The Second Call

When I found myself “at the bottom,” with my life in shambles, a dear friend told me that if I chose to accept the gift of surrendering my life and learning to live in a new simple way—trusting God, cleaning house and serving others—that not only could I survive, I could actually grow through that trial. “If you do go on this journey,” he told me, “you will get to know yourself for the first time.

Since then, I have lived my life, one day at a time, according to this new, simple program.

In somehow choosing this new path, I believe I have received what many call, “the second call.” I read these words this morning, from Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel.

Second journeys usually end quietly with a new wisdom and a coming to a true sense of self that releases great power. The wisdom is that of an adult who has regained equilibrium, stabilized, and found fresh purpose and new dreams. It is a wisdom that gives some things up, lets some things die, and accepts human limitations. It is a wisdom that realizes: I cannot expect anyone to understand me fully. It is wisdom that admits the inevitability of old age and death.

The second journey begins when we know we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the morning program. (That’s really good-EC.)

The second call invites us to serious reflection on the nature and quality of our faith in the gospel of grace, our hope in the new and not yet, and our love for God and people. The second call is a summons to a deeper, more mature commitment of faith where the naiveté, first fervor, and untested idealism of the morning and the first commitment have been seasoned with pain, rejection, failure, loneliness, and self-knowledge.”

Brennan Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel

Over the past six months, I have experienced more pain, rejection, failure, and loneliness than I could have ever imagined possible, let alone endurable.

And yet here I stand (with, I hope, just a little self-knowledge).

This “second journey/call” is exciting, but also terrifying, because for the first time in a very long while, I’m aware that I am NOT in control, and nor am I meant to be. I am trying very hard to put my life in the hands of the God of Abram, and Isaac, and Moses, and David, and Elijah, and John the Baptizer and Jesus and Paul… and everyone else who embraced the mystery and took a step out their front door to follow the CALL to “become who they are meant to be.”

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Wake Up Call

Typically, I am almost always reading SOMETHING from Thomas Merton (currently, No Man is an Island). Here’s what I started with this morning:

The ultimate end of all techniques, when they are used in the Christian context, is charity and union with God.

Discipline is not effective unless it is systematic, for the lack of system usually betrays a lack of purpose.

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

Well now: that’s clarifying.

But Merton’s not done.

He goes on (and yes: this is DEFINITELY worth quoting at length, and I have added some emphases where it struck me):

Good habits are only developed by repeated acts, and we cannot discipline ourselves to do the same thing over again with any degree of intelligence unless we go about it systematically. It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times: fasting on certain days, prayer and meditation at definite hours of the day, regular examinations of conscience, regularity in frequenting the sacraments, systematic application to our duties of state, particular attention to virtues which are most necessary for us.

To desire a spiritual life is, thus, to desire discipline. Otherwise our desire is an illusion. It is true that discipline is supposed to bring us, eventually, to spiritual liberty. Therefore our asceticism should make us spiritually flexible, not rigid, for rigidity and liberty never agree. But our discipline, must, nevertheless, have a certain element of severity about it. Otherwise it will never set us free from the passions. If we are not strict with ourselves, our own flesh will soon deceive us. If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

That certainly can give you perspective before you walk out the door to live your life… if you let it.

What I Learn in the Monastery 1: Psalms Are For Praying

Many of you know that I take an annual 4 day silence and solitude retreat at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, GA. Over the next few weeks, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned in the years that I’ve been going. 

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1.  Psalms are for praying. 

The backbone of a monastic “worship service” is singing (or more accurately, chanting) the Psalms. With five gatherings of worship/prayer a day, they get through the entire catalog of 150 every two weeks. 

Mostly, I grew up in the faith assuming that “psalms” = “songs”. That’s true some of the time, but not all of the time. Many times, the Psalms are actually recorded prayers, and what’s great is that they pretty much reflect the entirety of human experience and emotions (including many emotions that I would personally be terrified to express during prayer).

Initially, it was actually a bit challenging, at least partly because I simply wasn’t used to praying other peoples’ prayers (even if they’re written by King David). I always said my own words. But the more I got used to the gentle rhythm and melodies of the Psalms, I could feel them sinking down into my soul, and what’s more I began to find that I could actually identify with a lot of the sentiments that I saw expressed: I may not have physical enemies like the Psalmists express, but I certainly have internal enemies that are certainly out to get me, and so I could use the feelings towards the physical enemies and point them towards the tapes and baggage of my own life.

In addition, I started to feel an actual security and confidence in these ancient, tested words and prayers. A professor in seminary used to say repeatedly, “The thing is to ask yourself, ‘Can I become the type of person that can pray this prayer with integrity and honesty?’” That phrase resonated with me, and now the Psalms have become a bedrock part of my prayer life.

The Profound Powerless of Mondo Cozmo’s “Shine”

I’m still a sucker for a heart on its sleeve…

(and a good hook…)

I stumbled across this song a few months ago, back in the spring. I was listening to some Spotify “New Music” playlist, and all of a sudden I heard familiar-but-new sounds: echoes of The Verve and other Brit Pop bands that I’ve always loved.

And then the lyrics started:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm,
I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost
Shine down a light on me and show a path
I promise you I will return if you take me back…

Did he just say, “Jesus”? Okay, now I’m really interested…

I confess: I’m not above getting pretty excited whenever I hear someone flirting with the powerful intersection of art and faith. I get even more pumped when I hear someone drop Jesus’ name with some kind of sincerity.

So now I’m definitely hooked.

But then the chorus took me back a bit:

Let ’em get high, let ’em get stoned,
Everything will be alright if you let it go…

Hmmmmm….

So now I’m not so sure.

But the verse lyrics! Still so sincere, so out there (and again with the Jesus!)

My friends are so alone and it breaks my heart
My friends don’t understand we are all lost
Shine down a light on them and show a path
I promise you they will return if you take ’em back

And finally, verse 3:

Come with me Mary through these modern lines
Stick with me Jesus til the end of time
Shine down a light on me and let me know
And take me in your arms and never let me go…

Seriously; what am I supposed to do with this?

When the record came out, I listened, and quickly got taken in. The whole thing really paid off the taste that was “Shine,” with more heart, and vulnerability and a lyrical/musical references and touchpoints that I could easily recognize and resonate with.

But, again… what is up with this tune?

Well, though I believe in lyrical mystery, and I affirm the rights of artists to hold their cards close to their chests, something hit me hard on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks back, and so I’m going offer up my interpretation of this tune.

I had preached that morning on “Powerlessness“, and what it meant to surrender our desire to control our environment and our lives.

And then I remembered that a huge part of our lives and our environment is people.

Spouses. Family. Children. Co-Workers.

Friends.

Spouses, family members, children, co-workers, friends, etc. who might choose to “get high”, or who might choose to do any number of things that we really wish they wouldn’t do.

And we are powerless to stop them. (Human beings have this sticky way of eluding our efforts to control them.)

When we are confronted with this ultimate test of our desire to control, we really have to choose:

Am I willing to be powerless over the people who are (a) supremely important to me and yet (b) may make choices (in fact, they usually DO make choices) that at the very least I may disagree with, and at most may be harmful?

It sounds impossible but there is a way out, and here’s the deal:

It’s not simple, but it’s easy. 

We can choose to (a) love them, and (b) cling to our faith.

One of the most powerful ideas I cling to is that *God is infinitely more invested in my friends/family/co-workers/church than I am. *

God loves them more than I ever could.

And that means that I can surrender them. I can be powerless over them…

… And “let it go.”

 

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Peace and blessings…

+eric

What Passes for Faith

NOTE: I’m on vacation this week in North Carolina, so I haven’t been writing a ton, but I stumbled across this short thought on faith, and thought I’d pass it on. As usual: enjoy, comment, and share. 

 

Let’s face it: if you want to fake something, “faith” is a pretty tempting place to start.

Faith: it can’t be seen, and currently the very concept is so confused and diluted that it’s pretty easy to just throw out an idea or two and slap a title on it that says, “faith,” and you’re in business.

(Maybe I’m doing that now?)

In my context, “faith” can easily be confused with:

  • going to the “cool church
  • signing on to the correct political agenda
  • seeking tight and easy answers to issues, ideas and concepts that are more easily represented by mystery and unknowing

Too often, faith actually seems like a journey or quest into certainty and control, rather than what it seems to be in the Bible…

… which is actually a journey into uncertainty towards a release of control.

It’s even more ironic when you consider that perhaps two of the most destructive drives—all the way back to Genesis 1—in our human nature are the drive to *control* and the drive to be certain, to “know“.

What’s more, sometimes I think that our faith leaders in the West are complicit in this confusion. We sell certainty and control through a variety of different mechanisms. Let’s face it: it’s easy to do, and it keeps people satisfied.

But I suspect some of us (clergy included) suspect, even hope that there’s something more hiding on the other side of all this apparent concreteness.

And, again, we need it. We need something more than this false security. Look around at our culture: we are still dominated by agendas that lack compassion, that seek domination, power and control, that are still primarily concerned with “yes but what do I get out of it? How do I protect my Kingdom?”

I think the message we hear from Jesus in the Bible takes issue with this perspective, and I wonder (a) if “Jesus people” even want what He wants (and let’s face it, Jesus wants a lot); and (b) if we church leaders are willing to go the extra mile to point people towards this deeper way of living.

I’m not excluding myself from this conversation: I know how hard it is to offer up everything to Jesus, and I confess that sometimes I also balk at this offer to surrender my selfish desires. And I also know that sometimes this Gospel doesn’t always sound like—on the surface at least—”good news” to the West, a culture that is build on more and more and more and radical individualistic freedom.

“This may cost you everything you think you need” is a difficult sell.

“The reward waiting for you after you have freed yourself from your desires is unbelievable, but unfortunately largely unseen” isn’t much easier.

And that’s what faith is.

For me, from what I’ve seen and heard and discovered in the few truly “holy” people I’ve encountered in my life, what passes for faith is a gentle detachment and acceptance of life on life’s terms, and an unencumbered dive into the mystery of life, and God.

It’s beautiful to behold, and I’d like to experience more of it in my life.

 

+e

 

It’s Been a Week…

 

I don’t know what kind of week you have been having, or what kind of words you’ve been encountering, but this is been a relatively rough one for my community.

The words I have encountered this week or words like:

“cancer” 

“overdose”

“suicide”

It goes without saying, but these are not the type of words that we’d prefer to see and hear in a week.

On the other hand, it seems all too common.

So how do I respond? What do I do when those words enter my reality?

I can certainly rail and rage against them. That’s an option that is easy to embrace. But for me, I eventually come up against something that I cannot control, be it other people, disease, (or even broken politics and a pathological culture)

But then again, I am driven back to the simple reality of accepting the things I have no control over, and embracing what I can control (which is mostly my reaction to all of this stuff).

Two thoughts that help me:

First, I am reminded that life goes on. I remember walking the streets of Chicago with my wife on September 11, 2001. everywhere was under silence, exacerbated by the fact that all air planes were grounded, but that reality was shattered when we heard people laughing at a joke. We felt so violated, like that time and space and silence was sacred. Even in the midst of devastating sadness, somewhere a baby will be born; there will be genuine laughter and care in a family somewhere; new, creative work will be done to make the world a better place. When I was younger, as I encountered pain in the world I would expect the whole world around me to stop and be devastated right alongside with me. I always treated it as a grave injustice for there to be laughter in the midst of pain. But now I think I realize that it is both our gift and our struggle that life goes on. What’s more, I know that the cross means that as long as there is suffering in the world, Christ suffers right along with us. Thomas Merton said “Christ remains in agony until the end of time, and in His agony Christ triumphs over all power.”

Second, I find soul-affirming comfort wherever I can. Jesus actually prayed that we would not be taken out of this world (John 17; really, Jesus?). But he also told us that he would not leave us alone (John 14). That means that his presence, and his peace and his love and his compassion is really always available to us. For me, I find it in friends, and in prayer, and also in art.

I stumbled across Bill Fay while I was driving in my car around 2013. Florida State radio station play the song that instantly grabbed me, and also instantly made me think, “boy Jeff Tweedy is ripping this guy off big time.”

(Tweedy appears on “This World, off of Fay’s 2012 record Life is People, and Fay covers Wilco’s “Jesus Don’t Cry” on the same record. Tweedy has also covered a couple other Fay tracks, like “Be Not So Fearful” and “Please Tell My Brothers” in his acoustic shows.)

Ever since then, whenever I need to hear something comforting and gentle, but also full of faith, I turn to Bill thing. I actually even had a friend who, when he did his fifth step in recovery, made sure that he had Fay queued up to play on his drive home from his sponsor’s house.

There are plenty of good tracks, but this is one of my “go-to’s”.

May you be comforted, and remember that “the healing day” is coming sometime for all of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdZzBO_YPJM

What’s In A Number, Anyway?

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“Ohmygosh what number on the Enneagram are you?”

One of my dear friends was messaging me; her ears were burning after listening to one of the hip, podcasts-of-the-moment where the hosts had introduced the concept of “Enneagram,” a really, really ancient way of understanding our personalities and tendencies.

She was illuminated and enlightened (understandably so), and now she was curious to know where I fell on the 9-number “wheel” of the scheme.

“I bet you’re a FIVE,” she declared.

Fortunately, since the enneagram seems to be hot stuff right now, a guy named Ian Morgan Crone had recently written a book that addresses it, and very helpfully developed an online test to recommend a number for everyone. So I went and took the test, and shared my results with her.

I was just getting ready for my annual silence and solitude retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, so on the spur of the moment, I threw my copy of The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert) in my bag, thinking, “Maybe I’ll skim this while I’m away.” I’d read probably 60% of the book 2-3 years ago, and while I found it interesting, I got bogged down in the descriptions of each number, and eventually abandoned the book.

After I’d arrived and got settled in at the monastery, I still had a couple hours before Vespers (think, “dinner time prayer”), so I decided to sit down on a patio and do some reading and journaling. Call it intuition or the Holy Spirit, either way I picked up the Rohr book and started reading. I wanted to revisit the history and context of the enneagram before I reviewed my results, so I actually went back to the beginning and started reading.

Before I got to the descriptions, Rohr took me back (as he so often does) with this statement:

“In recent years a series of questionnaires has been drawn up so that people can discover to which Enneagram pattern they belong. Nevertheless, we recommend that readers take another approach first: *it makes sense to begin by reading through all nine descriptions. To some it will immediately be clear where they are ‘at home.’ … A good criteria is the following: if in reading the description of a type I get uneasy or am even humiliated, it could be that I’m on home ground.”

<sigh>

So, even though I had my pattern “in hand”, Rohr recommends that I read the whole book and come to conclusions more “organically.” (Part of this is because, according to the authors, the Enneagram is historically related to the seven capital, or “deadly” sins, so rather than *celebrate* my particular pattern, we are on more solid ground when we soberly look at the brokenness of each particular type first.)

So that’s what I did. The good news is that the type that I was drawn to actually reinforced the online questionnaire that I’d taken.

I was a “Nine”. 

Now, this actually shocked my friend because she was convinced that I was a “Five” (go and look these up for yourself if you’d like), but as I read the descriptions I knew without a doubt that I lacked the intellectual detachment that Fives had. I was a visceral, gut reactor to life (not always for the best), and could only detach myself through discipline and prayer.

But that was just the good news; there was some challenging information as well.

According to Rohr, while Nines are peacemakers and good at accepting other people, we (read: “I”) suffer from some critical deficiencies, or brokenness: we lack courage, we lack focus, we prefer the path of least resistance, it takes a long time for us to identify and name (and therefore own) our feelings, we withdraw.

Am I feeling good about myself yet?

What may have hit me the most was that Nines also have a tendency to be lazy and to avoid conflict.

Without going into too much of the detail, let’s just say that (a) I completely identify with these tendencies, (b) they are actually humiliating.

I’ve taken so many personality profiles: I’m mostly an INFP, my strengths are Contextualization, Indvididualization, Intellection, etc., etc.

This seemed somehow different; it hit me harder, where I’ve been “living” for a few years now.

For instance, because of my natural curiosity, I am fairly persistent about sniffing out the “next thing” theologically and/or spiritually (note: a lot of this is also driven by very personal needs and spiritual ambitions).

To be blunt, I’m typically pretty far ahead of the curve when it comes to spiritual trends, whether it’s liturgy, spiritual disciplines, or mindfulness…

… BUT NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT IT. 

My laziness, apathy, cynicism (“nobody will read this anyway”) and introverted nature all combine to make a stew and a gumbo that produces… at times very little.

Meanwhile, I watch people—some of them my friends—who are decidedly NOT NINES (LOL) write, publish, and broadcast much of the same information that I’d processed sometimes years before. I sit and I watch/listen/read, thinking… “Wow… uh. This is actually old news to me. If someone would just ask me, I could have told everybody this stuff two years ago…”

(typical NINE stuff…)

By the way, honest: This is not about how great I am, or how smart I am.

It’s actually kind of humiliating, and I’m also just trying to be honest.

Part of my spiritual journey means that I’m trying to work on accepting myself, in all my glorious limitations and strengths. Also, let me be clear, when Rohr also writes that “in a certain way NINE represents the original and unspoiled human essence,” I have to acknowledge that it’s not all bad to, well, be me.

But since the Enneagram is related to my brokenness, I need to acknowledge that there are still issues I need to work through. I need to get better at productive, redemptive conflict. I need to learn to give to the world what God is giving me. I need to steward my journey, both for myself and for the world.

It’s about giving, not promoting.

As I was thinking about writing this, I was thinking about some of the most powerful words that people can speak about me. My spirit rises within me (even at 48) when I hear people say about me, “Oh man, you really need to meet Eric Case; if you’re interested in (Subject X), he’s someone you have to know.”

Vanity, I know.

So there you go: I’m a NINE. Prone to laziness, conflict avoidance, and cynicism.

But if you’re exploring spirituality, productivity, creativity, or even the Enneagram, I’ve probably been there, and I *do* want to help.

 

Links:

The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert on Amazon.com

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Enneagram Test (related to Ian Morgan Crone’s book The Road Back to You)

Blogs related to my monastery trip.