Friday, January 1, 2016

The Times Really are a Changin'

AS MUCH AS I dislike cliches I think riffing on Bob Dylan's song title is useful, first to point out how a song I bought in high school is now cliche, hence a change in itself, but more significantly to introduce an extended meditation on what I perceive to be a time of profound transition in the history of man. 

When I revisited this blog a few days ago I was surprised that it had been five years since my last post. I wrote then in the midst of a swirl of life events that were part of a season of great transition and transformation. Death was all around me, and I was in the grip of an extended melancholy that eventually released me and left me in your basic heap.

The hardest part of going through these sorts of cycles in life is grasping their necessity and recognizing the opportunity for growth; the tumult of radical deconstruction of self and spirit tends not to lend itself to introspection. However, having now been though several such cycles I realize that these episodes offer opportunities for personal transformation. 

History moves in similar orbits. Great civilizations wax and wane: consider Egypt, Babylonia, and the Mayans.

Why should we have any expectation that our day and age is somehow different? That the existing order, or disorder if you will, is a permanent feature? 

I believe that we live in historic times; that civilization is in a time of great transition. I also believe that before we can have something new, there must be a death of the old.

Now this is by no means a new idea, but it is an oft-forgotten concept that needs to be revisited ... frequently. The Egyptians and Babylonians fell, but new civilizations and structures arose. European monarchies fell, and democracy arose.

Clearly, we are witnesses to the decay and death of existing orders. Here are a few examples: 

Orthodox religion


Obviously, these are two of our pillars and if they crumble then everything is left in a heap. But don't forget that death always precedes something new, be it good or bad.

I'll be devoting a lot of time to these two ideas, but before I conclude this post I want to leave you with a few other concepts that are deeply entwined with the cycles of individual and collective rise and decline I have mentioned. 

First, Plato said that "time is the moving image of eternity." This is a great truth. What we see in this world is a reflection, if you will, of the activity of the unseen world. Compare this to 2 Cor 4:18.

Second, the greatest paradox of our existence is life and death. Simple enough you might say, but this absurdity is so profound that it drives much of our behavior with our recognizing it. For example, it is intimately tied to religious life.

Third, I will dedicate a lot of effort to discussing that vital and misunderstood four letter word: myth.

IF I AM doing my job properly you will variously abreact, squirm, disagree, embrace, protest, caterwaul, and/or greet its ideas. Hopefully, you will be prompted to engage in meaningful discussion. This is not a scholarly blog, and some of the ideas are mine while others are ideas that I come across that are interesting to me. At times I will engage in technical discussions of ideas because they require it. Also, I'll be doing a modest amount of editing to these posts so no complaining, please, about grammatical errors.

As Lao-tzu tells us, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, so let us walk together.

Be blessed.

What I'm reading now:

Edinger, The Creation of Consciousness
Tillich, Systematic Theology
Gardening books
Seed catalogs

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Soul Food II

          As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the Catholic Church, and was confirmed there. This means that I received catechetical training, had my first communion, and was then confirmed by the archbishop, all while I was in first and second grades in parochial school.
          This is significant because circumstances required that I leave my former church, something I’ll write about down the road. At about that time I felt led to start studying the Eucharist, which is the Catholic word for communion, or the Lord’s supper. “Eucharist” actually means thanksgiving, and it comes from a Greek word. I have been attending Mass on Sundays because of a deep spiritual need to participate in the Eucharist. I find it very moving. Because I’ve been confirmed in the Catholic Church I can receive communion even after four decades of absence.
          I also began reading Thomas Merton’s The Living Bread. For those of you not familiar with him, Merton will probably be remembered as the greatest monk of the last century, if “greatest” is something that can be said of a monk. Merton lived at the Abbey of Gethsemane, which is a mere 90 minutes from Bowling Green. He died from an accidental electrocution in 1968 while in Thailand at an ecumenical conference on monasticism.
          Merton examines John 6, and focuses on Christ’s statements that He is the “bread of life,” and “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;  for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” As Merton points out, these are deeply mystical words, and are to be taken literally.
            What Merton means is that the elements of the Eucharist are “soul food.” Communion actually nourishes the soul, and is an integral part of the care of our souls. One thing I discovered while a member of a Protestant church is that communion is done rarely, if at all, and is more of a ceremony than anything else. Many Protestant churches have communion once a quarter.
            In seminary I was taught that communion was a sacrament, but little else was mentioned about it. Many Protestants believe that communion is an ordinance, or a remembrance per 1 Corinthians 11:23; however, little attention is paid to John 6. Communion isn’t seen as soul food, and is viewed as a sacrament in name only. (BTW, the Greek word for sacrament is the same word “mystery” comes from.)
            Interestingly, Protestant orthodoxy on communion is not too terribly different from Catholicism. Here’s what John Calvin had to say about the Lord’s Supper:
The sum is, that the flesh and blood of Christ feed our souls just as bread and wine maintain and support our corporeal life. For there would be no aptitude in the sign, did not our souls find their nourishment in Christ. This could not be, did not Christ truly form one with us, and refresh us by the eating of his flesh, and the drinking of his blood.

That’s big stuff, and along the same lines of what Merton had to say. Martin Luther believed in what he called the consubstantiation of communion, meaning that Christ is present in the elements. The Catholic Church differs a bit on this, maintaining that the elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Mass, and that we ingest them.
            All of this thinking is close enough in my mind that quibbling over the differences produces much heat and little light. What we should be paying attention to is the agreement among great theologians that communion is soul food.
            I find myself fascinated by communion. It is something deeply mysterious, yet vital, just like our souls. If our souls form an integral part of our being, then we should pay as much if not more attention to them than the specials at the local restaurant. Christ says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  There is no better way to nourish the spirit than through communion; that is, a direct union with God by receiving His body and blood so that we mutually abide in and with Him, and He in us. Unfortunately, the deep significance of communion is as little mentioned as the soul.
            I have my own “routine” for participating in the Eucharist. Typically, I read and meditate on John 6 during worship, and then read 1 Co 11:28–29: “Examine yoursel[f], and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” That is a serious commandment. In the Greek, the word “examine” is in the imperative, meaning it is not optional. It is required. Paul states that people in the church at Corinth are sick, weak, and dying because they are not undertaking the required examination beforehand. Receiving communion involves preparation of the soul and mind; the body and blood of Christ should be welcomed with as much purity of being as possible.
            I also like to say a part of Psalm 51 to myself: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This helps me focus on my suitability for communion.
            I’m the first to acknowledge that all of this sounds foreign to many Christians in a scientific and secularized world. The soul and communion are invisible and mysterious. Some of this seems like mumbo-jumbo, or something for mystics locked away in remote areas. But that isn’t so, and is an easy way of avoiding the challenge of an intimate knowledge of the depths of our souls. We cannot know ourselves unless we know our souls.
            I am reminded of one of my favorite quotations in the Bible: “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18) Caring for what we take into eternity with us is caring for the unseen inside us. We must feed our souls just as we feed our bodies.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Soul Food I

 When was the last time you heard a sermon on the soul? I have heard a lot of sermons in my day, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone preach on what exactly a soul is.

 Nor for that matter have I heard a single lecture on the subject in seminary, and I can tell you that I have listened to upwards of 500 lectures during my course work.

 Why is this? How can something so important be so neglected?

Our soul is the part of us that lasts for eternity. It is vital to us, makes us who we are, makes us unique, is loved by God, and is the very concern of Christ and the Church.

 You would think we would hear more about it.

 I looked at two modern systematic theologies, both highly regarded, for a definition of soul. (Systematics, by the way, is doctrine that is formulated from the Old and New Testaments.) Both had lengthy discussions about the differing views of trichotomism, and dichotomism and monism, but only one had a definition of the soul: “The immaterial part of man; used interchangeably with spirit.”

 I don’t know about you, but that’s not much help to me.

 Another modern author calls the soul “imagination,” which I like fine, but again, this does not convey a lot of information. The great mystics of the Church, like St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton, write about the soul and the dark night of the soul, but don’t tell us what it is.

 The etymology, or history of a word can often be helpful for getting a sense of what it means. Interestingly, though, the origin of the word “soul” is unclear. No one really knows where it came from. When I learned this I wasn’t really surprised. It is a very difficult and mysterious word.

 The Greek word for soul, which our words psyche and psychological come from, is used 116 times in the New Testament, but there is some overlap between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Yet again, though, there is no description of the soul.
 So I thought I would try my own. Here goes. 

 Our soul is our very essence, the divine spark of being that makes us unique, gives us our character, our personal substance, our moral compass, our thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, inspiration, and imagination. It is the divine gateway through which God pours His love and grace into us, and through us into others. If we have no soul we have nothing, and are nothing. We have no being without a soul.

 What have you always dreamed of but dare not venture? That is the imagination of your soul calling out to you.

 While all of this sounds grand, you will notice that my definition also includes things that we find negative. We all have insecurities about who we are, and we have negative thoughts and emotions. Our shortcomings, fears, and anxieties are all a part of our substance and soul too.

 We are made beings, but we are not made perfectly. In fact, as I’ve written before, we need to spend time appreciating the true poverty of who we are and the agendas we plan. This is a form of the brokenness of our soul.

 If we spend the time we should taking a good long look at who we really are (and not who someone else tells us we are or should be) then we see the wide range of talents, thoughts, feelings, worries, cares, loves, hatreds, anxieties and so on that compose the essential person we are. We then begin to see the complexity of a single soul. 

 Now, multiply that times the six billion other souls on Earth, each unique unto that person, and you begin to have a very small appreciation of the astounding complexity of human life. Mix in good and evil, and the causes of the troubles that sweep the face of the planet make themselves apparent.

 Clinical psychology does not recognize the soul because it cannot be scientifically proven. But I would tell you of my belief that many of our personal and social maladies come from diseases of the soul. 

 I could keep going, but by now you have an appreciation of the daunting task of describing the soul, and why we hear so little about it.

 Now for the follow up questions. If our soul is so vital to who we are, why do we pay so little attention to it? Why does the Church pay so little attention to it? After all, our soul is at the very core of what makes us human and unique to God. How much time do we spend listening to it? How much time do we spend caring for it? We have nothing else when we die, so surely our souls deserve more attention.

 These are deep questions that I’ll be exploring over the next few weeks. This is part of the aftermath that helps me make sense of life for the Breens in the year 2010.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Aftermath - Part One

These are difficult times. Lynne died three months ago. It seems like yesterday, and then again it doesn't.

The reality of her absence has finally settled in among us, and right now we are three guys struggling with sorrow, grief, and plain old missing her. The suddenness of her death was so surprising we have been slow to grasp its reality. Lynne was not only wife and mother, she was the only female in the house. I can't quite tell you how, but the dynamic here has changed.

We are all grieving differently, and there is plenty to go around. It's like everyone is riding a roller coaster, except we're not on the same ride. My sons and I are hitting peaks and valleys at different times.

I want to respect the privacy of my sons, so I won't put their thoughts and feelings on public display. But I can tell you that watching them hurt is so painful for me. Most of the time they don't have to say anything: the shock, occasional anger, and distress is written on their faces.

I am managing them and myself, and sometimes it's tough keeping things together.

A big trigger for me has been going through all of Lynne's stuff. It is bittersweet, and very real. Some friends are helping organize and sell her clothing. It has been taken out of our closet and moved onto racks out in the garage to be inventoried and sold. Seeing a familiar piece of clothing sitting on a rack evokes emotions I really can't describe. (I am also impressed that she fit six racks of clothing in a relatively small space!)

And let me tell you, walking into a closet that is mostly empty drives home the fact of her death like nothing else. 

A really hard thing for me was taking her robes and gowns off the stand in the bathroom. These are items that she wore for years, and are so familiar to me. They weren't fit for sale, and weren't the sort of thing you keep for a memory. They were an everyday part of our life together. I couldn't bring myself to throw them away, so I just left them on the floor of the closet for days until I could muster the ability to dispose of them. Doing it had such a feeling of finality to it, like "yes, she really is gone, I am having to say goodbye in a very different but very concrete way, this is bad." 

Before we did any of this I let my in-laws come up and go through Lynne's belongings for keepsakes and things they could use. The first time we didn't get very far, because we kept lingering over individual items and sharing memories. We also had to decide what to let go, and what to keep for my sons and the families they will some day have. I came in late the second time they were here and they had several sackfuls of stuff. I couldn't even tell that they had made a dent in the closet.

I am also finding items I hadn't thought about in years, and they bring memories of the great times we had together and as a family. I posted a photo of Lynne early in our marriage, and another from a day at the creek while I was still in school, and before we married.

Talking about Lynne in the past tense is strange too. I still automatically call her my wife, but am slowly switching to "my late wife." I am now a "widower." How odd this is.

How do we deal with the unexpected death of a loved one? We're finding out, so stay tuned.



Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Real Deal

I’m exhausted. 

It has been a month since Lynne died, and I have been very busy. But were you to ask me what I have been busy doing I would be at a loss to tell you. 

The word “whirlwind” comes to mind. Events keep playing over and over in our minds, and everything seems unreal. We still can’t believe Lynne is gone. One of my in-laws said, “we keep thinking, ‘she’s been gone long enough, time for her to come back!’”

I understand exactly what they mean.

I have had so many “things” to take care of that I haven’t had time to look after myself. Now I have to. I am going to take some time off and just “be.”

This is the last post on CaringBridge. I’ll be moving everything over to a blog I set up called “Living Truths.” I’ll  post a link here in the next few weeks so everyone can find it. 

I’ll continue to write about Lynne and the events of our lives together, and I will also continue to muse upon Christianity, religion, and spirituality.

I remain awestruck by the number of people who follow the posts here, and I am flat dumbfounded by where the writing comes from. I never have a clear idea of what I am going to write about until I sit down, and then it flows. I think God calls it grace. 

So many of you have flattered me with many words of encouragement. Lots of folks are telling me I should be a writer. That is exactly where God leads me. In fact, God has been after me to write for quite some time. Before Lynne died I had five short stories in various stages of editing, and was having a web site built to publish them. I have the base ideas for my first novel in process, and I also want to write about modern Christianity. That’s all been on hold, but the events of the last month have deepened that conviction in my heart. I hope to have the web site up and the stories published in the next few months.

I have been searching my mind for the best way to describe who Lynne was, and I’ve decided that the phrase “the real deal” fits well. Lynne was real. There was nothing artificial about her. The laugh, the smile, the belief were all real. Lynne wasn’t perfect, but she did have perfections. She had perfect belief. She had perfect hope. She never doubted that God would see things through, and He always did.

Which begs the question, “what makes us real?” We can also ask the opposite question, “What makes us false?”
I do this routinely when I lead Bible studies. I’ll  start asking people, “Who are you?” Of course, no one ever volunteers an answer. Then I follow up with “Don’t tell me about your job, or your family, or that you’re a Christian. I want to know who you really are.” If no one speaks up, then I start selecting volunteers.

Boy do folks squirm. I never, ever get a good answer from them. 


There are lots of reasons for this, I think. Self-examination is extremely difficult. It requires honesty, and it is painful. We don’t like what we see, and we don’t like who we truly are. When we look rigorously inside ourselves we see fear, we feel shame for things we have said or done, and we have a deep sense of inadequacy. Some perhaps even see evil. Each of these qualities can form a part of our true self.

Ultimately, if we are faithful to this exercise we realize that we are broken.

No one likes to feel that way about themselves, so when asked about who we are we turn to our false self for definitions. Our false self comes from the things of the world we use to describe ourselves. It can be money, it can be a hobby, a job, or an accomplishment. It can even be religion. 

When we use externals to define us we neglect the person that God made. We forget that we are human beings. What that means is that we are beings made by God. He has willed us into existence. It is God who defines us, who gives us our personalities, our character, and our talents. If this is so, then why do we look outside ourselves to identify who we are? There is no reason for this beyond a simple lack of trust in Christ.

In Matthew 3:16-17 the Father told the Son, “You are my Son, the Beloved, my favor rests on you.” The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen tells us in Life of the Beloved  that “being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

God knows everything, and He certainly knows we that are broken. What we do not realize is how precious this makes us to Him. He loves us for it just as we love our own children when we see them in pain. As I mentioned last time, He uses our brokenness as an opening for His infinite love and grace. This is part of how He makes us holy.

But this happens only if we allow it, and only if we trust. We have to permit ourselves to receive God’s grace.

We’ve talked about faith as trust before, and about how holiness is an inside-out thing. It seems to me that confronting who we are in our brokenness is a vital part of this process. This is a deep truth that we will dwell upon some other time.

People who understand their being in Christ and their belovedness,  and then surpass their brokenness are truly rare. We sense this quality about them when we are in their presence. We sense their holiness.

That was Lynne. How many of us have some doubt every day about what we do? Lynne never did. She had the keenest sense of direction and spirituality of anyone I ever knew. She had this because her being, the real Lynne Breen, was centered in Christ. She knew she was beloved.

And now you have your answer when someone asks you who you are. Tell them, “I am the Beloved.”
This has been a dramatic time of change that began in January when I went to Gethsemane. That trip was the first in a cascade of events that continues to unfold. In the last month I lost my wife, my church, and a deep friendship. All are painful. One I had no control over. The others were at the hands of someone who sacrificed the Bible and our fellowship on the altar of personal expediency.

This is part of my personal brokenness, but I know that I too am the Beloved. God is making deep changes in me, and for that I give thanks.

A new season begins in my life, and in the life of my sons. Remember how I keep saying that death unleashes life? I see no accident in time as between the recent events in the lives of myself and my family, and Lent and Easter Sunday. The Resurrection was the historical event that unleashed life from death. So too has my wife’s death unleashed new life in myself, my sons, and others. We await eagerly the great lives He has prepared for us.

May you have a blessed Easter, and to God alone be the Glory!