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).

Renouncing Violence: A book review

Renouncing Violence book photo

 

Mary Margaret Funk’s latest book, Renouncing Violence, was born out of the fractious discourse across the world, but particularly in the United States. She writes in the preface: “The intent of this book is to gentle down. Calmness prevents and scatters violence. When violence is tamed, we find peace of heart. A working definition of violence is ‘form or forces that cause harm’.”

Funk has written ten books, primarily on training the mind which in turn converts the heart, including Thoughts Matter, among others. In Renouncing Violence, Funk clearly articulates how she trained her mind to convert her heart away from damaging thoughts and feelings which were impacting her life. She describes her purpose: “We can do something about violence …. Through renunciation, both individually and together, we can reduce, redirect, refrain, and reprogram our instinctual propensities toward retaliation, recompense, and rage.”  (xi)

Funk is conversant with the classical monastic writings, particularly the desert ammas and abbas from the 3rd and 4th centuries, which influence her understanding of training our minds in order to convert our hearts. Additionally, her knowledge of scripture, nurtured by years of practicing lectio divina informs her approach of inner heart movement from violence to nonviolence.

She describes her process of writing this book in three phases: first phase was listening and hearing that something new was happening these recent years: “The new normal [in our culture] was anxiety from within and fear from without.” (xi)

The second phase was listening to her own “disquietude.” After the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, “I realized that I was saturated with the affliction of anger.” A few months later Funk went on a weeklong retreat with a nun who “prayed out my anger.” But, Funk realized that she needed to guard her heart of anger returning “bringing seven more demons stronger than the first.” (xii)

Funk’s third phase was waiting on the Spirit to direct her to something that she should do about this new normal as “We are in a global bad mood.” She believes Jesus reversed violence through his death and resurrection and that there is “no anger in Jesus, only love.” Additionally, Funk is confident there is no wrath in God and the church was commissioned to extend God’s reign of love, peace, and shalom. From this foundation she wrote Renouncing Violence.
In the first chapter, Funk explores both the word “renunciation” and how to live a life of renunciation. She tells of her experience of choosing a vowed life in a Benedictine order. She had to renunciate her previous life in order to become a nun, she yields to the other members of her community, and devoting her life to God. “Renunciation is also a way to focus energies,” she writes.

Renunciation is also an opportunity to go beyond oneself for the sake of others. It is sweet to take on responsibilities that ensure other people’s desires are fulfilled, maybe even at some sacrifice.” (3)

But, she warns, “renunciation, in and of itself, will seem to have a missing piece if, indeed, there isn’t an overarching and underpinning belief.” (3)

For Funk, this “overarching and underpinning belief” is rooted in Jesus, whom she identifies as “the way out of violence.” She surveys 22 pericopes from all four gospels of Jesus as healer from which she concludes that,

Jesus’ healings show that he is the presence of God in the world enabling humanity to live a new life. Those healed by Jesus become free to become who they are meant to be, part of a community that lives in gratitude and praise, extending God’s work of restoration and healing to the world. (17-18)

She delves into the question if Jesus was ever angry stating “If Jesus was angry and did harm intentionally, then this narrative runs counter to all episodes where Jesus supported, healed, and restored life.” (18)

Furthermore, Funk reminds readers that none of the gospel accounts describe Jesus as angry but they do describe the priests and scribes as angry. The John account of Jesus clearing out the synagogue was an example of nonviolent prophetic action in the tradition of the prophetic witness displayed throughout the Old Testament: Jesus frees the birds, drives out the large animals, turns the tables, and strikes no one.

She summarizes the theme in the chapter “About the Practice of Renouncing Violence” of moving from violence to nonviolence; however, the structure of the chapter itself is a question and answer format rather than exposition. The content in the answers is excellent but the questions appear awkward, stilted, and ultimately off-putting. Nevertheless, Funk provides useful answers based on teachings from the early monastic tradition. She writes:

The training of the monastic way of life has an inner goal: shifting from self-consciousness to an immersion into a mystical consciousness, a knowing and experience of God acting from within, rather than the self acting toward the self. This shift is to have the self in service of God rather than God in service of the self.  (73)

Ultimately, Funk says, the early monastic practices are designed to “root out the affliction” of our anger and violent compulsions.

She concludes the book with three appendices: “Holy Water Prayer”, “Prayers in Time of Trouble”, “What I’ve Learned from Those Who’ve Been Harmed by Violence”; and a helpful bibliography for additional resources regarding nonviolence.

Renouncing Violence is an accessible, straight-forward book that could be used in small groups, Sunday school classes, or weekend retreats for study for those wanting to turn away from “disquietude” in contemporary culture and toward a loving, compassionate, nonviolent approach to all of life.

This review appeared May 17, 2019 on the Englewood Review of Books website.

What the World Needs Now: Boundless Compassion (book review)

 

 

Boundless-Compassion-3d

Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life

By Joyce Rupp

(Sorin Books, 2018) 211 pp

 

Soon after a close friend’s death, Joyce Rupp had a life-changing experience which she describes in her new book, Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life (Sorin Books). As she stood at her patio door:

I was trying to absorb this enormous loss when a hummingbird fluttered in front of my face, just a few inches outside the glass. It hovered there, facing me for several minutes, enough time to convince me that my friend—who treasured those little creatures—was assuring me all would be well. As the tiny bird departed, an inner knowing swept through my being: ‘Love is all that counts.’ Since that moment I have never been the same. (p. 2-3)

Rupp attributes this “showing” by her friend as a compassionate presence, convinced that the message was for her. “I turned from the patio door determined to give the rest of my life to living in such a way that compassion would be the most essential focus.” (ibid)

While Rupp was doing graduate studies at Naropa University, a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado, she read a description of an upcoming workshop to be led by the Dalai Lama. During her studies, she came to appreciate the emphasis on compassion within Buddhism and was committed to integrating compassion more deeply within her Christian life. As she read the Dalai Lama workshop details she wondered: “I really appreciate his wisdom. I wonder who is teaching Christians how to be more compassionate?”

Rupp heard God’s call to teach Christians how to live with more compassion. This book is part of Rupp’s response to God’s call. The book is a six-week study designed for individual study or a weekly group study.

Each week’s focus builds on the previous week’s theme:

  • Compassion as a Way of Life
  • Welcoming Ourselves
  • The River of Suffering
  • From Hostility to Hospitality
  • A Thousand Unbreakable Links
  • Becoming a Compassionate Presence.

Within each week’s section are daily reflections followed by questions for pondering, a prayer, and short Scripture verses to “carry in your heart today.” Just as each week builds upon the other so do the daily meditations lead the reader into a deeper exploration of the theme. Day seven is always “Review and Rest” with a series of examen questions over the previous week. After completing this book, Rupp suggests creating a “Circle of Compassion” monthly group as a way to encourage and nurture one another to live a more compassionate life.

Rupp created the book to lead readers and participants to an inner transformation that includes compassion for both our enemies and ourselves. The purpose of the book is to establish a spiritual discipline of compassionate transformation which will in turn enable us to become the compassionate presences needed around the world.

Yet, throughout the book,Rupp reminds the reader that compassion is more than being “nice” or even “kind.” She underscores the reality that compassion draws us closer to suffering whether it is our own, our families, our communities, or our globe. Rupp quotes the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross on what she discovered in her research on death and dying:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. (Positive Outlooks Blog, quoted in Boundless Compassion, p.182)

If we are to be transformed we need to participate in the daily spiritual practices Rupp leads us through Boundless Compassion. She concludes her book with this blessing: “The journey of compassion does not stop with the end of this book. It has only begun. So much waits to be discovered, explored, and integrated into daily living. Compassionate presence will always require taking another step further into personal transformation. This way of life is continually evolving.”

Rupp has also created a small book, Prayers of Boundless Compassion (Sorin) and a set of five DVDs, each one containing an hour-long presentation by Rupp which covers one of the topics from the primary text, available at www.joycerupp.com.

(This review was first published at Englewood Review of Books, May 3, 2018)

What Sustains Me

Youngest niece with her kitten

(My youngest niece with her companion). Photo by Jill Warden

 

7) At the four-way stop on the road from our house to our work there is a parade of roosters, chickens, and ducks moving from corner to corner. Often a rooster is leading the flock like a drum major. I laugh out loud every time I see them.

6) I am delighted during a chat with my 9-year-old niece as she tells me of her class report “Facts about Cats.” I’m not a cat person but I ask follow-up questions which she answers with authority and passion.

5) At The Hermitage, the contemplative retreat center where I work, we begin meals for our guests with ”Food is God’s love made edible.” Our meals are fresh and nutritious from ingredients grown at local farms. Who can compare the taste of freshly harvested beets to beets from a can on the grocery shelf?

4) At the beginning of meeting with retreat guests seeking spiritual direction, I light the oil lamp to remind us that God is with us and we do not have to be afraid. I listen with a prayerful, soulful heart as they entrust their stories to me. Sometimes the vibrational energy is strong and it unnerves me when I remember the stories of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross levitating in their conversations. I am not levitating and I don’t have to be afraid.

3) When my husband gazes at me with love and I am reminded of Julian of Norwich: “I look at God and God looks back at me.” I receive those gazes as the loving face of God.

2) Hermitage morning prayers end affirming each other with: “[Name], you are the bearer of God’s infinite life.” Some days I believe I can be a God-bearer and other days, not a chance.

1) What sustains? God. God is in all, through all, is all.

 

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

people-545549__340--blog post

 

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.

 

A confession based on Isaiah 6:1-8

statues--5-1-17 blog post

(in unison)

 

O God, we confess to you that we are a people of unclean lips:

we have complained aloud;

we have spoken harshly to others;

we have used sarcasm.

*

Forgive us, Merciful God.

We know that our lips reflect our hearts.

*

O God, we ask that you create us to be people of grateful hearts:

let us rejoice aloud;

let us speak kindly to others;

let us use patience.

*

Thank You Merciful God

for your patience;

for your kindness;

for your joy.

Amen.

In Prayer

 

800px-celtic_cross_knock_ireland

(Wikipedia; Creative Commons)

 

The Lord’s Prayer

(in the spirit of Celtic spirituality)

O God, you love us like a good parent, and are present in every aspect of our existence.

May your nature become known and respected by all.

May your joy, peace, wholeness and justice be the reality for everyone as we live by the Jesus Way.

Give us all that we really need to live every day for you.

And forgive us our failures as we forgive others for their failures.

Keep us from doing those things which are not of you, and cause us always to be centered on your love.

For you are the true reality in this our now, and in all our future.

In the Jesus Way we pray. Amen.

–David Sorril

In Review

blogpost-assimilateorgohomeAssimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

by D.L. Mayfield (HarperOne, 2016) 207 pps.

In Assimilate or Go Home, D.L. Mayfield recounts her college-age desires to go to the mission field and save all of the lost souls to Jesus Christ. She describes her Christian college classes which focus on missions and how she earnestly engages with the assigned readings, professors, and classmates. She volunteers to teach English as a second language to Somali Bantu refugees who recently arrived in Portland, Oregon. As she begins to spend time with them she experiences internal dissonance and external resistance from the people she was “ministering to.” Eventually, this dissonance leads her away from missions, per se, to a life of living with, alongside the people she was initially planning to convert.

 
The book is organized by essays which highlight Mayfield’s journey from a naïve, eager would-be overseas missionary to a wiser, experienced Christian who lives in a poor, multicultural neighborhood. Many of the essays were previously published but are gathered here for an effective memoir.

 
In the essay “Vacation Bible Schools” Mayfield describes taking some of the refugee children to a week-long program popular in many evangelical churches. The theme for the VBS was “The Serengeti” with suggestions to decorate the church rooms with African-themed images.

 
Mayfield took a van full of children and “they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage.” As she directed her children to a drinking fountain she overheard a small child exclaim, “Oh! They brought us kids from the Serengeti!” She realized that the church children thought the refugee children were props:

I wanted to self-righteously shake my finger and rant about “othering” people, but I was supposed to be the exemplary volunteer. . . . I glared at everyone around me. I felt smug, secure in my own saintliness as I bustled around my group of exotics, the only diverse kids in the large, pale bunch. I drove all the kids home, but decided not to bring them the next night.

Yet, as Mayfield reflected later on this experience she realized that her refugee friends were sort of a prop for her own life. “When I finally started to believe the opposite, to see them as complex, flesh-and-blood people, everything got much harder … And my view of myself was irrevocably changed.”

 
Mayfield is a skilled writer, bringing the reader into her life while revealing her thoughts, questions, and struggles.

 
I first read this book last fall, shortly after it was published. I began re-reading in early January before the inauguration and before the executive order banning refugees from seven predominately-Muslim countries was issued. In response to the ban, Mayfield posted on her blog, “Ten ways to support refugees.” This list is very helpful with practical suggestions.

Prayer of the week (with audio)

By June Mears Driedger

By June Mears Driedger

“O God, come to my assistance,    

Make haste to help me!”  (Ps. 70:1)

Loving God, Compassionate God~

I need help. I’m stuck on a freezing river of inertia and unable to create.

I’m spinning my wheels, unable to gain traction to follow-through with my ideas, dreams, and projects.

So, please help me. Please come to my assistance.

Please send someone to give me a push, or put chains on my tires, or spread salt or sand, or whatever it takes to give my wheels a grip and to get moving.

Help me to not be afraid of the ice but learn to navigate myself without doing harm to myself or to my creativity.

And, please remind me that ice does melt, eventually. And that the spinning of my creative wheels may be just a season, and like the ice, the season will change.

Thank you God for coming to my assistance (I’m praying with confidence that you will respond to my prayer). AMEN.