Henri Nouwen on Prayer as Surrender

Prayer is often considered a weakness, a support system, which is used when we can no longer help ourselves. But this is only true when the God of our prayers is created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns. When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on his terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer, therefore, is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many “safe” gods to the God whose love has no limits.

From Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 126

Advent Post #18

“My soul glorifies…” (Luke 1:46)

There is a load of material in this passage, Luke 1:46-56. A lot worth thinking through. Even more worth, simply, accepting and trying to live.

What stands out to me as I sit to write is the way these words lift up the simple human tendency to exalt some thing, to raise above oneself some deity, to worship and glorify some lord. I think Mary’s words are everybody’s words. Even if we don’t call our deity “God,” even if we’d never use the word “soul” in a sentence to describe anything other than music, we raise and exalt and glorify things.

It is often a subtle behavior, this lifting. But it is there. It’s in our schedules, in the company we keep or refuse to keep. This raising is in my own proclivity to draw and turn inward for strength when my best help comes from someone else.

Mary’s words are a kind corrective. She is not harsh here. After all, she’s singing. Her poetic lyrics themselves lift and inspire. “My soul glorifies.”

When I was a child, I sang with the Soul Children of Chicago. We would gather each week on Saturday mornings to rehearse. We’d study and, after warming up our vocal chords, practice our parts. We’d hear the band and combine with them to make music. We would sing. After a while, I’d come to expect my Saturdays to have a sound. Singing and Saturday went together. When I thought of the day, I’d think in musical terms. Singing was normal, natural.

Wednesdays became like Saturdays. During the summers and from the fall season and through the winter, we’d have the second rehearsal date and it would feel like we were filling our days and weeks with music. After a three-hour session on a Saturday morning, Wednesday night came quickly. Getting ready for a trip, practicing for a performance or a recording or a concert, my mind was given to music. My soul was too.

Those rehearsals and all those performances shaped me and my life. With all those other Soul Children, my soul was influenced, shaped, and made. I was made into a singer.

Come back to Mary’s words in her song. All those days she spent with Elizabeth impacted her. There was Mary with her kinswoman, being made into a mother. She watched this other mother through the last days of her gestation while awaiting the fulfillment of whatever God was doing. And Mary’s soul was influenced, shaped, and made. And in her words, her soul glorified.

Like the music we naturally made when we practiced first alto and second tenor, giving glory was what Mary naturally did. It wasn’t effortless. Any singer or poet or writer will tell you of the countless days behind a phrase, the long experiences underneath a line or flat or sharp. There was effort but there was also nature.

I wonder what my week would be like if I accepted that as fact. This is what my soul naturally does. Without toil, without increasing skill, without rigorous instruction or preparation or particular stress. There’s no sweat involved anymore, but nature. At this point, after these days, I commonly do this. I glorify.

So who will get my glory? Who will benefit or receive what I commonly do? What God will be for me a “Savior”? These feel like the pressing, relevant questions of the season.

Sunday Morning Reminders

The last two Sunday mornings a different person in our church has asked me prior to worship what was going to said about the Middle East (last Sunday) and what was going to said about Michael Brown (today).  Both those people approaching me before service have become reminders for me of several things I want to list in order to remember.  I’m grateful for Lara and Jeremy and my reflections are out of gratitude for them:

  1. The people of God (aka, the church) know what to say in worship.  The content of our faith, and the content of our liturgy, has never solely come from the recognized leaders of the faith.  I am comforted by this.  As the pastor, I’m not the only person with a facility for words about God in relation to human beings and human life.  God has gifted the people with the people.  And those lovely people have things to say about the world.  Pradeep reminded me of this even before Lara greeted me last week.
  2. What we do in worship is important for when we’re not in worship.  This comes out of something my member and friend, Nate, said.  Our worship connects to the lives we live when we’re not gathered with God’s people.  As James Smith says, our worship ends in mission.  The cyclic nature of mission, though, is that mission continues to feed and instruct our worship.  We live between Sundays, worshiping God and then, in a thousand ways, living for God.
  3. Our worship has to echo or reflect something about the world after the benediction.  If there is no connection, no reflection, then there is no real tangible reason for being a church that God continually sends into the world.  The end of a worship service is a recommissioning for all involved.  When we return the following week, we return with all that’s happened since last Sunday and we bring those events, those sorrows and joys, with us as worship, hear, and respond with others gathered.
  4. The prayers of God’s people are filled with news.  Daily news.  The news and the headlines of our times should become the words we pray, fill our throats when we sing about God’s future, and inspire us to live Spirit-empowered lives now.  The fact is our songs are all out-of-date.  They are not necessarily old though.  Our hymns and choruses are out of date in the sense that they anticipate a future that hasn’t fully come.  Those words match with the images of black hands uplifted before police holding guns–reminders from the 50s and 60s in the present–and they pull our hands upward in the direction of a God whose heart is still broken.
  5. Our words are the words of the oppressed, the marginalized, the disinherited, and the over-looked.  The truth of the disinherited is that they feel unheard and cast aside.  The truth of any good Christian faith is wrapped in the power of a God who reclaims, always holds close, and never abandons.  In other words, Christianity is an answer to the state of oppression, marginalization, and disinheritance.  That faith is a bottom-up reiteration of a deadly event where God abandoned God, upsetting all of created history and all of created future, and where God reset all things to move creation toward a better future.
  6. The hope of the church has to be proclaimed as an answer.  The hope of the world is in Christ; this is the news of the Christian faith, and that news is a long-told story.  When we proclaim the gospel in the midst of the world–be that gospel proclaimed in explicit or implicit ways, be it seen and experienced in the church’s rituals, be it lived in our lives–we are following Jesus who has always entered into our experience, checked our experience with God’s message for our time, and pointed us toward the hope of the ages.

Thank you Nate, Pradeep, Lara, and Jeremy.  You’ve led our church these weeks, even if you haven’t picked up the microphone.  Your leadership and service has filled me with thanksgiving.

Something I Read

I was researching a question for someone, and I came across this in my work: The struggles you probably face in living a life centered on God–while they may be new to you–are not new to humankind.

This feels to me like a very good reminder.  It’s an impressive statement because it speaks to my own inferior places, my own fears, and my own hardships.  But it’s equally impressive because it’s right.

What we’ve experienced as we’ve attempted our religious reaches toward God, our responses to the One who has always reached first, these experiences are common.  Humans have always sensed the Divine, and humans have always experienced that sense as inviting and terrifying, as worthy and hard, as beauty and horror.

It’s the origin of creativity and art and prayer and sex and sleep and addiction. At the bottom of us is the mixed experience of struggle and relief which responds to great love.  And our struggles are not new.  They’ve been lived through before.

May we take comfort in the stories of others who have been where we’re headed and who have left good instructions for the paths under our feet.

10 Reasons Why This Picture Pleases Me


Me & Bryce After Taize

Jon Roy commented on my wall that I must have been pleased by this picture.  I replied that he—a soon to be dad—would soon know the pleasures of which he speaks.  Then I figured it worthy of further reflection.  So here are ten reasons why this photo pleases me.

  1. The person taking the picture was Bryce’s pastor.  David had taken Bryce and Eliot up to the altar when we arrived, oriented them to the grand space, pointed out things, said things I couldn’t hear.  It was splendid to watch him being a father and pastor in that moment.
  2. Bryce got to sing.  It was melodious even if his voice was creating a song different from the one on the page.  He’s not reading music yet, but he’s definitely making his own.
  3. Bryce sat and played and sang and worshiped with his friend and cousin.  When we met for arepas that evening, before worship, the boys sang gleefully (or yelled), their characteristic greeting.  They’re friendship was on display and they got to participate in Taize together.
  4. We worshiped as a family.  For different reasons, I work in a different congregation than the one my family worships in.  It’s always always always a blessing to sit next to Dawn and Bryce, with all that it brings, and respond to God.
  5. Being there was an education.  We had seen one of my greatest teachers, Dr. Scottie May, who taught me the rudiments of what it means to form children faithfully.  Seeing her, and introducing her to my son for the first time, was a gift on many levels.
  6. We were with friends.  To speak of the Swansons as friends is a poor statement because it hardly reflects the deep reality of who they are.  We are relatives in the best sense; we’ve chosen to steadily cultivate an extended family with those good people for more than a dozen years.  I cannot say that about most people in my life.
  7. We had done something twelve times.  Maggie suggested last December that we attend to our joint relationship by getting together at least monthly, eating, talking, and playing, and the habit stuck.  We celebrated last night, against our nutty schedules, and decided that what we had done, in our homes and in other places was worth attempting again.
  8. No one was burned.  We lit candles together, us and our children, along with hundreds of others, and no one was hurt.  We lifted them together, singing about Christ the Light of the World.  Then we went in straight lines to dig our candles in pots of sand around a cross and icons of Jesus.  We almost set a woman’s butt on fire as we walked to the altar, but we made it without incident.
  9. Bryce—and Eliot—had spent 10 minutes in silence during Taize.  This is not something two and a half year olds and three and half year olds do as a matter of habit.  It was an accomplishment in itself.  But it also felt very much like the point of it all; there are reasons to close up, sit on a cold marble floor, and say nothing.  
  10. Walking Bryce to the altar was metaphorical.  The image and gesture of taking him, with our candles, and kneeling before the altar was memorable.  It was one of the moments where, upon reflection, I felt like I had done my duty as his father: ushering him to an ineffable something and letting him respond with awe and blazing eyes.

    Eliot & Bryce after Taize

    Eliot & Bryce after Taize

My Adorable Son, An Idol

Because this fits with my themes on this blog as well as my other one, I’m posting it here too.

As a clergy person I lead people in worship.  That means that I spend time with people, and while I’m with them, I point them to God.  I facilitate people’s encounters with the Divine.  I don’t create the encounters.  I don’t create the people.  I sometimes simply nudge people in a direction, or turn them around, or push them to keep listening or seeing or waiting until they notice Who was there but was, somehow, unseen.  You might say that I do this for a living.  In other words, when I’m with a person, a pair, or a group I’m asking the unrelenting question, how can I help this person encounter God so they can live?

What often comes with this occupation is an abiding question: what enables me to encounter God?  The other day I was thinking about why I wasn’t sleeping.  I was turning over in bed, trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t envy my wife or my son.  I was listening to them slumber, Dawn right next to me, Bryce in the other room.  Both of them were whispering little dreams to themselves, hardly moving, content.  I was, as I said, turning and trying to flip away from the little anger in me that comes with occasional insomnia.

It’s not insomnia, I tell people.  I can actually sleep.  It’s just that I can’t sleep like abnormal people, on command.  I sleep in a different time zone.  I sleep later, but I do sleep.  I can’t sleep like my wife or my brother, both of whom will enter into sleep 13 seconds after pulling a sheet over themselves.  I look at them and I wonder why they aren’t more normal.  Why don’t they fall asleep?  Why must they jump into it?

When I am not asleep, my head dances.  It doesn’t throb or ache, but it dances to the music of a thousand thoughts.  I think about a congregant and it gives me reason, again, to pray.  I think about class and whether I should just get up and read in preparation.  I think about the novel I’m currently reading, Donna Freitas’s The Survival Kit, which I greatly enjoy, about the book of Maya Angelou’s poems I’m slowing reading and some snatch of words it left me.  I think about one of my heroes in ministry, how he’s aging.  I think about what I’ll cook tomorrow with that roasted chicken and whether I’ll cook the potatoes with onions and asparagus or just with the onions.

On the pre-dawn morning in question, I got to remembering when my son was crying a few days before.  He has a tactic—I’m convinced that’s what it is—where he’ll whine, which I despise because it is a pernicious method in undoing me, and while whining he calls for his mother.  He’ll do this in a tone that makes me contemplate how quickly I can climb down from our balcony and onto a neighbor’s despite our sixth floor setting.  His voice, which isn’t a voice as much as a dismal sound in the distance just like the fire truck that kept sounding all night long that night prior and that I counted screaming four times from 6:55 to 7:23AM, his voice drones as he calls.

That day, last week, he called her as was normal and then he started into my title.  Daddy.  Daddy.  And like a dripping drain it came until I turned looking for a clue because I had already started failing at my dogged resistance of the boy.  I am really good at keeping the rules of our parenting pact.  We don’t go into him after he’s in bed.  But that week was a strange week for a lot of reasons.  And we caved.  Dawn mostly did, but I did too.  I had come home late two evenings, rather than one, and he hadn’t seen me.  He missed me.  Dawn said this to me.  I said this to me.  Bryce’s whine said this to me.

After it all was done, days later, there I was listening to those damn birds that sang all night long because they, too, were confused about the weather outside and about whether birds should be awake and singing from 2:30 to 5:30AM.  I didn’t know they were keeping me company.  It took the congested sound of the delivery truck, gurgling below at 7:35AM, for me to remember that earlier, melodious birdsong.  I lay there thinking about the way my heart jumped when the boy called for me.  I didn’t move as quickly as I wanted to, but I did want to.

It got me thinking that my son was in a dangerous position, a position anyone loved by another can be placed in.  Bryce was a potential idol.  He was a potential reason for getting up and doing.  He could become, I thought while fighting for sleep, the reason why I did what I did.  That little toddler, full of nonsensical noise and play and fun, could turn me away from the One for whom I’m spending my life.  I know it’s a slip of movement.  It’s a crazed thought, one that I’d probably only come to when I hadn’t been taken my some real night dream instead.  But it stayed with me, that thought.  It was like all those birds and that heaving meat truck and those red blaring engines from the night and the morning.  It didn’t leave me.