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This piece was originally published in the March 26, 2020 issue of the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor, and later posted on the First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud website.

The threat of COVID-19 has alerted our world to a new level of concern for physical health. Two weeks ago, we were being reminded to wash our hands frequently, avoid touching our faces, and to sneeze or cough into our elbows. This week we’re facing the prospect of being told to shelter-in-place, to stay in our homes aside from necessary medical and grocery trips, in order to further slow the spread of this insidious virus. As these warnings and protective measures have escalated, so have some of the things that most threaten our spiritual health. Fear and anxiety gnaw away at inner peace. Irritability grows within stir-crazy households. Despair looms as the economy crashes and the news describes the virus’s spread closer and closer to home. While the novel coronavirus poses a threat to our physical well-being, these spiritual viruses endanger our spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the source of abundant life (John 10:10) and that includes the antidotes to the very spiritual viruses I named above: hope, trust, and “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). But I’ve followed Jesus long enough to know that it takes intentionality to access those gifts. If hope, trust, and peace are the medicines for our sick hearts, then like any sick patient, we must intentionally take the medicines that the Great Physician gives us. But how do we receive hope and trust? How do we practice living in the peace that passes understanding and the faith that calms our fears?

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). This pattern, which Jesus repeated often in his ministry, shows us where to find rest, healing, and refreshment for our souls. Notice first that Jesus went alone to a deserted place. An ordinary day for Jesus was filled with interactions with other people. All day long he taught his disciples, healed those who came to him, and debated with religious leaders who criticized him. Before any of those interactions, he needed to be alone with God the Father, to hear the one voice that mattered more than any other.

Whether or not it’s possible for you to go physically to a deserted place, taking care of your soul requires time away from the voices that feed your fears and anxieties. You can go to a deserted place by taking a break from the news, putting down your phone, and turning off the television or radio. If other people live in your household, tell them you need a moment alone. If you can get outside, go for a walk and let God soothe your soul through the beauty of creation.

Once Jesus was in the deserted place, “there he prayed.” We often think of prayer as words we say to God, but prayer can also be the silence in which we listen for God’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). Both kinds of prayer are necessary for the health of our souls. Tell God what’s on your heart and mind, ask for what you need, and name other people who need healing, strength, and wisdom to make it through this time. Then rest in the silence and let God’s peace fill your heart. When anxious thoughts try to rush in and fill the silence, try using a simple prayer phrase like “Be still” or the name of Jesus to push away unwelcome thoughts.

After these times of solitary prayer Jesus always returned to his community of disciples. Sometimes they “hunted for him” telling him that, “Everyone is searching for you” (Mark 1:36). At other times, he sought them out, sharing the needs of his heart with them. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest and crucifixion, he told his disciples “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). Even Jesus shared the burdens of his heart with his friends and asked them to stay close. Like him, we can care for our souls by being honest about our emotions and needs. Tell others what you’re feeling so that you can “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Jesus came to save every part of us – mind, body, and soul – and he is just as concerned with calming our fears and giving us hope as he is with healing our sick bodies. When we seek him in prayer, rest silently in the grace of God’s presence, and balance solitude and community, our souls will exude his peace, even amid an anxious world.

The town where I live in Colorado sits on the edge of the plains at the foot of the mountains. To the west of us, Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker rise to elevations of 14,259’ and 13,911’ respectively. They are immense, immovable mountains that have given me new perspective on Psalm 125:1: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever.” Some days the view is crystal clear, free of any haze and without even a cloud touching the mountains. On other days I watch as storms encircle the peaks, covering them in snow and blotting out my view of them. These constantly changing scenes often remind me of Martin Laird’s words in Into the Silent Land, “The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. . . . When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion” (16).

Ocean of Light

Laird’s newest book continues to describe the landscape of the contemplative path, moving from mountains of stillness to an ocean of awareness. An Ocean of Light is the third book in Laird’s series on contemplative prayer, following Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. In An Ocean of Light, Laird builds on themes from his previous books, though he does so from different perspectives and in greater detail. Part I focuses on the illusion of God’s absence and the reality of God’s presence. Though we tend to assume God’s distance, and mistakenly think we can overcome such distance through effort or technique, Laird says,“God does not know how to be absent . . . The problem is that our vision is heavily lumbered, our minds deeply cluttered” (18-19).

In Part II, Laird describes how the decluttering of our minds moves a contemplative practitioner through states of reactive mindreceptive mind, eventually to luminous mind. Part III addresses depression in relation to contemplative practice and invites the reader to see depression as “the context for escaping the tyranny of an isolated self, as well as a solid base” that ties those suffering depression “to the wider community of those who suffer” (216-217). Laird writes with an intimate understanding of depression in Part III, suggesting a personal familiarity with such suffering that enables him to avoid any triteness or lack of empathy. Here, as with other states of mind described in the book, Laird leads as a guide who has come to know his territory through years of disciplined personal exploration.

By inserting third person narratives into otherwise abstract portions of the book, Laird invites the reader to walk alongside various characters through this landscape of the contemplative life. I was drawn in by the story of James, a character whom Laird uses to depict the reactive mind. Despite being fascinated with contemplative prayer and well-read on the subject, James, “has an arsenal of procrastination techniques to defend himself against doing what he desires most to do: to be still in the presence of the Lord (Ps 46:10).” From taking out the trash to cleaning the kitchen to reading text messages and checking Facebook at 5:30 in the morning, James “body-mind is a beehive of activity” preventing him from actually engaging the stillness he desires (64-65). Other characters bring different portions of Laird’s landscape to life: Millicent and Jonas catch glimpses of light amid depression. Evelyn shows us a life of active service carried along by the current of awareness.

Compared to one another, these stories illustrate the fruit of a disciplined practice of contemplative prayer: Where James’s ego interfered with his practice of prayer, Evelyn’s ego has become translucent. Tracing this path from a glacier on the mountain to a unitive sea, Laird writes:

The ‘Sun of Justice’ (Mal. 4:2) melts egoic ice into water, reactive ego into receptive ego, which now flows into a stream. In turn the stream flows into creeks, rivulets, each with ever more abundant communities of ecosystems, and then into the mighty river that seeks but one thing: ocean (113).

An Ocean of Light is a field guide for those who dare to explore the inner landscape of the contemplative life. May those who read it be blessed to discover the rivers of living water which flow from the heart (John 7:38).

This post originally appeared at the Englewood Review of Books. I’m grateful for their permission to repost it here. 

 

“Come, the Alone to the alone, because I am alone, as you see!” – from St. Symeon the New Theologian’s “Mystical Prayer” invoking the Holy Spirit –

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Solitude used to come easy to me. I’m enough of an introvert that even as a child I preferred spending hours staring at a world atlas to playing outside ot looking for new friends. When I went to seminary and started out in ministry, I was encouraged by mentors and professors to seek out solitude. By drawing close to God when alone, I was told, we experience healing from the wounds of ministry, freedom from the temptation to perpetually please people, and clarification of our vocation. Most importantly, solitude lets us attend to the still small voice of the One who loves us perfectly.

Years ago I found it easier to make space to be alone with the Alone. I had a group of friends who believed the same things and supported one another in taking regular retreats, sharing what we were learning about prayer, solitude, silence, and Sabbath. My stage in life back then gave me more freedom to practice Sabbath and take retreats. And then life happened.

Nearly one year into my second pastorate, I’m noticing that I have a new, less easy relationship with solitude. Several things have changed. I’ve been married for twelve years and have been a parent for four and a half of those years. I’ve become accustomed to having little to no solitude at home. Chatter, interruptions, crying, and laughter perforate any sense of continuity or concentration I could have at home. As any parent knows, this cacophony can be hilarious and joyful at one moment and agonizing at the next. This has been the new normal for a while, so long in fact that when I am given an afternoon at home alone my first impulse is to clean or do laundry or fix one of the dozen things on our list of projects. Hence the paucity of posts on this blog recently, and why I’ll finish this post after I install a new shower-head in our children’s bathroom. . . .

Several days later, I’m back. Another difference: While there’s less solitude at home now, I have more solitude at work than in recent years. I’m new enough in Berthoud that I’m not overwhelmed by relationships wherever I turn. This is great for being an introvert, but it’s not the same as solitude. In pastoral work it can actually produce a loneliness to which I’m unaccustomed. In Pittsburgh it seemed impossible for me to be lonely: I had a co-pastor, co-workers in my other jobs, a network of friends and colleagues, and of course my family. In Colorado, I’m a solo pastor, and while I’m slowly becoming friends with other local pastors, it’s quite different than when we all went to seminary together and ended up staying within a 15 mile radius. Perhaps this is why last week I went to a local pastor’s gathering and found myself uncharacteristically (and counter-productively) anxious for people to like me.  This happened only minutes after I told a friend on the phone that I don’t feel lonely here. Perhaps I’m wrong.

All of this – the clamor of home life, the incomplete solitude of work, and the anxious worry about what others think – all this means it’s time for a retreat to authentic solitude. So next week I’m going camping by myself. And I’m going camping in mountain and desert terrains because I need to let go for a few days. In the language of both the desert fathers and Ignatius of Loyola, I need to practice detachment.

Belden Lane argues that the characteristic detachment of desert spirituality owes in large degree to the terrain itself. But it’s not because the landscape is calm or soothing, or so beautiful that we forget about our other cares. It’s because the land itself doesn’t care about us. In Lane’s words, “We suppose arid and empty terrain to be naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation. But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn’t give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost infinite.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes  p. 187)Deserts and mountains and oceans remind us how small we are, how immense God is, and how little our petty distractions truly matter.

Every day in Berthoud, I look up at Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker (in the middle of the large picture above) and I marvel at their changing appearances. One day they’re covered in snow, the next day I see cracks opening up and gray rock exposed as the snow melts. One minute it’s clear and the peaks are completely visible. Soon clouds have blown in and appear to be dancing around and between the mountains. Sometimes they’re glowing from the sunrise, or backlit by a fiery sunset. All the worries and cares of daily life are like these changing conditions. The have subtle effects on the mountains, but little change actually happens. Erosion, rock-slides, avalanches, and other factors change mountains, but they take millennia to completely change a landscape.

That’s why Martin Laird, in his book Into the Silent Land, invites us identify with the mountains. God, through the Incarnation of the Son of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. When we detach from the world through contemplative prayer or other ascetic disciplines, we dive deeper into the center of our being where the unmovable God dwells. So Laird writes “The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. . . . . When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain” (p. 16). To put it in Biblical terms, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:1).

So, after a coaching visit to a new worshiping community in northeastern Wyoming this weekend, I’m going into solitude. I plan to spend a couple days in the Badlands of South Dakota and maybe in the Medicine Bow Wilderness of Wyoming. Then the plan (so I think) is to reenter the world gently, first by attending another retreat hosted by the Presbytery of Wyoming’s Sabbath Center with a few friends and colleagues. And then I’ll be home to family and church and life in the newest normal. Your prayers would be appreciated. I look forward to sharing both the fruit and the failures of this foray into solitude.

“Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.” – Carlen Maddux

a-path-revealed2016 was the first year in my ministry that I performed more funerals than weddings. I knew such a change would come when we left Pittsburgh to return to Colorado and serve where I now serve. Regarding the inevitable memorial services that come with serving an older congregation, another pastor told me, “That’s fertile ground.”

Fertile ground. That’s because death, illness, and other hardships can become catalysts for deeper relationships with God. Not all people accept them as such. But for those who do, the “desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus” (Isaiah 35:1b).  As Carlen Maddux put it in his book A Path Revealed (Paraclete Press 2016), “Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.”

A Path Revealed recounts the diagnosis of Maddux’s wife with Alzheimer’s disease, and the unlikely but very necessary spiritual journey which followed for Carlen. I read A Path Revealed this fall while also reading two other books that related to the spirituality of aging. In Pittsburgh I co-pastored a church plant made up of mostly Millennials. At the present time in Berthoud, I’m pastoring a traditional church with people who could be the parents or grandparents of my former congregants. Maddux’s journey, I learned, is not unlike the journeys of a few of the saints in our congregation here.

richinyearsenTaking another step to familiarize myself with the concerns congregational demographic, I invited them to study another book with me: Johann Christoph Arnold’s Rich in YearsLike other books by Arnold, Rich in Years  addresses difficult topics with remarkable simplicity.
Whether or not congregants agreed with Arnold, the book was a springboard for lively conversations about aging, death, nursing homes, assisted suicide, forgiveness, and other issues. The one portion of Rich in Years which garnered the most criticism, however, was the chapter on “Living with Dementia.” Arnold sought to focus on the a “positive aspect of the disease: the return to childlikeness” (p. 76). Influenced heavily by his namesake, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, Arnold encourages readers to consider sickness and suffering as opportunities for sanctification. Elsewhere he quotes Blumhardt:

When you suffer tribulation, keep in mind that you must do so in such a way that it is not just a victory for yourself but a victory over suffering in general. I have experienced this among epileptics, among the blind, the lame, and the deaf, and in general among the so-called incurably sick. I tell them: Be glad you are like this. Now bring something of Jesus’ death and his resurrection into your situation . . . Then you will help to gain a victory for the whole world.

Our book group found “Be glad that you are like this” to be insensitive and harsh advice. We didn’t argue with the idea that suffering can bring about our sanctification. But we were reluctant to rejoice in it, or to romanticize it in the way that some felt Arnold did.

solace-of-fierce-landscapesThe sanctifying power of suffering is treated with deeper empathy in both Maddux’s A Path Revealed and in Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. One part memoir of his mother’s final years with Alzheimer’s, one part academic history of desert spirituality, and one part travelogue, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is a rare book. Because Lane blends rather raw narrative of his own experiences of both suffering and contemplative prayer with a studied assessment of the writings of the saints on these topics, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes was the most compelling book of these three. While Maddux and Arnold present simpler visions of the journey through personal wastelands into deeper faith, Lane’s presentation is complex, nuanced, and still mysterious. While Arnold invites readers to encounter God in their suffering, and Maddux shared his personal experience of that encounter, Lane goes beyond those levels to thoroughly introduce the reader to the practice of contemplative prayer as the place of such encounter.

Different as these three books are, their commonalities have been instructive for me as I’ve started pastoring a congregation more well “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:7). Illness, death, grief, and other sufferings can be used for deepening our spiritual maturity and sanctity. Such growth requires a willingness to yield to God’s sovereignty and God’s purposes, to genuinely encounter God rather than trying to comprehend or control him. And the place to cultivate such submission is in the desert, whether figurative or literal. Silence, solitude, and desolate landscapes remind us of the grace that God is God and we are not.

Years ago I read Jürgen Moltmann’s memoir A Broad Place. The book was so titled because Moltmann likened his experience of new life after military service in WWII to the words of Psalm 18:19: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

Our experience of moving home to Colorado has likewise felt like being brought out into a broad place, and not only because the streets are wider and straighter than any in Pittsburgh. We loved (and very much miss) Pittsburgh, but our pace of life there left me feeling both wearied and claustrophobic. The pace of life here in Berthoud is more gradual and gentle. That’s partly because I am now serving an older congregation. But there’s more that makes this feel like a broad place.

There is something humbling about expanses of nature beyond our control – plains or oceans or mountains – reminding us how small we are. It’s easier to “Be still and know” that God is God and I am not when, instead of city traffic, I see this every morning:

Our last weeks in Pittsburgh are a blur befitting the frenetic pace of our life there: saying goodbyes to jobs and friends, preaching my final sermons at The Upper Room, shooting a video to promote a new seminary certificate program, moving out of our house, volunteering at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. On our last day in Pittsburgh, I left the New Wilmington Mission Conference, served communion at my best friend’s mother’s memorial service, drove my wife and daughters to the airport, picked up my father and began a three day cross-country drive through the broad place of middle America.

That drive through rolling Ohio hills to flat fields of corn and soybeans that lasted all the way to Kansas was healing for my soul. The Great Plains are full of space – space to breathe, to pray, to be still. I needed that drive to slow down, to catch my breath, and to prepare for a new life here in Colorado. 

In Fairview, Kansas, we stopped to see the church my great-grandfather pastored a hundred and ten years ago. 

James A. Hunsicker was born in Pennsylvania, but his pastorates moved further West with every new call. After several years in Kansas, Grandpa Hunsicker moved to Colorado to be a fruit rancher, teacher, and pastor. A few days after arriving in Berthoud, I took my oldest daughter to a family gathering at the church he founded in Eckert, Colorado. Seeing her in the portion of the church’s garden which commemorates their centennial anniversary, I couldn’t help but think that the Lord led our family out into a broad place generations ago, and now he’s led us along a similar path.

So what does life look like in this broad place? It’s not all empty space. Today I prepared to interview our church’s next secretary, visited two homebound members, and met with the mayor to ask how our church can seek the well-being of the whole town. Today was a full day, but it didn’t feel like I was striving or forcing anything. Another translation of Psalm 46:10 says, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” Such steadiness, peace, and trust is ideally possible in any context, but I’m finding it easier here, and I’m grateful to be entering a season of life where the Lord is letting us live in such a broad place. 

Starting Something NewBack in September, I listed seven books which contemplative church planters ought to read. Now I’m adding one more to the list.

I requested a review copy of Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream because the title resonates so well with our approach to developing new Christian communities. Planting a church is about listening to the Holy Spirit as God sends us out into mission. We can’t do such ministry faithful unless we’re attentive to God’s voice. Spiritual direction helps us learn to live with such attentiveness.

Starting Something New offers a taste of such direction for those who would read it as they participate in the formation of a new ministry. As Booram writes, “This book is intended to be a companion guide offering spiritual direction for those who are wondering if they have a God-given dream forming inside them but don’t know what to do with it” (p. 14).

Booram succeeds in providing such direction in many places, consistently relating the principles she describes to points in her own journey or to the stories of over a dozen other Christian leaders whom she interviewed for the book. Each chapter addresses a different stage in the birth and growth of an emerging ministry and is followed by questions for inward reflection. All of this is laced with generous amounts of cheerleading for those who may not have the courage to follow their dreams.

But how do we know our dreams are God-given? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Spirit and not just following our own desires? Booram offers some of her best advice in response to this question: “Pay attention to what you are praying. . . . Prayers related to God-inspired dreams seem to be irrepressible” (p. 36). Also, discern whether you are feeling “drawn” into this new life, or “driven.” A feeling of being driven is often more indicative of human ambition or temptation, while God often invites us into something new through visions to which we’re genuinely attracted or drawn (p. 115).

As a church planter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I recognized many of the dynamics Booram names: the time someone told me to plant a church and I responded with skepticism (p. 97), the ambivalence one might feel after a dream-deferred again becomes possible (p. 133), the challenge of adjusting to the “new normal” of life in this dream and developing rhythms to keep it sustainable (p. 163). I can see retrospectively how relevant this book is for church planters. What a gift it would have been to have it as a handbook seven years ago.

Read this slowly and reflectively. The stages of discernment and growth Booram describes can spread out over many years. Let this be one of many companions in discernment throughout the long and joyful journey of starting something new.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of Starting Something New so that I could write this review.

In early 2013, Dave Harrity came to Pittsburgh to lead a writing workshop at The Upper Room. I wrote after the workshop that those who attended “came expecting to write, but left seeing our whole neighborhood through a different lens.” Poetry can help us develop a vision for transfigured reality. Dave’s guidance that day did just that: by writing together we pulled back the veil and glimpsed in a new way what the Holy Spirit was doing among us.

00_CASCADE_TemplateNow Harrity has a new book of poetry out called These Intricacies.  In it, he gives us glimpses of latent glory in the hills of Kentucky, the mysteries and challenges of fatherhood, the passing of seasons, and the endeavors of prayer. Though he has playful moments, the collection is sobering. Harrity’s pictures of family relationships are mysterious and full of longing. Firearms appear dangerous and unpredictable. Prayer yields frustration and bewilderment.

Fitting of our present turn of seasons, Harrity returns often to the humbling effect of winter calling it “Proof positive / that all you make can’t be that important after all”. A spring snowstorm smothering newly blooming flowers is God’s “way to remind us / that death is just / another word for patience.” One hears in these words a reminder that “everything is vapor,” that we are quite small in comparison to the grandeur of creation and the mysteries of God’s schemes.

From this place of smallness, Harrity searches for signs or sounds of hope. Musing on the rock fences of Kentucky – first built by Irish immigrants and then by black slaves – “How does a wall get made into an altar?” Can something which seems to be a monument to violence or injustice be transfigured into something beautiful and holy? Like the imagined altar made of stones once handled by slaves, the glory here is potential, latent. Seeds of the new creation have been planted, but are not yet emerging, and hope still lies beneath the surface of ground. In theological terms, there’s no over-realized eschatology here.

By offering a sobering vision of reality, Harrity invites us to search for what is true, what endures, what truly matters. This is wisdom literature, an invitation to patience and slowness, an invitation to near-contentment. After many poems of prayerfully questioning God’s silence and seeming absence, Harrity offers an image of himself fishing with his father, “all right with saying nothing.” God’s silence may not yet have been broken, but a lakeside moment with a father reveals a relationship beyond words. This is wisdom: to search for communion in patient silence. The pieces collected in These Intricacies are poems to inspire that search.

Thank you to Cascade Books and Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing me with a review copy of These Intricacies so that I could write this review.