The Taser's Edge

Receiving Strange Gifts

For years, I have been hoping and striving to become a more joyful Christian.  The most miserable (in terms of the emotional aura she gave off) person I ever met was someone who talked freely of her Christianity to other drugstore co-workers and me, and it seemed like such a disconnect: publicly and openly bearing the bad news of the Good News of Jesus.

As for my own need for joy, I’m not a negative person, but I’m seriously serious.

[A word here on what joy is–it doesn’t mean all smiles and sunbeams, but it does mean a generally hopeful outlook, where, yes, cheerfulness is a regular occurrence.  I do not personally buy the set of popular theological definitions I have heard multiple times, where I’m told that joy and happiness are different from each other, that happiness depends altogether on circumstances, whereas joy has more stability.  Yes, it’s important to make some sort of distinction between the terms, and that one is helpful, but it misses something important.  Aquinas and a billion theologians with him let us know that ‘happiness’ is something we need to understand if we hope to understand ourselves or God (as Thomas and the billion also have described the after-life in terms of a blessed happiness in the experience of God).]

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Gustave Dore imagines wonderfully and surely poorly what the beatific vision might be.

Late last year I talked to my spiritual director about my pursuit of joy, and she definitely encouraged it (obviously, perhaps), as we had touched on it before in our then year-plus relationship.  Then she gave me some amazing advice.  In gist form, “When you seek joy in your prayers, don’t yourself set the limits on what joy might be.  Let God define the gift of joy which he gives you.”

Let that sink in for a second.

Since then, not only have I found this to be true of joy, but I keep seeing all kinds of life through the same lens.  How do we receive and then give thanks, rather than make our lives lives of demanding?  And how much of our unhappiness is due to the demands we make (to hear the Buddha’s sharing in truth) in our refusal to receive?

Maybe that’s because all that is life-giving is daily bread and manna from heaven, because life itself is received (both physically and metaphysically).

The problem, here, of course, is that if all we can do is receive, then what about the fact that for some of us what we receive just sucks?  Is there really no place for righteous complaint?  (I’m thinking here especially of the victims, the poor, the hungry, the abused, the disenfranchised, the homeless whether of nation or of shelter.  Is this a spirituality of roll-over-and-take-it-ism?)

Here I want to be clear that receiving from God is always a work of discernment, of “testing the spirits” (and I mean this literally).  We must ask, pray, discuss, struggle, moan, and sweat through certain questions when we claim that what we  are receiving is a gift of God.  What does what we are receiving have to do with the Bread of Heaven, that which feeds us and leaves us truly satisfied, never to hunger again?  What does what we are receiving have to do with the God who Jesus calls a good and loving Father who delights to give good gifts to those who ask?

Continuing the work of discernment, the idea of ‘receiving as gift’ requires that we have been given new eyes (in fact, that we have ‘received’ new eyes) to see things as they are.  For my own part, I write this post at the edge of eight months of unemployment, with host of unknowns and unsettled questions in my life.  To be clear, I would not have chosen this time for a second.  Except that I’m starting to see it all as a strange, wonderful gift, the kind you unwrap and then look at the giver trying not to be too rude with the “What is this?” look you can’t erase from your face.  The kind of gift that you talk to your significant other in the car on the way home from the gift exchange about how weird and inappropriate and useless a gift it is.  The kind of gift you start to set aside to take to Goodwill, and then decide to take just one more peek.  Five years later, you can’t believe how greatly and wonderfully it affected the trajectory of your life.  That is what I know that I will say of this time.

I am deeply thankful for this time, how I have found out more about my calling and had opportunities to see how following it doesn’t need to involve a paycheck (although it will be nice when this particular non-materially-paid season ends), how I have come to understand myself and love myself better in my identity in God, how I have been able to focus on my relationship with my wife, how I have truly received an overwhelming amount of joy.

This is just one particular gift.  Thankfully there are other things than unemployment that fit my description of good and strange gifts (although really, not all of them are actually easier than unemployment): a musical instrument, a long illness, a book that inspires you to write, a telescope, the end of a cherished relationship.

What are the things we will receive this day that we are actually being gifted by The Giver of All Good Gifts?  And are we willing to stay in relationship with the Giver and the circumstances which we receive long enough to find out what gift we might be being given?

That is the challenge and…the gift.

The Artist and The Contemplative

The Sartorialist is the fashion blog of Scott Schuman, possibly the most-read fashion blog in the whole shootin’ match.  Recently somebody at Intel thought it would be a good idea to do a brief documentary about him, and here is that product:

As I watched, I thought about a couple things:

1.) Schuman’s art requires leisure, 4-5 hours a day walking and attempting to be present to New York, Milan, London, or (most recently) Seoul, looking for 1-2 pictures.  And here’s the jump, if you’ll make it with me: contemplative prayer and good art both require a similar kind of leisure, a similar kind of attention, and a similar cultivation of awareness over time.  (Think Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just ‘wasting’ her time.)  Maybe it’s obvious that leisure is required for contemplative prayer, but I never thought about just how important it was until Beatrice Bruteau opened her Radical Optimism with a full chapter devoted to leisure.  [Side note: she also says that study requires a similar level of leisure, which would also connect to the best study being the most creative study.]

2) Schuman’s daily process is a long search, but it is nonetheless fully expectant, and it has the right expectations, which the artist has learned over time.  Contemplation too is shaped by a similar expectancy, one which changes and matures over time and through experience.  Just as Schuman doesn’t expect or look for a brilliant photo on every street he walks, so the contemplative doesn’t expect life-changing insight 10 times a week, but this does not at all mean that there is not joyous and hopeful expectation on the part of both artist and contemplative.

Personally, I see a connection between the cultivation of a healthy life, an aware life, and a creative life.  Doing a year-long chaplaincy residency beat the crap out of me, but the twin practices which seemed to be most helpful for my holistic wellness are mindfulness/contemplation (not to claim the two are synonymous) and creative outlet.

Julian of Norwich

And thus our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts I could put forward, saying most comfortably as follows: ‘I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all things shall be well.’  I take ‘I may’ for the words of the Father, I take ‘I can’ for the words of the Son and I take ‘I will’ for the words of the Holy Ghost; and where he says ‘I shall’, I take it for the unity of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one truth; and where he says, ‘You shall see for yourself’, I understand it as referred to the union with the Holy Trinity of all mankind who shall be saved…

It is God’s wish that we should know in general terms that all shall be well; but it is not God’s wish that we should understand it now…

Although our Lord showed me that I would sin, by me alone I understood everyone.  At this I began to feel a quiet fear, and to this our Lord answered me as follows: ‘I am keeping you very safe.’  This promise was made to me with more love and assurance and spiritual sustenance than I can possibly say, for just as it was previously shown that I would sin, the help was also shown to me: safety and protection for all my fellow Christians.  What could make me love my fellow Christians more than to see in God that he loves all who shall be saved as though they were one soul?

Excerpts are from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, translated by Elizabeth Spearing, Penguin Classics.  Today is May 8th, the day Christian tradition assigns to the beginning of Julian’s “Showings”.


On Thursday afternoon, I finally had my interview for a CPE residency at Duke Hospital.  ‘Finally’ because I was sick on Monday and had to reschedule.  It was brutal, although I didn’t realize until today.  As I prepared for this interview and the one at UNC, I kept thinking to myself that they were going to be my first real job interviews.  And UNC was.  They asked questions like, “Tell us about a particular incident during your CPE internship in which your theology was challenged.”  I had those incidents.  I can answer questions like that.

I knew that Duke was going to be different.  A friend had told me that one of their questions was, “When was the last time you were angry, and what did you do about it?”  On the basis of answers to questions like this, they decide who they want offering spiritual and emotional care to the patients at Duke Hospital.  (Okay, they do have a file on the semester I spent with them, a big application I sent in, and five letters of reference.)

I knew it was going to be different, but I wasn’t prepared for this.  Four people on staff–CPE supervisors, staff chaplains, etc.–and me in a room.  The questions began harmlessly enough, but then they pressed and pressed: “As I look at your verbatim [report of a pastoral encounter], I see the pastoral care and counseling aspect, but where is the clinical aspect?”  Gulp.  Mind racing: What does clinical mean in this setting?  Did I already learn this?  Should I ask? I asked.  He clarified.  I answered.  Kind of.

And later: “As you’ve been talking to us, I know that you’re sick but I noticed that you’ve cleared your throat a couple times, and that you’ve buttoned and unbuttoned your suit coat.  Did you notice that, too?  [I hadn’t.]  Now I know even Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but could you tell us if you’re experiencing anxiety right now?  If so, could you just let yourself rest in that experience and describe it to us?”  W-o-w.  What do you say to that?  You spill your guts.  This is not a regular job interview.

Like I said at the beginning, at the time I didn’t realize how brutal it was.  It actually felt kind of good being pressed to see new areas for growth in myself, blind spots uncovered as well as some old growth edges that still could use some work.  I thanked them for the interview, and I really meant it.  They had grilled me, but I had some wonderful things to think about whether or not I ever heard from them again.  (I kind of think I will, because I’ve heard vulnerability is what they look for.)  I went to my precept that afternoon and my comments were marked with emotional honesty…very important to a discussion of Nicomachean Ethics.  Really, it’s not a joke that my mouth was freed up to say what I really thought of particular arguments and conversations, and that is a good thing.

The next morning, Friday, I got up and messed around on the Internet most of the day.  Today, Saturday, was more of the same.  At some point in the late morning or early afternoon today, I realized that this interview has sent me eddying sideways for at least a little while here.  Into the doldrums.  Being pressed that hard to see that I still have real issues to deal with made me feel like the progress that I’ve made thus far counts for nothing and is nothing.  All my hard work of self-discovery through being personally honest and through practices of journaling, prayer, meditation, and honest relationships, and I still have these massive blind spots.  And with the hopelessness accompanying how little I felt that I’d come, along came the complete loss of drive and momentum toward the future.

What I’ve done these last couple days is to reduce this process called sanctification–a lifetime of having my tightly wound, terrified soul gently unwound and reshaped into the image of God–into too basic terms.  Am I done yet?  Nope.  Am I a failure?  No.

I am better.  Better than ever before.  Whole is not here yet, but whole is coming too.  I believe it.  Now if only I could get back to work.

“With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying, ‘Lord, have mercy.'” Amen.