Conversation #7 Chris Hoke & Neaners Garcia No. 19 by Joshua Banner

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Is transformation possible for anyone?
Is transformation possible for you?
Do you want to be transformed?

In Teresa Avila's classic text, The Interior Castle, she describes the evil attacks that await anyone who answers the invitation to move through the outer and then into the inner rooms toward the heart of God. There are many layers of deception so in the first of seven rooms of the castle, Teresa sincerely encourages us to begin with self-knowledge. We perceive God through the lens of our spiritual eyes, so we must cleanse our spiritual eyes to better see God and to receive his love. Our enemy knows this and is intent to keep us hindered from self-knowledge.

This hindrance can be an instilled fear of ourselves. Many of us are taught not to indulge in self-knowledge. Parents and pastors instruct us against this as self-idolatry; the focus of the Christian's life is Jesus not ourselves, they say. Yet Jesus' greater teaching is to love our neighbors the way we love ourselves, and love reveals. Love requires for intimate knowledge and sharing. Love creates hope, trust and awareness.

We must know ourselves. If we know ourselves truly, we do not become self-consumed, navel-gazing egoists. True self-knowledge instead reveals our deepest, most essential design: our hunger for God's love and friendship. If we look clearly and deeply within ourselves, deep calls us unto deep. We dive into our depths and there in the center of our being, we find traces of God drawing us back to himself.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.   
Psalm 139

Does this seem strange and impossible? Is this transformative, in-breaking of love possible for you? Do you desire this love?

How about a modern day example? Enter Neaners Garcia, a gang leader in the Skagit Valley of Washington state, in solitary confinement for murder. As he lay in his bed in solitary for many months, Neaners confronted the darkness and anger inside of himself, yet he went deep below his violence and found the sacred name of Jesus.

I invite you to join in this conversation with Neaners and his friend Chris Hoke, the co-directors of Underground Ministries. Come taste and see the power of transformation in their shared story.

This conversation with Neaners and Chris is very much a continuation of my previous episode with Christopher Hall, president of Renovare (and one of the core faculty in my doctoral program in spiritual direction at Fuller Seminary). The story of Neeners here in this episode #19 suggests that desert spirituality is accessible through a prison. Chris Hoke brilliantly reflects upon the similarities between the monastic cell and what he calls the "re-purposing" of a prison cell for the sake of transformation.

In that talk with Chris Hall I suggested that America's industrial incarceration system is a result of the failure of the American Church to understand the transformative power of the Gospel. On the surface it seemed Chris Hall disagreed with my discernment. I am loathe to stir up arguments with my professors. However, to be fair, in that episode I did not describe the full context of my discernment. Chris Hall was right to be lovingly optimistic about the willingness of Evangelicals today to be stirred into the social justice movement. Indeed my friends at Calvin College who teach in a prison report how wonderfully bi-partisan compassion for the incarcerated is. 

Even still, granted that we can be more optimistic about the church today, we need to see ourselves clearly. I continue to believe the systemic racism and oppression of our incarceration is a result of a limited Gospel since the founding of America. In the same way that we struggle to gain our own self-knowledge, we struggle as an American church to see ourselves collectively. I'm advocating for spiritual direction as social action, that we follow Teresa's wisdom and aid the church to begin with corporate self-knowledge. Spiritual directors can help us see and know ourselves collectively. To change as a society, we must look into the mirror.

When I look in the mirror, I see ethnic and economic disparities manifest in incarcerated men. James Baldwin famously wrote:  “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture.” To understand people of color is to understand our incarceration system that today holds 25% of the world's prison population, 40% of whom are black men. I submit that the history of America is the history of who we imprison. 

My friends in the EC Brooks Correctional Facility are a way for me to look at this ugly picture in undomesticated ways. Likewise, this conversation with Chris Hoke and Neaners Garcia gives us a powerful look at ourselves. And remember, if we look clearly and boldly, we will see beneath what is fragmented, obscured, and violent and like Neaners, we will discover God's healing love!

Peace of Christ to you!

Josh

Conversation # 6 Christopher Hall No. 16 by Joshua Banner

Is it fair to connect social injustices like racism and our industrial prison system to our own personal belief in Jesus' ability to transform our lives? 

I am beginning to believe it is fair to do just this. Our collective, national sicknesses are deeply connected to my own sense of who God is for me today. If I come to believe that the Holy Spirit can transform my own life, then I will develop hope for my neighbors and even my enemies to also be transformed. 

In this latest discussion Christopher Hall and I wrestle with these things. Chris is the newest president of Renovaré I trust because he is careful with how we talk about these things in the church. As you listen to this episode, you'll hear my own consternation with the failings of the church to believe transformation is possible. As I read more and more about racism and the incarceration system, as I complete my third year volunteering in local prison, I see the weaknesses of an American Church that continues to criminalize and scapegoat people of color, especially black men. Chris challenges me to be more hopeful in the church. He argues that the church might respond to this crisis if they only could be informed about the crisis. This is a delicate subject to bring up Chris says, yet it is gaining traction even among evangelicals.

How do we challenge American Christians to risk, to look and see beyond the confines of their own communities to see the struggles of their not too distant neighbors?

Author and activist Michelle Alexander describes the blindness of those who enable institutional, systemic racism. She says:

Martin Luther King Jr. in his speeches would often remind his audiences that, you know, most folks who support Jim Crow aren't evil bad people, they're just deeply misguided. They're blind, spiritually blind to the harms of the policies that they support. And I think the same thing can be said today, many people of good will are blind to the harms of mass incarceration and the devastation, the war on drugs has caused.

In this conversation Chris Hall challenges us to practice the spiritual discipline of moving our bodies and our minds out of our comfort zones into new "learning spaces" that we might be transformed into the character of Jesus.

I invite you to participate in this conversation, episode #16, a conversation with Christopher Hall!

Peace of Christ to you!

Josh

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A Glimpse into a Prison no. 1 by Joshua Banner

This past weekend I sat in spiritual direction in a prison with a muslim and an orthodox Jew.

The jewish man was new to our contemplative prayer group at the EC Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, MI. I saw that he was reading a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I have benefited greatly from Heschel's book The Sabbath, and I was further intrigued to find an inmate wearing a kippah and a long, pointed beard, with tattoos on his neck and hands. He introduced himself as Nate and explained that he was Orthodox but that he likes to read outside of his tradition. I assumed that must be why he would be open to joining a contemplative prayer circle. I thought of the kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Is there some sort of similar practice in Nate's tradition?

I asked Nate how he had learned about our group practice, and he pointed to Jack, our most Jesusy of Jesusy former biker gang members and drug dealers. Jack had just walked into the chapel wearing his usual grin, shaking hands, and passing out the small little slips of paper he always carries. Each slip is cut out from a xerox print with pithy quotes from another prisoner Jack has been inspired by, a man he'd done time with years ago. I told Nate that I too am Jesusy, almost as Jesusy as Jack, quite devoted to Jesus in fact, yet I've learned much about rest from Heschel. I added that I'm grateful he joined us.

Nate valued our morning session enough to come back in the afternoon without an official 'callout.' This risked him getting a "ticket," being written up by a guard since his name wasn't on the Saturday afternoon, spiritual direction practicum callout sheet. I return after lunch two Saturdays per month to lead a smaller group of eight to twelve. The morning circle is often twenty to twenty-five. It meets for an hour. The smaller group in the afternoons is two hours. By January 2018 I'll have been in this rhythm for three years. I keep coming back because I can't get over the idea that there are convicted criminals in the world who are willing get in trouble in order to pray together, to pray with me.

We sat on the floor while I slowly read through chapters 27 trough 29 from The Cloud of Unknowing. These chapters are one or two pages each, short but thick. Mystical writings, like my favorite poetry require us to listen deeply with open hearts. I've discovered that reading a few chapters of The Cloud in succession gives us a chance to get our minds and hearts into the 'spiritual logic' of the unknown author. For this reading I invited the men to listen for the words, phrases, sentences, or ideas that make sense and to not worry about what doesn't make sense. Latorius, my favorite muslim who also wears a long, pointy beard--he had taken his boots off and was rocking gently with his eyes closed in calm, focused composure. I wondered if this was how he might pray in his cell or with other muslims. I pictured them on prayer mats. Latorius chose to re-read the passage I had been most excited to read with the men:

I sincerely believe that Judgement Day will be bright, because we will clearly see God and all his gifts. On that day of ultimate truth, many of the “nobodies” of this world, now despised and neglected as lowlifes and hardened sinners, will get their right to sit beside God’s saints in God’s sight. On the other hand, some who now seem holy, and who are honored as if they were angels, and who perhaps never did commit a deadly sin, may find themselves sitting beside hell’s devils in complete misery.
— The Cloud of Unknowing

Geary is Geary and Jack is Jack, but then there is Greedy, Tone, Narrow, Baby Boy, Texas, Florida, AX, Kagali and other nick names. Latorious is known in the prison as "Muslim" and is highly sought after by many of the prisoners despite their religious or ideological differences.  They confide in him and ask for his wisdom. It makes little sense to divide these men even in prayer practice here in a prison since fundamentally they share something I can never understand, incarceration. So many forces have worked to separate them and create violent divisions between them. The men need each other. They need Latorious and his clam, grave, bright, beautiful face. I need them too. I continue to be surprised how much I need them.

In the afternoon practicum we practice spiritual direction with each other. For over a year Latorius has resisted going to the middle to serve as a director. I assume he has resisted partly because he is humble and partly because he is already tapped by the men for so much. He seems content most of the time to sit quietly, to share with us a knowing smile and a chuckle, but this Saturday afternoon I invited him to the center to act as director. He obliged. I then turned and opened the invitation for another to join him. Without hesitation Nate sat down in front of Latorius to be the directee. They sat facing each other just a few feet apart. Their discussion lasted maybe fifteen minutes, but it seemed lovingly like a half hour or more. Before that afternoon, I'm not sure Nate had ever heard of spiritual direction. Under Latorious' gentle yet firm guidance Nate opened beautifully detailing how rough his life has been, institutionalized since middle school, different children with different mothers, drug addiction, a sincere desire to return to a child-like innocence free and full of love.

There we were, Christians, agnostics, Muslims and Jews, sitting in our sock feet on the carpeted floor, practicing silence, listening for God in each other's lives. 

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5 Minute Prayer 5 #41 'Our Father Is Younger Than We' No. 15 by Joshua Banner

Children are strong because they can enjoy monotony.
— G.K. Chesterton


I've watched Casper, my seven-year-old, sit with markers, paper, scotch tape, and scissors for hours. He has a powerful internal strength that keeps him so focused on making things that it is difficult to get his attention. He gets thoroughly lost inside his rich internal world. Nothing seems boring to him as long as he is free to experiment with colors, textures, shapes, and the stories he tells about each drawing or cut out. Imagination and creativity are strong with this one.

God asks us to love him with strength, to be squarely focused on him. He desires that we might lose ourselves in abandonment to his love and presence, that we might be so consumed by him that it will be difficult to distract us from that love. 

How can we become so focused, so consumed by God's love? "Focus" shares the same latin root as the word "hearth," that space around a fireplace. We stay focused on that which warms us. Fire is mesmerizing. It attracts our gaze like almost nothing else. If you watch Casper at play with his art projects, you'll see a little boy lit by an inner fire. When he brings me his finished crafts, a shining light of excitement glows in his eyes. He is in love with his art. Art gives him a kind of strength that compels him to do strange things. He often wakes up early before school to have some alone time so he can piece together something new. When we have favorite guests over, he will go to the other room to make them special gifts of his art. He wants to share his fire. He does so easily.

How is the fire inside of you? What are you focused on these days?
What fire is consuming you?
Do you want to be aflame with God's love? 


I invite you to stoke the fire of your own strong love for God in this newest 5 Minute Meditation, "Our Father is Younger Than We" based on prayer exercise #41 from the prayer guide, "40 Ways to Spend Five Minutes With God."

Peace of Christ to you!

Josh

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Retreat #4 Julian of Norwich 'For God Wishes' no. 14 by Joshua Banner

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"For God wishes to be seen.
For God wishes to be sought.
God wishes to be expected.
God wishes to be trusted.
God wishes to be enjoyed."

In this long-form retreat Nathan Foster leads us prayerfully through these invitational words of Julian of Norwich. As I sit with Julian's words just now, I am mindful of the many people who have been endangered by hurricanes and flooding, racism and hate crimes this summer. I understand that our country is in the midst of a kind of collective trauma that is the result of various forces that press and push on us.

How can we enjoy God in the midst of all this? In the context of such suffering one might be tempted to discourage any attempts at delight, rest, retreat, tenderness, and vulnerability. Surely it is time for action, for service, and sacrifice. Yet if we don't also find delight in seeking God, the joy of expecting God to show up--if we are not able to bear trust in our inner beings, then our action and service are likely to be vain. 

This is the point of the Gospel invitation: Jesus says "go into the fray with and through me. You don't need to suffer without me. Seek me. Expect me. Learn to trust me. Enjoy me."

Nathan and I are delighted to offer you an accessible guide to opening yourself to God in audio form. I invite you to participate in this retreat. Listen HERE.

This audio retreat is a co-release with Renovaré. Please pray for us as we discern future collaborations. If you would like to know more about Renovaré, visit renovare.org. Also, if you missed my previous conversation with Nathan, check it out below.

Peace & Love to you!

Josh

5 Minute Prayer #26 'Patient Trust' No. 13 by Joshua Banner

In the Gospels Jesus asks, "how can I help you?" and also, "what do you want?"

Do you know how to answer these questions? Do you actively talk with Jesus about these questions, or are you leading a life, in the words of Thoreau, a life of "quiet desperation"?

Essentially Jesus is asking us, "how is it with your soul? Is it well? If not, what can be done?" We may sing the words of the great hymn, peace is like a river attending our ways in the midst of troubled, stormy seas. We learn to declare those words by faith. Yet, is it possible for you to carry yourself through each day in love, joy, hope and patient trust

Another way to consider this is, if Jesus' death and resurrection were necessary to save our souls, what is the experience of a 'saved soul' today, right now, in this moment, in this breath? Is the goodness of salvation reserved only for our a soul in heaven, or is there not some abundant life of the soul, of the mind, heart and body for today? Does the presence of Jesus not break into our practiced existence right now into our presence?

Most of us do not have a working understanding of our own souls. We do not have a practical and personal engagement with our soul, and so the soul is misunderstood and shrouded in mystery. Without a working understanding of the soul, how can we practice soul engaging prayer that will transform us into the likeness of Jesus? 

Many shrug their shoulders in bewilderment and move on. The soul? Who can know it? They assume the soul, that Jesus' presence through the power of the Holy Spirit in the deepest parts of our being is a mystery never to be understood or practiced. Thus many Christians end up living lives that Thoreau described so well, "lives of quiet desperation," lives of resignation distracted by the "games and amusements of mankind."

If you are returning to the Invitation Podcast, something is stirring in your soul. An ache is becoming more defined inside of you, a holy desire for God. You are answering the invitation, hearing Jesus' words, "what can I do for you? How can I help? What do you want?" The next step is to wait patiently for his help. We wait patiently in trust through prayer.

Another reason why we avoid the soul is because soul-work is slow. Soul-work requires honesty and humility. Soul-work depends on our ability to trust. Ultimately soul-work involves our bodies, our actions. Soul-work invokes our emotions and engages the way our minds work. What we think about...what we hope for...how we wait patiently.

Susanna and I welcomed Merritt Terese Banner into the world on July 14, at 6:40pm in the evening. The waiting for her was a kind of soul-work. Over three years we lost three previous babies, excruciating pain that is difficult to describe. Then there was the nine months with Merritt of course, nine months when time slowed down. Each week we wondered if she would make it, if she would be healthy. The actual birthing was of course incredibly physical, messy with the primal elements of life. Susanna likes to recall that when Merritt emerged, I let out a full, deep, belt of laughter. I also treasure that joy-filled memory. The laughter was a deep response of my soul that resounded out through my body. When it was all done and our hospital room became silent, our bodies were exhausted but our souls refreshed and renewed. And so we couldn't stop touching our baby girl, smelling her, kissing and codling, reveling in the new gift of life.

The gift of soul-work is like the slow, precarious work of birthing. Prayer can be both easy and hard. Time never seems like its on your side. Time moves either too fast or too slow. Prayer can be excruciating. It requires patient trust, hours and years of waiting. Then suddenly new life sneaks up on you in a way that is completely out of your control. The Spirit gives you gifts of faith in his timing and on his terms because he knows what is best for you. Then we return again to prayer faithfully waiting in patient trust for the new life to arrive.

The Invitation Podcast can serve as a 'birthing coach' for you. Each of us need some help, some coaxing into solitude. As a friend said just yesterday, "most of the time I need someone to give me permission to be quiet and rest." I invite you to use this short meditation to give yourself permission to eagerly await the help of the Spirit in 'patient trust.'

"Patient Trust" is a prayer by the Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin was part of the the expedition that discovered the "Peking Man," homo erectus, a prehistoric human who Chardin was surprised to discover used primitive tools. This prayer has helped Susanna and me for several years of suffering and big questions. Its a prayer that can excavate and preserve your soul!

Peace and help of Christ to you!

Josh

Meditation On Psalm 126 On The Occassion Of My New Daughter by Joshua Banner

This is a meditation I finished writing today on Psalm 126 for Bruce Benedict and his Cardiphonia, a fantastic resource for liturgists. It's no small thing that I pulled together the final thoughts and edits today, the day my little girl, Merritt Terese was born. Susanna and I have lost three other babies over the past three years. Our first baby was lost at 20 weeks, very rough. The other two remind us of that first intense pain. We've been through such darkness and grief. I didn't realize how much I was writing about Merritt's birth until today. Susanna has written a long essay about her journey through our losses that I hope I can direct your attention to some time soon. For now, please join us in celebrating the God who does "great things for us." The following picture was taken within minutes of her birth.

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July 14, 2017

Gary G. is a man I’ve come to admire. Gary is a juvenile offender. He committed his crimes in the early 1970’s. Gary has been in prison a few years longer than I have been alive. To make a long story short, Gary has some legal reasons to believe that he might have a chance of being released some day. Though a few days ago he told me that his most recent appeal was rejected. I volunteer in the prison and know Gary quite well. I’ve been astonished by his hope, by the smile he continues to wear when I have sat with him the past three years. Gary has become something of a hero for me. His calm, inquisitive, thoughtful demeanor is comforting, yet I find myself wanting to help Gary experience the pain of his situation. I want to give him permission to weep.

God can be deeply involved in our tears, if we let him.

Have you wept recently over anything? If yes, what are you spilling your tears over? What have you lost? Or consider, how is your fortune? What is the status of your life’s work? Said differently: what and who have you been investing in? And how is that going for you? Is your life today what you had expected it to become, or has time and circumstance broken into your life like a pair of bandits to rob your hopes and dreams?
 

Even if you are not personally experiencing tragedy, one perennial question especially for today is whether or not there is more to weep over now than ever before. Opening ourselves to the tragedy around us can teach us to weep. Social media brings suffering ever closer to our consciousness. Today you need to work pretty hard to keep your head in the sand to avoid the news of public shootings, violence done by police, violence done to police, corporate fraud and conspiracy, political scandal, political strife, hate crimes, racism, terrorism, war.... And then there’s the violence being done to our earth, the abuses of our water, soil, and air.

So, are the times getting worse or better? Is there today more pain and suffering, confusion, struggle and fear than ever before? If you have paused to consider this question, you know this question is more than an intellectual puzzle. If you let it, this question can burn through your heart and down into your guts.

If not your own pain, you can allow tears to flow because of the suffering around you. When you share in other’s suffering, you will likely enter a new level of your own suffering with tears of disillusionment: the world is not what we thought it was. The fortunes of the earth have been squandered. The safety and peace of the earth is not secure. Life is precarious. Our world is precarious.

This is the bad news. This is what Jesus has come to save us from. We misunderstand the Gospel when we pretend that suffering does not exist. Instead we surrender to the crucible of faith and face the darkness with open eyes, waiting and watching for the movements of a Lord who will do “great things for us.” In posturing our hearts toward such a Deliverer, our tears will become prayer. Lamentation is not giving into despair or grumbling or hard heartedness. In Jesus, lamentation is quite the opposite. We sow our tears in a soil of faith speaking honestly to a God who actually hears us, and somehow all the meaninglessness of suffering becomes meaningful.

He desires to restore your fortunes with a steady river of goodness, so much goodness that you will need to ask someone to pinch you. I’m so surprised, you’ll say. I had no idea his love was so faithful, you’ll say. This is beyond anything I could have asked for or imagined. Salvation will spring up from the ground like a bumper crop of goodness. Your tears will be replaced with laughter, and you’ll emphatically know: he has done it. He has done great things for you.