Book Review–Unteachable Lessons: Why wisdom can’t be taught (and why that’s okay) by Carl McColman

unteachable lessons review

For Carl McColman, author of the new book Unteachable Lessons, meeting his future daughter propelled him into living within unknown possibilities. A self-described introvert who is too stuck in his head, Rhiannon drew him out of his shyness with her freedom to engage him. Rhiannon lived with polycystic kidney disease and had a stroke when she was three years old. She needed daily care from Fran, Rhiannon’s mother and McColman’s wife, health care staff, and eventually McColman himself. When Fran introduced McColman to Rhiannon she said, “I’m so happy to meet you” and leaned over and tugged on his beard.

For the next twenty-two years McColman learned to stay grounded and live in the present moment as he cared for his daughter. After Rhiannon’s death at twenty-nine, McColman discovered that intertwined with his grief was gratitude for those years with Rhiannon, “I just kept feeling wave after wave of appreciation, grateful for the privilege of having been part of [her] life …. How much she taught me, about playfulness, about humor, about zest, about dignity in suffering, about letting life be imperfect, about forgiveness.”  McColman understood his life with Rhiannon lead him from narcissism to compassion, a deep interior transformation, which is an unteachable lesson, a “syllabus [which] is nothing more than our willingness to be present.”

McColman has written several books on mysticism, such as The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism, and books on contemplation, including Befriending Silence, and Answering the Contemplative Call. He is also a co-host of the podcast, “Encountering Silence.” McColman is well-acquainted with contemplative practices.

In Unteachable Lessons, McColman shares his experiences as someone “stuck in his head”, who confesses to struggles with his ego and to love wholeheartedly. These qualities were especially apparent in his relationship with his wife and daughter. His life with them was a continual instruction of unteachable lessons and readers are the beneficiary of his learnings. McColman describes these lessons as moments when one is changed forever. “When you learn what can never be taught, don’t try to teach anyone else, either. Maybe the best you can do is tell your story or point somebody in a direction and say, ‘this way.’” This book is McColman sharing his story and offering readers a map toward a deeper intimacy with God.

Early in the book McColman shares a transcendent moment he experienced at age sixteen. He was at a youth winter camp, singing with the other campers during a worship service when he discovered,

As I relaxed into a sense of connection with my fellow winter celebrants, I realized I was filled with a quiet joy and a serenity that seemed new to me, a feeling I had never registered before. This was not merely a fleeting moment of ecstasy—it was too grounded, too silent, too humble to be described as rapture. … Something shifted in my mind and in my heart, in my awareness and perception. Whatever it was, I could feel it in my bones …. I felt as if I had suddenly recognized that I was one with God. (35)

This experience set him on a trajectory of seeking additional experiences of union with God but without success. Years later, McColman realized that he was chasing the experience of God rather than pursuing God: “…we run the risk of making an experience of God more important to us than God is.” A consequence of pursuing experiences can create unhelpful, or even toxic, images of God which can damage our faith and our ability to “love and show mercy and forgiveness to others.”

According to McColman, the unteachable lesson in his story is “to receive God in whatever way God may come to us …. What matters is not how you find God but rather how does God find you?”

McColman writes about contemplative silence as one who is deeply rooted in silence. He recognized silence as a gift rather than something to be feared while on retreat with the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC. During the retreat the participants were invited to spend forty-five minutes in silence with one another. McColman had a joyful sense of “so this is what I’ve been looking for.”

Despite his feelings of coming home, he describes his relationship with silence as rocky:

“I would sit down for twenty minutes of meditative prayer, eager to bask in silence, only to find that I had an internal dialogue going on that simply refused to shut up.” His experience is common amongst others trying to deepen their relationship with silence. McColman suggests that silence is always present no matter our distractions and waits for us as we wrestle with our chattering ego.  The unteachable lesson is that “silence, more than anything else within us, is the doorway to the presence of God…Silence is God’s first language, and silence is the deepest language of our souls.”

McColman concludes his book with the reminder that spiritual books can never replace the importance of living into the lessons that life alone can give us. As the German poet, Ranier Marie Rilke wrote to a young poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer,” so McColman encourages readers to “…do the work of living, of praying, of loving, of trusting, of listening to the silence” as learning the unteachable lessons in order to grow in wisdom.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books).

Prayer for Compassion

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The Good Samaritan

(I wrote this prayer years ago but I’ve been praying it again

and offer it to you for your prayers).

 

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a compassionate heart.

I pray for a heart that is willing to expand with your compassion, with your love.

I pray for a set of compassionate eyes that see what your eyes see.

I pray for a set of compassionate ears that hear what your ears hear.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a heart willing to extend compassion to those who annoy me, infuriate me, enrage me.

Help me to see these people as your children, worthy of your love and compassion and therefore deserving of my love and compassion.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a heart that is bold enough to seek reconciliation with those whom I have hurt, harmed or dismissed.

Help me to understand, to know (deep in my bones), that to live compassionately toward others means living at peace with them.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a heart that is gentle with myself when I fail to be compassionate-because I will fail. I will stumble.

Help me to extend the same compassion toward myself that I want to offer others.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray that my desire and my attempts to live compassionately (to be compassionate) will encourage others to be compassionate-one by one by

one-until our world is filled with compassionate people, filled with people who have your compassionate heart pulsing through us. Amen.

 

Prayer of the week: 2018 flu

blog-flu prayer

 

Healing God—
Be present to all of those who are sick—family members, friends, and acquaintances.
Be with them as they rest and repair their bodies.

Healing God—
Be present to the family members and caregivers of the sick ones—give them stamina, patience, and wisdom as they tend to those they love.

Healing God—
Be present to the medical professionals who desire to meet the demand for medications, for full-health for their patients, and to calm fearful caregivers. Give them stamina, good health, patience, wisdom, and a sense of humor as they care for a sick population.

Loving God—
Be present to the families whose loved ones have died due to the flu. Touch their sorrowing hearts as they grieve their loss.

Wise God—
Be present to those in power that they may make wise decisions about both health care and sick leave. Give them compassionate hearts toward those in need and not overly concerned about money.

Wise God—
Be present to the media and give them wisdom and prudence to not make a challenging situation worse by over-reporting. Let the media be of assistance to the community—local and national—rather than creating more fear.

Wise God—
Be present to each of us and enable us to be wise and prudent in how we care for others and for our own bodies. Help us to be gentle with one another. And remind us: “Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you … I was sick and you took care of me,” Matt. 25: 34-36.

Loving God–
Thank you for listening to our prayers, today and always. Amen.

***

(Not me in the photo but it could have been for the past few weeks. I am grateful for Kevin, family members, medical professionals, and medicine).

 

Prayer for a New Year

Blog--New Year Prayer

So, here we are God, a new year, a new beginning, a fresh start.

But I’m still feeling worn out,

wrung out,

tuckered out from this past year.

I don’t know if I have the inner wherewithal for a fresh start.

 

Your faithful servant, Benedict, wrote: “Always we begin again.”

It’s a statement of grace,

a reassurance that your mercies are new every morning,

and that there is a wideness in your love.

 

So, I will take you at your word that we begin again. Just as the new year comes around so does your assurance that as challenging as this past year was, we begin again. We begin fresh. We enter 2018 girded by your love, your mercy, your compassion.

 

And, as we are girded and strengthened by your love,

help us to extend love,

mercy, and

compassion to one another and to ourselves.

 

So, thanks God. Here’s to a new year.

Prayer of the Week

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(We prayed the following prayer and words of assurance on Sunday and the words resonated with me. I thought I would share them with you!)

 

Prayer of Confession

Happy are those who turn away from the counsel of the wicked.

But oh, that counsel can be so seductive

it draws us in,

holds us fast,

distracts our priorities,

obstructs our capacity to love.

 

But we seek no obstructions, we reject wicked counsel.

We embrace God’s embrace.

 

For whatever ways we don’t, we confess.

In whichever ways we sin, we repent.

 

Hear our prayers, O God, as before you, we seek wholeness.

Silence

God of mercy, grace, reconciliation and goodness:

We are sorry for so much—

For words we cannot bear to say,

For memories we cannot bear to relive,

For thoughts we cannot bear to admit.

But you know our hearts.

Relieve us of our burdens,

Bind our hearts not to the unbearable but rather, to you.

So that, in all ways,

We may live in the joy of your salvation

And the delight of your loving embrace.

 

Words of Assurance:

Praise be to God, our sins are forgiven.

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

 

–Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ; Rev. Kaji S. Dousa

I light a candle for …

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I light a candle for my brother-in-law’s colleague who was shot in Las Vegas.

I light a candle for that kindergarten class who was told she wouldn’t be returning.

I light a candle for the families planning funerals and memorial services.

I light a candle for the medical responders who bear witness to the power of a bullet to damage human flesh and tissue.

I light a candle for the people of Puerto Rico recovering from natural devastation.

I light a candle for the families still waiting to connect with other family members in the Caribbean.

I light a candle for the people of Houston making new plans, meeting with insurance agents, clearing out destroyed homes and rotted furniture.

I light a candle for those family members who cycle back into grief, pain, and despair with each shooting massacre.

I light a candle for ….

Into the desert

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I park my car on the roadside in the national park of Joshua Tree, California. I’ve spotted a big rock that is close enough to the road that I can see who is coming and but the rockis big enough to offer me some privacy.

I’ve come to the desert as another step toward moving from Los Angeles, California to Elkhart, Indiana to attend seminary at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I know attending seminary is God’s invitation, God’s calling, but I am reluctant to move from the city I love, from my home church, from my family, and from childhood friends. I have come to the desert to grieve and to release my Los Angeles life to God.

My decision to go to Joshua Tree National Park is an intuitive one, or perhaps a response to God’s nudge to go a place where I can experience God deeply, to follow Jesus’ example of going to a wilderness place to pray. My drive to Joshua Tree becomes a pilgrimage via concrete highways and my car. I drive in silence, preparing my heart and mind for the day.

After I park I settle on the dirt with my back resting on the large rock with my backpack beside me. I retrieve my journal, multicolored pens and pencils, a small box of matches, and a full water bottle. I begin to write all that I will miss when I move: the San Gabriel mountains, the Pacific ocean, the Pasadena Mennonite congregation, etc. I write and write and begin to cry. I want to yield myself to God’s call but surrendering is hard.

As I continue to write I begin to pray aloud, offering each line and image to God. Occasionally I sit in silence with my upright open palms resting on my knees—it is a position of release, of offering my life—again—to God.

After a while I walk around, gazing at the desert land and the expansive sky. My heart feels clear—not blank or empty—but clear from my intense prayer time. I am grateful for the deep silence of the desert.  In the book, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Christine Valters Paintner, writes: “The desert is a place of deep encounter, not a place of superficial escape. It is a place that strips you down to the essentials, forcing you to let go of all the securities you cling to in life ….”

I return to “my” rock and continue to pray: “I breathe in your love; I breathe out my fear.” Again I sit in silence in a position of yielding. As this prayer subsides, I return to what I wrote earlier and tear the pages out then dig a hole in the dirt with my hands. I continue to tear my paper until it is in small pieces then I place it into the hole and set it on fire as an additional gesture of relinquishing my Los Angeles life. As the fire subsides I pour water over the ashes and cover them with the dirt, tamping it down with my hands. I stand and offer another prayer: “I give myself to you, O God.”

Alan Jones wrote in Soul Making:

A desert of the spirit: a place of silence, waiting, and temptation. It is also the place of revelation, conversion, and transformation…It involves being “made over,” being made new, being “born again.” The desert, then, is a place of revelation and revolution. In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.

My experience in the Joshua Tree desert is a time of revelation, conversion, and transformation for me. As I relinquish the life I love to God, I understand that I love God more and am born again, again. I exit the desert experiencing a transformation—from grieving the significant transition of moving to anticipating the transition and what I would experience in my new life at seminary. I drive home in silence, absorbing this transformation.

Praying the News

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The last few weeks the news has been sickeningly familiar: bombings, war, violence, accidents, murders, disasters, fear, misunderstandings, hate—the list of humanity’s failures and sufferings goes on and on.

 How do we respond as Christians?

What can we do about all these distressing things that continue to happen around us?

Here is a possibility: We pray the news. It’s an idea I picked up several years ago while at a conference on contemplative prayer. I became captivated by the idea and began experimenting with praying the news. I discovered it can make a difference not only in my world but also in how I approach the world.

At first thought, praying the news can simply a quick prayer after reading the headlines or listening to the news. But it’s more than that. It involves what Anabaptists believe about spirituality: that it involves both action and contemplation. We cannot effectively act without prayer, not can we effectively pray without acting.

To pray about the events occurring in our world, we must believe that God does listen and does respond to our prayers on behalf of others. There are three requirements to pray the news effectively: faith, stamina, involvement.

Faith: The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The mystery and confounding aspect of prayer is that we can’t measure its effectiveness. We don’t know when we have prayed for something or someone, and it happened as we had prayed, that it’s a direct result of our prayers. Frankly,  we tend to explain away results rather than believe in answered prayer.

For example, I lived in Los Angeles during the two trials of the police officers who beat Rodney King in the early 1990s. During the first trial I didn’t pray at all for the legal process, for the jury, for the witnesses, for the truth to be told and not distorted. The result of that verdict: Los Angeles was gripped by fear and anger and hostility for more than three days in riots across the city.

During the second trial, I prayed diligently. I know churches throughout the city were also praying for justice and peace. The result after that verdict: peace and—depending on who you talked with—justice.

We can explain away the difference. The second judge was wise to have the verdicts read on a Saturday at 7:00 a.m., the city officials were prepared, and on and on. Or we can believe that God—in response to our prayers—gave the judge wisdom and enable the city officials to be prepared. At some point we choose to believe that God is listening and moving on behalf of the prayers of us who are God’s children.

Stamina: We pray for the world because God has called us to pray. Paul encourages u in Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”—to pray diligently. Paul understood how easy it is to give up praying because we don’t often see measurable results. Or something good may happen and we can stop praying about. We need to continue praying.

Diligent, unceasing prayer is work. It takes concentration. It requires stamina made by strong by faith. If all we can do is pray for five minutes, we must pray those five minutes. But we must also strive to increase the “prayer muscle” by working up to ten minutes a day.

Involvement: To pray effectively requires involvement. A basic level of involvement is the news media. If while watching the news we hear of a murder, we can pray for the victim’s family, for the surrounding community, for the investigation, for the perpetrator. We can pray about the fear the victim’s family will experience, the anguish in imagining final moments, the rage against the murderer.

But we must not stop there. We must go on to pray for a government. Pray God’s goodness into that system. I sometimes pray God into a system by using the image of someone breathing into another while trying to resuscitate that person. Breathe God into systems.

If there is a bill to be decided, pray for the committee, pray for the committee staff, pray for the lobbyists, pray for the family of government officials. Pray for wisdom and for eyes that see and ears that hear for those government employees. And, engage with government workers, including staff and elected officials. Act on your prayers on behalf of others.

Occasionally I like to use Pavlov’s psychological discovery in my prayers. I’ve prayed for dictators and warlords like this: whenever the lust of power sweeps over them, I ask that God will put either a bad taste in their mouths or that an overwhelming nausea may seize them. My hope is that they will eventually equate power with physical illness. Will it work? Beats me. But I am called to pray regardless of the results.

Praying the news can change our lives as we learn to act in tandem with our prayers. And praying the news can change the lives of others as we act with wisdom and insight as a result of our prayers.

A Plea for God’s Help

 

empty bench--blog 8-2017

Oh God, where are you?

You have disappeared from our world,

It seems you have turned your back on us when we desperately need You.

 

We need you to act and move in this world—

bombs, tear gas, and cars are flying and falling,

people are dying

while the powers keep talking and talking and not listening and listening.

 

Oh God, where are you?

Have you have abandoned us?

Have you left us when we desperately need you?

 

We need you to give us words and voices to talk to the powers–

we need you to break through their words and worlds and cause them to pause, to listen.

We need you to halt the hate, death, and destruction that is occurring all over the globe.

We need you.

 

Oh God, your word promises us that you will never leave us nor forsake us.

Please show yourself to us and to the world.

Please pour out your goodness, your love, your mercy to all of us.

Oh God, please act and move in this world, today and everyday. Amen

 

 

 

A Prayer for Those Recovering from Denominational Meetings

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Loving God, Compassionate God—

We gathered to do the work of the church which we believe is your work.

We were sincere, hopeful, uncertain, and anxious.

We were eager to see old friends and anticipated making new ones.

We hoped to worship together as your people.

 

But, O God, it is really hard to work with other people sometimes.

We feel unheard, misunderstood, dismissed by others who also feel unheard, misunderstood, dismissed.

We are hurt, angry, and flirting with bitterness.

We are exhausted: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. And we wonder: why I am working so hard to do the work of the church?

 

So, Loving God, restore us.

Restore our energy.

Restore our hope.

Restore our desire to create your kin-dom here on earth.

 

And, Compassionate God, help us to release our bitterness and in our releasing, receive your lovingkindness.

Help us to release our hurt and in our releasing, receive your comforting presence.

As we reflect on the meetings, gives us eyes to see and ears to hear what needs to be seen and heard.

 

Finally, O God, let us see where you were present and moving in the gathering.

Most of all, as always, reveal to us your loving face in all and throughout all of our life and in the lives of others.

We praise and bless your holy name. Amen.