Drawn into the Deep

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Ocean-Bound.07.30.2006

A morning prayer for the Spirit to move us:

Tender powerful Spirit,
who goes wherever you will,
like a flowing fountain soothe us,
like a mighty river transport us,
like a mountain lake enchant us,
like a gentle rain wash over us,
like a boundless ocean draw us into the deep. Amen.

Words (c) 2019 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Contemplation: A Long Loving Look at the Real

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img-9914The obstacles to contemplation are graphically summed up in a comic strip – mother inside the house, looking out a window, her little boy sitting in the yard with his back to a tree:

Mother:“Ditto, what are you doing out there?”

Ditto:“Nothing.”

Mother:“You must be doing something! Now tell me!”

Ditto:“I’m not doing anything.”

Mother:“Ditto! You tell me what you’re doing!”

Ditto (to himself): “Good gosh!” (He tosses a stone.)(out loud):“I’m throwing rocks!”

Mother:“I thought it was something like that. Now stop it at once!”

Ditto:“Okay.” (to himself):“Nobody will let you just do nothing any more.”[i]

Thankfully, my Midwestern childhood gave me plenty of space to do nothing much and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes it was a long lazy afternoon of baseball in the side lot. Other times it was canoeing and fishing on the slow-moving Fox River. And when I was feeling especially adept at “nothing doing,” I would lie in the tall summer grass and gaze at the clouds in the sky and dream of what my life might be.

Then as I grew into adolescence and young adulthood I shed my doing of nothing in favor of the rule most Americans live by: “Only useful activity is valuable, meaningful, moral.” I was so eager to become an adult that at the age of 22 I simultaneously got married, started full-time church employment, purchased a brand new Oldsmobile, trained for a marathon, and began my seminary education as a commuter student. Always the over-achiever! It took about three years for my entire world to come crashing in on me (a story for another day)!

The prayer of Jesus in the 17thchapter of the Gospel of John feels remarkably intimate to me – like eavesdropping on a conversation between Jesus and the One he calls “Abba.” Jesus prays, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”(17:21). “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, as we are one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”(17:23).

This prayer recognizes a unity within community that is possible when we set aside our egos long enough to seek the Presence of Love that is the Word made flesh among us! Thomas Merton once observed, “Hard as it is to convey in human language, there is a very real and very recognizable (but almost entirely undefinable) Presence of God, in which we confront Him in prayer knowing Him by Whom we are known, aware of Him Who is aware of us, loving Him by Whom we know ourselves to be loved.”[ii]

How do we enter this contemplative way of being, this journey inward? How do we create enough space in the soul’s inner landscape to welcome the One who made us, the One who redeems us, the One who will sustain us until we are home?

When one is young one thinks one knows things! This was true for me when I jumped into adulthood with both feet. I knew I was called into pastoral ministry. I knew I was committed to my young wife until death do us part. I knew I was going to set the world afire. Then I became acquainted with Reality, and it was not overly impressed with my newly minted college degree, or my naive sense of call, or my obligatory marital promises. Indeed it called all of these into question!

I walked through valleys of disillusionment and despair in my twenties and early thirties as I experienced what felt like loss after loss. Ministry became drudgery, marriage a source of deep pain, and life a matter of survival. It turns out that all the books in the theological library were inadequate to meet my existential needs, and Reality set about to educate me on my utter dependence on God!

During this period in my life I wondered: How can I be more present to the Divine Presence in ways that will heal and bring wholeness? Am I able to step fully into the embrace of the One by Whom we are known, loved, forgiven, and brought to awareness of the richness of life?

Marjorie Thompson once wrote, “In contemplation we move from communicating with God through speech to communing with God through the gaze of love. Words fall away, and the most palpable reality is being present to the lover of our souls. When we let go of all effort to speak or even to listen, simply becoming quiet before God, the Spirit is free to work its healing mysteries in us: releasing us from bondage, energizing new patterns of life, restoring our soul’s beauty. Here we allow ourselves to be loved by God into wholeness.”[iii]

For years now a description by contemplative Carmelite William McNamara has spoken to me. He describes contemplation as a long loving look at the real.He calls it “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” He explains that while it is possible to study things, “unless you enter into this intuitive communion with them, you can only know about them, you don’t knowthem. To take a long loving lookat something – a child, a glass of wine, a beautiful meal – this is a natural act of contemplation, of loving admiration.”[iv]

Walter Burghardt adds, “reality is living, pulsing people; … reality is the sun setting over the Swiss Alps, a gentle doe streaking through the forest; reality is a ruddy glass of Burgundy, Beethoven’s Mass in D, a child lapping a chocolate ice-cream cone; reality is a striding woman with wind-blown hair; reality is the risen Christ.”[v]“And so I am most myself, most human, most contemplative when my whole person responds to the real.”[vi]

When I was serving a small rural church in the desert, the parsonage was located just around the corner from the church. So I always walked to work, coming home for lunch, and again at the end of the day. My son Ethan was just a few years old at the time, but he knew my daily routine.

At the end of each morning or afternoon, as I crossed the intersection on my way home and set foot on Cedar Avenue, I would catch a glimpse of our rather plain looking white house. And almost without fail, the drapes in the front picture window would be slightly pulled back and a little head would be sticking up, just watching, waiting, knowing that his daddy would soon be home.

Then, when he saw me he ran out the door as fast as he could, across the front yard and into my grateful arms. I knelt down to receive my son, whose exuberant love astonished me. This is prayer– running to the One in whom we are known and loved and held in welcoming arms.

There were days when Ethan ran out that door with tears in his eyes because something had happened to make him sad or angry. But, you see, he still came running. No matter what kind of day he was having, he wanted nothing more than to be held in strong loving arms and to tell his daddy all about it. Are we this hungry for prayer?

What would it mean for us to cultivate silence within the rhythms of each day – sacred pauses, if you will – so that we might take a long loving look at the real? What would it mean to commune with God, receiving and returning the gaze of love, letting words fall silently away and simply being present? Others might equate it with doing nothing, but we would know this contemplation as time spent with the lover of our souls. We would let it all hang out – our hurts, our fears and struggles as well as our joys, our dreams and hopes, and allow ourselves to be loved into wholeness by the One who is Holy Mystery.

[i]Walter J. Burghardt, “Contemplation: A long loving look at the real,” Church, Winter ’89, p. 15.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, p. 44.

[iii]Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, p. 48.

[iv]Burkhardt, p. 15.

[v]Burkhardt, p. 15.

[vi]Burkhardt, p. 16.

Words (c) 2019 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Spring is Still Coming

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California super bloom 2019 (Photo credit: Amy Aitken)

“They can cut all the flowers, but they cannot stop spring from coming.”
~ Pablo Neruda

Poets tend to tell the truth more than others. It is the poet’s intent to dig up the soil of our collective unconscious and expose what we all know to be true. Prophets do this work too. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Growing up in the Midwest I think I learned neutrality and silence quite well. It was important not to butt into other peoples’ business, and not to confront anyone. Then I went to seminary to learn to be a pastor and trained in counseling and conflict resolution skills in order to become an active listener and a non-anxious presence in the churches I would serve. These are good and useful skills, but not in every situation. Sometimes, as Jesus himself demonstrated, it’s necessary to turn some tables over and get peoples’ attention!

The Special Called General Conference held in February dealt a serious blow to progressive and centrist United Methodists who believe that God works through many expressions of faithfulness. Traditionalists won the day with their plan to reinforce the bans on ordaining openly gay persons to pastoral ministry and marrying same-sex couples. It seems that traditionalists are unable to get beyond their certainty that human sexuality is a gift from God only for straight people.

So here we are at this moment of truth! For many, the United Methodist Church – as wonderful of a witness as it has been in the world for global missions, humanitarian relief, and a merging of personal and social holiness – is no longer able to hold together the vast differences embodied in a worldwide church. Systemic change will be required, and this will likely mean an entirely new expression of inclusive Methodism able to welcome and accept the richness of humanity in its life and ministry.

The Judicial Council rulings last week were not unexpected. They found parts of the Traditional Plan to be constitutional (per the Book of Discipline) and parts to be unconstitutional. There were few surprises, but what remained when all was said and done, was the pain of betrayal and exclusion. Betrayal, because if you baptize a child and claim her as a child of God and then later tell her that she is living outside God’s will because of her sexual orientation, you are betraying her. Exclusion, because by trying to have it both ways – saying you welcome someone but only if he gives up his God-given gender identity – you are excluding him. This is where we are. This is the truth!

Eight young people were recently to be confirmed at First United Methodist Church of Omaha, Nebraska. These youth love their local church and its expressions of inclusion. But they collectively chose not to join the United Methodist Church until they see how their church responds to the denomination’s unjust and immoral policies on LGBTQ+ clergy and same sex marriage. They powerfully state: “We are not standing just for ourselves, we are standing for every single member of the LGBTQ+ community who is hurting right now. Because we were raised in this church, we believe that if we all stand together as a whole, we can make a difference.” They are choosing to take sides, to not remain neutral or silent! Spring is coming, and no one can stop it!

In Springtime Hope,
Mark

Words by Mark Lloyd Richardson (C) 2019

God of Still Mornings

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Early in my pastoral ministry in Los Osos, California, I was already falling in love with the varied topography and weather patterns of coastal living, when I wrote this hymn text inspired by my new physical surroundings. It’s been sung a few times in worship settings since then, but I just this week shared the words with friends who are in a covenant group with me. I told them about this place I loved (and still do, though we don’t currently live here) and what was significant about it in the feeding of my soul. It was only as I searched for the text that I realized I had never shared it here in my blog.

“God of Still Mornings”
(May be sung to the tune of “Be Thou My Vision”)

God of still mornings draped softly in mist,
we sing your praises upon grateful lips.
Heirs of your promise you clothe us in grace.
Call us in silence as we seek your face.

God of flower’d bluffs swept by winds off the sea,
we pray your mercies upon bended knee.
Children of dust to the earth we return.
Call us in beauty your gifts to discern.

God of deep valleys brought forth by your hand,
we share your healing and with you we stand.
Bearers of love by your Spirit made whole.
Call us in witness of grace overflowed.

Words (c) 2001, Mark L. Richardson

To the God of many names

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IMG_5508Prayer to the God of many names

May I reside in your boundless compassion,
and may my soul reach its wholeness in you.

May I feel awe in your generous creation,
and may my heart song rise in praise to you.

May I love with a fearless abandon,
and may I speak with a voice that is true.

May I trust with a heart that is healing,
and may forgiveness abound in me too.

May I hope in a future always open,
and leave the work of salvation to you.

O God of many names, hear my prayer.

(c) 2018 Mark Lloyd Richardson

An Open Door

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Photo credit: Brad Smith, “An old door in an abandoned log house”


Listen!
Someone is knocking.
Wait a moment.
Do you hear it in the silence?
There it is again — a knock —
gentle, patient, knowing.
A voice sings through the air
and lands on your heart!
“Will you open the door?
Will you welcome me in?”
Christ is seeking your company.
Now is a moment pregnant with hope.
“I will come in to you and eat with you,
and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).
Open the door, and when you do,
the spirit of the risen Christ
blows through the body’s temple.
Let the feast of grace begin.

(c) 2005, Mark Lloyd Richardson

Thirty Five Years

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cross-simple

Today is the 35thanniversary of the day I was ordained to the pastoral ministry. Thirty-five years ago on this day my friend Kendra and I were ordained in my home church in Aurora, Illinois. The denomination in which we grew up – the Advent Christian Church – was a loose affiliation of churches with a congregational form of governance dating back to the 1860s. Because of the biblical literalism in the DNA of the church from its earliest days when William Miller combed through the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation to determine a date for Christ’s return, there was also a tendency to read scripture through patriarchal lenses. The denomination had ordained some women across its history, but generally women were not viewed as pastoral leadership material. So Kendra and I enjoyed that Sunday afternoon sharing the spotlight and demonstrating for our local church at least that women and men are equal in bringing leadership gifts to the ministry of the church. She was the Minister of Education and I was the Minister of Parish Life. We worked with a Senior Pastor to create the programs and ministries for a 550-member college-affiliated congregation. We had several good years of working side by side before Kendra’s life was cut tragically short by a brain tumor.

As I reflect on this anniversary, I can’t imagine my sentimental journey holding much significance for anyone else. I simply feel an inner need to mark this date as a way of honoring the work I do. It is so amazing to me that I have spent 35 years caring for congregations and communities with love, hope and a passion infused by the Holy Spirit. Although I did not remain in my inherited denomination in spite of the fact that both my grandfather and great grandfather were ordained Advent Christian ministers. I knew that I needed to spread my wings and grow into a larger vision of God’s work in the world. I even talked with my grandfather about my exploration of the United Methodist Church before getting serious about connecting with those who would open that door for me. He gave me his blessing without hesitation, something I have always cherished. If he were still alive today though, I doubt that he would fully understand some of the personal choices I have made or the theological/moral/ethical positions I have taken on social and political issues of our day. However, he would respect and love me still, of that I am confident.

Over these years of ministry I am aware of many personal failures, and in my private reflections I confess these to God. Times of insincerity, timidity, laziness! Times of pride, uncaring, impatience! Whenever I have transitioned from one place of ministry to another I have made sure to incorporate the liturgy for parting from our Book of Worship that allows pastor and people to celebrate the gifts that have been shared freely with one another and to acknowledge mistakes and ask for forgiveness. I have been helped in each ministry setting by being able to admit my sins to the Christ who reconciles all things so that I am free to move on to new adventures by the grace of God.

So today I remember some ministries I have launched over these 35 years in various places. I’ve served in suburban, urban and rural settings. I’ve served in Californian desert and coastal communities, Hawaiian tropics, and the good ole Midwest. I’ve done local church ministry, campus ministry, and military chaplaincy. As I look back, it’s been a fun, meaningful, challenging, rewarding, and fascinating ride! God is a God of amazing surprises, and perhaps foremost among them is being called to ministry myself! If I had ever doubted that God called me into ministry, I would have immediately stopped and found something else to do. I am not naturally gregarious, extroverted, erudite or talkative. I work deliberately and thoughtfully at everything I do. I have to stretch myself and risk a great deal to simply get in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and speak the truth God has placed on my heart. But the Gospel keeps drawing me in and I can do no other than proclaim the grace, mercy and acceptance of the one I call Savior and Lord!

Among the ministries I’ve helped start in various places over the years: Evergreen Outreach (a social and spiritual gathering for elderly homebound), PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter, an ecumenical housing option for houseless persons near Chicago), a young adult ministry at a San Diego church, a one-room Sunday School with more than a dozen children at a small rural church (where my 1-year-old son was the only child when we arrived), Messy Church (for children and families), CROP Hunger Walks (raising tens of thousands to alleviate hunger through Church World Service), People of Faith for Justice (an interfaith group in San Luis Obispo County), an ecumenical centering prayer group, Showers of Blessing (providing showers, toiletries and other supplies for houseless persons), summer outdoor worship at a local state park, and Easter sunrise services for the community at a local nature preserve. I’ve maintained a public witness through speaking, writing, and organizing for the common good, and have especially appreciated the shared community work with persons of other faith traditions and all persons of good will.

In my current pastoral appointment, what brings me the most joy is the process our congregation has gone through to become a Reconciling Congregation, giving testimony to our commitment to welcome all people into the community of faith regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We’ve participated in the annual Pride Celebrations in Santa Barbara the last several years and have hosted a PFLAG group in our church facility, as well as Fratelli (a Men’s Chorus for gay men and straight allies, providing rehearsal and performance space). Through our hospitality and active engagement we are announcing that God’s unconditional agape love embraces our LGBTQI siblings just as they are!

My heart is full. I feel privileged to have been given the position to be able to offer something of value to the Kin-dom of God! As have so many others in the great cloud of witnesses! It is a blessing, a joy, and an honor to be among the followers of the One who came that all may have life, and have it abundantly!

Thanks be to God who can use even me – to contribute to the common good, the beloved community, the Kin-dom of all creation! I am deeply blessed!

Mark Richardson, June 26, 2018

Come to the Table of Grace

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We used this communion liturgy I wrote in worship this morning, playing off of the words and music of the lovely communion song by Barbara Hamm titled “Come to the Table of Grace,” found in the songbook Worship & Song. Please feel free to use in your worship context if you find it meaningful.

Liturgy for Holy Communion
(Singing #3168 “Come to the Table of Grace”)

This is God’s table.
Here we are invited to taste grace,
the grace that lightens the human heart
and widens the human soul
by creating an opening for God to enter –
the God who brings healing to bodies, minds, and spirits,
the God who meets us in the deep center of life itself
where we discover truth that sets us free.
This is a feast of grace
for the saint and sinner in each one of us.
Let us come to the table of grace.

Sing verse 1: “Come to the table of grace.”

When we gather at the table of our Lord
it is an invitation to live in peace with our neighbors.
The Prince of peace comes among us
and extends a word of peace –
peace for our troubled hearts,
peace for our troubled relationships,
peace for our troubled neighborhoods,
peace for our troubled environment,
peace for our troubled global community.
In Christ we are empowered to lay down our swords,
whether they be cutting words or violent actions,
whether they be divisive symbols or self-justifications,
and yield ourselves to the Savior
who comes with peace on his lips,
peace in his very presence.
Let us come to the table of peace.

Sing verse 2: “Come to the table of peace.”

When Jesus met with his friends
on the night he was betrayed and arrested,
he took the bread that sustains life,
and he blessed and broke it before them.
He took the common cup filled with wine
and he claimed that these ordinary parts of their meal
were in truth sacred reminders of the gifts of God.
The bread reminded them of the manna
their ancestors received to ease their hunger in the wilderness.
The cup reminded them of the miracle of new wine
at a Cana wedding and at the heavenly feast to come.
Together these ordinary signs tell the story of God’s love
being expressed to all generations.
They show how Jesus himself modeled divine love
as he welcomed the outcast, forgave the sinner,
healed the sick, showed compassion for the hungry,
and called a child to come sit on his lap and be blessed.
Now it is for us to live the way of love of Jesus,
to love outside of our comfort zones, our arbitrary walls,
to love extravagantly as though it can’t run out.
Let us come to the table of love.

Sing verse 3: “Come to the table of love.”

God who sets this bountiful table before us,
a table of grace and peace,
a table of love and joy,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these gifts of bread and wine,
that through Christ’s presence here
we may become a people of grace,
a source of joy, a witness to love,
and instruments of your peace.
By your Holy Spirit,
make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
one with all who walk in your light,
and one in ministry to the whole world, no exceptions,
until we feast at the heavenly banquet.
Let us come to the table of joy.

Sing verse 4: “Come to the table of joy.”

Words (c) 2018 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Be

I’m missing the posts of my blogging friend, Sharon, which I haven’t seen in awhile! This post from a couple of years ago reflects her Bahai faith, and has an optimistic tone of lovingkindness to it.

A Leaf in Springtime

Nature Series Day 6.

Never before has the word Be carried so much light. Sharing with you one of my dearest and most sacred instructions for living.

SONY DSC

Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity.

Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face.

Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge.

Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech.

Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men.

Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.

Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts.

Be a home for the stranger…

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An Ash Wednesday Prayer

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God of all creation,
you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger,
and you abound in steadfast love.

Today as I enter the closet of my heart,
I discover a lifetime of memories stored there –
some I would prefer to forget and leave behind,
others that remind me how truly blessed I am.

Today I hear again your invitation to renewal –
I hear it with every fiber of my being,
having been created in your image,
formed of the dust of your earth,
enlivened by the breath of your spirit,
established in the strength of your grace!

In these forty days of Lent, it is my heart’s desire
to surrender old harmful habits that yield nothing,
and to take up new holy habits that lead to life.

May this Lenten journey return me to a place of trust,
where my fear is conquered by your holy unshakable love,
where I am healed and made whole in the aliveness of life,
where doing justice,
and loving mercy,
and walking humbly with you,
are the ways of being that matter most.

 Hands2a

Copyright (c) 2012 Mark Lloyd Richardson