There and Back

Along the dank stones lining the subterranean tunnel that

weeps with rancid moisture even in the dry season, he

walks, stooped over, shivering, not from chill but from

fear of unknown landings. Soft cries of creatures long

dead drift in the thick air, mixed with cries of earth

herself, enclosed, choked with men’s greed …

groaning, groaning, all creation groaning.

To brace himself against the fearful shivers, he

pulls layers of ragged coats about himself, and

hides frostbitten fingers against his skin. He has

been walking these underground tunnels for 

decades, living on rat meat and sipping the moisture from 

ceilings of rock, which smell less fetid. He has not seen

daylight since he was a boy hiding in the cornfields.

When was it that he heard the song, so sweet,

so ethereal, so unique, so deceiving? Evil muses, who,

unlike their siren sisters, lure with lies not truth. Like a

moth to flame, he trudges toward the music, only to

slip on ancient worn alga-coated stone and 

plummet untrammeled into lightless depths,

down, down, always falling, never ending

This pit has no bottom, no terminal. Alone and

sliding, ever slipping, uncontrollably down, to 

where manticore, leviathan, and basilisk

writhe in frozen chains of fire, snarling,

snapping at any who would slide past,

gobbling up all but the most slippery. He could

almost wish to end his misery in their guts.

He closed his eyes and was at once transported to

airless space where the eerie silence made him

yearn for the screams of the abyss. Drifting,

drifting, untethered, utterly alone, into

absolute blackness, rip in time, a hole in space,

from which not even gravity can escape, where

molecules fly apart and reconfigure as slime.

Into the black hole he plunged, yet strangely

still intact, able to gaze in horrifying wonder at

the blast furnaces on either side that coughed and

belched as they digested their prey, and seemed to

laugh with hideous glee as he flew by.

Thunderous roars seemed to yell,

“Soon we feast on you!”

Up ahead – a brilliant light, blinding, white with

blue tint, impossible to look at directly, when,

out from the light, a Figure, glorious, magnificent,

more terrifying than anything he had yet seen,

standing, blocking the way. Propelled at the 

speed of light, he shot towards the figure, when

all began to shift and swirl, a mosaic of colors

Now, he was tumbling over and over, softly,

gently, as a baker kneads the dough. A billion

billion planets sang a low whale song, vibrations

reverberating across space-time in a light-show of

whirling beauty. He was swimming along a

cosmic reef kissed by winged and finned

creatures each with multiple pastel heads.

The music of the spheres rose to a crescendo, and

almost sang, “Welcome, Welcome, Welcome!”

And then, all was still.

The blinding Figure disrobed the light and walked toward him,

Eyes moist and kind, as he, with tender caress, whispered,

“Son.” And, with a soft kiss, 

He was home by the hearth with a hot cup of ale and his dog at his feet.

An Audio Intro to Isaiah

Listening to the Trees

In spite of an early childhood living in a brick row house in a lower-class Baltimore neighborhood where life was filled with bus stops and crowded streets, I have always had a connection with nature. There were acres of woods nearby, long since cleared for shopping centers and a hospital. There, we ran, played, imagined, and climbed. There, on my own, I hunted snakes, toads, frogs, and salamanders that filled terrariums in my room.

I knew of no other children who had research scientist parents. From their labs, they brought home dissecting trays and instruments that I employed to study the inner workings of worms and amphibians. Employing a butterfly net at my grandmother’s house in a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland, I collected and mounted winged creatures and got not a few wasp stings. 

Avid birdwatchers and amateur historians, weekends were filled with trips to nature preserves, bird sanctuaries, and historic sites. When my father, a biological oceanographer, started teaching marine ecology at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, snorkeling expeditions, salt marsh and tidepool explorations filled those parts of the days when I wasn’t sailing with an old salt who once sailed the mail to the Elizabeth Islands in his catboat. 

All of that naturally carried into adulthood. We have lived all over – exploring Minnesota’s lakes and farmlands, the Colorado Rockies, the San Bernardino Mountains, Maui, and the shores of New England. 

Now that I’ve lived three score and ten, I am beginning to learn a deeper lesson. I am learning not only to observe, study, appreciate, and care for nature, but also to listen to her.

A physician can learn a great deal about a person by probing and testing. A spiritual director can know much more about that same person by deeply listening. So it is with the natural world, the cosmos, all of creation. I learn by observing and studying, by probing and questioning. 

I learn much more by listening. Like the Native people who were here long before my ancestors, I am learning that I am a part of nature. I am learning to sit under the massive oak and ask permission to enter her forest; to ask mother sea for permission to explore her edges; to stop and ask the honeybee for wisdom. Nature talks to us if we have ears to hear.

False Self?

I don’t care for the term “false self” – it sounds like something we need to get rid of. We all necessarily grow up with images of who we are. Those images are shaped first and foremost by the adults who cared for us as small children. They continue to be further shaped by culture, peers, extended family, teachers, coaches, and so on. These personas aren’t “false,” but they are closer to the surface than the true inner core of belovedness. The define us, but not completely. 

All of us have these personas. We define ourselves by gender, ethnicity, skills, careers, education, physical abilities, as belonging to a certain neighborhood or tribe. We are part of a story, shaped by our ancestors and our cultures, as well as by our genes.

There’s nothing wrong with that. My friend rightly sees himself as a Native American member of the Haudenosaunee nation with a deep love for nature and athletic prowess. That’s important. 

On the other hand, many of us grow up with personas that mask our true selves. We see ourselves as losers, failures, unlovable, fearful, timid, not good enough, super-saints, superior to others, alone, unlovable, lost, envious. Those personas need to be jettisoned. 

Deny yourself – I think Jesus means the egocentric self, those harmful personas, the superficial images we try so hard to maintain so others will accept us and so we can feel good about ourselves. 

The denial of the superficial or unhealthy personas feels like a pouring out. At first, the pouring out feels like loss, a death, a loss of identity, but it actually makes space to embrace the true self, which is who I am as defined by God. Whereas the false self is who I am as defined by others (especially parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, and peers) and myself, the true self is who I am in the innermost core of my being, engulfed and embraced by God. Following Jesus is the embracing of Truth, which leads to spiritual freedom. 

Through prayer, contemplation, meditative scripture reading, silence, solitude, long walks in nature, deep breathing, stillness, service to the poor, and through spiritual direction with a true elder, who we are truly created to be begins to open up, the positive personas are refined, and the harmful personas begin to fade away.

True Self

We are created in God’s image. But what does that mean? Some have argued that to be created in God’s image means we reflect something of God’s nature, like the ability to reason, the ability to develop culture or language, to create art and music, observe ourselves, or critically deduce conclusions. 

The problem with all those definitions is that they don’t apply to every person. The brain damaged person lies vegetative in a body that is breathing and with a heart that beats, but who is unable to reason, communicate, create, or observe. Is that person no longer in God’s image? If they were born brain damaged, were they never really human beings? Have they no dignity? Moreover, animals and trees communicate, apes display selflessness, and puppies are full of love.

Rather than define the imago Dei with attributes that some humans have and others do not, I prefer to define it as simply the ability to be loved by God. God loves all of creation – sea cucumbers, turtles, and willow trees. Perhaps I’m a speciesist, but it appears to me that God has a special love for humans. I say that because God became a human being, rather than a goldfish. Nevertheless, God cares deeply about goldfish and sparrows and mushrooms. It’s all good. It’s all beautiful.

God is love – perfect self-sacrificial cruciform love. God lavishes that perfect love unconditionally on everyone. Every part of creation reflects God’s love. 

Our true selves are who we are according to God. For all of us, that begins with Beloved. Every human being is beloved of God, deeply and unconditionally. Many of us affirm that truth but have a very hard time truly believing it. Voices within tell us we are only loved if we do good stuff, or reach some level of perfection. We’re reminded of our failings, faults, sins, of those we’ve hurt, of the times when we’ve been selfish and mean. At some level, we doubt we are lovable.

Your true self, the innermost you that God unconditionally loves and cherishes regardless of what you do or accomplish, is Beloved. In my experience, it takes years of contemplation, Lectio Divina, biblical meditation, prayer, silence, service to those Jesus called the least of his siblings (Matthew 25), and spiritual companionship with wise elders in the faith to begin to really believe that I am God’s beloved. 

My goal as a spiritual director and counselor is to deeply listen, pray for, unconditionally love, and walk with people as they slowly discover their belovedness. We’re all created in the image of God and beloved by God. 

Each of us is also an individual. Each of us is unique. It is that unique part that we’re referring to when we speak of finding your true path, growing into who you were meant to be. 

Finding your true path involves discovering the unique ways God created you, the unique gifts God has given you, and the unique bit of kingdom work God designed you for. That also takes a lot of prayer, contemplation, and guidance. And, it changes. Different seasons of your life open up different roles. It’s about the journey.

Wounded by Life

We all take hits as we go through life. Some of them are just par for the course. Illness, minor injuries, car needs a new transmission, expensive home repairs – that kind of thing. Shit happens. We learn to deal with it. We cope.

Other hurts come from our own poor choices. We make mistakes. We mess up. If we’re emotionally healthy and mature, we own our errors, face the consequences without blaming others, and take steps (maybe with the help of a coach or therapist) to repair, reconcile, learn from and do better.

Then there are the hurts from other people – jilted, cheated, abandoned, divorced, betrayed. We enter into the long, hard task of forgiving so that we can be free. 

I’ve written a lot on forgiveness and how to do it:

We get hurt by circumstances, by our own choices, and by the thoughtlessness of others. We can also be abused and hurt by systems and institutions. Those are often harder to deal with because we can’t attach a face to the abuse. 

When a woman cannot advance in top leadership because of a glass ceiling no one recognizes, she’s fighting systemic patriarchy. 

When Native or African American children have no access to nutritious food, safe housing, and quality education, they are crippled by systemic racism that dates back to the founding of the nation. 

When a man works for a corporation for 35 years and then is tossed aside with less than adequate pension and benefits, he’s being damaged by corporate greed. 

Religious institutional abuse may be the worst of all because religious institutions are where we’re supposed to find grace, acceptance, and salvation. When a clergyperson uses their position to sexually assault someone, they victim has been hurt not only by the perpetrator, but also by the institution that trained, ordained, and installed the perpetrator in that position of authority. Maybe the institution also protected the perpetrator, minimized the hurt, or denied it and sept it under the rug.

Racism, misogyny, nationalism, institutionalized religion, consumerism, toxic capitalism, and militarism consume multitudes. People are used, used up, and tossed out. Human beings created in the image of God are trampled underfoot. 

There is healing for all the hurts. Deep wounds take a long time to heal. We need the skills of soul doctors, spiritual guides, loving souls who can point us to the ultimate Healer.

Don’t Ignore the Past

I believe that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation and that old things have passed away and all things have been made new (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). I believe that there is no life so ruined it cannot be redeemed by the Spirit of God. There is no sin so great God won’t forgive it. 

Baptism symbolizes a cleansing, a death, a burial, and a resurrection. Our sins are washed away; off the table; gone. The old self died with Christ and is buried with Christ. We are connected to a new humanity as we rise with Christ.

However, ignoring the past is unwise. We are forgiven, true. Yes, we are new creations. We are also, all of us, the sum total of the experiences, influences, and genetics of our past. To one degree or another, we’ve all been wounded by life. We live in a fallen world. All of us grow up having developed an outer shell to protect us from the world. Those experiences, wounds, that shell of ours, needs to be explored, understood, learned from, and integrated into who we are. We need to enter the heart space of our true identity as beloved in Christ. We cannot do that without fully owning our past. If new creation in Christ is used to avoid working through the past, we will never enter into the newness of the gospel.

Spiritual formation, discipleship, is the process of being molded increasingly towards the image of Christ. We never fully arrive in this life. Perhaps the process goes on for eternity. Perhaps the journey rather than the destination is the point. Regardless, we all know that we are not suddenly zapped into perfection by our baptism. We are forgiven. We are new creations. We are justified. Now begins the process of sanctification, of formation. To be formed into the image of Christ requires deep digging into the past. Before we can do that effectively, we must know that we know at a heart level that we are unconditionally loved by God. 

There the journey begins.

That it? Seriously? Mark 16 audio

What is life?

What is life? The typical biological definition includes the ability to reproduce. We think of plants and animals. Yet stars also reproduce. They live and die, and when some of them die, they scatter the elements necessary for carbon-based life. We are literally made of stars. 

Our indigenous friends and ancestors were on to something. In some sense, the ocean is alive and breathing. Trees communicate via underground mycorrhizal networks. In some Aboriginal languages there are far more verbs than nouns because many of the things post-Enlightenment westerners consider to be inanimate objects (like the wind, forests, and streams) they think of as living. There is a sense in which the Spirit of the Creator pervades everything in the natural universe. That is not pantheism. Pantheism says that nature is God. God is in creation and also above, over, beyond creation. God is both in and outside space-time.

What is creation? All that there is. This universe. Multiverses if that’s the case. All of nature. And, the heavenly realm as well. God is there in it all. There is nowhere where God is not. God is omnipresent. If I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the earth, or dig down into hades, or rise up into the heavens, God is there. There is nowhere to escape God. 

That is bad news for the person who is greedily destroying the earth, oppressing fellow humans, spreading deadly conspiracies, or promoting white supremacy or religious nationalism. 

It’s wonderful news for those who care for creation, care for the sick, homeless, displaced, poor, and incarcerated. If the Creator is reflected in all of creation, I am obligated to care for creation. All of it. 

Life is the breath of God. 

simplistic binary thinking

In modern western thought, we often express ideas in terms of binary opposites. We Christians seem particularly susceptible. We like our world tidy and imagine that God is on our side.

Male/female. Black/white. Gay/straight. Saved/unsaved. Christian/unbeliever. Citizen/foreigner. Liberal/conservative. Conservation/economic progress. Jew/gentile. Patriot/traitor. Democrat/Republican. Abled/disabled. Heaven/hell. Right/wrong. Us/them. Good/evil. One side of the binary historically holds power. Patriarchy, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and antisemitism result. 

The gospel destroys all our divisions. All are loved equally. All are welcomed and accepted. All are gifted and important. The ground at the foot of the cross is flat. The universal church, the body of Christ on earth, is a multinational, multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic, inclusive group of people who have renounced other allegiances in order to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. 

Anything that disrupts that unity in creation is nullified by Jesus.

%d bloggers like this: