Friday, May 22, 2009

To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dreamworld.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (19)

There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life…. Life is traumatizing. Trauma hits and keeps on hitting. It is part of who we are. Our very personalities have self-traumatizing aspects.
Michael Eigen, Conversations with Michael Eigen (116, 131)

An inescapable sadness is part of the life of any reflective person, but it is only part – by no means all – of living.
Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (111)

In recent years, I have come to see more fully the tragic aspects of life – its difficulties, struggles, pain, how intertwined joy and sorrow are in life. Maybe it comes with nearing age 50, which I will reach in about a month. Maybe it comes with living – with experiencing disappointment, with on-going struggles within, with recognizing how agonizingly slow some needed change occurs in the world. Not long ago I was jotting down adjectives to describe some of the range of human experience, adjectives I would guess encompass something of the experience of many human beings: deep disappointment, extravagant ecstasy, heart-wrenching sorrow, heart-warming joy, sheer boredom, tediousness, merely miserable, crushing anguish, soul-stirring hope, live-giving love. The realization that has come with age is that we continue to know the wide-range of experiences. The difficult experiences don’t vanish.

So what do we do with all that? I have just begun reading Huston Smith’s recently published autobiography Tales of Wonder. Thus far it is a delight. He shares how he first met Aldous Huxley and how later he invited him to lecture at MIT. Huxley drew a large crowd, but confessed to Smith, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than Try to be a little kinder.” (46-47) Huxley was on to something. Jesus invited us to love. Paul wrote that among the fruits of the Spirit is kindness. Knowing life can be hurtful, traumatic, painful, disappointing as well as joyful, loving, hopeful makes me want to cultivate kindness and compassion. Somehow the life-long journey, sometimes struggle, to develop a compassionate heart, a deep soul, a kind spirit, a capacious mind seems worth it. If there is no trauma-free space in real life, "try to be a little kinder" seems good advice.

And so I seek to give birth to this person who can be kind and gentle and caring and loving and wise - seek to be transformed again and again by the Spirit of God into this kind of person.

What is keeping you from… living your life as though it were one painful beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy? (Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, sixth letter)

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, May 12, 2009


We are about a month into the 2009 baseball season. The Minnesota Twins are two games under .500 and three games out of the American League Central lead. Thus far, inconsistency in their pitching, starting pitching and relief pitching, seems to be the biggest problem. Still, they have been fun to watch and I watch a few innings when I can.

I am not sure what it is about baseball that draws me. Some find the game absolutely boring, but where they find boring I find an unforced rhythm of grace (stealing a phrase from Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11). I know many of the interesting comparisons between baseball and life – the fine balance between team and individual, getting a hit 4 times out of ten makes you a huge success, and some of the songs sung about baseball’s uniqueness – the obscure statistics, the only game played without a clock. There is something in all of this that attracts me to the game. More than that, however, there is in baseball a deep connection to my childhood and youth. Unless one’s childhood is completely marred by family violence and dysfunction, by poverty, by violence in the society in which one lives, there are probably some deep, loving connections with that time in our life that continue to tug at our souls. Baseball seems one of those for me. One great tragedy about family violence and dysfunction, grinding poverty, war-torn nations and violent neighborhoods is the lasting scars left on children, the loss to their souls.

I began collecting baseball cards when I was in grade school. I loved listening to the games on the radio. Baseball is a great game for radio, which may be why it is not as popular as it once was. Baseball is a game you can listen too when you cannot watch. I alphabetized my cards by teams, wrote up rosters for each team and played games with my cards. I was horrified by the barbarians who used their baseball cards to help their bicycles make noise – clipping a card onto part of the fender with a clothespin so the card caught in the bike spokes and made a quick tich-tich-tich sound. The only cards that should be used for such purposes were the checklists. Not even the most inept player for the Montreal Expos deserved such treatment.

Baseball was a game you could read about, too. One of the earliest purchased books in my personal library is a thin volume called “The Greatest in Baseball.” I probably bought it in the second grade, maybe third. My life-long love for reading has roots in my love of baseball. Thankfully my reading skills developed beyond my baseball skills.

John Updike, who died earlier this year, is one of the authors whose books line my shelves, rather like my baseball cards stacked in boxes – alphabetized by team and banded together. Updike was such a prolific author that two posthumous books are out within six months of his death – a book of poems last month and a book of stories in June. In the book of poems (Endpoint), one finds a poem entitled “Baseball.” Here is the first stanza:

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

Much earlier in his writing career, Updike wrote a famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” about Ted Williams last game and “the affair between Boston and Ted Williams… a marriage composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories.” Ever the word lover, Updike uses a strange noun in a footnote – Schlagballewusstein, which he renders baseball-consciousness. Updike’s Schlagballewusstein was a long-lived one. He writes in the Williams essay about following box scores as a boy in Pennsylvania, and his poem in Endpoint testifies to his interest in baseball to the end. Updike’s interests certainly spanned well beyond baseball, but baseball-consciousness remained a part of his self-consciousness for life. Maybe for him, too, baseball touched a part of the soul that belonged to the child.

“Baseball is a game of the long season,” Updike wrote in his essay. In that way, too, it is like life. In the long season of life, baseball and good books make wonderful companions.

With Faith and With Feathers,


My one moment on a major league field, 2004, throwing out a first pitch at a Twins Game

Monday, May 4, 2009


While busy, this past week was also rich. Wednesday and Thursday I attended the Spring Convocation at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, my seminary alma mater. I enjoyed seeing some former classmates, former teachers and other old friends and colleagues. The topic for the convocation was worship and Marty Haugen, a well-known and well-respected hymn writer, was a major presenter. I am still processing all that I took in over these couple of days.

One reason that I continue to process what I heard at UTS-TC was that I arrived home on Thursday afternoon and left Friday morning to be a leader at the Spring Spiritual Renewal Retreat for The United Methodist Women of Minnesota. I was warmly welcomed by the participants of this conference. They listened deeply as I shared insights on living the Sacred as Christians, and they offered probing and intelligent comments and questions. “Living the Sacred” was the retreat topic and I shared thoughts about “the Sacred” and about Christian spiritual practices using Scripture, poetry, stories and my own experience. One of the messages I wanted to convey is that whatever helps us get in touch with the God we know in Jesus Christ more deeply, and shapes our lives in the direction of love more profoundly, can be a spiritual discipline, can be a part of living the Sacred.

The women welcomed me not only as a presenter but also as a participant in the retreat, and their hospitality was gracious.

One retreat activity was walking the labyrinth by candle light. I have walked the labyrinth before and have always found it a meaningful exercise in spirituality. I have never before walked it by candlelight, or with such a large group. There were lessons to be learned that evening, new encounters with the Sacred to be made.

My first lesson for the evening came as I waited to enter the labyrinth. As my turn came near, I began to get a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the pit of my stomach. It reminded me of standing in line at Valley Fair and being next in line for the ride. Living the Sacred can be a wild ride sometimes - - - allowing oneself to be blown by the winds of the Spirit, dancing on those winds.

Lesson number two hit a couple of times during the walk. It arrived first in the form of a small kink in my back muscles – not overpowering but a little uncomfortable. Then hot wax from the candle I was holding dripped down through the paper and stung my hand as it hit it, before reforming a wax surface on a finger. The spiritual life is not pain free. The promise in living the Sacred is not an easy, pain-free life. In fact, when you choose to love, you open yourself to the possibility of more pain, because those you love may hurt or hurt you (think Roy Orbison, “Love Hurts”). The world you love will disappoint. The promise of the spiritual life is not a pain-free life, but fullness of life, a transformed life, a life where joy emerges even in difficult circumstances.

The third lesson arrived when I arrived for the second time in the center of the labyrinth. That’s not supposed to happen. I could tell myself that I messed up – “how do you screw up a labyrinth.” There is a part of me that goes there pretty quickly, being a perfectionist of sorts. But when I got to the center the second time, I laughed and was reminded that there is no single way to live the Sacred. You cannot screw up a labyrinth.

Finally, we get by with a little help from our friends (yes, there is a Beatles song!). The spiritual life is not intended to be lived alone, but in community. Most of us walking the labyrinth needed to be handed a second candle – I needed three! When I finished walking, though no instructions were given about this, I felt I wanted to stay and stand with those still walking – holding my candle as long as I could. I was early into the labyrinth, and others held their candles for me, I wanted to do the same. And when my third candle burned out, I still stayed.

Walking the labyrinth is a traditional discipline for living the Sacred, but like many encounters with the Sacred, one never knows just what the lessons might be this time around.

With Faith and With Feathers,