Saturday, February 16, 2019

as the sun goes down...

Today was spent quietly cleaning our house: washing floors and clothes, wiping down counters and toilets, vacuuming, dusting and all the rest. It is one of the small and quiet joys in my life. Along the way, when I had to stop to rest my tired back, I reread this poem that Garrison Keeler posted earlier in the week on the Writer's Almanac. I couldn't help but think of my time in ministry - as well as my time as a musician. As the sun went down, I made my favorite Lebanese salad, fatoosh, and poured a glass of red wine. Today has been a blessing.

Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading
by Kenneth Ronkowitz

A guy I went to college with who lives in town
and introduced himself before the reading with, “I guess you’re still writing that poetry stuff.”

A few of those people who spend some of every day wandering around a library or bookstore
but never read, buy or borrow books.

That person who has been stalking me online.

Someone from the staff who just came in for the refreshments,
but feels uncomfortable about walking out until I finish this poem.

A woman who has been on her phone the entire time I have been reading,
but took a photo of me.

Other poets who are not really listening to me read
because they are getting ready for the open reading after I finish.

The woman who invited me and mispronounced my name in her introduction.

Someone with a young child which made me decide not to read one of the poems I had marked.

Two friends who do not really like poetry
but want to be supportive, and say at the end, “So, this is what you do.”

And you, who is listening intently
and wants to say something afterwards
about one poem I read
that seems so much like your own life
that you wonder if we have ever met before.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

got to get behind the mule: returning to the practice of silence...

Some 17 years ago, my spiritual director in Tucson told me that my on-again/ off-again approach to quiet, personal prayer was both natural and a stumbling block. "Everyone gets bored with focused, intentional quiet prayer, man," he said. "But so what? The point in this type of prayer is NOT an experience of the holy - although that may happen from time to time - but rather it is the practice of patience. The cultivation of obedience. A time to give up yourself for loving and humble devotion." 

His insight and admonition came because I had told him that I had quit doing Centering Prayer (again) and was using the poetry of Rumi and a Cat Stevens song as my prayer. "Nothing wrong with that," he smiled, "both Rumi and Yusuf are holy guys. But it seems to me that you (meaning me) are wanting a sensation during prayer. An encounter. Maybe a consolation (a feeling of tender grace) or an affirmation. Right?" When I nodded silently, he added saying: "Consolations have their place and we all want and need them. But you won't go deeper into grace just by searching out experiences. You need to 'be still' and learn to rest humbly in the presence of the Lord." 

I knew he was right and still wanted to do prayer my own way. So, predictably, in a month, I had changed to a George Harrison song. And then a Mary Chapin-Carpenter song, and then a Taize song before quitting quiet prayers altogether. NOTE: "Isn't It a Pity," "Jubilee" and "Bless the Lord, my Soul" are ALL great prayer songs. I still let their beauty and wisdom speak to me. But at that time they were a diversion to keep me busy and seeking experiences for myself when what I needed was deeper rest, trust and silence. Less of me and more of God. Don't misunderstand: I will always trust music as my first language for prayer - personally and in public worship - as it was the way the holy embraced me at the start of consciousness. But, to all things there is a season.

This reminds me of a story Rabbi Harold Kushner told about a liturgy group that was charged with rewriting the ancient Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur prayers in one of the synagogues he served. They studied the old texts and parsed the origins and meaning of the old words. Then they rewrote the ancient prayers using contemporary expressions of poetry and music. When the high holy days arrived the new prayers were received enthusiastically. "They truly touched our hearts" was the near unanimous verdict that first year. The second year, the new words were shared again. And this time they evoked a more modest, albeit positive, reaction. "They worked well," was how most people responded, "but maybe a little less potent than they were last year - but still good." On the third year, when the new prayers were brought out in anticipation of worship, the liturgy team suggested they be rewritten again because now the old contemporary words sounded flat. Hackneyed. After trying to find better new words, the team went back to the old prayers and discerned that it might be wiser to use them once more. When the high holy days were over, the synagogue all agreed that the old words worked the best. 

Scholars of fairy tales and folk songs know that our old words have been time-tested. They have been dragged through the sand of history so that their rough edges are worn off. The fluff has been scraped off too so that only deeper truths remain. I like to share this story with couples who are eager to write their own wedding vows: "We can do it," I assure them, "and the process can have real meaning. But first, take a little time to listen to the old words. They have stood the test of time." And more often than not, they almost all agree to celebrate their love using words that have blessed countless generations before them. 

For the past three years I have been wrestling with God's call to go deeper into the sacrament of tenderness. As I have listened to this calling, it has always been accompanied by an invitation to befriend the silence. Like Fr. Richard Rohr and the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault note: God's promise of peace begins within us - with a living encounter with grace - it starts with discipline and matures into silence. Without a living reservoir of inner peace, we only know the chaos of culture. Sometimes we'll be up, other times down, but always we will find ourselves being tossed about rather than grounded or centered in the peace that passes understanding. Ephesians 4 is useful here:

I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences. (It's time to say out loud that there must be) no prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love. (The Message)

Whether an invitation or a command, the call into tenderness requires that I mature in the practice of silent prayer. The testimony of Jesus is clear: we all start as infants - and Jesus loved the children and blessed them. He told us that we cannot live into the realm of God unless we become as a child, too. Trusting. Open to discipline. With hearts free to love and experience the joy and sorrow of life thoroughly. At the same time, Jesus warned that refusing to grow up is not an option for those who seek to live in love. We cannot remain stagnate. "Pick up your pallet and walk" he commanded the healed paralytic. "Leave your nets and follow me" he instructed his disciples. "Take up your Cross, put your hand to the plow and never look back, seek ye first the kingdom of God" he told those who would mature into the new Body of Christ. 

Cynthia Bourgeault is on to something when she writes that those who would follow Jesus and seek the kingdom of God must "put on the full mind of Christ."  "The Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ way of describing a state we would nowadays call “nondual consciousness” or “unitive consciousness.” The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans- these are indeed Jesus’ two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does." To put on the full mind of Christ is not about right doctrine or mastering the outward manifestations of religion. Rather, it is about right practice - orthopraxis instead of orthodoxy - wherein spiritual maturity is about how the words of grace become flesh.

What Jesus practiced, what the early mystics learned, and what the fathers and mothers of the desert embraced was the discipline of waiting and trusting God in silence. St. Paul spent three years in the desert with elders who helped him move out of himself. Speaking experientially, the apostle wrote: "When I was a child I spoke like a child, I acted like a child and sounded like a child... but in time I had to put childish things away. As an adult, I ripened and matured in grace so that now I know that I see as through as glass darkly, but trust that later I shall see face to face." (I Corinthians 13) Towards the end of this days, St. Paul penned these words: "We will all struggle and have ups and downs, sisters and brothers," he begins, so know that:

... our suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us... (That is why) I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and mature. (Romans 5 and 12)

A growing consensus of mystics are clear that most of Western Christianity has forgotten its roots in right practice. We have not been taught how to put on the full mind of Christ. We have adopted best business practices and tons of words but forsaken silence and communion with the holy. Bourgeault writes:

For the better part of the past sixteen hundred years,  however, Christianity has put a lot more emphasis on the things we know about Jesus. The word “orthodox” has come to mean having the correct beliefs. Along with the overt requirement to learn what these beliefs are and agree with them comes a subliminal message: that the appropriate way to relate to Jesus is through a series of beliefs. In fundamentalist Christianity, this message tends to get even more accentuated, to the point where faith appears to be a matter of signing on the dotted lines to a set of creedal statements. Belief in Jesus is indistinguishable from belief about him. This certainly wasn’t how it was done in the early church—nor can it be if we are really seeking to come into a living relationship with this wisdom master. Jim Marion’s book returns us to the central challenge Christianity ought to be handing us. Indeed, how do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with that same wholeness and healing love? That’s what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.

As I have discerned the next step for me in these later years of life, I have found that I must relearn the early Church's wisdom and go deeper into grace and silence. To help me I started to collect some of the observations the late Henri Nouwen shared about his own struggle. He too experienced an on-again /off-again rhythm with trust. Like him, I am slow to act. I need lots of time, fretting and reflection before I can take the next step. In my hesitation, Nouwen's vulnerability has been a blessing for me:

For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.

Nouwen came to know in his heart that he could not remain compulsive about needing sacred affirmations to keep him on track. Rather, he had to trust a holy stillness before he could consistently know a grace that was real both inside and out.

(My) false self is the self that is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. “Compulsive” is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated, or despised. . . . If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same—more work, more money, more friends. These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of (our broken) self, the sour fruits of our worldly dependences.

After trying every trick in the sacred arsenal, imploring every living saint from Mother Theresa to Jean Vanier about a way into God's deep and abiding peace, after going to monasteries as well as liberation theology missions, teaching in the most prestigious theological seminaries of the USA, and writing deeply moving spiritual reflections about his own incomplete journey of faith only to find he still came up short: Nouwen went to live and work at L'Arche Daybreak. During this sojourn, he fell in love, but his love was not returned. This rejection broke his heart, throwing him into an emotional and spiritual breakdown that required three years of therapy, prayer and silence. Only when he was clearly on the other side of darkness could a recollected Nouwen, a humble Nouwen, a genuinely wounded healer Nouwen, could he confess: 

When God has become our shepherd, our refuge, our fortress, then we can reach out to him in the midst of a broken world and feel at home while still on the way. When God dwells in us, we can enter into a wordless dialogue with him while still waiting on the day that he will lead us into the house where he has prepared a place for us (John 14:2). Then we can wait while we have already arrived and ask while we have already received. Then, indeed, we can comfort each other with the words of Paul (Philippians 4:6–7): There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.

Like the prophet Elijah before him - or Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane or St. Peter during Christ's passion or Saul of Tarsus after being blinded on the road to Damascus or St. Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus - busyness, tricks, words and compulsions didn't work. They never do. So like Elijah and all the rest who came to know from the inside out, God's loving voice came to Nouwen in the stillness after the mountain, the wind, the fire and the earthquake had all passed away. (I Kings 19: 11-13) Brother Henri wrote: 

It strikes me increasingly just how hard-pressed people are nowadays. It’s as though they’re tearing about from one emergency to another. Never solitary, never still, never really free but always busy about something that just can’t wait. You get the impression that, amid this frantic hurly-burly, we lose touch with life itself. We have the experience of being busy while nothing real seems to happen. The more agitated we are, and the more compacted our lives become, the more difficult it is to keep a space where God can let something truly new really take place. The discipline of the heart helps us to let God into our hearts so that God can become known to us there, in the deepest recesses of our own being.

In the silence, all things have a place: fear and grace, emptiness and abundance, heaven and earth, spirit and flesh, life and death, male and female, young and old, alpha and omega, old and new. This is what Jesus means at the deepest level when he prays in St. John's gospel "that all may become one." So my journey continues: this morning I found myself returning to the old prayers that first guided me into contemplation some thirty years ago in my oldest prayer book, Prayers for the Domestic Church, by Fr. Ed Hays: 

O Lord my God, a new day has come to my door, fresh and full of life. With gratitude and a sense of wonder, I greet this day and You, my God, The sacrament of sleep has healed my heart and granted strength to my body. My cousins in creation - trees, birds, fish and four-legged creatures - are arising with a song of adoration. I desire to join my prayer with theirs. May my simple praises be in harmony with the songs of the wind and the earth, as I now enter int the prayer of stillness.

Serendipitously, I've been working on a song for our upcoming gig in Millerton, NY on March 2, 2019: "Get Behind the Mule" by Tom Waits. The chorus confirms my discernment: you gotta get behind the mule in the morning and plow. Waits says that the father of the iconic early blues genius, Robert Johnson, said that, "Robert would still be alive today if he'd learned to get behind the mule in the morning and plow. He needed to learn how to get up and grow up." But he lusted after the fast life - and wound up dead at the age of 27. Seems that the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had been flirting with poisoned a bottle of whiskey. Be still my soul indeed!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

that all may become one...

The brilliant musical arranger - and performer - T. Bone Burnett once recorded an album of out of the box, confessional pop songs with a distinctively Christian flavor. The title track, "Trap Door," sets the tone:

It's a funny thing about humility
As soon as you know you're being humble
You're no longer humble
It's a funny thing about life
You've got to give up your life to be alive
You've got to suffer to know compassion
You can't want nothing if you want satisfaction...

It's a funny thing about love
The harder you try to be loved
The less lovable you are
It's a funny thing about pride
When you're being proud
You should be ashamed
You find only pain if you seek after pleasure
You work like a slave if you seek out the leisure
Watch out for the trap door...

If I were writing this I might add a third verse that said something like: It's a funny thing about trusting God's healing love: just when you think your wounds are over they reach up and grab you by the throat - again. Or something comparably paradoxical. As the mystics relentlessly confirm, there is a wisdom to our wounds that can help us live more compassionately and authentically - but never think for a moment that these wounds vanish. They are part of us forever. They can become our path into blessing but they must be managed. Accepted. Listened to carefully and honored in humility lest they continue to wreak havoc in our lives. 
As I have written before, Fr. Ed Hays was a master spiritual teacher who summarized the wisdom of our wounds succinctly in his book St. George and the Dragon (http://www. Most of the time our wounds - and the feelings they evoke - call us to do exactly the opposite of what our feelings are saying. If I want to run away, therefore, the wisdom of my wound tells me to stay put. If I want to shout out my defense with pride, I need to be silent and listen to others carefully. If I want to throw myself into wild acts of selfless love, it would be wiser to first practice being circumspect, patient and measured. The wisdom of our wounds shows us the road to healing - but we have to put it into practice. 

This practice is both how "all things can become one" as Jesus said in St. John's gospel - living into and embracing the unity of opposites in the sacrament of life - it is also how we leave childish things behind to become more fully whole and holy. St. Paul taught that when we are children, we act like children and speak like children and think like children. But there comes a time to put childish things away and become adults - to mature and be spiritually awake - to practice living into the wisdom of our wounds. Fr. Richard Rohr uses a phrase, our work as faithful adults is to conform our lives to "the blue print" of God in reality. This is who Christ is for the world: a visible human being embracing the fullness of holy reality in his flesh. He is the Word - the blue print of God - making flesh God's fullness in time and space. 

In other words, God’s “first idea” and priority was to make the Godself both visible and shareable. The word used in the Bible for this idea was Logos, taken from Greek philosophy; I would translate Logos as the “Blueprint” or Primordial Pattern for reality. The whole of creation—not just Jesus—is the beloved community, the partner in the divine dance. Everything is the “child of God.” No exceptions. When you think of it, what else could anything be? All creatures must in some way carry the divine DNA of their Creator. The Incarnation, then, is not only “God becoming Jesus.” It is a much broader event. “Christ” is a word for the Primordial Template (Logos) “through whom all things came into being, and not one thing had its being except through him” (John 1:3; my emphasis). Seeing in this way has reframed, reenergized, and broadened my own religious belief, and I believe it could be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world religions. (Rohr)

My experience of practicing the wisdom of my wounds has been uneven. My hunch is that this is true for us all to a greater or lesser degree. As I listen to and accept what cannot be changed - finding both the serenity to trust God in those things too great for me as well as the courage to do what I can in any given moment - I feel grounded in God's grace. And then I become tired - or lazy - or cocky, I find myself being humbled again by the power these wounds still have over me. When I act foolishly, childishly, refusing to rest and trust the path of holy incarnational love, my wounds rise up and demand I pay attention. Not as punishment, but as an invitation back into grace. How did St. Paul put it in the first chapter of Romans?

The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! 
By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created - the world - people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power... the mystery of God's divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. (Yet what happens over and over is) that people knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him (that is live into the holy blueprint) they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand. So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” (Not as punishment, but to call you back home to love.) 

The great apostle continues to say that the longer we refuse to return home to the grace of God, the more confused we become - and eventually we start to act bestially to one another and ourselves. We have given up the blueprint of grace and refuse to honor the wisdom of our wounds. I know this is true for me which is why one of the first passages of Scripture I memorized was Romans 12. I first learned it as "present yourselves as a living sacrifice to God." Peterson's words put it like this:

Here’s what I want you to do, God helping: Take your everyday and ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The old text also said: Do not be conformed to this culture, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind! Learn and practice the wisdom of your wounds. Honor a life that is guided by the blueprint of grace. And understand that you'll be learning and relearning this forever.

A few days ago we were in rural New York state exploring a new region for us both. I fell in love with Kingston: the historic district has been physically restored, the arts scene is vibrant and creative, and the waterfront is hip and fun. As we drove through other parts of the area, however, I started to become uncomfortable. There are parts of Trump country that feel unsafe to me. And the farther away I get from doctors, food, shelter and an inclusive vibe that holds a place for me and others who don't always fit in to the status quo, the more fearful I become. I call it my "deliverance" condition: I am certain that some act of horrible violence will take place out in the country that will wound me or those I love. I felt it as we drove through parts of rural Kentucky before the 2015 election. I've known it going across the Texas panhandle whenever I walked into a truck stop to use the restroom. I feel it when we're driving alone on winding, isolated mountain roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere to me. And I felt it on part of this trip, too.

Granted I was weary from driving - and being on a severe mountain road that went on forever didn't help. So when we got out of the car, on a high, cold ridge I felt like a child. A terrified child. A little boy who knew there was danger lurking right around the corner that I could not stop. Now my beloved cherishes the stillness of these remote places. She rests whenever we get beyond the lights, noise and culture of the city. And I confess that the pure quiet on the top of this ridge was exquisite. But I couldn't enjoy it because it didn't feel safe to me. Over the years I have learned to pay attention to this fear. Yes, I must stay alert but need not run and hide. Be awake but also take in the rugged beauty, too. But on this trip all I felt was the urge to get the hell away and back to the semblance of civilization. My inner terror was palpable. I could not find words to describe it. Or prayers to settle it. It was simply an encounter with hell. 

There are a variety of reasons for this, from past abuse to an awareness that our culture hates the feminine and those men who embrace it in themselves. I know this. I have carefully avoided such places as an adult. I have listened to and honored those wounds within me and learned from them as well. I also worry about caring for my sweetheart's health - and what a challenge that presents to us both. I try to plan for these things. Yet once again, I had grown lax in the grounding of grace. So my fear reached up like a demon, grabbed me by the throat, and shook me for all I was worth. 

Oh the wisdom of our wounds is humbling, yes? "My ways are not your ways," says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah. So keep practicing the path of grace. Nourishing the love of the Lord within. Listening to and honoring the pain so that I might live in compassion and harmony with God's creation. Or, as T. Bone sang: watch out for the trap door. It is a funny thing about God: you do have to give up what you think is your life to really be alive. Such is the unity and unifying love of what we see as opposites. The paradox of faith. The serenity of acceptance. St. Francis got it oh so right...

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life

Thursday, February 7, 2019

a quiet, small taste of god's grace in real life...

This morning, we were walking around the kitchen singing the old Pete Seeger ditty, "Get Up and Go." The chorus cheerfully proclaims: 

How do I know my youth is all spent, my get up and go, has got up and went;
But in spite of it all I'm able to grin and think of the places my get up as been! 

That rings true to me today: I AM grateful for all the places my get up has been! I couldn't help but think more about this while watching "Springsteen on Broadway." Once again, I was moved to tears as the Boss told of his incremental reconciliation with his father. Those who know Springsteen's canon remember that when he began as a wild ass New Jersey rocker, his stories about "dad" were rebellious. and caustic. There was a bond between father and son, and love too, but it was fraught with conflict, mistrust, anger and shame. Musician Springsteen would rail against the elder, working class Springsteen in songs and stories of an agonizing divide. The first arc of this tale begins with "Growin' Up" and ends with what is perhaps the most poignant rendering of this conflict, "Adam Raised a Cain." (This one is my favorite version from Springsteen's extended solo acoustic tour.)

Phase two of this journey is more nuanced and open: the Boss is aware that his father may not have been as one dimensional as previously experienced. He whispers this in "Factory" and states it more clearly on "My Father's House." In this era, Springsteen begins to face his own demons of anxiety and depression - and senses that they also haunt his old man. In concert there is less carping and more tenderness. You can hear the shift in "Living Proof" a rocking confessional that materializes after his first marriage has crashed and burned and his first child with Patti came into being.

By the close of his father's life, however, the gap between father and son has been closed. A healing has taken place. Something momentous and hard won has occurred within both men that the artist explains during the monologue in "Springsteen on Broadway" before the song "Long Time Comin'." This soliloquy finds the Boss weeping. It is the most vulnerable and intimate articulation of his life I have heard in 30+ years of being a fan. He speaks of ghosts as well as ancestors, those who live into the fullness of love honestly - with grace, fear and trembling as well as lots of forgiveness - and those who become more and more cynical, agents of despair rather than hope.

And then he sings...  Its a song I never paid much attention to before. But given the trajectory of this father's journey with this son, and the deep inner work both men have attended to over the years, "Long Time Comin'" becomes a sacred celebration of paternal love. Its a tune about a wounded healer who passes on both the wounds and the healing to the next generation. By sharing both this story and this song, Springsteen illuminates a bit of God's grace in the midst of so much darkness. As he has said before, most of his songs are about small triumphs, times that could easily go south, but don't because a choice has been made. Sometimes the choice is made to spare a life or heal rather than hurt someone's heart. Other times a choice happens so that for just a day there is a little more peace in the world than was promised when the sun first  rose. Sometimes its active, other times its passive, quiet, loud and all the rest. For me, this song and story is yet another quiet reminder that God's grace is alive and well in our world. Jean Vanier puts it like in this morning's email

The beauty of human beings lies in their capacity to accept who they are, just as they are; not to live in a world of dreams and illusions, in anger or despair, wanting to be other than they are, or trying to run away from reality. They realize they have the right to be themselves. And there, they discover that they are loved by God, that they are unique and important for God and that they can do things for others.

Bruce Springsteen says much the same thing in this song. Take a listen if you can and may it nourish your choices, too.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

the cycle of life is ripening...

A few poems and readings today that have been speaking to me over the past
few weeks. As I reflect on what it means to not only accept but truly embrace a new road at this time in my life's journey, my heart is filled with memories. It is clearly time to let go of so much - possessions as well as experiences - so I am practicing relinquishing all the ways I missed the mark with those I cherish the most. Those sad days are over even as I long to go back in history and fix them. This poem whispers a bit of this truth to me...

Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

At eleven, my granddaughter looks like my daughter
did, that slender body, that thin face, the grace

with which she moves. When she visits, she sits
with my daughter; they have hot chocolate together

and talk. The way my granddaughter moves her hands,
the concentration with which she does everything,

knocks me back to the time when I sat with my daughter
at this table and we talked and I watched the grace

with which she moved her hands, the delicate way
she lifted the heavy hair back behind her ear.

My daughter is grown now, married
in a fairy-tale wedding, divorced, something inside

her broken, healing slowly. I look at my granddaughter
and I want to save her, as I was not able

to save my daughter. Nothing is that simple,
all our plans, carefully made, thrown into a cracked

pile by the way love betrays us.

A wise albeit bittersweet insight, yes? I was asked not long ago what spiritual practices I have made my own. Upon consideration three have consistently shaped my heart: music, silence and the serenity prayer. I have used the simple words of Niebuhr alongside the songs and the silence for over 30 years. And I still need days - weeks even - to settle into the serenity of acceptance. I so want to be in control even as I consciously know it is impossible. 
  God, grant me the serenity 
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change
 the things I can,
and the wisdom 
to know the difference.

Earlier this week I read these words from the late Fr. Henri Nouwen and they rang all too true within me, too. 

Against my own best intentions, I find myself continually striving to acquire power. When I give advice, I want to know whether it is being followed; when I offer help, I want to be thanked; when I give money, I want it to be used my way; when I do something good, I want to be remembered. I might not get a statue, or even a memorial plaque, but I am constantly concerned that I not be forgotten, that somehow I will live on in the thoughts and deeds of others. But the father of the prodigal son is not concerned about himself. His long-suffering life has emptied him of his desires to keep in control of things. His children are his only concern; to them he wants to give himself completely, and for them he wants to pour out all of himself. Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love? Considering my immense need for human recognition and affection, I realize that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I am also convinced that each time I step over this need and act free of my concern for return, I can trust that my life can truly bear the fruits of God’s Spirit.

Nouwen's vulnerability moves me. I know it took a lifetime for him to get to this place - a lifetime of denial, depression, prayer, silence and eventual collapse - and this offers an upside-down comfort to me. If it took brother Henri forever to move into the serenity of acceptance, if even at the end of his journey he was still encountering downs as well as ups, then I should not be so hard on myself. God's grace is sufficient. And then as if in affirmation, I have a moment of mystical joy - completely unwarranted - that settles my soul. This poem gets close to what the way these mystical blessings evoke deep rest and trust.

The Stars Fell Through My Window Tonight
by Laueretta Santarossa

The stars fell through my window tonight

I got up

They were everywhere
Calling me

Shiny bright and brilliant
Peeping through the pines
Playing peek-a-boo with the clouds
Scattering diamonds everywhere

Such Largesse

How could I be so lucky
To be so loved by this good earth

How indeed? Last week, when I picked Louie (my grandson) up from school and
took him over to choir practice, it was bitterly frigid. Waiting for him inside the school a staff member overheard me say to the guard on duty, "I'm here to pick up Louie P." He smiled at me and said, "Are you Jesse's dad?" To which I said, "Indeed I am." He continued, "I thought so. You look just like her!" I felt so blessed in that moment to be recognized as one related to this woman. No longer was she known as my child, but rather now I was being seen in her light. The right order of things was unfolding. So when I came across this poem a few days ago, those smiles returned.

A Perfect Arc
by Laura Davies Foley

I remember the first time he dove.
He was five and we were at a swimming pool
and I said: you tip your head down as you are going in,
while your feet go up.
And then his lithe little body did it exactly right,

a perfect dive, sliding downward, arcing without a wave,
and I just stood
amazed and without words
as his blond head came up again
and today

I watched him for the longest time as he walked
firm and upright along the street,
with backpack, guitar, all he needs,
blossoming outward in a perfect arc,
a graceful turning
away from me.

All week long I've been cleaning and baking. Its my way of honoring the holy days of Candlemas, St. Brigid's Feast and the Presentation of St. Mary the Virgin. Its been earthy. Ordinary. The sun has finally returned after the polar vortex and the ice is melting. I've placed new candles all over the house, too. Later this week we'll take a short trip to start a search for a new house, one that will help us downsize as well as be present in new ways to those we love most dearly. I feel the cycle of life ripening within and beyond me - maybe even a foretaste of serenity, too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

all who wander are not lost: on the road again...

Last night I had the strangest dream... or maybe it was early this morning. My father (deceased now for four years) and I were traveling together to an interview. A college interview? A job interview? Who knows? When I was a child I often rode with my dad during vacations when he had road trips. Later, we took a few long trips together to check out colleges. One journey, from Georgia to Wisconsin, brought me to Lakeland College for my freshman year of college. We stopped one night in Nashville and went to the old Grand Ole Opry, drove through cornfields and wheat fields, ate at small diners on blue highways, I asked him about his growing up, and eventually my parents dropped me off in Sheboygan, WI to 
begin my life beyond home. 

In this dream journey, we were both our actual ages (assuming my father was still alive, he would be 88 on this trip to my nearly 67 years.) Whatever the nature of the interview, my dad was waiting in an outer office while I talked about the significant influences on my life. "Mostly I played in a band during high school," I told the official. He was non-plussed and nodded distractedly before saying, "But what shaped your soul?" At first I was offended: I played a LOT of music in high school. Our band, and the various acoustic subsets of that band, gave me an identity and a social life. "What a dick head" I thought to myself in the dream. Some bourgeois bureaucrat who has no idea of the salvific power of rock and roll was judging me. But then I told him, "Well, remember we're talking about 1965-1970, ok? In 1968 my church youth group took a three week road trip to see the social ministries of the church. I turned 16 that year. Dr. King had just been assassinated, too. And in the Potter's House, a ministry of the Church of the Savior in DC to the artists of the counter culture, I sensed a call to ministry. The next year, 1969, we spent three weeks of the summer in Biloxi, MI as volunteers with the Back Bay Mission. And of course, don't forget our nearly monthly visits to NYC and the old Filmore East."

All of which lit up my interviewer - so much so that we spent the next hour talking about what I learned as a white, middle class kid traveling South as my dad sat contentedly listening in to our conversation. We spoke of dancing to James Brown on the radio with little black kids in DC three months after MLK had been assassinated. And what it meant for me to travel through the Deep South - and talk about the Civil Rights movement - with activists on the front line while sleeping in various church basements. Or hearing the Who debut "Tommy" at the Fillmore? Or Zappa and the Mothers? Or Country Joe and the Fish? Or an early incarnation of Paul Winter's Consort when the Kinks canceled? Or a young Buddy Guy and an old Albert King? 

And then I woke up. It took me a few minutes to figure out where I was: had this trip just happened? It felt so real. Was it just a dream - and if so what was this dream saying to me? And why now? All day I've been walking around with it playing over and over in my heart. I understand that dream journeys have something to do with the actual journey of life at this moment in time. Taking a trip suggests a quest for meaning and purpose as we live into our goals. Or at least that life currently holds some unique significance that is now unfolding. Dreams about fathers often involve exercising personal authority and autonomy. While dreams about a deceased father can be a warning. Or at least a call to pay attention to some unsettled business within. And an interviewer? One who asks questions and make connections? That presence is often called up as a reminder of our deepest potential. The interviewer also tests us as we discern what is truly significant.

In this dream I was at peace with my dad. I was also at peace with myself at this moment in time. In retirement many of my conflicts have been settled. My history with my father rests in contentment as we share the things we both love: grandchildren, children, stories, the creative arts and social justice. Some of the things that I once believed were essential have now been revealed to be incidental, while living into a tender but counter-cultural journey beyond the confines of my straight, while male heritage are invigorating and genuinely fascinating. It would seem that I am telling myself some things I have not been quite able to put into words: trust grace, trust tenderness, trust that God heals what I cannot control, trust the serenity of acceptance. And, trust that this trip into selling the house and moving on is true, right, holy and soul satisfying. I can't help but call up a tune from back in my Fillmore days from a band I heard often...

Monday, February 4, 2019

i'd like to give God a lake of beer...

"If we can hallow February," writes Christopher Hill, "we can hallow any time." For those of us living in North Country, truer words have not been uttered. Hill goes on to observe that in our part of the world:

... winter never actually ends. It hangs on interminably, miserably, through almost half the year, like a neurotic house guest you invited for Christmas who won't leave, filling ashtrays, piling up dishes in the sing, and leaving dirty socks on the dining-room table. Even in May, winter is liable to pop back up lie some gruesome jack-in-the-box... February is a sad month, when Christmas magic is a distant memory, the first grim weeks of Lent loom, and Easter isn't even on the horizon... Yet even here the Year of the Lord gives meaning to meaningless time with symbols and rituals that teach us to look contemplatively below the surface bleakness. (Holidays and Holy Nights, p. 104)

He is calling to mind two celebrations long neglected by the secular, bourgeois West - St. Brigid's Feast Day and Candlemas on the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin - blessed banquets I had never heard of as a young Prod and am only now learning to make my own. Both are obviously feminine expressions of the holy. Hill calls them midwife holy days, transitional bridges from one encounter to another, that are not dramatic masculine pronouncements like Christmas or Easter; but rather "holidays that have to do with the feminine dynamics of flow and growth. They remind us that the pointed masculine vision often misses the point... as living things grow from one stage to another... a continuum of growth, metamorphosis, and resurrection. (p. 105)

Brigid, along with Patrick, is noted for her commitment to evangelizing Ireland and Scotland. Simultaneously she is understood to have been a Celtic goddess, an abbess of the 5th century CE and present with the Blessed Virgin Mary during the birth of Jesus. Some see her as the gentle way one tradition can flow into another, each enriching the new synthesis, without any hint of violence or the new vanquishing the old. "She is a figure of in-betweens, the feminine both/and instead of the masculine either/or. She lives in the connecting places between the sharp points.Women in the Hebrides who called Brigid into their homes on the eve of her feast were not inviting in an historical personage, but a living presence." (Hill, p. 106) Her feast day comes forty days after Christmas and is celebrated by blessing the candles of the new year in a way that honors her essence: In Gaelic, her name means "fiery arrow." 

In Scotland and Ireland, St. Brigid's or St. Bride's feast day marks the cultural beginning of spring. Christine Valters Painter at The Abbey of the Arts puts it like this:

February 1st-2nd marks a confluence of several feasts and occasions including: the Celtic feast of Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, Candlemas, Feast of the Presentation, and Groundhog Day in the northern hemisphere! (Imbolc is August 1st in the southern hemisphere). Imbolc is a Celtic feast that is cross-quarter day, meaning it is the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. The sun marks the four Quarter Days of the year (the Solstices and Equinoxes) and the midpoints are the cross-quarter days. In some cultures... February 2nd is the official beginning of spring. As the days slowly lengthen in the northern hemisphere and the sun makes her way higher in the sky, the ground beneath our feet begins to thaw. The earth softens and the seeds deep below stir in the darkness. The word “imbolc” means “in the belly.” The earth’s belly is beginning to awaken, new life is stirring, seeds are sprouting forth.  (

On St. Brigid's Day here it was -6 below O F. We were in Tucson so missed the

surprise. There it was 72 F. Now it is 52 F and feels more like the start of spring. We all know, of course, that there will be more snow and cold to be sorted out. Still, new life and warmth is starting to rise up both from the very belly of creation as well in the wider cosmos, and its unique and loving manner offers us a measure of tenderness. Hill writes that "the winter-spring feast of Brigid is a legacy from long-ago mothers, from the realm of mother-wit and mother night, of grannies by the fire; a woman's wold of birthing babies and burying bodies in the ground." It is a spirituality grounded in the cycle of life, death and new life.

Not coincidentally, the day after Imbolc, Candlemas and Brigid's feast day is a day given to honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary: the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin. The unity of these two new/old holy days set 40 days after Christmas offers us a clue about how to live into the wisdom of God's first word: creation. Scripture comes much later. So as the elders of my traditions teach it, let us always remember that God's first word was the very creation of the world including its seasons, smells, tastes, experiences, feelings, rhythms, inhabitants, waters, air, fire, day and night and all the rest. On February 2 tradition tells us that Mary the Virgin "went to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after the birth of Jesus for ritual purification." (p. 110) The Roman name for this month, Februa "means purification as this was the time for house-cleaning Roman rites of cleansing." It seems every spiritual tradition includes a time for birthing and a time for dying. A time for dancing and a time for mourning. A time for holding, beholding, and a time for letting go and cleansing. From the story of Mary's purification, the early Church cultivated a ritual to celebrate the reality of creation moving from the dark cold into the warmth of the light as well as our personal calling to gently let go of the old tenderly as we make room for the new. 

(There was) a procession of candles... every parishioner was given a candle. just before dawn, there was a long procession around and then into the church ending at the altar, where each candle was blessed with holy water and incense. At home, these candles were lighted and set on windowsills to bring luck to the household throughout the year. The ritual symbolized Christ as the Light of the World and the return of light to the natural world. (p. 111)

Back in the day, Candlemas also marked the time to take down the greenery of the Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany cycle - a time to cleanse the home thoroughly in order to prepare for the Lent/Easter /Ascension /Pentecost cycle. One path asks me to be still in the quiet darkness and watch for small signs of the holy being born into the most unlikely places. To respect and reflect on that part of the journey, the tradition gives us holy days like Brigid's feast and Candlemas. These feasts bring focus, gravitas and clarity to what has already taken place, and, they prepare us to look towards the new cycle with a sense of cleansing.

Today I am baking bread for Brigid and cleaning my house for Mary. I am preparing to get a new tattoo, too - St. Brigid's cross (pictured above as four strands of rushes woven together in the middle as the unity of the seasons) - to bring balance to my simple Jerusalem cross. I have added symbols, pictures of my extended family to my prayer wall and brought out fresh candles to bring light into the ebbing winter darkness. I'll chop up some of the ice that still lingers in the drive way, put on Old Blind Dog's as the bread bakes and dance around the house as I clean. Di and I will then spend this weekend taking another step in the dance of Brigid and Mary as we start the search for another home as the song of  downsizing and simplifying plays on. Selling this place will be filled with sacred transitions - and tons more cleansing - and now it feels right. When we drove back home from the airport in Albany after our Tucson retreat we both knew that now was the time. I suspect that St. Brigid got it right in this earthy ancient prayer from within her tradition: Lord, may it be so among us.

I'd like to give a lake of beer to God.
I'd love the Heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.

I'd love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I'd put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.

White cups of love I''d give them,
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I'd offer
To every man.

I'd make Heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I'd make the men contented for their own sake
I'd like Jesus to love me too.

I'd like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around,
I'd give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.

I'd sit with the men, the women of God
There by the lake of beer
We'd be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

learning to trust god's grace: i'm on the right track, baby, i was born this way

The late William Burroughs - wealthy child of the bourgeoisie turned Beat poet,
true beautiful loser, and thoroughly unique junkie - once claimed, "When you stop growing, you start dying." My hunch is that it is more true to say, "When we  quit going deeper, we start to die," but I've been shaped by James Hillman's take on Jung. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying." Albert Einstein believed that "once you stop learning, you start dying." And Benjamin Franklin quipped, "When you're finished changing, you're finished."

This summer I will become 67 - a good enough time to die to paraphrase Chief Crazy Horse before the Battle of Little Big Horn. But an even better time to take stock of the changes, insights, failures and blessings that continue to lure me deeper. For about a year, the words and consequences of Fr. Richard Rohr in Immortal Diamond have been turning my always changing world upside down - again:

The goodness of God fills all the gaps of the universe, without discrimination or preference. God is the gratuity of absolutely everying. The space in-between everything is not space at all, but Spirit. God is the 'goodness glue' that holds the dark and light of life together, the free energy that carries all death across the Great Divide and transmutes it into Life... Grace is what God does to keep all things (God) has made in love and alive - forever. Grace is God's official job description. Grace is not something God gives; grace is who God is. If we are to believe the primary witnesses, an unexplainable goodness is at work in the universe.

This affirms an embodied and creative way for me to pray. Like rain on the desert soil, this insight has gently and slowly seeped deeper into my heart. It asks me to embrace everything I experience as communion with the holy. It encourages me to see my life as a prayer. And while driving down to Brooklyn this past Wednesday after a stunning snow fall, I got it.  From the inside, not just in my head. For almost four hours my trip was a mystical time of gratitude and awe. I wasn't expecting it but the sheer physical beauty of the snow on the trees, the sun breaking through a surprise snow squall just outside of NYC, my anticipation of just hanging-out with my beloved children and grandchildren for two full days,as well as the health and relative safety to do so, filled me full to overflowing. And just before I got to the Brooklyn condo, NPR ran a story about Lady Gaga's anthemic masterpiece, "Born This Way" and I burst into tears! Tears of joy for Gaga - and the wider LGBTQ community. Tears of rage for the hatred that lurks just below the surface. Tears of solidarity. Tears of confession. Tears of grace. And tears for my own wounded journey that are just too deep for human words. 

Look I'm not trying to appropriate someone else's culture, affirmation, faith, politics or sexuality. It simply felt like the whole thing was a bold gift of grace. It was also an inner blessing to rest into the love that saturates creation.

Later in Rohr's Immortal Diamond he writes: Jesus, and most other great spiritual teachers, make it very clear that there is an (inner) self that has to be found and one that has to be let go of or even renounced. I would go so far as to say there is an inner self that must also die. The false self. The self that only knows shame and fear and judgment. Rohr adds:

It seems that the false self would rather have a very few "wins," that let God win with everybody. That is my sad conclusion after a lifetime of working in many churches on many continents and it is summed up in the often murdered text by most preachers and traditions: "I am calling ALL of you, (says Jesus) but so few of you allow yourselves to be chosen. (Matthew 22: 14)

I am still a child - a baby - in letting myself be chosen by God and God's grace. I have been schooled in fear and judgment and shame. I can forsake that false self. I can practice letting it go, too and place it on the Cross.  But it is strong and well-developed. So let me thank all that is holy for my trip to Brooklyn and pray that I can come to trust this grace a little more as this year of dying to shame and beholding the blessings unfolds. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

i've always liked it slow...

The snow is starting to fall in the Berkshires - again - and soon these hills will become still and seemingly tranquil for a spell. This is when the woods become desert-like to me: serene and quiet. Every morning I prayerfully read the affairs of the world in both the NY Times and Guardian before sitting in silent reflection. As Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating have taught: without nourishing the practice of quieting our inner voices, it is impossible to hear the still, small voice of God's grace. In fact, without cultivating a contemplative discipline, most of us are unable to consistently live as peace-makers in a world wrapped in brokenness. There is beauty to be discerned, to be sure, but without a way of taming our anxieties, we will be anything but a non-anxious presence thrashing about in a sea of tumult. Cynthia Bourgeault, wisdom keeper in the mystical Christian tradition, recently put it like this in a daily mailing from the Center for Contemplation and Action: 

For the better part of the past sixteen hundred years Christianity has put a lot more emphasis on the things we know about Jesus. The word “orthodox” has come to mean having the correct beliefs. Along with the overt requirement to learn what these beliefs are and agree with them comes a subliminal message: that the appropriate way to relate to Jesus is through a series of beliefs. In fundamentalist Christianity, this message tends to get even more accentuated, to the point where faith appears to be a matter of signing on the dotted lines to a set of creedal statements. Belief in Jesus is indistinguishable from belief about him. This certainly wasn’t how it was done in the early church—nor can it be if we are really seeking to come into a living relationship with this wisdom master. Jim Marion’s book returns us to the central challenge Christianity ought to be handing us. Indeed, how do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with that same wholeness and healing love? That’s what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.

"Putting on the mind of Christ" is one way to describe making a spiritual practice part of our life's journey. Tending to the soul, what Elizabeth O'Connor called our "inward journey," is how non-dual thinking ripens within us. It is how we move towards serenity and gravitas, spiritual maturity as well as a measure of quiet humility and humor in our everyday experiences. In my world, Bourgeault et al are right on the money when they remind us that Western Christianity in all its variations has forsaken the "mind of Jesus" and the value of "right practice" (orthopraxis) for "right belief" (orthodoxy.) Small wonder so many of us flounder within our various addictions, obsessions and anxieties. One of my favorite spiritual guides, the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, articulated his own failings in the spiritual life like this - and his words ring true for me, too.

For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.

Most of us have never been taught this upside-down way of opening our hearts
to the God who seeks us out by name. We have been given rules and abstract theological constructs; we have been shown how to attend worship, receive Holy Communion, and recite the proscribed payers; and we have been offered a spirituality of observation rather than participation. A way of doing church where the congregation congregates and the minister ministers. It is like professional football: we enter, we pay, we watch and then we leave. Perhaps we've been entertained in the process, but nothing really changes. There is no discipline, reflection, intimacy or contemplation involved. There are no practices to train our hearts and minds in the way of God's grace. There is no guidance in how to "enter the kingdom of God" that was at the core of Christ's ministry. And there certainly is no silence where we might learn how to distinguish our inner cacophony from God's quiet songs. Sr. Joan Chittister of the Benedictine tradition got it right when she wrote: "It is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to quiet so that the quiet of God can be brought to consciousness."

Bourgeault goes on to quote scholar Jim Marion's insights re: the metaphorical wisdom of Jesus when he teaches: "the kingdom of Heaven is within you... and at hand." She writes:

Many Christians, particularly those of a more evangelical persuasion, assume that the Kingdom of Heaven means the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved.” But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus himself specifically contradicts it when he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now)... (Suggesting that) you don’t die into it; you awaken into it. Others have equated the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia. The Kingdom of Heaven would be a realm of peace and justice, where human beings lived together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets... (but) Jesus specifically rejected this meaning. When his followers wanted to proclaim him the Messiah, the divinely anointed king of Israel who would inaugurate the reign of God’s justice upon the earth, Jesus shrank from all that and said, strongly and unequivocally, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Jim Marion’s wonderfully insightful and contemporary suggestion is that the Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place. Marion suggests specifically that the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ way of describing a state we would nowadays call “nondual consciousness” or “unitive consciousness.” The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. These are indeed Jesus’ two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does.

No separation between humans - of any race, religion, gender or experience - and no separation between the holy and our humanity. All of life, death, faith, religion, politics, prayer, culture, friendship, love, hate, war, peace, and sexuality are connected. "To everything there is a season," sings the wise elder of Ecclesiastes, "and a time for every purpose under heaven." Or to use the contemporary language of the recovery movement that celebrates a way of living through our wounds and into God's peace: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Bourgeault adds:

When Jesus talks about Oneness, he is not speaking in an Eastern sense about an equivalency of being, such that I am in and of myself divine. Rather, what he has in mind is a complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other... There is no separation between humans and God because of this mutual inter-abiding which expresses the indivisible reality of divine love. We flow into God—and God into us—because it is the nature of love to flow. And as we give ourselves into one another in this fashion... The whole and the part live together in mutual, loving reciprocity, each belonging to the other and dependent on the other to show forth the fullness of love. 

Not long ago an acquaintance asked out loud: "What can I do to find meaning, passion and zest in my life? I am dried up. I've tried everything from education and yoga to sex, alcohol, politics and busyness. And still I wind up empty. and exhausted. Sad, afraid and hopeless. Help!" I know a lot of people hitting their 40s who are saying the same things. I believe that their words and the feelings below them are part of the way God's calls out to us in love. I believe the songs, movies, poems and TV shows of culture that are saturated in alienation are part of the way the holy is searching to bring us home, too. Like Nouwen said, "I wonder (now) whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by (God)?” Our personal stories hold the clues. Our experiences and wounds have something profound and healing to teach us. For what we know and say is not disconnected from what God is trying to tell us. But first we need to share our story - in an honest, audible and vulnerable way - with those grounded in God's love. Who have experienced similar deserts of despair - and know from the inside out that the wilderness is not the end of the journey. Sue Pickering, Anglican priest and spiritual director in New Zealand, offers a quiet and sober word of hope:

So many of us are stuck on the present day (reality) of materialism and busyness, cut off from a sanctuary of the spirit where we can be truly nurtured and grow strong. Some people may have a distant awareness of (sacred) things... Young or old, they may have heard stories of people touched by God and wondered how they might feel that same sense of connection, or whether there could be an credibility in such accounts; they may - or may not - be aware of a longing in their deepest being for something more, something other,which we might name the fullness of life in relationship with God. Others may have had some encounter with that something other but, lacking an appropriate vocabulary or a listener who could help them hold and deepen the experience and engage with the questions it raises, have let that instant of deep connection sink into the background of their minds. The more real than real becomes overlaid with the sediment of the clamoring voices and daily routines around them. (Pickering, Spiritual Direction)

Part of what I heard for myself in the silence of the Sonoran desert this past week is similar to what I sense St. Paul discovered about himself while wandering through his own wilderness. It is what I experience every time I make the effort to quietly walk through our local Wal-Mart and just listen and/or assist those bewildered folk who seem all alone and overwhelmed. It has something to do with just listening to and praying for others. St. Paul put it like this: When I was a child I acted like a child and did childish things. But now that I have moved beyond childhood, its time to listen, speak and act like an adult... who knows that three things remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. Simple acts of love. Tender acts of love. With time, patience and space to listen rather than judge. To keep putting on the mind of Christ and accepting his open heart rather than just my own clenched and anxious fists. St. Leonard Cohen is singing this inside my head these days...

as the sun goes down...

Today was spent quietly cleaning our house: washing floors and clothes, wiping down counters and toilets, vacuuming, dusting and all the r...