I’m watching Adele at the 2017 Grammys

Image result for Adele photos

I’m watching Adele at the 2017 Grammys, and she is starting a heartfelt musical tribute to George Michael, the singer who died last year. The arrangement starts with only a piano note and she can’t find the key. She keeps trying but it just will not come. So she stops the song, is obviously shaken, says she doesn’t want to ruin the important moment of remembering someone she loved, and begs the musicians to start over. They do. She finds her note. She finishes the song.

People will do the hateful thing and complain about the mistake. Some will even make fun of her. They will be people who have never put themselves out there, never taken the risk, never gotten up after the fall and risen strong (as Brene’ Brown teaches).

Here is what I want to say about that. Tonight I watched Adele show the tremendous courage to be imperfect before millions of people, and start again, for the sake of love.

Adele is one of the most powerful singers of our day. She has achieved tremendous fame recently, and for good reason, but she is a human. She was obviously cut to the heart by not being able to hear that key. She had every reason to just quit and walk off the stage. But she would not stop. She started again, and finished the job through her emotional pain and tears, for love.

May we support our sister in this moment by sending her love, affirming her courage, and praying that she will be filled and renewed by the grace that says, “We love you just the way you are.” We can be vehicles of the Great Love and send that love to a superstar who is also a human being. Join me will you?

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I’m enraptured

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I’m enraptured by an image from a story shared with me this week by Sylvia, a long-term volunteer at Project Lazarus. In a meeting of residents, staff, and volunteers we heard the pain of what had been a rough weekend. Some residents were relapsing in their addictions, and that had created the terrible maelstrom of downward spiral that tends to suck everyone around it into a dark place. There had been nasty moments of anger. Some residents left. Everyone was disturbed. And the backlash and residue was still lingering around the Monday morning meeting.

Sylvia decided to follow her “first mind” and tell us all about the early days at Project Lazarus. She felt we all needed to hear a story to help us through the rough patch. She shared about the days when AIDS was a very unpopular disease, meaning there was little funding for medical treatment research because society presumed AIDS patients were all gay and so they didn’t deserve treatment. Society was extra cruel in those dark days.

But then she shared the image that captured me. Sylvia said people were dying of AIDS  there with little or no family support. So volunteers from the New Orleans community rose up with compassion and formed 24-hour vigils to be sure no one died alone. A candle was lit outside the dying patient’s room to alert volunteers and staff that the resident’s time was short. Their wounds were often terrible as multiple diseases took over. Many looked like they had leprosy. And in those days there were still questions about how AIDS was transmitted. Volunteers had reasons to fear for their own safety.

Even so, the brave volunteers let love rule. They took turns sitting with the patients through their last days and hours. They manifested healing compassion and lovingkindness. The candles were the sign that extra love was needed as death drew near. And the courage emerged in those who stepped up to serve. A small candle became a symbol of the need for great love. The story has stayed with me all week.

I know our society is going through some dark days. Hatred and anger, fear and alienation, are all dictating the ways many people are responding to each other. And yet there are amazing signs of light appearing across the land too. Candles are being placed outside the door, so to speak, in many neighborhoods across our country. While some people are being openly rejected, just like those AIDS patients were decades ago, volunteers are rising up in waves to show compassion wherever it is needed. The Great Love is being revealed. Hearts are being moved by empathy and the call to action. Despite the dark days in our starkly divided culture, I am seeing the candles appearing everywhere.

One of the local places where I see a candle lit, and volunteers responding, is at the First Grace United Methodist Church. Members there are being trained to walk with immigrants through the process of applying for citizenship. The church has opened its doors for immigrants to gather on Wednesday evenings for Congreso de Jornaleros, the congress of day laborers, in a time of self-empowerment regarding how to deal with the stresses of the broken immigration system. Hundreds respond every week. I have just learned of this mission, and so I have never attended a meeting, but I bet I would see the face of Christ in the volunteers and immigrants there.

And that is what I am searching for in these dark days. I need to see the face of Christ in both the people with great needs and the volunteers who serve them. I see that face at Project Lazarus, Congreso, our Open Table ministry with street friends, and in the people who bring their spiritual search to the weekly and monthly gatherings in our School for Contemplative Living. The candles are being lit all over. People are responding. And those small lights can help push back the darkness.

I’m enraptured by the sight of such candles, tremendous needs, and an outpouring of love. Perhaps you can see them too. If you wish, respond with a candle story of your own. We need the light in times like these.

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The question of freedom

Amy and Lenda Faye

“The freedom question, then, is not whether we can do whatever we want, but whether we can do what we most deeply want.” Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

I heard Gerald May make this point at a retreat for spiritual leaders. He encouraged the participants to listen for what we most deeply wanted by asking, “What do you want in your life and ministry?” He invited us to pair up and respond to our peer’s answer with: “What is your heart’s deepest longing beneath that?” We were then invited to ponder our heart’s deepest longing for several minutes of silence, and when we were ready we answered as best we could. Then the question was asked again, until we were sure that we were at the bottom.

The exercise was intended to help us see that we are often only aware of surface wants and not really in touch with our heart’s deepest longing. Seeing the discrepancy between how we are now living and what we deeply want can be confusing, painful, disorienting, and discouraging. But finishing the exercise can also bring clarity of vision, a path to ease our suffering, a new orientation, and a rise of courage.

I have walked through transitions from the life I was living to stepping onto the new path of my heart’s desire several times. The journey was always hard. The period of not knowing was always hard to bear. Admitting my lack of clarity, while still voicing my longing, was always a challenge because it felt so vulnerable. But when I was being listened to by a wise spiritual director, or a clearness committee, or a supportive men’s group, with no agendas on their part except to help me find my clarity, the result was a new vision of the unfolding path before me.

Last summer I almost gave up the life I love, guiding our School for Contemplative Living, because I thought I was supposed to move out of state and begin pastoring a small country church. The move would have brought us closer to our family, and allowed us to spend much more time with our son and grandson. But it turned out that the church would have also been soul-killing. Thanks be to God, the out-of-state church learned about my habit of welcoming all people before I moved there, and decided to reject my appointment without even meeting me.

At the time, I sure didn’t think their rejection was a gift. Soon I learned differently. After the smoke cleared, I had given up the service of a beloved church community in New Orleans, and that was a source of grief. But I did not end up in a church where people are only welcome if they are white and straight. That would have been impossible to bear. So I lost the chance to serve a prejudiced church, and I lost the chance to serve my beloved church in New Orleans. But I gained the chance to focus on one main thing: creating contemplative communities.

We were hosting a contemplative retreat at our home Saturday, and in the middle of it all the clarity hit me again: I am right where I am supposed to be, and I am so blessed to be living the life I love. I can truly say, “Yes, I am answering my heart’s deepest longing.”

I tell this story because I want you to know, without a doubt, it is possible to live the life you love, to follow your heart’s deepest longing. My thing is gathering people into a community who practice the presence of God, who seek direct experience of the sacred in each other’s good company. But that is my thing.

My question for you is: “What is your thing, your heart’s deepest longing beneath all the other wants?”

Exercise: Stop what you are doing. Take several deep, cleansing breaths. Ask yourself: “What do I want for my life?” Listen for the initial responses. You can even jot them down. Keep asking yourself, “What is beneath that? What is my heart’s deepest longing?” When you finally hear the response at the bottom of your soul, write it down. Keep it simple. Say it in one sentence: “I want….”

Then begin to meditate on the phrase that comes to you. Do not try to figure it out. Do not get caught in the mind’s resistances, the many reasons why that life is impossible. Do not waste time wondering what people will think. Do not try to figure out how that life can work practically. The soul is not practical. The soul simply wants what it wants. Life will dance with the soul to find a way.

How can this be true? The Creator made you with a unique being, an essence, a way that is yours’ alone. The mistake we make is asking what God wants for our lives, as though that is something completely different from what I most deeply want. The challenge is to awaken to our heart’s deepest longing, and to realize that is what God wants.

Don’t sabotage your life by settling for a surface level want as your true life. No, your heart’s deepest desire is not to drive a Mercedes. And don’t sabotage your life by believing the lie that your heart’s deepest longing is impossible, so you might as well forget this silliness.

If the answer at the bottom does not arrive immediately, which it rarely does, do not sabotage your life by giving up. Just keep exercising with the questions: “What do I want?” and “What’s beneath that?” I tell you, your soul knows what it wants most deeply, and when you are able to really listen without judgment, your soul is hoping to whisper your own deep longing in your ear. As Rumi says:

Submit to a daily practice.  Your loyalty to that  is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside  will eventually open a window  and look out to see who’s there.

Keep knocking/meditating with the question, and watch for the joy to answer. If you are feeling especially clear, respond to this blog by letting me know what you are hearing of your heart’s deepest longing.

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I’m in a wild place

view-out-the-window

I’m in a wild place that I love, seeking the Wild Divinity and feeling the brush of her fingers across my hair as I canoe beneath the branches of a cypress tree in the Honey Island Swamp.

I am done with living a careful, circumspect, insulated life of clinging to safety.

I am all in for the adventure of a wildness coursing through me, like this winter wind rattling my bones.

I am forming a new relationship with the barred owl, lured outside by her seductive call, entranced by the sight of her silent and powerful flight between the high branches, until she perches to eye me as intently as I eye her. I’m in her wild place, and not yet sure if I am a welcome guest.

But I know I need her wildness, this awakened moment with senses alive and attention captured, and a new friend in the trees. She is a wild creature, and her presence helps me remember the wildness in me.

*

Moments later I’m in another wild place that I love, seeking the Wild Divinity and knowing his nearness in the lively conversation of twenty-four people gathered at the edge of the swamp in our new home. We are in the perfect place for exploring the spirituality of nature writing. We are reading nature authors together voice by voice, sitting in silence to listen well, then speaking what we are hearing within. We are meaning makers.

We are disorderly. No one is dictating acceptable speech, or excluding certain speakers based on gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or creed. Every voice is a voice of the Wild Divinity. And he teaches us what we need to know in multi-layered truth, full of paradox. It’s like the story of asking, “Is the truth this or that?” and the answer is always, “Yes!”

In a xenophobic culture that is suddenly all about fear of neighbor and exclusion of neighbor, that is building walls and expelling guests and blocking safe passage for refugees of war, we are wild enough to practice philoxenia–love of every neighbor–in this house.

We believe we are following the Wild Divinity, who created every child in his myriad images and who loves them every one. He whispers in our ears, “When you gather this community, ‘all are welcome’ means ALL.” We are wild and wise enough to answer, “Yes.”

*

For these very brief moments of one human life, I choose to live in these wild places I love, seeking the Wild Divinity in the barred owl of our swamp and a community of philoxenia. And you, dear reader, are welcome to come be wild with us.

 

For more stories of our wild community see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture (Wipf & Stock, 2014), and the Vimeo on the homepage of our website about the School for Contemplative Living at http://www.thescl.net.

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I’m in a debate

William's SCL talk

I’m in a debate

with a pastor who grabbed me after the lunch break

of a contemplative retreat that I am leading

because he needed to set me straight.

 

“I noticed you referred to God as ‘She’ three times,”

he said, “and I wondered if you know that is not theologically correct.”

“Oh,” I said.

 

He continued:

“In seminary, we learned

that all the Hebrew words for God were masculine terms.

And you upset my wife by calling God ‘She.’”

 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“I just like to balance the way we speak of the divine,

and I am drawn to the feminine images of God,

like when Jesus says, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,

how many times I would have drawn you to my breast

like a mother hen draws her chicks,

but you would not.’”

 

“But that is still not theologically correct,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

 

“I notice you are not debating me back,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“I know it upsets some people to hear something different,

but it is okay to be different.

The main thing is that we are all God’s children,

whatever we call God.”

 

I’m in a debate, except I am not debating.

I just want to get back to experiencing the divine.

Because for me—direct experience trumps beliefs

and theological debates every time!

 

We return to the good company of contemplatives

and resume our practice of the many ways

of being in God,

because this feeds our souls,

and theological debates are soul-killing.

 

There is just not enough time

to waste it on whose beliefs or words are “right,”

when we can treasure the many ways

“to kneel and kiss the ground.”*

 

 

*This line comes from the Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Contact us through our website at http://www.thescl.net if you would like to host a retreat on the many ways “to kneel and kiss the ground.” If you would like a theological debate, please accept that we will not be debating back.

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I’m in a retreat

I’m in a retreat

that I am leading

and I start crying,

because my heart is full of the love of God for these people,

who I barely know,

and we are coming Home together

to a tender place in the heart

where we are one.

 

We are broken people, and we are one.

We are distracted, messy contemplatives

who are full of longing, needing, and searching,

and we are one.

We are people of faith

who often struggle with our faith,

and regularly fall into places of unknowing,

and we are one.

 

We are also beloved people

who are dropping down into the place of our belovedness

right now,

where we are one.

And that, too, is why I am crying.

 

And I speak as I am led from within

to guide us through each contemplative practice

heading down, down,

into the heart of God

who is the Great Love drawing us Home.

 

We sit still, stand up, walk around,

kneel, move through yoga postures to music, practice drumming,

share our inner leadings to teach each other,

and fall back into absolute silence,

together,

as a contemplative community does

just before we head back out to serve the world.

We bring the Presence with us, as best we can,

calling all our sisters and brothers

Home.

image-of-god

 

You can learn more about upcoming retreats, or invite us to lead one where you live, by contacting us through the School for Contemplative Living website at http://www.thescl.net.

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I’m in a wreck, by William Thiele, messy contemplative

view-out-the-window

I’m in a wreck on the Interstate in New Orleans, just before the high-rise bridge at 9 am on a Thursday. I switch lanes when a car stops in the right lane, and I still have to come to a slamming stop in the passing lane. The whole Interstate full of cars shifts from 60 miles per hour to zero in about two seconds. The brakes of our Toyota Camry skip a bit just before coming to a full stop about twelve inches from the truck in front of me. The driver behind me is not able to stop, and hits us from behind.

Thanks be to God no one was hurt. My wife puts on the emergency lights. I jump out to check on the driver behind us and to quickly examine our car’s rear bumper. There are only scratches. She asks about exchanging insurance. I say, “It’s not worth staying out on the Interstate and risking being killed by the other drivers, so let’s just go.” She agrees and we take off before there is time for others to hit us.

Those are the facts, at least the ones I remember. We were very lucky that none of us were hurt. Someone could’ve been killed. And the car was fine. The worst part of the story followed.

I clung to my belief that I am a good driver for as long as I could, for at least twelve hours. I said things to myself like, “That was not my fault. There just wasn’t enough time to stop,” and “I try so hard to keep us safe on the Interstate by driving the speed limit, while the ‘crazies’ drive ninety miles an hour like race car drivers and almost hit us constantly.”

I held onto my view of myself as a good person who tries to avoid wrecks, brakes slowly when necessary, doesn’t cut in on other drivers at the last second like so many do, etc. But it wasn’t enough. No matter how hard I tried, I could not avoid the reality that I was the one in a wreck. I could not blame the lady behind me because I was the one who had changed lanes to avoid the other stopped cars. Even the truth that it was an accident did not seem to help. I made a mistake. And it could have cost us our lives. The impact of that is terribly hard for my ego to admit. It hurts my feelings. There’s more.

I get in a hurry, and it is usually on the way to leading a meditation group. The irony in that is impossible to escape. Who is this man who believes he must hurry so fast to get to a room where we all slow down and become still? The insanity of it makes me wonder if I should stop teaching meditation and stop writing about it. (The accident also makes me wonder if I should stop driving).

Those questions stay with me all night. When I wake up at 4:30 am, the questions and the painful realities are there waiting for me. When I wake up the next time, at 6:30 am, they are still waiting to pounce. If only a daily meditation practice could protect me from facing the hard realities. Instead, the practice seems to leave me wide open for self-examination. There is no escaping this business of facing my faults, my mistakes, my own craziness.

Perhaps this is when I should start changing how I begin our meditation sessions, (if I keep leading them at all). Perhaps each session should begin with a warning, a kind of disclaimer: “Halt. Do not proceed to a regular meditation practice because everything you would like to avoid in yourself will come to your attention sooner or later. If you would rather avoid the hard stuff, like I would, you might try drugs or alcohol instead.” Something like that would at least be closer to the truth than a promise that meditation leads to perpetual peace of mind.

Peace of mind. Isn’t that what I was seeking when I started this journey decades ago? Isn’t that what I would prefer to find every time I practice? Today, I know I would rather feel peaceful than to have my denial about my driving broken to bits. I would rather tune into some beautiful music that could abolish the hard reality that I can be as crazy as everyone else on the road. I would rather take a nature walk and forget that I was in a wreck yesterday and, dang this is hard to admit: It was my fault.

Then it hits me: What if meditation practices were never intended to help me escape reality? What if they are offered to help me face what I must face?

Then another truth starts bubbling into my consciousness: Practicing the presence of God, (which we call contemplation in our School for Contemplative Living), is also to help me face what I must face in my life. Is my ego getting shattered again? Time to turn to God’s presence. Is suffering arising? Time to be in God’s presence. Are my thoughts and feelings wrecking my world? Time to practice the presence of God. Is my ego falling off the throne of my life, again, as I admit I need a defensive driving course to help me change how I drive? Time to hold my life in loving awareness in the presence of God.

No wonder I need to refer to myself, in all honesty, as a “messy contemplative.” While I want to be seen as an expert in meditation and contemplation, I am really the crazy man who hurries to his groups so he can slow down. I am really the man who would prefer to avoid facing himself if he could.

I am also a man who needs to be immersed in a loving, divine presence every single day. I can no longer pretend to be a contemplative because I am such a great guy, a really super-spiritual kind of guy. I can’t say I lead contemplative groups because of any mastery at all. I can only say I get together with other contemplatives almost every day of the week because I need that shared presence of God so much.

I need to be accepted with all my faults by people who are practicing the love of God. I need the encouragement of others to keep practicing the contemplation. I need the inspiration of knowing I am not the only one who needs the Presence. I need contemplative community. I am like an alcoholic who starts AA groups around town because he needs those groups every day. In fact, for me, I need them several times a day on most days.

So, in addition to the daily contemplative groups I will attend for the next two weeks, I will go to the Quiet Day at Advent House on January 20, because I need it. And I will lead a contemplative retreat in Pensacola, Florida on January 21, because I need it. And I will invite people to my home for a workshop on the “Spirituality of Nature Writing” on January 28, because I need that too.

People might look at all the contemplative groups I attend and think I am a junkie, and I probably am. I am a man who can’t escape facing myself, and I need to be around compassionate people who help me find the presence of God as often as I can. If there is any chance you need what I need, come join me in a group, or class, or workshop, or retreat. Our School for Contemplative Living is all about gathering needy people, people who just cannot face life by ourselves, people who need the presence of God as often as we can find it, in each other’s good company.

 

For more stories about the people in the School for Contemplative Living, read Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, or watch a short video about us on the homepage of our website at http://www.thescl.net.

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