Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"Growing Edge" and Brothers on a Journey

For the past two years I have been part of a men's group at All Saints Episcopal Church called "Brothers on a Journey." It has been a life-changing and life-giving experience to be part of a group of men committed to being honest and vulnerable about our feelings and our struggles. This is a mission statement we recently adopted (and which I helped to craft) describing our group and its mission:

All are welcome to Brothers on the Journey, wherever you are on your life's path. We meet every Monday at All Saints Church from 7:00-9:00 pm. During the first hour, each man shares for a certain number of minutes about his personal life. During the second hour, one man shares about whatever theme we have agreed upon, such as Relationships, Career, Spirituality, Sexuality, or Fathers. We are not a therapy group, though therapists often participate, nor do we give unsolicited advice. We listen, ask each other questions and encourage each other to be honest and vulnerable about our experiences. We take turns facilitating our meetings so men can learn this skill. Our goals are:
  • To create a safe, confidential  and caring environment for personal and spiritual growth, and for self-discovery
  • To give each other the gift of compassionate listening and mutual trust
  • To help each other to explore our lives at whatever level we want
  • To deepen our relationship with each other as “brothers on a journey.
Our recent topic for our second-hour sharing time was our "growing edge." Not exactly sure what this really means, even after several men have shared on this topic, I decided to google “Growing Edge” and see what came up.  I was very intrigued by what Mark Gilbert had to say in a blog called “Conscious Bridge”  He cites a book called Social Change 2.0 by David Gershon in which the author outlines a model of instituting positive and potentially long-lasting social change on the planet using uses nature as a metaphor, Gershon writes: 

“If something is alive it is always growing.  There is always the next shoot, bud or growing edge.  A tree is a good example, if you look at the shoots on a branch that are just coming into existence.  This is where the tree is most vital.  It is where the trees life force is the strongest.  It is where there is the greatest degree of aliveness.  These growing edges have several distinct properties.  They are fragile and vulnerable, without any bark protecting them against the elements.  They are soft and have the green color of new life.  They are unique to that branch of the tree.  While all trees share the same process of growth, each branch looks different depending on the unique circumstances and stage of its growth.  There is no right growing edge for a tree.  There certainly is no way to say, one growing edge is better than another or one branch should be like another branch.  The only meaningful criterion is the quality of the trees aliveness.  If a tree is fully alive it is always growing and has many growing edges.  If there are no new growing edges coming into existence than the tree is atrophying and moving toward death.”

As a gardener, I know this is true, whether of trees or of transplants. Whenever I transplant something, there is always a period of uncertainty. How will this transplant respond to this new environment? Will it grow, or will it die? Sometimes a transplant goes into immediate shock and needs a lot of care, a lot of watering. But other times a transplant seems to do nothing, like the banana tree my wife and I planted a month ago. For over a month there was no sign of growth or change. It seemed to be neither growing nor dying. We gave it lots of water, but it didn’t seem to be responding.
But then today I was surprised and delighted to see that our banana tree had unfolded its first leaf, seemingly overnight.  My heart leaped for joy. Our banana tree is alive and growing! And I know it will have a bright future. It is seeking the light, and it is also deeply rooted in wet, richly fertilized soil.
I am looking at my “growing edge.” Where do I feel most alive right now? Where am I growing? Where am I sending down roots and what is nurturing those roots? Where am I seeking the light?  And also where am I most vulnerable?
Sometimes growth occurs because of death or dying. A tree that falls in the woods becomes a “nurse log,” a source of nutrients for other plants and trees.
That is also true for me. Seven years ago, on this day, my wife Kathleen passed away of cancer. We had twenty years of a beautiful and peaceful marriage. We were soul mates, even though we came from very different backgrounds. She was born in Orange County, a shy, gifted woman who became  a Methodist pastor. She came from a privileged family with roots in Missouri going back to the American Revolution. I am a Quaker from an immigrant family with very little formal education—the son of a Scot and a Greek who became a college professor, the first in my family to go to college. Different though we were, we loved each other deeply and saw “that of God” in each other. We helped us other to grow by giving each other lots and lots of love and affirmation.
My growing edge since Kathleen’s death has been to get in touch with my brokenness. Her death broke open my heart and it has never completely healed. I still grieve. I still mourn her loss. And yet I am grateful for what I have learned from this loss. Her death has helped me to become more human, more alive, just as the death of Jesus enabled his disciples to become more Christ-like, more in touch with their Inward Teacher, the Holy Spirit. Losing Kathleen has given me an opportunity to grow in new ways. After her death, I assumed a pastoral role in my Meeting. People who had problems or had suffered losses sought me out because they need I could empathize. I became a better listener. Several years ago I decided to work towards becoming a spiritual director. This was something that Kathleen wanted to become just before she passed. I felt led to continue the work that she never had a chance to finish.
What does it mean to be a spiritual director? It means to listen from the heart to another human being and to help them connect with what is most alive for them. This is what my spiritual director does for me, and what I would like to do that for others. I am not there yet, but this is one of my growing edges.
My second growing edge has been my marriage to Jill, which has been both an amazing gift and a challenge. I proposed to her only three weeks after meeting her, and she had never been married before, so learning how to be a couple has been a growing edge for both of us. We’ve been through couples therapy, we’ve read books on marriage, and we are still a work in progress. We love each other deeply and are committed to doing whatever it takes to have a good marriage. Last week we went to our first Alanon meeting because my wife is the daughter of alcoholic parents and we have an alcoholic living in our home. We also made a commitment to take part in a ten-week marriage enrichment program at Lake Avenue Church. We are being paired up with a mentoring couple who are going to help us get through this curriculum. I feel good that we are taking steps to work on our marriage. Both of us feel our marriage is something very special, something sacred and worth nurturing.
Another growing edge has been to be transplanted to Pasadena. When I married Jill five years ago, I left Santa Monica Meeting and a community on the West Side that I loved and that had nurtured me during very trying periods of my life. I grieved the loss of that community almost as much as I grieved for the loss of my wife Kathleen. And I still feel a sense of loss.
But I also see that being in Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena is an opportunity for me to grow spiritually and emotionally. Adjusting to this meeting has been very hard, but I see signs of growth and life both in myself and in the Meeting. I am excited that we have a thriving peace committee where I feel appreciated and supported,and where we do good work. Jill and I have started a fledgling bible study which is bringing new awareness about Scripture to our Meeting. This past weekend I helped to host the Board of Western Friend (the magazine I edited for eleven years) at our Meeting. I was deeply impressed by how Orange Grove Friends responded with friendliness and kindness, and how our Meeting had what seemed to me a “growth spurt.” Sunday’s meeting for worship felt more centered than it has been for a long time.
The past five years have been a period of incredible growth for me, both outwardly and inwardly. I have written or edited three books. I completed the Brinton book that I had been working on for over a decade, and edited a new book called "Tranformative Quakers." I was involved in second editions of "Quakers and the Interfaith Movement" and my novel "Relics of America."I also helped Jill edit a new edition of her book and publish a Spanish version of "Making Housing Happen." Through Jill I also I have gotten involved with a whole new world—the world of Evangelical Christians—and also the world of Pasadena politics. 
Thanks to Jill I have learned a whole new theology—the theology of place, and what it means to be a “good neighbor” and love your neighborhood. The home where Jill and I live has become an important part of my growing edge. For most of my life I was a transient. Even when I was married to Kathleen, we had to move every five or six years because the Methodist church likes to move their pastors around. We lived in Torrance, Whittier, and finally Santa Monica. I never felt a deep attachment to a place. My commitment was to my spiritual community and to my spiritual/political work. Now I feel that I am married not only to Jill but to the city of Pasadena. Thanks to Jill, I know the city officials and politics in a way that I have never known them before. I feel more deeply rooted to the land and my environmentalism has become more heart-centered and passionate. Pasadena is my home, and I love this community, and all the people and creatures living in it, including the trees and the animals. 
Underneath this outer work there has been a lot of inner work. As I mentioned before, I enrolled in the Stillpoint Spiritual Direction program and spent one Saturday a month with a group of people committed to spiritual growth for three years. We read books on spirituality, practiced and honed our listening skills, and shared our deepest yearnings and feelings with each other. This was something I had never done before in an intentional way. It has changed my life in profound ways, helping me to be more in tune with my feelings and with the Spirit. 
 This men’s group has also been very part of my personal growth. Growing up, I was not into sports. I preferred books and art. I never had a chance to bond with men in a meaningful way. So being part of this group has really opened me up to a new dimension of my life and helped me to understand better what it means to be a man, how men are unique, and what we as men have in common.
I have also cultivated spiritual friendships with men whom I meet with on a regular basis, usually once a month, to have lunch or go for a walk in the mountains. We talk about our spiritual and personal lives. This has been a great blessing and a growing edge for me.
During the q and a after I shared this reflection, I received a lot of affirmation and also a good question: What is the most vital growing edge for you right now? I responded that my biggest challenge is finding time to do the things that nourish my soul, like writing, music, art, gardening, enjoying nature, times of prayer. I am often so caught up in busy-ness and hyperactivism I don't have time to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46). I need time to know and enjoy the Divine in all God's beautiful manifestations.  I need to give myself permission to slow down and find the balance between the active and contemplative life. This is where I feel most alive, where the growth happens.Each day I recite these words and try to take them to heart:

"God, you will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are fixed on you, for in returning and rest is our salvation, in gentleness and trust is our strength" (Isaiah 26:3).

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