Risking Growth

Yesterday evening Dave and I attended the wedding of the daughter of friends of ours. It was lovely ceremony and celebration.

The officiant was a Presbyterian minister, whose address to the couple spoke beautifully of some of the gifts these two young people bring to their marriage, and the challenges they would face. But the line she spoke that kept coming back to me was a very simple one: She spoke of marriage as requiring a willingness to risk who you are for the sake of who you could become.

Isn’t that the risk we face in all change, in all opportunities for growth? Invitations to change, opportunities to grow, by definition, always require us to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become.

And that makes change and growth a bit frightening. Who we are is comfortable. Even when we are not fully satisfied with our situation, our environment, ourselves – we become accustomed to the situation we are in. Changing that seems unsettling. Even more so when things seem to be going well. Why upset the apple cart? Why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken?

But to fail to grow is to fail to thrive. It is to accept being less than our true selves. (To quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a human person fully alive.”)

To thrive, become fully alive, we need to step out of our comfort zone. We need to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become. Time and time again.


God Steps In

I love poetry and so am always happy to come across a poet whose work I have not seen before.

Yesterday, the Inward/Outward daily reflection that arrived in my mailbox had a poem by Dorothy Hunt titled Peace is This Moment Without Judgment. The poem rejects the things we think will bring peace, suggesting a very simple understanding of peace:

Peace is this moment without judgement.
That is all.

This moment in the heart-space where everything that is, is welcome.

Peace is this moment without thinking that it should be some other way
That you should feel some other thing
That your life should unfold according to your plans.

Drawn by the simple truth, I checked Hunt’s website. My reactions after reading several of her poems was “Why haven’t I read any of her work before?”

I was particularly drawn to a poem titled The Invitation. It reflects so well what has been my experience and that of many others: if you invite God in, God is not going to stop at the front parlor. Be prepared: if you say yes, God is coming all the way in, and that is going to be uncomfortable. (It will actually be really uncomfortable at times.)

The Invitation seems to me a perfect poem for a late Advent reflection.

When God comes in your house
it is only by your invitation,
but even your invitation is God’s,
for she has always been
landlady and tenant,
windows and walls,
the fire in your hearth
and the cold wind blowing at your door.

At first, her visits seem so welcome.
She brings tea and cookies and loves you
so sweetly inside your own heart.
You keep inviting her back
by your prayers and meditations,
imagining you’ve found the one you always wanted
who will hold you on her endless lap
and take away your pain forever.

But pretty soon, she starts arriving
unexpectedly, at odd hours of the day and night,
and every time she comes,
she takes something away–
a pretty picture here, a bookcase there,
maybe even some trash
you are happy to be rid of
in your basement.

But at some point, it occurs to you
she intends to move in completely.
And now the mind starts backing up:
“Perhaps you could come back another day,
after I’ve worked on my house,
after I’ve bought nicer furniture,
after I’ve finished my fight with evil,
after I’ve planted a peace garden.”

But you must know
that if you invite God in,
sooner or later she will set up house,
and when she does, beware;
for she tosses out every single thing
she does not need, which,
in the case of the personality,
is every single thing you thought you were.

Every thought and cherished belief
she just throws out on the garbage heap;
and that might be fine if she replaced them,
but she never replaces those sacred thoughts;
she utterly destroys them. She strips the coverings
off the walls, and peels the paper from the window glass,
opens the door to invite in the wind,
and every creature you wanted kept out.

Sometimes she cleans your house gently,
dismantling it room by room.
But often, she just comes in with a torch,
and you feel in your gut the fire burn
in the center of your separate comfort,
and you watch the contents of your house
melt and turn to ash,
and the roof blow off.

And just when you think
there is nothing more that she could take,
she opens the ground beneath
the barely intact shell of your house,
and all the levels of your being
fall into the space that has no name;
and you are left alone in all the world,
without a map, without a path, without a point of view.

And you know you are creator of your dreams,
your dreams of mountains and rivers,
calm seas and storm clouds,
crashes of lightning and spacecraft,
beautiful babies asleep at the breast,
joyful dancing and puppies at play,
Spring’s new blossoms,
and the threat of Winter’s war.

And at this point,
what you are inside your house
is simply What is looking out.
Nothing’s left but what is looking,
yet everything you see is you.
Now your life turns inside out.
Your body is the world of being
looking out of Just What Is.

And strange as it seems
to the mind of your memory,
you enjoy each dance of yourself,
even the pains you hoped to be rid of,
you experience fully without regret.
For everywhere your eye may look,
all it sees is infinite love
displaying itself in creation.

And just to be completely honest,
there are times you might be tempted
to rebuild your house of concepts,
for the mind just loves to think;
but the fire of Truth resides within you,
where it always lived before you knew,
and it keeps revealing moment to moment
what is false and what is true.

So what can be said about what happens
when God takes over her house?
She laughs and simply sips her tea,
washes her dishes and sleeps when it’s time,
then goes to find another house
where there has been an invitation,
an invitation to come in
from the deep, deep love of Herself.

Discrepancy Between the Harvest and the Number of Workers

In yesterday’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that ” the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”

I read a piece titled 80/20 rule written by Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in NYC, that shared these thoughts on Jesus’ words:

When we hear that the harvest is plenty and the workers are few, we can go “Duh,” and say we are familiar with the 80/20 rule. 80% of the people in just about any system are AWOL while 20% of the people are carrying double and triple burdens. We can say “Duh,” and continue to pragmatically, if cynically, assign the best jobs to the person who is already too busy to do them.

We could also say, Hmmm…what was Jesus trying to say here? Why are there so few workers working on the harvest? Is it because no one has invited them? Or because the talented hoard talent? Or the super- usy hoard power? What would unlock the door to more participation in communal life?

Leadership, the pundits say, is the art of maximizing people’s gifts while minimizing their liabilities. What if we had a goal of 30% as opposed to 20% participation and set out to invite people “in” instead of being cynically aware that they are “out?”

Sharper makes a really good point. It is so easy to keep giving things to the busy folk and simply lament that no one else is around to help bear the load. But we all need to ask ourselves what we are doing to invite others in. Do we actively look for ways to inolve others or simply assume we have to do it all ourselves.

Sharper points out that most people require invitation and mentoring. Jesus was the master of invitation. We would do well to emulate his mannter of bringing others in.

Finding God Off-Broadway

I just finished reading James Martin’s 2007 book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions. I have enjoyed and benefitted from every one of Martins’s books that I have read, and this one is no exception.

A Jesuit Off-Broadway is the enjoyable story of Martin’s six months with the LAByrinth Theater Company as they prepare for the production of the play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (which I wrote about here). More than that, though, it offers Martin’s insights on a number of issues of Christian faith and on Ignatian spirituality. I would have enjoyed it for the story telling alone, but found much to reflect on in his observations about faith, religion and human nature, and on what he learned from the actors and others with whom he was involved during this period.

One of the things I found illuminating was Martin’s discussion of the directing style of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who directed the play. Describing Hoffman’s penchant for offering a story from his own life to illustrate a thorny point, Martin talks about his realization that Hoffman “was providing something like contemporary parables for the cast.” He quotes Scripture scholar C.H. Dodd’s definition of a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” Parables, Martin explains, open the mind, inviting its hearers to a deeper level of understanding.

The operative word, for Martin, is “invite.” When he discussed his insight with Hoffman, Hoffman found Martin’s parable analogy apt, believing the personal anecdote had an ability to communicate more effectively than firm direction. Explaining why he tried to avoid being too specific in his direction, Hoffman explained, “You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise the person becomes for of empty shell, and they end up performing in a way that’s not at all, well, spiritual.”

Hoffman’s comments offer a way of thinking about Jesus’ approach with his disciples. As Martin explains

In a sense [Hoffman’s] approach mirrored the way Jesus preached. One of my theology professors said that apart from the initial calls of the apostles, which seem peremptory, brooking little dissent (“Follow me, he says to Peter), much of Jesus’ preaching involves inviting his listeners to consider something new (“Consider the lilies…”) Or, to use Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not to follow was the person’s own decisions.

I like the analogy. It does a nice job of combatting the image some people have of God as a kind of marionette master. God doesn’t compel our moves. God doesn’t spell out in detail everything we must do. Instead, God directs by invitation and suggestion and leaves it up to us what to do with that.

There is much else I liked about this book, which has wonderful discussions of despair, of sanctity, of poverty of spirit, and a lot more.

Come Back to Me, With All Your Heart

One of the songs I love that we hear often during Lent is Hosea, in which we sing words of God’s invitation to us to “Come back to me, with all your heart.”

The invitation to come back with all our heart is not always easy for us to fully accept. The next line of the song says, “don’t let fear keep us apart,” but I wonder whether it is always fear. To be sure, it requires an absence of fear, or at least a willingness to go forward in spite of fear, to completey drop the defenses between us and God. But it seems to me more is at play, something more akin to St. Augustine’s, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I want to come, Lord, but not really completely, not really with all my heart. Maybe only just a little bit or maybe a lot, but just not all the way. There are some things here I’d really rather not put aside for your sake.

I think part of the invitation of Lent, then, is to focus on what is it that makes it difficult for us to fully embrace God’s love, to fully respond to the invitation to come back with all of our heart. Where is our hesitation? What are we worried about giving up?

God is patient. He has waited a long time for us. And he’ll keep waiting for us to figure it out, and will be ready to welcome us with open arms when we do.

We sing God’s words in Hosea:
Long have I waited for
Your coming home to me
And living deeply our new life

An Invitation to Partnership in Creation

One of the things I brought home with me from my visit to New York this past week is a booklet of songs composed by my friend Frank some years ago. Looking through the booklet on my flight back to Minneapolis yesterday, I was struck by the introductory note he wrote to his songs. His approach to his composition was inspired by a note Liszt included on one of his pieces: “intelligent use of the pedal implied throughout,” a designation Frank characterized as “at once flattering, challenging, and inviting.”

In composing his own songs in this booklet, a copy of which he gave me to bring to my daughter, Frank noted that he omitted indications of tempo, dynamics and the like, leaving the notes “stark and uncluttered with interpretive demands.” Evoking Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, he wrote, “This is my outstretched hand, my invitation and wish that you become a partner in their creation.”

How very much like God with us, I thought as soon as I read the words. God doesn’t micromanage. God doesn’t give us a full set of detailed instructions that determine our every move. Instead, God gives us the broad strokes of what he would like from us, expecting “intelligent use” of the gifts he has given us, inviting each of us to “become a partner in…creation.”

That is not something everyone finds all that comfortable. Just as I’m sure some pianists would prefer that a composer tell them exactly what the phrasing and dynamics of a song should be, many people would prefer that God tell us exactly what it is God wants us to do in every situation so that we can simply follow his instructions. And I admit, I have found myself on occasion saying to God, “Just tell me what you want from me and I’ll do it.”

But what an invitation in the freedom we are given! God’s wish for us is “at once flattering, challenging and inviting.” And there is a risk in it to the creator. Frank takes the risk that some pianist will take his creation and play it in a way completely discordant with how he thinks it should be. Likewise does God take a risk. Like the pianists playing Frank’s songs, we at times may not do things exactly as God might have if he were making all the decisions without our participation. (And sometimes we mangle it quite badly.) Nonetheless, God says, be my partner in creation. Help determine what it will look like.

Frank ends his introductory note with an allusion to an old Zen proverb, likening musical notation to “a finger pointing at the moon,” suggesting that “[i]f you look, you may find flecks of light shimmering here and there, between and behind the ciphers and signposts in what follows.” God might say much the same – find those shimmering flecks and, with my guidance, my love and presence, make of them what you will.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living – God’s Invitation

This week was the second gathering of the four week Advent Retreat in Daily Living I’m giving at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our theme for this week is God’s Invitation. Although God constantly invites us in different ways to participate in the building of Kingdom, Advent offers a special opportunity to get in touch with that invitation.

After the participants spent some time sharing their prayer experiences of the past week, I gave a talk that focused on the invitations contained in our Advent scriptures (athough I confess I define Advent scriptures for this purpose a bit broadly) as a way to invite participants to start to access what is God’s invitation to each of them this Advent. I talked about God’s invitation to Isaiah and through Isaiah to the Israelite people), and God’s invitation to each of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist and the Magi and during the upcoming week the participants will pray with each of these figures.

You can find the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 23:12). The prayer material for this first week of the retreat, which I reference during the talk, can be found here.

The Shack

My friend Tim so strongly recommended that I read William Young’s novel, The Shack, that I moved it to the top of my reading list.  And I’m more than glad that I did.  The book is a work of fiction, but one that contains much truth.  I have no knowledge of the author except the knowledge I glean from reading the book, which is that this is someone who has had deep and direct experiences of God. 

A man who has suffered a great tragedy in his life is invited by God to spend a weekend with God (the Trinity, actually) at the site of the tragedy.  The weekend changes his life forever, as he learns the answer to what the book cover calls the timeless question: Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?  There are many pieces of the main character’s dialogues with God that I have sat with in my morning prayer these past few days.  I would love to see everyone read the book for him/herself and so am reluctant to share too many things about it.  But I have spent so much time reflecting on it that it is hard to say nothing.  (And I’m guessing this won’t be the only post that comes out of those reflections.)

One of the things that struck me so powerfully as I read the book was the expansiveness of God’s invitation and of God’s love.  Although we worship God as “Lord” and use terms like “Master,” the reality is that God does a lot more offering than demanding.  God offers relationship and God offers love – constantly and always – but it is for us to decide whether to accept it.  God will never force us to accept it; indeed, God will force nothing on us.  In the book, Jesus says, “To force my will on you, is exactly what love does not do…I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.”  Later, God says, “It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way.”

The invitation is on the table.  It always was.  It always will be.  It is for each of us to decide how to respond to it.

P.S.  I am aware that there has been some controversy about this book.  Let me be clear, I am not trying to suggest that one should uncritically take all of the dialogue attributed to God by the author as theological truth.  There is a discernment process that is necessary with everything we read.  Having said that, I do think there is much to reflect on here and there is much of what I read in the book that resonates with my own experience of God.


Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Jesus ascends Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John, “[A]nd he was transfigured befor them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light….[A]bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

An experience like this is not like watching a movie. It is not something you see and then walk away from, saying, “That was nice.” Rather, it is an intimate encounter that invites our transformation. The Magnificat introduction to the mass of the day calls Christ’s radiance at the Transfiguration “a kind of mirror in which we glimpse the glory that God wills to give his friends. The resplendence of the Transfiguration reveals the fullness of life destined to be ours. The Transfiguration invites us to configuration. As we peer into the glory that pours from every pore of the transfigured Christ, we cast off everything unworthy of our personal relationship with the Infinite, and we take on the luster of the Son of God….Silently, from Tabor’s splendor, the Savior begs: “Become what you behold.”

Become what you behold. The invitation is there. It is ours to accept.