An Ascetics of Love

Few things are more awe-inspiring than witnessing human beings in full possession of their craft.  A classically trained pianist, fingers flying across the keys… a professional athlete, effortlessly combining strength, speed, power, and balance… a public speaker, drawing the audience into an idea, taking them to places mentally and emotionally they’ve never been.

What is most important, however, is what is NOT seen.  The months and years spent training the fingers to do THIS and not THAT; the cold, dark mornings in the weight room or on the running track; the long nights spent reading and wrestling with new ideas, and then laboring – no, OBSESSING – over the particular turns of phrase that will help bring the idea to light.  Before the lights go on, there is quiet, private suffering.  A bleeding behind closed doors.

What fuels this willingness to suffer?  Only a fool would argue that the reason the musician, the athlete, the speaker bleeds they way they do is because of disdain for life, a hatred for joy and pleasure, a love of suffering for suffering’s sake.  The ascetic life at its best is never an end unto itself.

No – it is love that fuels the suffering and the sacrifice… it is desire.  It is a life-affirming “yes”.  A love for the craft, a joy in performing or bringing new ideas to bear on the world, a delight in those moments when the blood rushes through the veins a little faster, the heart beats a little harder.  It is not a repudiation, but a “yes” to the body, a “yes” to its abilities and potential, a “yes” to the moment at hand, a “yes” to humanity.  For the sake of giving voice to the deep “yes’s” of the heart, humans will endure all sorts of bodily discomforts.

It is an ascetics of love.

In like manner, at its best, the Christian ascetic tradition is about this.  THIS is the reason why we rise for prayer before the sun comes up, why we do without food for days on end, why we read and memorize Scripture, why we train ourselves in the arts of silence, solitude, and meditation, why we practice love, kindness, patience, and hospitality.

It is not for hatred of the body that we do these things, or a weak-hearted dismissal of joy and pleasure, a love of suffering for suffering’s sake.  No – it is love that fuels the suffering and the sacrifice… it is desire.  It is a life-affirming “yes” to life in the body, a “yes” that grows out of the soil of a deep awareness that the body is not bad but good, a temple that the Creator God has seen fit to make a home in and fill with glory through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a vessel that shall be raised in glory.  To know the body this way, in its glory and potential, is to find the energy to subject that selfsame body to all manner of self-chosen suffering… in order that the body itself may be raised to the heights for which the Creator intended it.

It is perhaps for this reason (aside from pure laziness–an affliction of saints from all generations), therefore, that modern Christians struggle with the ascetic tradition–for too long has our theology dismissed the body, denying the Incarnation in its practical consequences, and insisted that it is the disembodied “soul” or “spirit” that God cares for.

The fruit and the tree are one.  A theology of hatred for the body and the wasteful way most Christians treat life in the body are part of a unified whole–with disastrous consequences.

Words that Belong to Me

Not long ago I was preaching to a group of folks, and the experience was – well, less than what I would have hoped for.

That always bugs me.  I feel like my main contribution to the world is words.  And when that’s not working quite right, it drives me up the wall, and the endless analysis begins: Why did that happen?  Was it the content?  The people?  You?  Were you tired?  Emotionally drained?  Physically spent?  Is your creativity running short? Are you not attending well to the soil of your life?  All the questions…

On this particular occasion, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized exactly what had gone wrong.  I had told Mandi before we went to bed that for some reason I felt disconnected from my words.  Waking up several hours later, it dawned on me that I felt disconnected from my words because I was disconnected, emotionally and spiritually, from my words.

This can happen, in my experience, for a number of reasons.  It can happen because even though we knew we were supposed to emphasize THIS aspect of the text or teaching, out of some strange sense of obligation to bygone seminary professors, we emphasize THIS OTHER aspect, or a WHOLE BUNCH of aspects, leaving us with preaching that is driven by “oughts” rather than by holy fire.  It can also happen when we’re talking through a text and remember what so-and-so said about it and how they delivered it.  For some reason, when the moment came to talk about it, we felt like we were channeling so-and-so, and we feel fraudulent.  Other times it happens because we’re sharing something that AT ONE TIME was a container for holy fire for us–a story, an insight, whatever–and when we come to the moment we think we’ll recapture that moment… but what we wind up giving is an empty container that once held the fire, but no longer does.  And again, we feel fraudulent.

Preaching is a discipline that grows up out of the soil of a total life, and is intimately related to the NOW.  What is God doing in me NOW?  What is he saying to me NOW?  Where am I–ME, with all of my oddities and glories–in the story with God NOW?  What is he doing in this community NOW?  It is a discipline of the moment… of being able to capture a sense of the Qol Adonai, the voice of the Lord, for this moment.  It is NOT the communication of “timeless truths” or a simple exposition of “the meaning of the text”.  It is fresh bread, fresh fire, a fresh word.

As such, we preachers are required (and this would go for the poets and writers, singers and artists, and anyone else who spends their life trying to TELL the world something, trying to open up a window to another world) to live deeply connected to our hearts, for it is the place wherein the Spirit of God dwells to speak a fresh word to the world.  And to do that, to stay connected to our heart and the living voice of God resounding in it, in my experience, requires deep sacrifice.  It COSTS you something to live there.

My preaching is at its best, I think, when it is borne out of the struggle NOW to hear God and stay faithful to him in all of life, when it dwells at the intersection between Scripture, my story, my heart, and this moment with these people.  Preaching like that is costly.  But it is the only way a fresh word is heard.

In any event, after that ugly and disconnected experience, I wrote a little free-verse poetry (which I NEVER do) to summarize the lessons learned.  I share them with you–in particular, those of you who labor each week to see to it that among your people, the “word of the Lord” is not “rare”.

Blessings to you.

I’m old enough now

To know that the promise

“I’ll never do that again”

Has a shelf life.

Nevertheless, the bitter taste

in my mouth serves

As a sign.

You felt off, awkward, out of sorts

Because you WERE off, awkward,

Out of sorts.

More than that,

You committed the cardinal sin

Of your craft–

You spoke words that 

Weren’t yours.

There is a reason that

The bitter taste in your mouth

Tastes like something else you’ve

Known well in your life:

Lying, and well you know that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Speak your truth.

Tell the truth.  Be honest.

Forsake the duplicitous way.

And my God, if you can help it–

Don’t ever stand up in front of people

A stranger to your heart,

For you will always feel disconnected

From words that don’t emerge from

The Center that has come to

Dwell in you.

Stay rooted in your voice,

Your story, your history with God,

And all will be well.

He’s not asking you for much–

Loaves, fishes, words.

But at a minimum he is asking

That whatever it is you offer

Be completely and uniquely yours,

The gift acceptable according

To what one HAS, not according to

What one DOESN’T have,

And I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God

Burnt offerings that cost me nothing.

A New Center

With some of the fasting I’ve done this Lent (and in the previous few months), one of the things I’ve noticed is that, as my appetites quiet, my heart becomes lively, joyful, and far more attentive and aware to what’s happening around me (as opposed to my more or less “normal” state, which is simply trying to figure out how to satisfy my various cravings).

The Christian ascetic tradition aims at precisely this–the stilling and quieting of our “natural” appetites and passions so that a new awareness of the Spirit can emerge.  Thus we are trained to “live by the Spirit” rather than living by our peculiar and ever-changing wants, needs, and desires.

When I was a kid I heard a lot about this.  “Are you walking in the Spirit or walking in the flesh?” was the way it was usually put.  So often was this asked that I grew weary of any formulations to this effect.

But there is no escaping that, at its most basic, the idea is DEEPLY Pauline, perhaps even, I would argue, Johannine.  Paul claims that in baptism our “ego” has been set aside (I’m mashing together thoughts from Galatians and Romans here).  “Co-crucified-with-Christ” is the phrase he would use.  And the result ist hat a new foundational identity–the living Christ–has been given it.  The actualization of this reality, however, is not automatic: we must learn not to live not out of the ego, but “out of” the infinite resources of the living Christ, who is reigning in us through the Spirit of God.

Likewise, John has Jesus saying that he does nothing either FROM himself or FOR himself, but rather he does everything FROM the Father’s infinite resources and FOR the Father’s purposes.  Compelling thoughts.  The “setting aside” of the ego so that a new mode of being–the Risen Christ operating through the agency of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God–can emerge.

There is a danger here, though, in my experience, and it is the old danger of taking genuine Christianity and replacing it with a destructive dualistic, gnostic spirituality, where our “selves”–our unique loves, passions, wants, desires, makeup, history, voice, personality–is simply and utterly obliterated, and a new, far more “spiritual” existence emerges.  I think we’ve run into these people before–high-browed, superficially righteous, an air of sanctimoniousness, holier-than-thou’s who seem to walk on another plane of spirituality.

I don’t hear the New Testament, Paul and John in particular, advocating that.  The doctrine of the Incarnation forecloses that possibility to us.  Genuine Christian spirituality is always rooted in dirt–the peculiarities of lived existence: this place, this moment, these parents, these experiences, this personality.  The Creator of our material, lived existence, never ceases being the one who looks at it all and calls it “good.”

No–rather I think the New Testament advocates a view in which my SELF–who I am, what I love, how I’ve been formed–is not DONE AWAY with per se, but is “set aside”, “decentered”, and then “re-centered” (I’m indebted to Miroslav Volf for this idea) on the person of the Risen Christ.  Galatians 2:20 leaves no doubt.  The energy of the Risen Christ lights up my personality, and actually makes it brighter, better, and more coherent than it ever would have been living from its own resources.  I just can’t live from “Andrew”; I must live “from” or “out of” Christ.

Life lived out of the “ego”, life lived with “Andrew” as the center and foundation of his own existence seems to me to leave only two possibilities: either promotion, or protection.  Either I must continue to promote the needs, wants, desires, antagonisms, etc, of this particular “self”; OR, when I feel those things under threat, I must protect myself against those who would cut me off from the fulfillment of those desires.  Either way, genuine love is impossible.  But “Andrew” is set aside, decentered, recentered… then that is all unnecessary.  I can live from Christ, the “man for others.”

If I am making sense of all of this rightly, then the choice that is before me always is “Will you live from the Crucified-and-Resurrected One, or will you live from the smallness of your ego–its needs, wants, desires; its fears, failures, and hostilities?”  One existence is beautiful, sensitive to the needs and pains of others, and expansive.  The other is small, ugly, and self-contained.

Live Christ.  Live from the Spirit.

Spiritual discipline aims at this reality–the growth of Christ into the whole of my personality; a cultivated awareness of the Spirit who is over me, around me, in me–a new platform for being.

But it is more than that.  It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a habituation in the normal warp and woof of life.  It is not just about the private disciplines of prayer, silence, etc.  It is about the “public” discipline of learning to “walk in the Spirit”, a learning to LIVE with a deep God-awareness.  “I always do what I see my Father in heaven doing.”

“Aware.”  I keep using that word.  A watching.  An alertedness.  God is in this place, but this time I am aware of it.  Deeply aware of it.

How will I begin to live this?

Perhaps the secret is as simple as rising every morning, and each moment, saying “I take up my cross”–literally, I embrace again, this day, this moment, in this situation, the setting aside of “Andrew” as the principle of his own existence.  “Andrew” for the most part anyhow is a confused jumble of impulses and motives.  But Christ–he knows no confusion of motive.  He is all love.  In him and from him I live and move and have my being, and find that as my personality is increasingly situated on him, habituated INTO him, it turns round, and round, and round, till it comes right.

Exposing the core… making possible sorrow and joy

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” – Psalm 51

A broken spirit.  That moment when you finally come to grips with the ugliest truths about yourself, and it causes unspeakable pain and remorse.  You have no more defense.  Self-justification is over.  You collapse, inwardly and outwardly.  It is a “rock-bottom” moment.

The Church prays this Psalm regularly as a normal part of her liturgical life.  Apparently, this experience is to be part of the normal fabric and ecosystem of our faith.

I would certainly like it to be a more normal part of mine.  It occurs to me – I think that if I more often felt genuine sorrow, I would more often also feel genuine joy.  Our emotional being, after all, cannot be compartmentalized.  Each peculiarly human emotion is cut from the same cloth.  If I cut the nerve of sorrow, I will also, inevitably, and with horrific consequences, cut the nerve of joy.  For to cut the nerve of sorrow is to deliberately choose emotional blindness to the Good, and my distance from it.  If I do this, if I separate myself so thoroughly from the Good, how could I ever sing, shout, dance, rejoice?

I cannot.  And so it is that my spiritual life is often a shapeless gray.

I don’t want that.  I want sharp edges, bright colors of sorrow and joy… ruby reds of grief, sapphires of love, deep contrition and white-hot righteous indignation.  I want to wail from the pit of my stomach and love with every ounce of who I am.  I want to grieve with the grieved – REALLY feeling their pain – and then, from their sorrow summon within myself the energy and voice to denounce the powerful and self-satisfied, by whom they were aggrieved.

We are told that the work of the Spirit in us is to replace “the heart of stone” and turn it into a “heart of flesh” – that is, the dead, lifeless heart is replaced with a heart that is alive, and sensitive.  It is a heart that can feel.  It is a genuinely human heart, and only when the heart is alive can we really have a life.  IF that is true–that the Spirit has given this heart to me–then I think the quest is to figure out how to clear away the clutter, exposing the core, making possible both sorrow and joy.  Making genuine humanness possible.  Not in dull, shapeless grays.  But in straight lines, hard edges, and bright colors, bursting into the darkness from eternity.

Tips for Fasting, in Light of Lent

I’m doing a bit of fasting during Lent, along with several other Bloomers.  I am very much looking forward to what will occur in me (and us) through it.

Now fasting went on the shelf for me for a good long while.  Was great at it in my teens and early twenties, became very poor at it in my mid-late twenties, and have only recently (last six months or so) begun to reclaim it as a central and core spiritual discipline for me.

I know of no spiritual discipline more disruptive than fasting.  That is part of it’s power.  We realize our great emotional and psychological dependency on food, which opens us up to an experience of learning that it is possible, really possible, to not “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  That ushers us into a place of great stability and power.  It is no surprise that following Jesus’ fasting and temptation, he goes into Galilee “in the power of the Spirit”, making manifest the Kingdom of God (Lk 4:14).

As I have reclaimed the discipline over the past several months, I have found it to be profoundly catalytic in terms of personal transformation.  Moreover, perhaps coincidentally (though I think not), I have found my preaching to be richer, deeper, clearer, and more powerful on the weeks when I’ve fasted.  Fasting puts me in a different frame of mind and soul.  I am focused, and very sensitive to the Spirit, and to other people.  I am less prone to self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, and feel myself when I fast very rooted in a another reality.  My weakness becomes a source of great strength.  Literally.

Having said that, fasting (from food) requires a bit of practical know-how.  It can be as dreadful and awful as it is delightful.  Here are a few quick tips–things I’ve learned over the last six months or so that I’ve found really helpful.  If you’re doing any fasting for Lent, enjoy and share:

1) Don’t turn your fasting into a juice free-for-all.  One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made with fasting in years past is that, in the absence of food, I tried to fill my grumbling tummy with tasty liquids of various kinds–orange, apple, grape juice; regular milk, soy milk, almond milk; coffee, tea, carbonated beverages.  There have even been times I thought, “I bet I could get away with doing broths of various kinds.”  Not so.  Putting all that salt, sugar, caffeine, etc., into an empty stomach is a recipe for feeling like you want to die.  Now I’ll drink a little tiny bit of juice in the morning, and perhaps a bit of almond milk or something (just to keep a little protein in my body), but beyond that, it’s mostly water (more on that below).  What you need to be aware of here is where the impulse to drink lots of juice is coming from–namely, you’re trying to AVOID PAIN (which is counterintuitive to the discipline–more on THAT below as well).

2) Drink far more water than you think you need.  Surprisingly, you’ll tend to dehydrate during fasting.  And that dull, low-grade headache you feel can really make praying and thinking clearly a challenge.  So drink lots of water.  Since throwing plain ol’ water on an empty stomach can be really jarring, I suggest turning your water (whether hot, cold, or lukewarm) into lemon water, sometimes (but not always) sweetened up with a little honey.  If you keep a steady stream of that flowing into your body all day long, you’ll avoid dehydration and stay “regular” (we’re talking about our bowels here people).

3) Slow your schedule down.  Cut out unnecessary activities.  Create more space for (slow) reading, meditation, reflection, journaling, prayer.  You don’t have to cut ALL activities out.  Actually, I’ve found that if I keep a few activities rolling, it deepens the experience, since part of what fasting is trying to teach me is how to stay profoundly rooted in my inner communion with God EVEN WHEN involved deeply in the affairs of life.  So slow your schedule down, but don’t stop it.

4) Get more rest than you think you need.  Your body is operating on substantially fewer calories.  So take good care of it.  Try to sleep a little bit longer.  Sneak a nap here and there if you can.  Dial back all strenuous activity.  And for goodness sakes, DON’T EXERCISE.  I know you think you’ll look really great in the gym with some of that water weight stripped off, but trust me, this one’s gonna backfire on you.  Park your rear in a chair and read a book, man.

5) Stop rushing through it, and become friendly with your pain.  One of the hardest things to do, and conversely, one of the best things we can train ourselves to do, is learning to get “lost” in an activity.  Getting “lost” in an activity is the state of mind we get in when we’ve forgotten about time.  We are present in the moment.  Whether it be reading a book, exercising, listening to music, doing our work, spending time with friends… whatever – getting “lost” in what we’re doing is one of the most sublime experiences we human beings can have.  Sadly, when we fast, often we become fixated on the moment we break the fast.  And thus fasting becomes less transformative for us than it could be.

The way through this is by learning to get friendly with your pain.  When the feelings of physical emptiness rise, you can embrace them… it ACTUALLY IS possible to let your feelings of physical emptiness lead you into an experience of inner emptiedness (“poverty of spirit” might be one way to say it) before the Lord.  This is also why you shouldn’t fall into the trap of #1 above.  Don’t run from the discomfort.  Embrace it.  This is a principle that applies to transformation at every level of our existence, whether we’re talking about getting in better shape or coming into deeper conformity with the person of Christ–we have to learn to welcome pain, get friendly with it, and press through it to joy.  No transformation apart from that.

So that’s that.  Hope it’s helpful.  If you DO fast during Lent, I’d love to hear about your experience.



Ashes to Ashes… Into the Life

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Around the world today, from every denominational and theological stripe, Christians will gather in churches to smear ashes on their heads, remember the primal turn away from God that blighted us with mortality, and begin to turn their hearts back to God, yet again.  Lent is a season of repentance and a humbling of oneself par excellence.

My heart is hopeful this Lent.  I have been walking with Jesus since before I can remember.  A lifetime spent with him.  Saying the sinner’s prayer in children’s church and getting baptized when I was ten felt like – sorry if this offends anyone – a formality to me.  “He who has the Son has life” says one of Jesus’ best friends, John.  I have always sensed that I “had the Son”, or better – that the Son had me.

In my years of adoring God in the face of Christ, I have experienced much of God.  I have gotten lost in wonder and ecstasy with Him that no human being deserves to know.  I have “tasted and seen” that the Lord is good.  I have broken through to new and wondrous and interesting places with God… found my soul “tipped over” into Him in ways I did not know were possible… felt his life and energy course through my veins like electricity.

And yet…

On a morning like this, I am deeply aware that there is MORE.

Always more.  God, let us remember, is infinite.  He is an illimitable universe of goodness whose riches we will never fully know, a bottomless ocean of love and delight, the depths of Whom we will never fully plumb.  We take deep breaths and try to swim towards the bottom… but we don’t even get close.  He is endless.  Self-perpetuating radiant energy.  The king “eternal, immortal, invisible…” yes – and in Him we “live and move and have our being”; if we choose, with ever-greater intensity and vitality.

If the Church Mothers and Fathers are right, it is possible for human beings that have their lives so deeply caught up in the love and energy and mystery of the Triune God, that they themselves become positively radiant.  The Eastern Church would call it “theosis” – the Divine Life permeating the human life like fire permeates metal by heating it until it is red-hot.  I believe that they are right.  I believe it because I have experienced it… here and there… in moments… haltingly and hesitatingly at times… I have flown close to the Sun and felt its fire warming me to the core…

But I am, we are, usually content with too little.  Enough God to soothe the momentary existential ache so that I can get about my life again.  Then back it is to a malnourished existence.  Said C.S. Lewis so brilliantly:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.  – Weight of Glory

My God, give us an imagination of what a life inundated with You could be like, and then stoke the fires of desire for it.

Ash Wednesday signals a return.  But the return is not to drudgery or stale religiosity… no, no, no.  It is to Life.  Opening ourselves up to being permeated in new and fresh ways to the energy of the Triune God, being heated to the core by the “Sun of Righteousness.”

Joyfully, freely, full-heartedly, we come back to you, our Lord and God.  Wrap us up in Life again.



Only in leisure

Hurry is a great enemy of the spiritual life.

I know that I am approaching spiritual death when there are no non-purposive, non goal-oriented activities in my day.  When liesure is absent.  When I race through workouts, fail to really taste my food, am unmoved by the sight of a sunrise or sunset or, conversely, by human pain.  When I lose my ability to savor each word of the Sacred Text, or get lost in the Divine Presence.

It is then that I begin to lose touch with God, with the world around me, and with my own heart–my joys, my loves, my heartaches, my dreams, my hopes, my aspirations, my sense of what makes me “tick.”  Everything fades into a gray mist.

But we are called to “taste and see…”  Faith, like life… life, like faith… is sensate.  And senses dull when we live like addicts rather than like lovers.

Slowing down is a primary spiritual discipline.

I must slow down long enough to be able to drink in, really experience, the world around me.  I must see and really hear the images and sounds of my kids engaged in their endless play, and let my heart swell with gratitude that they are young enough to still crave my attention.  I must read the Bible with fresh eyes, each time like the first time, getting caught up in the peculiar glory and wonder of this odd and beautiful text.  I must focus my heart on tasting each moment of communion with the Divine Presence… open my eyes wide enough, staring long enough, to have my breath taken away by the sight of the sunrise… the brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, painted across the sky, bellowing the Glory.  I must savor each morsel of food, drink my beer like each one was the first and possibly the last, pray each word like a shoot slowly growing out of the soil of Infinite Concern, kiss my wife as though eternity hung on the moment, as though Time itself had ceased her endless race, sun standing still.

Only then will I find myself coming into harmony with the song and dance all around me, the energy coming not from within but from without, my “self” merely caught up in the celebration.

Only in leisure will my soul come alive.