Maunday Thursday Spiritual Practice: Brokenness

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

Books:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee: Okay, this is not on my list of favorite light-reads. But George and Martha, in their bizarre, destructive relationship, are the ultimate marriage cautionary tale.

Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle: Marriage is seen as melody—not a falsely sweet tune, but one that plumbs disturbing depths while remaining true to the original composition. L’Engle ignores cultural marriage taboos and opens a window into her forty-year marriage from beginning to end.

Film:

A Beautiful Mind directed by Ron Howard: Promoted as the story of Nobel prizewinner John Naish, the film celebrates love’s power. Amazing as Naish’s determination and discipline is, his wife is the film’s hero. Can love do the impossible? A Beautiful Mind says YES!

The Emperor’s Club directed by Michael Hoffman: A quietly promoted and played film, I still think on Emperor’s Club years after viewing it. As a teacher and minister, it blew me apart: have I set my sights on a select few, blind to the needs and gifts of others?

Endurance Exercises:

Discernment Practice: Label a sheet of paper: “To What Am I Called?” List all the ministries in which you presently serve—within your church and without. (Anything we do can be ministry if, in the doing of it, we serve others and honor God.) Set aside your list for two or three days while you ponder the question. Cull from the list activities that take your energy from what God is calling you to do.

Dark Night Generosity: For your congregation, take on a simple project or create an artwork that shares what you are learning on your Dark-Night journey. You may choose to write a Bible study, create a banner, or plant a garden.

Music:

“Blackbird” by The Beatles: “Flying on broken wings”—who can live long in this world and not feel her heart rise at such words? Brokenness is its own beauty; less self-absorbed, more dependent on the grace of the wind, we fly freer.

Visual Art:

The Glass of Absinthe by Edgar Degas*: Ever felt more isolated in someone’s company than if you’d truly been alone? In this moment, Degas’s couple sits side by side in utter isolation.

The Dance by Henri Matisse*: Painted in vibrant colors, this canvas celebrates both individual—male and female, the stumbling and the graceful, the energetic and the lithe—and community. All clasp hands in a living, dancing circle.

* Find these artworks in your neighborhood or Internet library.

 

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Holy Week Spiritual Practice: Letting Go

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

Books:

Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle (anthology of A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters): Though marketed as “family values” reading, there’s more—much more—here. The heroes, including the supernatural ones, nestle into our souls; we grow to love them because somehow these people, these stories, are our people, our story.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis: Volumes One and Two of the Narnia Chronicles, these books attest to God’s love for, trust in, and dependence on children. Who would not trust their beloved son or daughter to Aslan’s care?

Film:

A River Runs Through It directed by Robert Redford: This simply beautiful movie closes with a sermon for all who love someone.

Fiddler on the Roof directed by Norman Jewison: A jovial Job figure, Tevye is losing his children and his home. He takes it all in stride until one event rocks his faith. Fiddler is proof that musicals need not be fluff.

Endurance Exercises:

Letters of Hope: Compose a letter expressing your best hopes for someone who walks with you through the Night. Either deliver the letter or offer it as an intercessory prayer.

Gethsemane Ponderings: After reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer, create a poem or artwork that expresses its message for your Dark-Night journey.

Into God’s Hands: Visualize a loved one for whom you have concern: holding a photo of the person may help. Then speak each concern aloud, followed by the words, “Into Your Hands.”

Music:

“Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon: “Life is just what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”—wise advice from father John Lennon to his son and good for us to remember in the Night.

“Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables by Alain Boublil and Claude‑Michael Schönberg: When Colm Wilkinson sings “Bring Him Home” (the Broadway album), it’s almost unbearable. His anguished prayer pleads with a desperation parents know well. In the 2013 film version of Les Mis, Hugh Jackman brings his own sense of beauty and pathos to the song.

Visual Art:

The Lost Sheep by Alfred Soord*: Most Good Shepherd depictions look like someone who wouldn’t last a day out of doors. But here is a determined, muscular shepherd with whom I can trust my lambs.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange*: Feel hopeless to protect your children? Lange’s photo mirrors our anguish even as it tears out our hearts.

* Find these artworks in your neighborhood or Internet library.

Holy Week Spiritual Practice: A Brilliant Darkness

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

 

Books:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein: It’s Tolkein—what can I say! I confess that I found the books wordy until I read them aloud to my daughter. Speaking the words, hearing them in the air—that’s what they deserve. I recommend reading Tolkein’s trilogy aloud at least once (though not in one sitting!). In both story and language, Tolkein’s epic washes our souls in majestic beauty.

Film:

The Lord of the Rings directed by Peter Jackson: Can anyone watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and doubt that film is art? Can we view these movies without wondering to what impossible but vital quest God might commission us—and who would be our faithful Sam? And could we, Gandalf-like, find ourselves one day transformed?

Endurance Exercises:

Silent Night Walk: While walking, open your soul and all your senses to the majesty and mystery of darkness.

Negative Space: In the spirit of Dionysius’s “ray of darkness,” create a drawing using negative space. Negative space simply means drawing the empty spaces around an object, rather than the object itself. Don’t worry about “being an artist.” Simply view the world in a new way.

Music:

“Not by Sight” by Petra: It has enough rock drive to push me along my daily walks and enough confident faith to challenge me to endure, for one more minute, this darkness. The beat grounds me, and the words stick around for the day.

“Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues: Is this great stuff, or what? Lush with imagery of darkness and light, the smooth and the rough, this music feels like the mysterious night.

~excerpted from When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Depression Danger

depressionI have depression. Severe at times. I share this because recently we’ve heard news stories in which persons with depression harmed others. A pilot crashed a passenger-filled plane into the Alps. A woman hanged herself in an elementary-school playground, potentially traumatizing students. A suicidal man crashed his car into another, killing himself and the other driver.

We might determine from such stories that all persons with depression pose a threat to others. We’d be wrong. It’s true: depression can skew thinking, but generally in self-torturing ways. Like those green gunky guys in the Mucinex commercials, Guilt, Shame, Dread, Worthlessness, and Despair arrive, toting luggage, intent on setting up a homestead in our souls.

Put another way, it’s like trying to keep our noses above frigid waters*. Makes it challenging to fry an egg, focus at a board meeting, and help with the kid’s homework while trying not to drown. I call depression an invisible disability, because the determination needed to keep on keeping on is not readily evident. But depression can be just as debilitating as any other bodily challenge.

And, far from seeking to harm others, it’s often the love of others that prods us out of bed in the morning when we want to pull the covers over our heads, assume a fetal position, and beg for the bliss of unconsciousness.

What do people with depression need?

  • First, not to be labeled by our depression: we are, each of us, individuals.
  • Second, not to be feared: we tend to accept blame that’s not ours anyway.
  • Third, to know we didn’t choose this. Depression can be caused by life experience, by temperament, by physiognomy, or by a combination of these. We choose to eat right, exercise, take medication as needed, get enough rest, and pray pray pray, but it’s no guarantee. We can still find ourselves near to drowning in depression’s chilled waters.
  • Fourth, have expectations of us. Creating, contributing, being depended on remind us that we’re valued and needed. And that keeps us keeping on.

The reprehensible choices of some persons who share a diagnosis does not define us all. Get to know us— each of us—as a unique person. Because for a person with depression, blame is toxic, but acceptance is balm.

* My book, When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion, provides further insight into depression, including its spiritual potential and how it differs from the dark night of the soul.

Jesus Is Come

Prepare

Jesus is come.

I saw her even before the season began

In the folksy yellow blossoms of a tulip gift.

 

Jesus is come.

I opened Skype one morning and there she was—

Struggling with grad school overload, hanging in.

 

Jesus is come.

He grinned at me, needing front teeth for Christmas:

The rest tarred and tangled. But how he grinned!

 

Jesus sang “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” with gusto if not with pitch,

And moments later swayed and gentled to “Silent Night.”

 

His child’s expectancy belied the violence that landed him in shelter;

Her shy teen smiled reached me behind locked gates.

 

Jesus sparked from yards seen from outer space

And pulled me close to feel His heart when the nightmares came.

 

I buttered her toast as she headed off to the work of need;

She paints magic to recoup.

 

Like me, Jesus has to eat, find shelter, balance work and refreshment.

 

I expect Jesus’ coming,

I open eyes wide,

strain ears for the sound of a distant motor,

sniff for change in the air.

 

I wait.

I am met.

 

But…no.

I’m not ready.

My house is a wreck.

I’m way too tired.

My relationships—muddled.

 

But Jesus is come

On the insistent dawn of this Christmas morn.

 

And I sit in mismatched jammies

Eyes wide, ears straining,

aching to touch the deep magic.

 

Jesus is come.

 

Here I am…

 

Easter Sunday

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Faith’s adventure can lead us into the deepest caverns of despair—into holes so deep and black we cannot even sense Jesus’ presence, into places so lost and dark we can find no way out. And that is when we stand quite still and say, “Here am I,” knowing that Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always” is not swayed by our perceptions. Then we begin to see a step on the path ahead—just one step, then another. And when we, at last, step once again, blinking into full sunlight, we are blinded by the sheer joy of it all. Never before were trees this green with spring sparkle! Never did the wind so fill our lungs with life! Never were we so eager to walk out into the vibrancy of it all! Easter has found us!

 
In the Night I felt I’d come to a standstill, but, in truth, God was moving me with more surety than my feeble steps could ever muster. God’s tunnel, God’s sidewalk, cannot fail. If we but hang on, God will take us through the Night straight into God’s heart. All we need do is climb aboard, plant our feet, and wait out the ride.

 

When God Walks Away excerpt

Good Friday

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases….—Isaiah 53:4

Amid the dead, dry jeers of the crowd and the hollow clank of Roman armor, we arrive.

Not this hill, Lord. Not this scene.

If I must look, I want to gaze up at Him from below as one of the crowd. Given the choice, I will join those shout “Crucify him!” only let me distance myself from His suffering. But God lifts me up until I hang eye to eye with Him—myself a thief suspended on a neighboring cross.

My Lord’s chest shudders with the agony of breath; a sluggish breeze stirs a tangle of hair not yet matted to His brow. Fresh rivulets of red pour from new wounds in His wrists. I smell the stench of cheap wine and the salt odor of dying sweat.

O God, I cannot bear it—how can I endure the sight of Your suffering?

“Do you love me?” Jesus’ eyes implore.

“Jesus, you know I love You.”

“Then stay.”

Is this, then, the price of love? I know instantly that it is.

 

When God Walks Away excerpt

 

Maunday Thursday

Book Cover

Book Cover

The night of Christ’s betrayal begins with an upper-room feast. Accompanied by the hollow clunk of pottery dishes stacked hurriedly for washing, and surrounded by the pungent odors of roasting lamb, bitter herbs, and baking bread, a covey of men look to their leader. One follower wonders when Jesus will make His move: Passover is a perfect occasion for rallying the crowds against Rome. Another one fantasizes about His position in the new regime. A third congratulates himself for being the first to recognize their rabbi as the Messiah. One man fingers the silver coins in His hip purse.

Jesus motions them to silence, then looks each one dead in the eye and says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I suffer.”

And so we return to the night of Christ’s betrayal. Sitting at table with the twelve, serving them His body and blood, Jesus knew their hearts. He knew Peter, all bluster and bragging, would deny him before Friday’s dawn. He knew Judas had already spun a web of intrigue that would trap and kill them both. Yet He said, “I have eagerly desired to celebrate this meal with you.” Jesus wanted these men with Him. Did they understand what was in His mind? No. But they could, even with their limitations, accompany Him. As a human, Jesus needed human touch. He asked them to wait in the garden, to keep vigil through the night. Not to leave Him alone.

I, too, knew the desolation of aloneness. While the Night’s agonies were upon me, I spoke to few people; its intimacy and mystery drove me to silence. But, in addition to my husband, David, I did share with two women, both skilled in spiritual direction. Responding to my expressions of loneliness and confusion, one of them said simply, “I’d say I was sorry if I didn’t know the result.” Her discerning response fortified my parched soul with a taste of hope.

 

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion excerpt

When God Walks Away—Exerpt

Dark Night Book Cover 4     Why Metaphor?

Like John’s “Dark Night” poem and commentary, When God Walks Away is replete with metaphor. Why? To answer that question, we’ll need to acquaint ourselves with a couple of terms. Among the tomes in a good theological library, you will find listings for “apophatic” and “kataphatic” theology. Kataphatic theology affirms what God is (God is the Good Shepherd, God is love). In contrast, apophatic theology posits that God is far beyond human conception, and is, therefore, best approached as mystery. We can only say God is more truth than I am capable of understanding, God is more love than any concept of love I can create. Any image of God we have is limiting and, to some degree, distorting.

The balanced faith life requires both. For instance, Jesus used imagery (kataphatic theology) to help His followers begin to understand the ways and character of God. He employed parables and spoke in metaphor. More to the point, Jesus was God with us; God whom people could touch and hear. On the other hand, Jesus often spoke in what sounds like riddles.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [i]

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” [ii]

We spend our lives pondering the meaning of such remarks. As Job discovered, God is beyond our comprehension. God responded to that suffering man’s questions from a whirlwind: as near as we can come to an apophatic image.

Scripture dances with both kataphatic and apophatic thought and, in this book, so shall we. Image is vital to belief: we must understand something of God to know what we are believing in. That’s why we need kataphatic imagery. Yet God does not always play by our rules. When God does not fix things according to our plan, we suffer a crisis of faith and feel like giving up on God. But something tells us there’s more to God than we’ve pictured. Maybe someday this side of physical death, we’ll make sense of it all, but maybe we won’t. Still, we choose to trust. That’s apophatic theology.

Metaphor helps us glean from both apophatic and kataphatic theology, because, through metaphor, what we experience directs our imaginations toward what is beyond us. [iii] Because metaphor both “is” and “is not” that which it represents, metaphor at once draws aspects of God closer for our inspection (kataphatic theology) while at the same time recognizing the beyondness of God (apophatic theology). For example, when we say, “God is Mother,” we indicate that in some ways God relates to us in what we understand as “mothering.” We recognize, however, that certain aspects of human mothering do not define God—for instance God is not limited to a single gender. Therefore, metaphor respects the mystery of God in ways direct explication of God’s attributes cannot. It is one of the great gifts of Christian mysticism. [iv]

 

[i] Matthew 10:34 NRSV.

[ii] John 9:39 NRSV.

[iii] “ . . . soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly . . . We achieve indirection by exploring that topic metaphorically, via a poem, a story, a piece of music, or a work of art that embodies it” (Palmer Wholeness 92-93).

[iv] A listing of terms used in this book may be found in Appendix E.

Dark Night Collage

Dark Night

Dark NIght: Mixed-Media Collage

The mixed-media collage’s overall design depicts the Dark Night’s cyclical nature: successive nights and dawns accompany our entire life’s journey. The waves illustrate our sense of drowning in God’s sovereignty. Menacing, cold figures emerge beneath these waves, enticing us to give in to despair: one such “un-god” is depression. But leaping, resurrected, from the waves are souls who have emerged from the Night golden and grateful—beacons to the sufferers below.

The background, though dark, is not hollow of color—hues interplay in every section, for the Night is many-shaded and filled with marvelous diversity. It is the darkness of mystery and wonder. Two roads lead upward from the bottom portion of the collage. The first, coming in from the lower left edge, is a moving sidewalk. The other, coming up from the bottom of the piece, is a vacant house. I explicate these images in When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion.

The egg-shaped white sepulcher, housing both Dark-Night tomb and Dark-Night flame, is the center of action. The repeat flame above the sepulcher depicts a purgative Dark Night that awaits the sufferer. The sufferer within feels herself alone, off-balance, and tormented. She fears she has become one with the menacing figures that torment her, but her darkness is just a shadow—could she but see the transformation occurring in her soul, she would realize a golden glow is beginning already to radiate through her. She is, even now, becoming one with the One who blessed her with the Night.