Still Bearing Fruit

In recent years there have been a number of books published on the topic of aging, dying, and the Christian faith.  No doubt, this is to meet the needs and to answer the questions of an aging church in the West and to help those in the latter half of life respond to spiritual concerns about growing older.  While there are other books that examine the spirituality of the second half of life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward readily comes to mind), R. Paul Stevens takes a more unique approach in that his book relates primarily to the question of what one’s calling is in later life, and especially after one retires.

The book is broken up into three sections and the first part deals solely with calling.  The first chapter is notable for it’s argument that retirement is not a biblical concept, in that in the ancient world one had to work as long as one was able.  After a brief history of how retirement came about, the chapter one looks at how retirement can be a catalyst for growth and of a broader and more biblical concept of calling. While Stevens does not suggest we should not retire, his emphasis is that the idea of idling one’s remaining days in self-leisure is not a Scriptural notion and that one can still contribute to society, even if one is not receiving remuneration.  This last point is addressed in more detail in the second chapter as the concept of calling is explained and some guidelines on late-life calling are provided.  And the third chapter takes a closer look at some Scriptural examples of those who lived out their late-life calling faithfully, with special emphasis on Abraham and Jacob.

The second part of the book reflects on the spirituality that comes with aging.  Here, I felt the book had some similarities to Richard Rohr’s book, especially in chapter four where midlife is viewed as a time of transition from doing to being, and from living to accomplish much to living into a more contemplative lifestyle.  Stevens lists a few ways that aging provides opportunities for us to grow spiritually.  The next two chapters detail the potential vices and virtues that arise as one grows older.Aging Matters

The third section looks at how one’s calling affects others beyond one’s death in what we refer to as “legacy”.  Chapter seven is about different facets of one’s legacy, including factors to consider when bequeathing a monetary legacy.  There were two things that stood out for me in this chapter that are not talked about often enough: one’s non-monetary legacy, to include out investment in other people and how that affect our relatives for good or bad even after we are gone, and the importance of writing a living will.  The next chapter, chapter eight, is about preparing for death by reviewing the life we have lived and along that review to enable us to “finish well”.  And the last chapter looks forward to what we can expect in the life, in the new heaven and new earth, and does so by way of clearing some misunderstandings on the nature of death and on Scripture says about our life after death.

Overall, this was a welcome book to the growing bodies of literature on calling and on aging.  While some, perhaps much, of it was already familiar to me, I think Stevens did a great job at exploring the intersection of calling and the spirituality of aging.  He draws upon and interacts with some interesting thinkers in this area, some of who were familiar to me, including Catholic Richard Rohr and Jewish Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and some who were unfamiliar, such as psychiatrist Paul Tournier.  I think one of the best features of the book was the Scripture studies at the end of each chapter.  One of the studies that impacted me most was Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren upon his deathbed.  Having practiced vision divina with an artist’s rendering of that scene and knowing Jacob’s history, as one who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, made it a very impacting study on aging, calling, and gaining wisdom from one’s mistakes.  Ultimately, Stevens, who has written a number of books on calling and the workplace from a faith perspective, and who is also in the third third of his life, draws upon a lifetime of wisdom and experience.  To the extent that this book passes on his accumulated wisdom to the next generations, I would say he has embodied the generativity that he wrote about in this book.

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The Mineshaft of the Heart

I usually find the most likely people behaving exactly as I would have expected.

~Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger

Wikimedia Commons, Inclined Mine Shaft Entrance at Yarnbury, TJBlackwell

Wikimedia Commons, “Inclined Mine Shaft Entrance at Yarnbury”, TJBlackwell

Gradually, the bright blinding light of the sun gave way to near darkness.  As it did, and as I and my fellow classmates descended the mineshaft, I felt a certain thrill at the idea that we were going several stories into the earth.  Whereas some might be claustrophobic in the dark, curving corriders of rock and mineral, lit only by lanterns, I felt I was in my element there.  While our tour guide navigated us through the maze of tunnels, pointing out various items of interest, all I wanted to do was continue exploring.  And despite the fact that, to most people, the crags and crevices and rough surfaces all begin to look alike, I was certain that if I continued to wander I would discover something of value hidden and buried within the centuries-old rock.

The description above comes from my experience in high school at the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine in Cripple Creek, Colorado.  And although it has been many years since that excursion into the earth, I still feel a thrill whenever I enter a cave or a tunnel; a sense of anticipation that is not unique to me.  J.R.R. Tolkien, in his books, portrayed his mythic Dwarves as miners.  In the movie adapation of his book, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo Baggins recounts the past of the Dwarves of Erebor:

Ever they delved deeper, down into the dark. And that is where they found it. The heart of the Mountain. The Arkenstone. 1

As a dwarf myself, I too seek to venture ever deeper.  But unlike the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, it isn’t so much the thought of valuable metals and minerals that drives me, but rather the idea of coming into contact with something ancient and eternal.  The heart of something, whether it be the heart of a mountain or of my own heart or the heart of that which is Ultimately Real.  The spiritual journey often involves a sense of journeying downward and inward, at least before one can journey outward and upward.  So in a sense, Tolkien’s cave illustration is a wonderful analogy of the depths and desires of the heart, for I believe our hearts are like mines or caves.  And, thankfully, I’m not the only one who seems to think so.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in exploring the reason why humans feel the need to explore caves, asks the question, “Why do humans come?…We come to see what is here and to discover who we are in the presence of what we find.” 2

This begs the question: if our hearts are like caves in that we must journey deeper in order to better understand ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, our wants and desires, then why should we want to “discover who we are” at all?  To answer that, I will turn to the British Dame and novelist of the mid-twentieth century, Agatha Christie.  In the movie adaption of her book, The Moving Finger, an English countryside town is faced with murder and rocked with scandal as various residents recieve letters threatening to expose their darkest secrets.  After a second murder, Miss Marple, is asked by one of the residents, “I often find the most unlikely people doing the most surprising things. Don’t you agree, Miss Marple?”  Miss Marple, a keen observer of human behavior and psychology replies, “On the contrary…I usually find the most likely people behaving exactly as I would have expected.” 3

When one understands the deep inner motivations that compels a lot of our actions and behaviors, there is a surprising clarity behind who does what.  Our outward habits betrays our innermost disposition.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “Each day we are becoming a creature of splendid glory or one of unthinkable horror.” 4  Given that the interior life flows outward, I think it’s wise that we take the time to reflect on our inner thoughts, feelings, motivations, affections, and dispositions.  If we want to grow in our spiritual and character formation we would be wise to listen to Scripture when it cautions, “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life” (Proverbs 4:23, emphasis mine).

All of the above expositions on the heart merely explore more deeply what I have previously quoted John Calvin as saying: “True and substantial wisdom consists of knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”  Any progess, any transformation, to be made in the spiritual life has to come to terms with the self, and primarily the self as it is in relation to God.  This is why the Psalmist beseeches of the Lord, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns.  See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24).

It is up to each one of us to pray that prayer in the presence of God and to engage with what we find within.  But anytime we do so we are going on an adventure, like the one Bilbo Baggins went on in his journey to Erebor, like the one I went on into the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine.  And anytime we go on an adventure, whether outwardly or inwardly, we are invariably changed.  So descend.  Descend the mineshaft that is your own heart…and be transformed.

This is part one of a five-part blog series.  The next is “A Sickness of the Heart”.

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1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (2012; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2013), DVD.

2. Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 119.

3. The Moving Finger, directed by Tom Shankland (2006; Silver Spring, MD: Granada and WGBH Boston, 2010), DVD.

4. “C.S. Lewis Quotes,” Goodreads Inc, accessed June 14, 2014, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/67370-each-day-we-are-becoming-a-creature-of-splendid-glory.

Thin Places

“Strange isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

~Clarence Odbody, It’s a Wonderful Life

Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel, Flight Behavior, about a young woman, wife, and mother who is climbing up a Tennessee hill on a way to meet a young man in a secret tryst.  Not a promising start for the woman who is the protagonist of the story.  However, on her way to her rendezvous, she encounters something that she didn’t expect to experience and which transforms her life.  She reaches the top of the hill where she has a view of the valley beyond.  What she sees, but doesn’t initially comprehend, is a valley filled with orange butterflies.

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes.  The forest blazed with its own internal flame…The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light.  Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake.  Every bough glowed with an orange blaze…No words came to her that seemed sane.  Trees turned to fire, a burning bush.  Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had.  Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures. 1

Even though the novel mentions that Dellarobia and Jesus aren’t “that close”, Dellarobia likens her experience to that of Moses with the burning bush.  It is something wondrous, mysterious, and almost terrifying.  The Celts, both before and after their conversion to Christianity, had a beautiful phrase for such an experience of the numinous: thin places.  They are places where the boundary between heaven and earth dissolves and the two seem to meet.

Often, as in Dellarobia’s case, such experiences can be had with nature.  I’ve had such moments myself from riding through the moonlit alien landscape of Cappadocia to mountaintop experiences in the Alps.  But I’ve also found that thin places can be had in the midst of people.  In high school, my family and I were evacuated from Turkey.  On our way back to the U.S. we had a layover at Rhein Main Air Base,  Germany.  Rhein Main AB was where my family and I were at before we moved to Turkey.  So there I was, surrounded by people I knew from two different countries.  It was a surreal experience that made me consider the way in which our lives intersect.  Moments like that I consider “thin places” because it reminds me that God, in His greatness and providence, can cause our lives to meet with seemingly little regard for the boundaries of space and time.  As we are reminded by the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Strange isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” 2

I believe Scripture affirms the idea of thin places.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to have at least two such experiences in her life.  Both occurrences I have in mind are in the Gospel of Luke.  In the first instance, after Jesus has been born and the shepherds find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, “they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18).  Then, we are told that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told” (v. 20).  In between those two statements we are told that “Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them” (v. 19).  While the shepherds rejoice, Mary sits quietly, meditating on the significance of what has happened.  Her response of quiet reverence and awe, the result of meditating on not just what the shepherds described but also on what the angel Gabriel had told her about her son Jesus, leads me to believe she is in a thin place.

The second instance occurs later when Jesus, Joseph, and Mary travel in a group to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.  As Joseph and Mary, along with the rest of the traveling party, head back to Nazareth they realize that Jesus (who is 12 at this time) is not accompanying everyone else.  When Joseph and Mary go back to Jerusalem they search everywhere until they find him in the temple.  When Mary quite understandably asks, “Son, why have You treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for You”(Luke 2:48), His response in the following verse is “Why were you searching for Me?…Didn’t you know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”

After that, there is a similar pattern as before: “Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them.  His mother kept all these things in her heart.  And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people” (vv. 51-52).  We see again that Mary “kept these things in her heart”.  We are told in verse 51 that Joseph and Mary did not understand Jesus’ response of needing to be in His Father’s house.  Perhaps, without fully realizing, she catches some glimpse of who Jesus is and what He is to become and accomplish.

Sadly, there is a common denominator between Mary, Dellarobia, and ourselves.  Even as we experience such thin places, moments which ought to be transforming, so often they are not.  We see later in the life of Jesus where Mary and Jesus’ brothers attempt to curtail His ministry and claim He is “out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). 3  Dellarobia, despite her experience and the opportunities she has as a result, continues to deny God’s presence in her life and fails to really change in the ways that matter by the end of the book.  And as for us, so often we also revert to our previous ways.  I may marvel at God’s ability to link my life with someone else’s after several years and thousands of miles, but often I trample over the importance of relationships in my bulldozing quest to accomplish, consume, or experience more.

If this is often the case, the question then becomes why do thin places fail to transform?  Is it any wonder that after being asked for miracles Jesus refused to give signs (see Matthew 12:38-41)?  I suspect that Jesus, and Paul after Him, gives the answer indirectly in His encounter with the woman at the well.  After a roundabout theological discussion with a Samaritan woman, she refers to Him as a prophet (clearly she doesn’t understand fully either) and states, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, yet you [Jews] say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).  Jesus replies, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jersalem…But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21,23 emphasis mine)

The above passage on spirit and truth has always puzzled me until I came across the following passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Therefore the person who speaks in [another] language should pray that he can interpret.  For if I pray in [another] language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.  What then?  I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding.” (I Corinthians 14:13-15a)  So, from Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well and from Paul’s letter I infer that it is possible to worship God (in a sense that includes thin place moments) with both an openness of one’s spirit and with a clear understanding of the truth of what such worship is about.  It is also possible to worship God in only one of those stances but not both, thus failing to engage in genuine and transforming worship.

I suspect that many encounters of thin places are engaged in with one’s heart and spirit, but not with one’s head and understanding.  We become so caught up in the beauty and numinousness of the moment that we fail to dialogue with God about what He is trying to say to us in that moment.  Sometimes, God may simply be blessing us and we should receive that moment with gratitude, treasuring it in our hearts.  At other moments, God may be seeking to expand our understanding of Him or to gain a new perspective on the world. Still other times, the Holy Spirit may be gently seeking to move us toward some response.  In my case, He may have been calling me to renew an old relationship or to interact with others more freely and willingly, something which is difficult for me to do given my strong tendency toward introversion.

Only by communicating with God in that moment and afterwards, can we discover His Word for us in the present.  Even after we ask Him for clarification, He may not respond immediately, but we can be certain that He will.  How do I know this?  After Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well that a new time is coming and has, on some level, already occurred, the woman (still not knowing who He is…remember, she earlier called Him a prophet) states, “‘I know that Messiah is coming’…’When He comes, He will explain everything to us'” (John 4:25).  To this Jesus responds, “‘I am [He]’…’the One speaking to you'” (John 4:26).

As I close this post, I’d like to point out that we are in the period of Advent once again where we are reminded of, and celebrate, the ultimate thin place moment: the very incarnation and life of Christ on earth.  The boundary between heaven and earth can’t be eroded any more than it is in Him, the One who is fully God and fully man.  This confirms my belief that the one whose very life incarnates thin place moments will always communicate to us in such moments, for Jesus Christ is the very Word of God made flesh.  So the next time you find yourself in a thin place, rejoice in spirit and in truth, and know that the One who explains everything is, at that very moment, speaking to you.

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1 Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2013), EPUB e-book, 17.

2 I am grateful to Robert Tracy McKenzie for providing me with this insight.  Since I have not actually seen the movie, I believe it to be divine providence that enabled me to come across this quote in his book, The First Thanksgiving, as I was putting the finishing touches on this post.

3 Technically, this verse only refers to His “family”, but given that verse 31 mentions “His mother and His brothers” it is reasonable to assume that Mary is party to, or at least condones, the family’s attempts to “restrain Him” (v. 21).