Learning to Dance

Explorations in the Spiritual Life

Category: morning (page 1 of 21)

Pa rum pum pum pum

It’s a cold, overcast day, a tiny sliver of blue sky off to the west, but the rest of the sky is gray.  Forty two degrees, just a tiny breeze, just enough to shake the now brown lingering leaves on the bare branches.

I stand outside for brief moment, to take the scene in but nothing really pulls me outdoors. The busyness of a suburb during the week is just enough noise and activity to pull my thoughts from running free as I stare at trees and birds. Oliver joined me outside, a crabby boy indoors, he seemed delighted to look around with me. Cars passing by, trucks and planes off in the distance making noise–it’s trash and recycling day–but we talked about birds, and that tree over there, and how it’s hard for people to fly.  He also realized he needed some socks, so ran inside to get some before coming right back.

We live near the edge of the city, so not in the middle of the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet it’s a consistently active street, a minor thoroughfare through the housing developments, one of the few that get a person from the main street to the upper neighborhoods.

I miss being able to sit outside and hear the wind in the trees without hearing or smelling the cars going by.  My discontent stirs as I wish to be where I’m not and wish for a place I don’t have, a place with a quiet getaway from the frenzy, a place with trees, and birds, and animals to get to know, and maybe a creek.  I pray for that place, but I don’t know if I’ll get there.

That’s one of those persistent conflicts for me, realizing I’m about as introverted as they come, surprisingly sensitive to noises, and come from many generations of folks who kept coming West to work the land.  My genes have combined over the generations to yearn for a lot of space away from the crowds.  I want that to be the song I sing.

But my rhythms haven’t led that way, and so I seem to constantly be in battle with where I’m at versus where I want to be, and realizing (in my quiet moments) that I’m at where God wants me to be, and so it’s not just an issue of aesthetics, it’s an issue of obedience and faith.  God made me one way, I realize in my more frustrated moments, to not fit in with those places I seem to be the most. This underlying tension of my rhythm not matching the rhythms around me, dissonance and missed beats resulting.  When I want to clap on my 2 and 4, I end up clapping in the world’s 1 1/4 and 3 1/4.

When should I clap? My tendency is to stop clapping altogether.  To feel the strain and stress and do that which manages my stress, which is generally retreating to solitude.  But that’s not my calling in this season either. I’m called to more hospitality.

The tension builds.  And when I move around, exist in the everchanging seasons of different uncertainties, I never quite get a rhythm of the place I’m in, and lose my sense of self.  I leave behind hobbies, and rejuvenating places, as the busyness abounds. So, struggle getting reset.

It’s all part of this whirling, swirling. Which sounds much more dramatic than it is. I’m gazing deep into my inner being right now, and trying to discern what leads to the outward discontent and diminishing enthusiasm.

All of this speaks to how I’m securing my being, how much I’m existing as a participant in the Kingdom versus other systems of value.  I think that if I truly was oriented wholly in the Kingdom, I’d find a consistency and enthusiasm uninfluenced by circumstances.

That’s the challenge as I face a year of more busyness and possible upheaval.  Stop blaming, start being.  Because there’s always something, whether in lack or in success, there will always be something to try to pull me away from my true self.  I have to find the rhythm of the kingdom, and offer myself in that rhythm. That is the point at which I’ll really be worshiping in full and really living as my true self.

Tidal Life

I didn’t know anything about Sacramento before moving here in August 2015. Well, I knew it was the state capital. And I knew it was a little less than halfway to Portland, situated on the 5, so made for a sense of accomplishment when driving south to north and north to south.

I didn’t know it made an attempt at seasons. Southern California hardly even tries. The trees, some of them, change color, but not always when you’d expect and sometimes at different times of the year. It got more consistently cooler but never quite cold in winter. There’s reasons why they haven’t written about SoCal Christmases. “I’m Dreaming of a Seventy Degree Sunny Christmas” doesn’t have the same romance to it.

Sacramento doesn’t get cold, though snow and cold is within reach in the mountains (about ninety minutes away), but it does get cooler. The trees turn colors, leaves are everywhere for about a month, and it gets foggy and stormy. Or at least it should. It has gotten cooler, lows in the upper 30s and highs in the low 60s today, but that’s a lot warmer than it has been the last couple of years where it seemed to get up to the 30s during the days in December. I remember because it gave me the rare chance to wear my winter coats.

The past two years, I would sometimes walk to work, which was about a mile south of my house. About half of it was through a curiously shaped park, and another 1/3 involved walking along a drainage canal. Which doesn’t sound very inviting (a river like runoff from farms to the north), but it has a nice walking path and I would regularly see geese and wading birds like egrets and herons.

It was also a daily way to stay connected to the world around me, noticing the trees, the quail, the jack rabbits, the bees that picked one tree to buzz about in but wasn’t where they lived, and all sorts of other moments of minor wonder. I also got a daily bit of sunshine, good for my being in all kinds of ways.

That office shut down entirely in August. So, I’ve not had my destination driven walk to and fro, and I’ve not had my daily interaction with Natomas (our neighborhood in Sacramento). It was another loss among the losses that drove a sadness deep into my core, and which I’m trying to find my way out of without, and this is the key bit, having a replacement or transformation. The loss just sits with me each day. The could-have-beens, the what-was-this-fors, the what’s-nexts, all the needling quibbles of being where I was sent but then the reasons for being sent pulled out just as we got here.

And that’s the driving frustration in my heart. Because that’s a common theme in my life. Sent but not settled, neither here nor there, always in between, a sunset without the glow, a sunrising into an overcast day. That’s not me being negative. That’s my experiences, in which God has certainly worked, but has left me with a deep sense of always being an outsider, always a wanderer. I’ve not had a settled place since we moved from San Dimas in 1983.

Some of that has been disasters happen in my family–loss of homes, etc. and so on. Some of it has been my choices, initiated with hope and purpose, but then leaving me feeling alone and stranded. I’ve sought to follow God’s leading all along, and I feel like I’ve been in a wilderness for the last 34 years. Disaster and un-chosen change always around the corner, attempts to gain a foothold beginning well, then slipping, falling.

Which raises the important question, am I just a silly sinner? That’s what I was told when I was dealing with a lot of depression in college. It’s not untrue, that’s the problem. But I don’t get a sense that this is all a lot of trickery and punishment.

A good navigating rule in theology is that God is not a trickster. He’s complicated, to be sure, but he’s not a trickster.

And that means in this present reality, where I have a job but don’t have a job, where I have a home, but don’t have a home, everything loosely given and loosely held and even if there are answers ahead they likely involve radical changes, and yet more transitions.

I’m weary of going but never arriving.

Which brings me to my current immpasse. I can’t keep going in the way I’ve been going. I’m exhausted and discouraged and frustrated. It has led to my loss of focus and struggle to hold onto hope.

Which isn’t me talking about of depression. This is me diagnosing my inner reality. Because I’m trying not to choose depression. I’m wanting to move forward. But there’s no forward, even in the answers, there’s only this driving, swirling, experience of upheaval that lifts me up in its winds and drops me back down from its heights. And that’s just how life seems to be and how it will be, at least for the foreseeable future.

The challenge, and this is what I woke up to this morning at 3:45 thinking, is not to somehow abandon the calling (because I think God has called me out and up) or to embrace despair, both of which whisper and tempt me these days. The challenge is to reconceive (again) my purpose in all of this. Did I get a PhD so that I could find honor in the academy? Did I get a PhD in theology so that I could get social respect? No. I got a PhD in theology because that was the door that opened in light of my lifelong pursuits of seeking God in the midst of disorienting challenges. I stopped and faced that crashing wave, which crashed over me, and gave me, apparently, thoughtful things to say that I wrote in a couple books and that got me a fully paid fellowship.

I didn’t pay for my PhD. All my debt comes from what came before. So why is my heart so heavy in me as I face a future where I wonder if my PhD in theology was worth the struggle?

The struggle is that I want to have a house, and pay for food, and provide my kids with the kind of settled life that I never seemed to have. Do I trust God to provide for that?

The struggle is that I felt like I’ve followed God’s calling in going to Wheaton and then Fuller and then Fuller again. Did God trick me? Is there even a God? (Ah, there a whispering woe sneaks up behind me!)

Why did I do that which I did? Where do I seek value?

I ask this now, when my future is undetermined (at least for me). I don’t know what I will be doing next year or where. I may very well be still in academia, teaching and researching (and oh how I yearn for more of the latter finally). After teaching 10 different courses in the last 3 years, I look ahead to only having classes I’ve taught before and the dream of writing a lot gets me exited. But if that doesn’t work out, if I don’t get a full time position in academia–and I don’t have any offers right now for that–will I abandon hope and fall into frustration

Why did I do that which I did? Why do I do that which I am now doing?

That’s the fundamental question. Because if I can find my way to saying–really saying, authentically, wholly saying–I do it all for the sake of God, come what may, I think that is the place of substantive peace. If I stay in academia, then I can navigate that world while being driven by God’s leading, rather than the honors and values the academic system uses to co-opt theology. I can participate in that world without being defined by that world, and I’m pretty sure that is how to actually become a real person in that world. I can be free in teaching and writing and creative exploration because i’m not always second guessing. And if I don’t get that chance, if the door closes, if I can find that peace of value in God’s kingdom, then my PhD won’t have been a waste because from beginning to end it was always, really, about finding a depth in God, pursuing truth, exploring the treasures of wisdom.

I’ve been driven to see God, and yet God is always just behind the next hill, and there’s a hill in front of me yet again and a wave behind me, and I’m tired of walking. So, so tired of never arriving. But now is not the time to let the fears stop the insanity. So forward.

finding the music

A lot has happened since I last wrote here, and much of it speaks of a wonderful work of God.

Two kids, a job with APU and then a job with Fuller. I’ve not been without medical benefits since graduating with my PhD. And yet, the nature of my contracts with Fuller and APU have been time-limited, first 1.5 year with APU and 3 years with Fuller. The former ended with a transition into working for Fuller, without a day in between, and also involved a transition to Sacramento. The moving process was chaotic, to say the least. We moved to Sacramento, got settled into a wonderful, God-directed (I have no doubt) home to rent a mile from the Fuller campus, and got started with a new life up here. That was late August. In earliest February, we were told they were shutting down the regional campus. First they said that next June (2016), then they expanded that to August, 2017.

This blog was a site for me to navigate finding faith in the midst of an emptied life. I left everything behind when I moved from Pasadena to Lake Arrowhead. I left behind rational ambitions, I left behind friends. I left behind a pathway to financial freedom. I embraced a kind of insanity. At age 28 (almost 29), I moved back in with my parents, to focus on writing, but mostly to stop running. As I said then, I was tired of being chased by a gigantic crashing wave that was always just behind me, leading me into frenzy as I sought to escape its tumbling, swirling, mass.

I had wrestled with finding the voice of God in my life for so long, and realized that the voice of God was not in front of me, the way I was running, but it was behind me, behind the wave.

Moving to Lake Arrowhead didn’t make any sense in the rationality of the world. My soul didn’t care. Creeping, enervating depression was my daily disaster, assuaged only when I wrote, and only so long as I stopped pursuing a rational approach.

I stopped running. I turned around. The wave crashed over me. In the tumbling, bruising darkness between life and non-life–not physical death simply social death–I learned how to listen better. I read monastics, I read myself. I talked with my parents, and the friends I had left, some where I had once been, some much farther away. I learned how to listen to the chorus of trees, to watch the rhythms and signs of nature around me, never pure, always punctuated by noisy neighbors and frenzied busyness, which served as the burr in my being that kept me from retreating ever inward and isolated. My frustrations were part of the cure, my anger and rage and irritation ignited and dissipated in my helplessness to change others. I had only myself. What was I to do with my self?

That is the impossible question, the unwanted and rejected question, that which leads us to seek any sort of distraction.

The self is a punishment. Which is why solitary confinement is used in prisons.

What is that? In my stopping, I had to face myself, giving up on my hopes to undermine the power of my fears, and having just myself. I made progress. Not as much as I would have liked. But enough for that season, it seems. God opened the once locked doors, everything in life blossoming rather than covered in frost. I published. I married. I bypassed a highly deficient resume by building a new course of life, a curriculum vitae, through PhD studies.

Life has not stopped since. The wave crashed over me and behind it, with the leading of God, was another wave, a wave I swam with as it led me to new shores.

Behind it has been another wave. A wave more like the first one. A wave that is made up of my fears and doubts and frustrations and anger at mismanaged opportunities and opportunities started well but shut down because of the goals of others. I face the summer with no contract, and a radical increase in busyness and travel these next two quarters. I miss listening to the trees, to letting my self stop and ponder, to watching the birds. The frenzy stirs and twists, nudging me toward panic. The wave behind me approaches, looming and blocking out the light.

I’m tired of its threats. I’m tired of knowing but not listening. I’m tired of waiting but not seeing. I’m tired of existing but not being.

So, I return here, to see how I might discover a reformation of my misplaced self. Not that I’ve done anything wrong, not that I’ve done everything right. I realize there was a opening in 2007 that led to new realities, but these realities were a new stage, not a conclusion of the work once started.

I recognize the fears, the frustrations, the depression, the distraction. It has been with me all along, and now, in the face of an unsettled future, it tries to take control again. Leading me and yelling at me.

What does it mean to stop running now and face the next wave? I don’t know. It’s not the same as 2003. But there’s a self-similar work involved, one that I must discern and find discipline in.

IF you do not stand in faith, you will not stand at all, Isaiah once said, when the city was surrounded by enemies.

Yesterday, while engaged in the relaxing reading of Sharpe’s Rifles, I read this and it poked at me the way Thoreau once did back in my 20s: “Now was not the time to let the fears stop the insanity. So forward.”

My path in life has been about embracing a kind of insanity. First to Wheaton, which I couldn’t afford. Then to Fuller, which I couldn’t afford. Then to the mountains, which I could afford but which kept me from being rational in gaining sufficient income for anything else. Then to a PhD program in a field where there are not jobs. Then, to teaching non-stop when what I really love is writing. Fears creep up, reminding how stuck I am, how lost I might be, how there’s no way someone with my training and personality (extreme introvert) can find another path. No doors open, no way back.

Now was not the time to let the fears stop the insanity. So forward.

But going forward isn’t enough. I need to come to terms with those fears, to deepen my hope, to explore my frustrations, to expand my love. To choose faith, to make faith an intentional choice when I really don’t seee what the future holds and have no power right now to make an answer happen, other than doing my daily tasks. I want to choose faith. I want to dance once more in the music of freedom, even when all around me seems like constraint. I want to be. So forward.

I hear music playing…

I haven’t written here in a while. And I haven’t written here regularly for a much longer while.

No real excuses.

I got to the point where documenting my inner state wasn’t opening new insights. I was going in circles as the state of my life remained in the same limbo. I had the freedom of time and a forest of sorts outside.

But never my own real space to let my thoughts wander and explore.

There was always busyness about the house as I lived with my parents during a time of their need and my need intersecting.

There was, all too often, construction of busy neighbors who came to the mountains, it seems, less for the ambience and more for the tinkering, image, or some other hidden trait, forcing their near constant noise outward.

I tried to be a monastic. But a monk, it seems, needs a monastery of either quiet or action. I was in limbo.

Limbo taught a lot. Not a lot about what I thought I needed to learn. Not a lot about theophanies or perichoresis or intimate encounters of prayer. I lost so much of my earnestness, my pursuit of finding prayer spaces, my seeking after seclusion.

But, I learned how to be irritated. Not that this itself needs a lesson. It’s the response to that, responding to other people’s noises and disturbances and inadvertant life that always seems to get in the way of my rhythms.

Everyone is playing a song, and it’s almost always a different song than the one I am playing or trying to listen to. The one I’m trying to listen to is God’s music. That’s the music to dance with. If we can find others who are also listening rather than playing than a real great time can be had.

But that’s rare. And that’s a gift. A great intersection of God’s people in a season of openness.

I’ve not had that for a long, long while. I don’t know how to find that and I’m honestly exhausted trying to find it, force it.

Limbo taught me how to be, however, when things aren’t as I would manage them and how to be when everything that is almost satisfying never quite gets there. A stream of constant frustrations about seeing what I would need and not being able to embrace it, knowing that it would have been an easy fix for God to arrange and manage the circumstances to allow for the communion I sought with him.

He never did. And that led to some bitterness, irritations, loss of caring, loss of the earnest attempts to find the windows in which I could commune with eternity and step out of the limited life that I led, if even for a small moment.

I lost the spiritual drive. I didn’t feel like God cared about reciprocating. I was trying to manage the relationship, through trying to manage what was indeed a strong desire for quiet time, reflection, and all those good things that people say are mandatory for our spiritual developments.

I learned to dance, I suppose. But not too well, and not without too easily giving in to the other tunes that danced in so many directions. I was flappable. Quite flabbable. And that was used against me.

The environment is different now.

I have my own apartment for the first time in 5+ years. I’m married now. I live in Pasadena rather than in the mountains.

I have a heavy school load, not classes but a lot of reading and pressure that comes from trying to do well enough to maintain a yearly renewed scholarship.

The dance hall I used to be in is now different.

But God’s song is the same. And as limbo transitions now into a semblance of a real person’s life, I cannot let go either the drive or the goals that the spiritual call has placed upon me. Now that life has changed I see again the victories and failures of my past season, seeing how I’ve grown and how I’ve remained so strikingly immature in faith and prayer and devotion. I have so much more hope and faith and stability and stillness now. But there remains much more to grow in these as I stretch towards a wholeness that I’ve tasted but am still so far from embracing as my own.

The last few days I’ve been poked by my spiritual life. Now that all the frantic busyness of wedding and moving and new studies have settled down into what seems to be the new reality I’m faced with my self, my God, my God with me and myself with others.

A new reality begins in which I feel drawn to discover the spirituality of this life as it happens, honing my strengths and maybe finding a way past the weaknesses so that I might become a better participant in God’s work and with him in the way that he asks.

Maybe this might even mean a return to regular musings on this page.

morning

Early in the morning light a chipmunk decided to walk down the stares, pausing every few steps, watching, listening. A jay visited, for only a brief moment. I was up early again, the first time in a long while, before the sun even hinted at a rise, the calm of the predawn hours a balm to my active soul.

I woke up wanting to read, wanting to read ancient texts. So I did, for a while, slowly sloughing off the dross of the last couple of weeks, my mind feeling like returning to more fruitful fields.

There is a peculiar sense in my soul I have passed yet another marker, a stage in which some of the old is left behind. I stumble around still, but find myself more ready to plunge forward, less interested in that which distracts and more in what fills. This is peculiar because the outward aspects of my life don’t necessarily reveal this inner sense. Many, manifold, are those who more readily show a life pointed towards the eternal. Yet within… that is the measure God takes of us, his concern is not for our actions, desiring we rather spend all our lives within a single room, unproductive, then go out and do wonderful works at the cost of our soul.

We mark this life by what we do, who we know, how much influence we can assert over others, over ourselves. God only cares about our heart and how it increasingly reflects his presence. That is a key aspect of shifting our perception to the eternal. What we do becomes a distant second to who we are, knowing that only if we are of God will what we do be of God. Wesley paraphrased, “First God works, then we can work. First God works, then we must work.” God works within, transforming us entirely, to the point where we don’t have to convince ourselves of doing what is right, we don’t have to wrestle with the ethical questions or try and arouse a passion within, instead as Paul said, we can’t not do what is of the Spirit. The goal isn’t the activity, it is the becoming of people who instinctively act in accord with the fluid Spirit, letting our lives and prayers join in a dance together, our worship arising from our being in resonance with the Three-In-One.

For now, though, the dance is awkward, the steps are confusing, the rhythm difficult to master.

This morning it seems, however, like I’ve stepped to a new stage, one I can’t define any better than I could define the previous. I only hope it’s not a remedial class. I’m eager to learn new lessons, though I’m not confident I have yet mastered the old.

Either all of this, or some measure of regained focus feels like I have waded through a rushing stream and am dripping clean.

hot

It’s now 85 degrees in the house. I realized a few years back that it’s at 85 degrees that my brain stops working. It’s not that I’m bothered, or frustrated, or otherwise put off by the heat. It’s just that as I try to do something I realize the brain isn’t working, and consistently that happens at 85 degress.

Of course then I get bothered, frustrated and otherwise put off by the heat.

So, there it is.

Spirituality and weather do in fact go together.

hope

hope

morning

mourning

evening

show

morning

thoughts

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