he wore his hair long. Samana is most times accompanied by a young women he refers to as his "attendant." She goes by the name Sacred Little. She is much shorter than he, and always wears a head covering, much in the way Jesus's mother Mary is generally depicted. All of her hair is covered. You just see her cosmetic-free face.

A few weeks ago at the imagine/Gallery's Artist Reception for Richard Hawley, Samana and Sacred Little came up the stairs and we met for the first time. I found out he has an MFA in Poetry and lives in subsidized housing with Sacred Little in Northampton. They refer to their abode as "The Sanctuary." It is two-rooms, simply furnished, and where they practice a kind monastic way with rituals, spiritual disciplines, prayer, dietary disciplines, and meeting folks.

To my surprise, when they came up the stairs, Samana was walking unsteadily with a cane. He looked to be in pain..He was. Without me asking, he offered he'd been diagnosed with a degenerative and incurable disease which made it difficult to walk without a cane. Later, he would tell me he has learned to embrace the pain as a friend and teacher. To him, it is like embracing the suffering of all being.

Samana did most of the talking at our first meeting. Sacred Little would politely respond to questions, but it was clear he was her teacher and she was his disciple. In the midst of our conversation, he would often turn to her, and expound on a spiritual truth coming what from he or we were talking about. She would listen and smile quietly. Also, when he first spoke, it was with a north Jersey accent. It just didn't fit with my notion of what being a "monk." was supposed to sound like. When I think "monk," I don't think Jersey accent. Sacred Little  doesn't seem to make the distinction.

Samana is also a flute player. I knew he played flute because I'd seen an article a few years back in the Hampshire Gazette about him, his creativity, spirituality, and way of life.  Being from Jersey City he also knew jazz and, and was delighted Jim and I were jazz musicians. He knew the great players we knew.As it turns out, he's a self-taught flute player with a penchant for improvising. I have no idea whether he is any good.

So, last Friday night, he and Sacred Little came up the stairs again. The imagineGALLERY is open on the weekends. He said they wanted to know how I was doing. He said they often pray for me by simply saying my name. He inquired into the origin of our church's name imagine/Northampton, so I explained its origin and the meaning it has to our identity and work as Jesus-followers. Samana then began to explain his theology which is a blend of Buddhism with bits and pieces from all the world's major religions, Native American spirituality and shamanism. He a syncretist, blending all spiritual beliefs into something he refers to as Being. We are all connected and need to shed our religious distinctions. It's all the same no matter what you call it.We belong to each other and need to live that. Distinctions create needless separation in his mind. We are brethren.

He talks his belief in a very winsome and sincere manner. He and Sacred Little clearly desire to live a life of peace and love for their fellow human beings. They care for the poor, open the sanctuary to anyone, forgive those who mock them, and live simply without pretense. They practice daily the spiritual life they embrace.

Perhaps the most poignant moments of our conversation last Friday were when, before leaving, he asked if he could recite one of his poems to me. He called it Jesus Sang on the Way to the Cross. I have to say it was beautiful. Unexpectedly, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. It's obvious Samana knows the story and shows respect for it. The way he delivered his poem was evocative and with the rhythmic flow of a jazz musician. While I'm no expert, I was taken by his talent and his feeling. He meant it as a gift to me.

So here I am talking about someone I immediately didn't like, and learning to like him. We share some of the same values, but from a very different spiritual aperture.

Just before they left, they said goodbye and both bowed slowly to me. I was taken a back a bit. It felt really awkward  and unnecessary. i wasn't sure what to do. In my mind, I was going: "No, please don't do that. I am just a person like you. There is only One who deserves such obeisance." But, to them it was an expression of humility, affection and respect. I have to say I felt warmth toward them.

I'll end this by saying I hope our relationship will grow where I can begin to share my belief in Christ as the one true God, the One they so earnestly seek, but hold onto belief in a mish-mosh of spirituality. They are earnest, gentle, kind, and peaceful. I want so much to show them Jesus who loves them more than they can imagine right now.

Please pray I can do so with them. They are so close to the Kingdom. Maybe imagine will become their sanctuary on the way home. Make it so, Jesus.

This Saturday night we're going to the Quaker Meeting House to see Samana recite his poetry and improvise on his flute. If it's anything like I heard last Friday, it will be good.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Kingdom Does Work If It's Actually Tried.

For the last year, Tricia and I have had the blessing and privilege as counselors to walk alongside of a couple who worked through a very sad and painful situation many Christian couples have encountered. They had to trudge through considerable pain and anguish as they headed toward healing together. These folks have been dedicated to the cause Christ for decades, and the fruit they've produced shows the love they had for people. Yet one of them stumbled and very hard work had to be done. They never gave up.

Last night, Jim LaMontagne, Tricia and I got to be part of a celebration of restoration and healing for them in the community they serve. Grace abounded. Mature men and women gathered in solidarity and gratitude for all that Christ had done in their midst to overcome the satanic schemes aimed at this couple and the community. As we worshiped, gave testimony, cried and laughed together, heard a word from God, and gathered around our friends to pray for them, I was struck once again that when we as followers of Jesus actually live the way of the Kingdom with one another, healing, reconciliation and restoration is the outcome.

Putting in the hard work of forgiving and rebuilding relationships is daunting. Doing so means confronting aching fear, and working through deep hurt or betrayal. Trust has to be found and rebuilt. People have to feel safe that when the unthinkable happens and whole communities are effected, the necessary due diligence has been put forth for them to lower their guard. It's all a matter of integrity, faith and spiritual maturity.

These folks did it. It took a year, but they did it.

A sadder reality is, if we don't live the Kingdom way with one another, we easily apply the "one-strike-you're out" rule, especially with our leaders, but not exclusively so. It was in the church I first heard the phrase "we shoot our wounded." In my 25 years as a Christian counselor, I've seen the vile devastation wrought by utter meanness from one Christian toward another, usually with a head held high. Churches are filled with walking wounded. As my friend and imagine cohort Jim likes to say: "we become self-appointed fruit inspectors," always measuring our brethren by standards we can't or don't live ourselves. In those instances, we ignore the rule and way of the Kingdom by pursuing our own selfish inclinations. Friendships, marriages, families, and churches split over such selfishness.

But, last year and last night showed me how Christians should work through the unthinkable with one another. It wasn't perfect or pretty, but it was right.

Here's what I've learned about how the Kingdom actually works in such tough situations when folks actually step up and try hard:

You head full into the pain together.You make sure you have a firm grasp of the facts, not hearsay or self-righteous gossip. That takes time; the dust needs to settle for truth to appear. Ask lot's of questions. Keep your wits about you. Work to share honestly from the heart. Listen hard for the heart of the other, especially the one who has stumbled and is being mangled by shame, guilt, fear, regret, and even self-hatred. Listen well also to everyone drawn in and wounded by what happened. Pray for wisdom and choose to love all the time. Don't jump to conclusions. Persist toward healing and reconciling if the people involved open. Be patient because there will be frightfully high emotions, confusion, anger, and doubt peppered throughout the task. Look to make peace. If and when the matter is resolved, celebrate joyously, and refuse to let the adversary open up old wounds or resentments. It is finished. Keep it that way. You may also have to mourn the loss of brethren who refuse to walk in the Kingdom way because of what happened, even if it didn't happen directly to them. Human sin costs.

The Kingdom principles of grace, healing, reconciliation and restoration are not practiced enough. They are talked about, but when a bomb gets dropped in the middle of things, or people have to wade waist deep through a persisting and painful mess, many abandon the very hard task of living through them, and not giving up when the way is rough. Wisdom, graciousness, and courage disappear. We lose much when we allow that to happen. Moving on without making the effort God requires of us is actually falling backwards.into darkness. It's never worth it.

I've not always lived the Kingdom way in my relationships. In fact, I've failed more than once.Not proud of it. My spiritual immaturity has been a thief and a liar. I'm still growing in this regard. But I'll say with assurance, with grace and good-natured courage, and the Holy Spirit's patient reminding, I'll keep making progress. Last night reaffirmed for me the Kingdom way is the only way that brings real life and hope.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Equilibrium Irritants and Finding the Jesus Adventure.

Always around this time of year, I think about how we're doing with our stated mission to help people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine. We're four an a half years into this deal. So where should we be by now, compared to where we are? What are we getting right or doing pretty well in line with this mission? What are we more talking about doing than actually doing? Where are we building a head of steam, and where are we wandering in circles or just sitting self-absorbed? All good questions deserving some thought, I think.

At the end of last year, I began wondering about what I've noticed is a tendency for churches to gradually, after they've established their identity and culture as a community, to settle into a kind of equilibrium of "what we believe and how we do things around here." Whether their ecclesiology is "pre-packaged" as a particular flavor of Baptist, Episcopal or Presbyterian, etc., or a cobbled-together amalgam of the best of all current Christian missional paradigms, they operate from a particular theological, spiritual, and cultural vantage point which embody core values and practices from the most formal to the most relaxed, and everything in between.

It's how all organizations work for that matter unless there are forces which."irritate" the status quo.

More about that later. I need to first define equilibrium:  

"A body in equilibrium experiences no acceleration, and unless disturbed by an outside force, will remain in equilibrium indefinitely; any unchanging condition or state of a body, system, etc.; [it will] remain in stable equilibrium - small disturbances to the system [will] cause only a temporary change before it returns to its original state."
In other words, unless there is some type of regularly occurring, and systemic irritant, the group, team or organization gradually stabilizes into an ordered sleepwalk of benign spiritual inertia. In churches, "the way we've always done it," gradually calcifies into "the way we'll always do it." The only people who seem to mind are the pioneers, visionaries and creatives, (and we all know they're just crazy).

In turn, the church's spiritual life centers on Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, weekly Bible studies, ministry meetings, fellowship groups, and church programs, with an occasional missions trip rounding out the year. It all takes on a life of its on and will on into perpetuity.

Unless...the church embraces the unhinged idea that we're not here for ourselves, but mostly for them out there beyond our walls. You can call them unbelievers, "secular" people, the unregenerate, unsaved or that wonderfully warm term of endearment: pagans. No matter the term. If a church decides it needs to serve the surrounding community first and foremost, spiritual equilibrium is in serious jeopardy.

Here's why: if those folks "out there beyond our walls" show up and stick around, they create dis-equilibrium and sometimes "you think you're gonna go crazy" chaos. They are the "irritant" I'm referring to.They don't know our rules. They don't cherish our traditions. They haven't the correct language. They smoke to much, drink too much, and sometimes even smell. They challenge stuff in the Bible, and ask tough questions many believers have few answers for. They might be addicts, have a different take on sexual morals than we, use words we don't in front of each other, or they just aren't enamored with our particular brand of spiritual equilibrium. They can introduce a level of messy that scares or offends us, exposing our pride and intolerance just below the Sunday surface.

Reality is, we need their "messy" to actually be the church in the community (not the church in the church); the Kingdom in the world; the light in the darkness, and the hope in the blinded despair. We have to work hard at getting to know them, and love them more than our well-managed equilibrium. The Jesus adventure is most in their world, not in our sanctuaries.

Therefore, the church which resolutely turns in their direction, and heads courageously into their world more than it stays in its own, begins to overcome the spiritual numbing of equilibrium. The "irritant" ends up to be a gift freeing us from illusion and well-trod complacency. It stretches us because we can't rely on the comfortable familiar, the normal and the predictable. Broken people don't often "fix" that easily, and they need someone to patiently persevere genuinely. It's in the persevering with the broken the church comes to living/ALIVE. The "irritant" creates new spiritual maturing, grace abounds, love for strangers becomes less uncomfortable, and the way of Jesus comes to the fore as the way the church lives as the Church in the community.

Wouldn't that be something.

All blessing to the courageous champions and apostles of the missional, Kingdom way today!