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Wednesday Miscellany (Detritus of Summer)

The end of summer (sadly) draws nigh and, like many, I have spent these dwindling days of August attempting to tidy up the clutter, whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. I’ve tried to achieve a bit of focus, clarity, and equilibrium before September arrives This has meant tackling my physical desk, rearranging unread books and recycling correspondence that has been rendered irrelevant by inattention, and trying to wrest a bit of order out of the chaos of random files and documents on my computer’s desktop. Things need to be put in their proper place, after all. Here are a few bits and pieces whose proper place is, evidently, another “miscellany” post. 

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To be a pastor is to often find oneself as something of a dumping ground for the things on other people’s minds. This frequently takes the form of “things that you really ought to read.” I rarely find myself short of reading material. One person in my life recently dropped off a plastic bag full of magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and periodicals, mostly related to the decline and decay of the church and the myriad reasons thereof. Among this collection was an excerpt from an unnamed, apparently older book (see gender-specific language) with the heading, “The World is Too Much With Us”:

The problem of the religious man’s attitude toward the world is persistent and perennial. One reaches a conclusion about it only to discover that it becomes unresolved again. Perhaps the most direct attempt toward a solution is to seek withdrawal from the world. “The world is too much with us” is a common feeling. When one seeks withdrawal from the world, it is admission that the world is fundamentally and completely “other than” that which is congenial to the things of the spirit; or the individual who seeks withdrawal is convinced that, for his highest possible spiritual growth, he must not be involved in the entanglements which are the common lot. If it is the former, the inescapable conclusion is that the contradictions of experience are in themselves final and binding. There is ever a recognition of the temporary withdrawal from the world and its insistences. This is a part of the very rhythm of life. We live by alternations. The religious man is no exception. He withdraws from the world, and then attacks the world; he retreats and he advances.

When I read this quote, my first thought was to relegate it to the “ah, yes, this is the sort of hyper-spiritual thing I would have been drawn to in my twenties” file. Oh, to be sufficiently un-worldly, able to avoid all the proscribed sins and temptations of “the world.”  Thank God I’ve left all that behind.

Or, perhaps not. How I understand “the world” has certainly changed over the years, but it has probably not ceased being too much with me. And this experience of living by alternations, of withdrawing and attacking, retreating and advancing is a persistent and stubborn one. I wonder how much we ever really leave behind…

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I took a motorcycle trip with a friend up into the mountains last Saturday. It sounds so cliche, but mountains can put us in our place. It is exceedingly, and probably appropriately difficult to drape oneself in the hubris we humans are so fond of, whether of the optimistic or pessimistic variety, when in the presence of such grandeur. It’s a good thing to feel small sometimes.

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IMG_7991Another addition to the “things you should read file” that I acquired over the summer was a 1978 edition of Canadian Golden West. It’s pretty interesting to look at a publication from around the time of my birth. Pre-internet, pre-photoshop, pre clickbait, pre-comment boxes and endless sharing options. Annual subscriptions cost $4.50 (probably not much more than today, when the Internet is effectively forcing publications to almost give their product away). You can send a letter (!) to an address in Calgary if you’re interested. There’s even a form you can clip out with some scissors and fill out. It’s so strange to not be able to click on something…

Anyway, there was an article on my hometown as told through the eyes of the a Japanese Canadian whose family was shipped in from BC during World War 2 which was fascinating. But I’ve found myself just staring at the cover more than reading what’s inside. If ever there was a face that told a story…

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One of my favourite books has been lying on my desk for the last week or so. I must have taken it off the shelf to possibly use in a sermon or something. Before putting it back this morning, I reacquainted myself with this passage from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss:

It is a strange thing how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of God. The other problems may well be true, and you will have to address them, but what you feel when releasing yourself to speak of the deepest needs of our spirit is the fact that no other needs could be spoken of outside of that context. You cannot work on the structure of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.

The first step in the life of the spirit is learning to let yourself experience those moments when life and time seem at once suspended and concentrated, that paradox of attentive oblivion out of which any sustaining faith grows. These moments may not be—and at first almost certainly will not be—“meditative.” They are more likely to break into your awareness, or into what you thought was awareness (“inbreaking” is the theological term for Christ’s appearance in the world and in our lives—there is no coaxing it, not way to earn it, no way to prepare except to hone your capacity to respond, which is, finally, your capacity to experience life, and death). This is why we cannot separate one part of existence, or one aspect of our awareness, from another, for there is a seed of peace in the most savage clamor. There is a kind of seeing that, fusing attention and submission, becomes a kind of being, wherein you may burrow into the very chaos that buries you, and even the most binding ties can become a means of release.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    A, “religious man” is a material construct, a man forged identity. If through the pursuit of his religious identity he does not evolve into a, “spiritual man” he is no more or less closer to God and goodness then is an irreligious man. Likewise this religious identity is just as corruptible as any other human identity.

    Apart from a spiritual relationship with God the religious man is just as prone to violence against humanity as is any other man who self identifies, with any other group.

    The outward appearance of the spiritual man withdrawing from the world is misunderstood here. He withdraws so as to share in the greater reality of transcendence, to worship transcendence and to be nourished by transcendence so as to renter the material plane in such a way as to better serve the part of it, on which he exists.

    We go so that something greater then us can be made better manifest when we return.

    To my mind, the reality is, is that the world is not enough with us and never will be. Through true spirituality and only true spirituality, can we channel a transcendence that bridges the gap. That could make the world everything it could be.

    Man made solutions and the politics involved will only lead to more violence.

    Only when enough spiritual men have the courage to disengage from nonspiritual practice, will the world change for the better. Will the world realize it’s true potential.

    August 24, 2017
    • I suppose it all depends on how you define words like “spiritual” and “religious,” doesn’t it?

      August 24, 2017
  2. Paul Johnston #

    John 3:5
    Romans 8:9

    August 25, 2017
    • Paul Johnston #

      When we understand the distinction between the religious man and a man of the Spirit we can then understand why the religious man is capable of evil.

      August 25, 2017
  3. James 1:27

    (Honestly, Paul, I’m not really interested in arguing about the merits of “spiritual” vs. “religious.” I think it would be easy enough for each of us to define the term we prefer in such a way as to make it include the important stuff we want it to. The only reason I was drawn to the quote was because of its themes of attacking and withdrawal from the “world” and how these resonated with my own experience as a younger man and, in a different way, today.

    To be frank, I’m a little surprised by your response here. I would have thought you would have been an enthusiastic supporter of any quote that was critical of “the world.” 😉 )

    August 25, 2017
    • Paul Johnston #

      I offer you words of the Spirit, as I understand them. The offer here is to enlighten, not to argue.

      A Bhuddist, a Muslim and a Christian are all religious men. Further many who would call themselves Christian have done great harm and great evil over the centuries. Our critics are not wrong when they speak of the evils of religion.

      Religion is a means to an end, not an end in of itself. Communion with the Holy Spirit leading to the surrender of the formerly understood self is.

      The distinction as I understand it, is crucial.

      August 25, 2017
      • I guess I just don’t see “spiritual” and “religious” as in any way mutually exclusive terms. I would prefer to rehabilitate the word to eliminating or disparaging it.

        The etymology of the word “religion” calls to mind a binding together. That’s how I understand the word, at its best. It’s the means by which we are bound to God and to his purposes.

        August 25, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    In short, I read the first quote as a misdiagnosis, absent of the Spirit.The, “Wiman” quote, on the other hand, speaks to the truth, as I understand it.

    August 25, 2017
    • Paul Johnston #

      A crucial distinction doesn’t imply mutual exclusivity. The undertanding is meant to give people heart, courage and the incentive to persue their relationship more fully and more intimitly with the Lord.

      I cant count the number of times my religious self, apart from the Holy Spirit, fails in making the best most loving response to circumstance. My convictions arent enough. My will is weak to the power of human desire. I fail in my own eyes and become discouraged with myself and with faith. Worse still, you confuse and disappoint others.

      Too much of a purely religious understanding has led to as much harm as good throughout the history of civilization.

      Only in a daily experienced communion, in the quiet, just you and the Lord will suffice. Believe in this power, act upon it and see yourself grow. See yourself change. For it is the Lord in you. His power, not yours.

      No more fear. Only faith remains.

      Every human with any shred of belief in the power of love must seek out this relationship.

      There will be no true love for ourselves or the world apart from it.

      August 25, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Btw, very often my daily communion is a consequence of responding to the wisdoms you share here. Without you in my life my relationship with the Holy Spirit would be something much less.

        With all my heart, I thank you, Ryan.

        August 25, 2017
      • Again, I don’t see the kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit to be in any way antithetical to how I understand the word religion.

        Perhaps our respective contexts and experiences affect how we interpret these words. For example, I have in mind the refrain often heard these days, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I happen to think this is often a load of nonsense. It brings to mind a spirituality that is barely worth the name—vague, untethered to any historical tradition or set of disciplines, almost entirely self-serving. I think that whatever many of us seem to mean by “spirituality,” it could often use quite a bit more religion.

        August 26, 2017
      • Also, thank you very kindly for your last comment. That is among the more rewarding things I could hope to hear about anything I offer here.

        August 26, 2017
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Context and experience influence much to be sure and I do not intend to suggest that the Holy Spirit and religion are antiethical. Perhaps I can make the distinction best by saying the difference is like the difference between believing in love and being in love.

    I honestly try not to hijack your agenda here, Ryan but I feel compelled , at every opportunity to encourage anyone reading to move into a closer personal relationship with the Lord, through the Holy Spirit.

    Being in love with God is the only antidote that will save us.

    Btw, I share your suspicions regarding spirituality that hasn’t evolved from a Christian tradition.

    August 27, 2017
    • I can appreciate the distinction you make here (between believing in love and being in love). I’m just not convinced that it maps seamlessly on to the terms “religion” and “spirituality.” I think history affords many examples of people who were “in love” with God and at the same time deeply religious. Again, so much depends on how we define our terms.

      August 29, 2017
  6. Paul Johnston #

    A final thought here….probably….maybe… :). For me it comes down to what constitutes the truth about my witness. Is it my outward actions, religious or not or my interior disposition, my spiritual relationship, with Lord and life, that speaks to the truth about me.

    I would claim it was the latter.

    For this reason it is only Christ who can judge. For only he knows my interior being, my heart. Paradoxically not even I know it. For my human desires impulsively lead to choices that will always trump transcendence unless I am in communion with the Holy Spirit. Prayer before action, always.

    And not a prayer of petition but rather a deeply centered prayer of being. Being present to the Lord. Worship without words.

    To that end I have discovered that the Lord at least as I hear Him, is not a miracle worker in the traditional biblical sense. The time of His direct intervention is passed…..for now….rather he speaks the silent language of love. Not taking away the suffering circumstance ( the miracle) but rather giving me a spirit of love so that I might, if I so choose, respond to any and all circumstances with love. Forgiving. Healing. Sacrificing. This is the kind of man I am and was meant to be.

    Apart from an interior relationship with the Lord Jesus a man remains a mystery, even to himself. This is the root of all discontent and division.

    We don’t know who we are.

    More then unsure, the ground of our being remains unknown.

    August 28, 2017
    • I’m not convinced that outward actions and interior dispositions can so easily be separated. Our actions affect our dispositions and vice versa. Religion, at its best, forms us as people with particular dispositions. We act our way into thinking and feeling and we think and feel our way into right action. This is as it should be if we are to be truly whole people, I think.

      Having said that, I resonate deeply with your last few paragraphs. Very well said.

      August 29, 2017

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