Friday, October 24, 2014

One more for the road...

This was just too good to overlook: wandering through a bookstore yesterday, I came upon the new Mary Oliver book of poems.  Inside I found a gem she calls "To Be Human Is to Sing Your Own Song."

Everything I can think of that my parents
thought or did I don't think and I don't do.
I opened windows, they shut them. I pulled
open the curtains, they shut them. If you
get my drift. Of course there were some
similarities - they wanted to be happy
and the weren't. I wanted to be Shelley and I
wasn't. I don't mean I didn't have to avoid
imitation, the gloom was pretty heavy. But
then, for me, there was the forest, where
they didn't exist. And the fields. Where I
learned about birds and other sweet tidbits
of existence. The song sparrow, for example.

In the song sparrow's nest the nestlings,
those who would sing eventually, must listen
careful to the father bird as he sings
and make their own song in imitation of his.
I don't know if any other bird does this (in
nature's way has to do this). But I know a
child doesn't have to. Doesn't have to.
Doesn't have to. And I didn't.

So much wisdom and tenderness, so much resistance and surrender simultaneously, so much awareness that in the second half of our lives there is more room for grace within ourselves and those we love than we ever imagined. So  true...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Heads of bone...

One of the essential spiritual disciplines for me (and I suspect for most of us if we allowed ourselves the time) is solitude. Without a significant time of quiet reflection, rest and honest confession, I miss what that still small voice of the Lord is trying to say. I become testy and obsessively self-centered. And no earthly good for myself or those I cherish. Thankfully, in anticipation of my father's memorial service, we built in a brief retreat from our ordinary activities, so that we might be fully present to others and ourselves.

For about three weeks I have been wrestling with what I might say at this memorial service. Last Sunday, as we were driving down to Maryland from Massachusetts, I heard a song that grabbed me - I knew instantly it was right - but I didn't know why. So for eight days I've let it swim around inside me as I practice playing it, trusting that in time the deeper truths will become clear.

This often happens to me with music: I hear an oblique or alternative reading of a spiritual truth within a contemporary song that "fits" the feel of a Bible passage or liturgical event, but isn't obvious to others in a linear sense. For years I simply pushed through their resistance claiming, "this is poetry, god dammit, figure it out for yourselves!" And while I still believe that the interface between art and worship need not be over analyzed - it is after all, a way of entering the mystery of grace, suffering, beauty and truth all at the same time - the least I can do is offer a clear invitation to the feast, yes? 

You see, for many the mystical path has been absent and/or denigrated in our churches for generations. What's more, for at least the past three generations the fundamental working metaphor in our culture has been the financial bottom line. Many of us, it seems to me, have come to embody the ancient prophetic words of Amos 8:  "The days are coming when there will be a famine in the land, but not for bread, nor a thirst for water but for hearing the words of the Lord." Like Eugene Peterson makes clear in his advice to pastors, because our culture has desensitized our people, our work must take on the challenge of the Psalmist who prays to the Lord to help drill a hearing canal into his head of bone. Peterson writes about Psalm 40:

It is a hearing psalm - the need to be heard - and the need to hear... but all too often conventional hearing and ritual get in the way of this hearing. "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire - but my ears you have opened..." Literally the line goes "You dug ears for me." (The image is) a human head with no ears. A blockhead. Eyes, nose and mouth but no ears... only granite bone. God speaks. No response." (Working the Angles)

First the Psalmist needs God's intervention for him/herself to hear a new song;
then the artist can share the revelation with conviction. So invitations and clear explanations - as well as out of the box songs and art - can be both an act of grace and a chance to hear the word of the Lord beyond the din of habit, addict or empty ritual. But like Dylan said, "I need to know my song well before I start singing it." I need to know WHY it breaks through my own bone head before I can offer it as a gift to the Lord in the presence of God's people. So, I've been struggling and listening fiercely for how I might share a word of the Lord in the context of this song.  

Last night, after a long drive and some quiet time, with Di falling asleep I began to "hear" what might need to be said at this memorial service. As I walk about today, I'll let my hunch percolate and then simmer. I am so grateful we have set aside this time.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
   he inclined to me and heard my cry. 
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure. 
He put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in the Lord
Happy are those who make
   the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
   to those who go astray after false gods. 
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us;
   none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
   they would be more than can be counted. 
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
   but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
   you have not required. 
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
   in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
   your law is within my heart.’
photo credits: Dianne De Mott

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The blessings of being ambushed by God's love...


NOTE:  After the tragic and horrible shooting in Ottawa, I needed to change the title of this post. My prayers go out to my home away from home and my loved ones in Canada.

So we're on the grieving/reflecting road again today: first for some quiet time to get rest and perspective; and second to celebrate my father's life with family in Maryland. Both are essential - for body and soul. The weather already befits this pilgrimage - grey and damp - and I sense that is where I'm being called to dwell for a spell. When I spoke to my sister this morning on the phone, and we noted how we were both weary, she asked, "I wonder how long this will last?" To which my wife later replied, "About two years - and then sporadically without notice afterwards." I gasped - but know she's right.

Two of my favorite writers, Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr, posted things today that resonate with my life. The first is a poem by Ron Wallace that uses humor to point out that even in hard times there are also blessings.


Blessings
by Ron Wallace
occur.
Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.
All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows' ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There's a business
like show business.
There's something new
under the sun.
Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There's rest for the weary.
There's turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.
Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
I can take it with me.
The second comes from Rohr's reflections on "the dark night of the soul." He makes two important insights:  1) it is God's ambush - surprise - that helps us all get over ourselves and claim the deeper rest of grace, not our work or shame or fear; and 2) this ambush can come as much from joy and beauty as challenge and/or hard times.
I wonder if the only way that conversion, enlightenment, and transformation ever happen is by a kind of divine ambush. We have to be caught off guard. As long as you are in control, you are going to keep trying to steer the ship by your previous experience of being in charge. The only way you will let yourself be ambushed is by trusting the “Ambusher,” and learning to trust that the darkness of intimacy will lead to depth, safety, freedom, and love.

Any use of fear techniques or trying to shame people into the spiritual journey is inherently counter- productive. It simply makes you more defensive and protective of your boundaries, but now at an unconscious level (I am afraid this is true of a high percentage of Christians, who were largely raised on fear of “hell” and social pressure). We need spiritual teachers like John of the Cross to help us see the patterns of the spiritual journey that actually work, so we can be a bit less defended, a bit less boundaried, with ourselves and with God. Only then can God do the soul forming work of seduction and union.

God needs to catch us by surprise because our very limited preexisting
notions keep us and our understanding of God small. We are still trying to remain in control and we still want to “look good”! God tries to bring us into a bigger world where by definition we are not in control and no longer need to look good. A terrible lust for certitude and social order has characterized the last 500 years of Western Christianity, and it has simply not served the soul well at all. Once we lost a spirituality of darkness as its own kind of light, there just wasn’t much room for growth in faith, hope, and love. So God has to come indirectly, catching us off guard and out of control, when we are empty instead of full of ourselves. 

Now it is time to pack and hit the road: I wonder what ambush awaits us on this pilgrimage? 

(photos: Dianne De Mott)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Onward to Maryland...

One of the blessings of my life involves playing music with REALLY talented and humble artists. Tonight, before heading away in the morning on a journey that is grounded in celebrating my father's life at a memorial service in Bowie, MD, we gathered for band practice.  Not the whole BIG band of desperadoes that join us for the Thanksgiving Eve gig, just the core of our church band - and these cats always raise my spirits with their generosity AND their talent. 

Now don't get me wrong, when the BIG band gets together it is both a bit of homecoming/family reunion and musical magic: truly sweet and soothing music to heal the weary soul. But there is something sacred about making music with my mates. I love them. I trust them. They are so gifted and simultaneously humble and funny. Clearly, I needed to be with them tonight before heading off for the farewell for my father.

Let me suggest the breadth and depth of this group's musicality and commitment.We started off with this tender song by Kate Rusby: The Wandering Soul.


After two takes, we did some a capella explorations re: the harmonies on the chorus and then ran through it one more time. I was in tears with the beauty. So then, in the spirit of Monty Python, it was time for something completely different and we tackled Tom Waits masterwork:  Hold On. God I love this song. Someone recently said this is what Bruce Springsteen would sound like with three testicles!  All heart and soul, hope and sorrow, at the same time.

For good measure we worked our way through some Ryan Adams, Tom Petty and Warren Zevon tunes - especially the really wild ass, head banger ones mixed up with a few heart-breaking Joni Mitchell ballads. Like I said: these cats blow me away and feed my soul. 

Tomorrow we're off - to rest and reflect, to prepare and ponder, to connect with loved ones and celebrate the life of my father - it is yet another pilgrimage. One of the things I have learned about pilgrimage is that there is always resistance. One master put it like this:

Resistance arrives whenever we launch any new entrepreneurial venture, when we begin a program of spiritual advancement, when we attempt to overcome any unwholesome habits, when we seek education of any kind, when we decide with courage to change an unhealthy lifestyle pattern, and when we initiate an act that entails commitment of the heart, along with a few other triggers...  Resistance will do its best to keep us in our habitual everyday momentums, where we feel comfortable, safe and at no risk of transformation.

I am aware of my own hesitations so I am ready to learn from even the hard or empty places of this pilgrimage. And feast on the fun of this wonderful family, too. Perhaps that's why I needed to sing this song tonight with complete abandon.  Onward to Maryland...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

In life beyond death, we are not alone...

Well, my father finally returned home in the Lord yesterday. And while I am just starting to take the finality of his death to heart, I am glad that for him the struggle is finished. He was a hard-living man who by the end of his 83 years had totally destroyed his lungs. When he said to me last week in a moment of quiet reflection, "I can't believe it has come down to this!" I was incredulous - but that has been part of our personal dance since I was 15 (and now I am 62.) As I have said to others professionally - and have now had to embrace on a personal level - most of us die as we have lived.
I suspect this had something to do with why I felt like I needed to return home at the close of last week. Over and over these words from St. Matthew kept repeating in my head: A disciple once said to Jesus, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father and then I will follow you.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ My dad wasn't ready to let go but there was nothing left for me to do to help him - except leave. Some people, for whatever reason, need to be surrounded by everyone in the family before they feel ready to embrace death. Others must first hold court one last time before they can accept the truth. And still others, like I suspect was true for my father, need more solitude and space before they can enter a good death. Not that he wanted to be left alone when death arrived; rather he just wanted to exercise one last bit of control when it happened and shroud himself in the privacy that was so important to him in life. Again, we often die as we have lived. 

On Saturday there had already been a steady stream of family since early morning. I don't think it was coincidental, therefore, that he died while just one my sisters and her family kept watch with love and prayers. My father was an emotionally private man. He was passionately loving, too but in a well-guarded and proud way. So after his hospice aide had finished washing him and giving him a shave, my hunch is that he felt able to let go. Not only was he now clean-shaven - something he insisted upon throughout his 83 years - but he wasn't saturated with the feelings, anxieties, presence and needs of the crowd that had previously gathered around his bedside in love. For very different reasons, most of us had to be away, some for just a short time - but I think he used that break to give us all one last gift in the only way he could: he accepted reality and entered into his death with a quiet dignity - and a fresh shave. 

When I left on Thursday, I told him that it was time for me to get back to my community of faith: there were weddings to honor and worship to celebrate. At the time, he waved his hands in a manner I first considered dismissive. Given the growth in his throat and increasing congestion, he had limited his words and taken-up Marlon Brando-esque hand motions a la "The Godfather." When I said "good bye" it appeared he was saying, "Ok, ok, hurry up and be gone." I knew he was angry with death - and the fact that I had helped him confront the fact that his was imminent - so I kissed his head and headed back home. I was sad but that too has been part of our dance for decades.


But upon further prayer and consideration I choose to believe that what my father was saying to me wasn't dismissive but: "Please, hurry up and be gone so that I can get on with this! You've done your work, now let me do mine!" Like the quote from Matthew's gospel, I choose to believe that he knew it was time to let the dead bury their own dead so that the living could continue the feast. And that's exactly what we did: I had the privilege of offering the blessing at the wedding feast for Carlton and Rebecca's last night and then celebrating worship this morning before kicking off a truly successful CROP Walk (our best ever!) My dad's parting was very much in keeping with how he lived: he was a sweet man who found it hard to always show his sweet side. So in death as in life, he shared it with us quietly. 

I am grateful - and look forward to celebrating his life sometime next week when the wider family gathers for his memorial service. The United Church of Canada's "new creed" closes like this:  in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God." 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Just shut up if you don't understand it...

After four hard and beautiful days with family in anticipation of my father's death, we are home. It was time well spent. As one friend put it, our work right now is "to love him to death." That is not always simple, but it is always right - and it is both right and complicated when it comes to loving this man. I give thanks for the safety we experienced both travelling to and from Maryland and for the time to tell family stories in the car with Michal and Dianne.
When enough time has passed - and my father has moved from this journey into his return - I may reflect on the hard love we have shared. Bob Franke's song of the same name is a good place to start. For now, however, Robert Bly's poem, "The Russian," speaks to me of what it means to love and lament a man whose wounds I can never fully comprehend.

"The Russians had few doctors on the front line.
My father's job was this: after the battle
Ws over, he'd walk among the men hit,
Sit down and ask:'Would you like to die on your 
Own in a few hours, or should I finish it?'
Most said, 'Don't leave me.' The two would have
A cigarette. We'd take out his small notebook -
We had no dogtags, you know - and write the man's 
Name down, his wife's, this children, his address, and
   what
He wanted to say. When the cigarette was done,
The soldier would turn his head to the side. My
   father
Finished off four hundred men that way during the
   war.
He never went crazy. They were his people.
He came to Toronto. My father in the summers
Would stand on the lawn with a hose, watering
The grass that way. It took a long time. He' talk
To the moon, to the wind. 'I can hear you growing' -
He'd say to the grass. 'We come and go.
We're no different from each other. We are all
Part of something. We have a home.' When I was
   thirteen,
I said, 'Dad, do you know they've invented sprinklers
Now?' He went on watering the grass.
'This is my life. Just shut up if you don't understand
   it.'"

Mostly, I sense, I am supposed to just shut up right now because there is so much I don't understand.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A bit of a break from writing and another round of grieving...

NOTE: Tomorrow we head back to Frederick, MD as my father has reached the conclusion of all his medical options. The time has come for him to enter and embrace the hard blessings of hospice care and we want to be with him for a few more days during this transition. I will be out of the loop re: writing for probably a week. Thank you for the love and prayers you have sent over the past month; I am humbled and grateful. What follows is a slightly modified version of the note I recently shared with my congregation. 

As you read this, once again, I will be on my way to Maryland to be with my sisters to help during my father's closing days. While we cannot predict the precise close of his life, it is clear that it is approaching quickly. A wise professor and friend from my first days at college, Martha Baker, recently said it best: We labor to come into this world and we labor to leave. It's hard work. Each person has a part to play in the closing drama, as you well know, but not all the lines are scripted. However, they are all blessed. I believe that to be true. I also believe that while being with my family takes me away from First Church, it is part of ministry: specifically modeling what is most important in hard times, trying to practice what I preach about compassion and giving shape and form to my deepest commitments re: a ministry of presence.  As was true when my grandson was born about this time last year, this is one of those times/seasons when tending to the heart is essential.  

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear and a time to sew; a time for silence and a time to speak; a time for love and a time for hat; a time for war and a time for peace.  (Ecclesiastes 3)

Years ago I read something by the great contemporary prophet, Erma Bombeck, and it has shaped my mature ministry. She noted upon receiving her own diagnoses of inoperable cancer that, "If I had my life to live over again..."

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day. I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.  I would have talked less and listened more. I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded. I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have sat on the lawn with my grass stains. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life. I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime. 

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, 'Later. Now go get washed up for dinner.' There would have been more 'I love you's' More 'I'm sorry's.' But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute, look at it and really see it .. live it and never give it back. STOP SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF!!! Don't worry about who doesn't like you, who has more, or who's doing what Instead, let's cherish the relationships we have with those who do love us.

In the spirit of Jesus who scolded some publicly pious and/or pushy people around him that they "knew how to read the signs of the heavens but NOT the signs of the time," I said "ME TOO" when I first read Ms. Bombeck's words  and shout it again now as my family embraces my father's approaching death. When I get to the close of MY life, I want to have at least been present for the important times - even if I didn't fully grasp their meaning until much later. So I will be back at week's end to join some of you for a celebration of love and hope at Carlton and Rebecca's wedding on Saturday, October 18th. And then for our worship on Sunday when we learn from Celtic Spirituality about praying with our feet - on pilgrimage - when we take a trip around our own Sanctuary and learn about our Celtic Cross, our windows and more. And then for our CROP Walk to Fight Hunger.
Please note that I am not the only First Church person grieving the loss of a loved one a this time - so be attentive to others who have lost their parents recently or are caring for loved ones who are approaching death.  I give thanks for our lay leadership at this time for their loving support and wise counsel. And I rejoice in my small family - my wife, daughters, sons-in-law, sisters and brother - who know how to hold one another in tender love in a tough time without drama or foolishness. That is a deep blessing.

credits: the first picture was taken at my graduation from Union Theological Seminary and includes my dad (looking like Henry Kissinger) and my daughter Michal (at about 3). The second picture is my dad at HIS graduation from the University of Pittsburgh and myself (1952). And the last picture comes from the lst birthday of Louis Edmund Piscitello and Dianne (my little man bears the middle name of both my dad and myself.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Learning about a Celtic Christology...

There is a friend and colleague of mine who is 90+ years old - sharp and wise as ever - who continues to help me think deeply about faith, church and why all of this matters. Recently, our correspondence considered some of my current ideas about Celtic spirituality - especially given the on-going collapse of traditional church of either the Reformed or Roman Catholic variety. In response to my message for this Sunday, one of his comments asked: "What does the realm of Celtic Spirituality say about Jesus?"

At first, I had to note my limited awareness re: Celtic Christology. It is now clear that a read of Fr. Thomas Galvin's A Celtic Christology: The Incarnation According to John Scottus Eriugena would be in order. With this caveat, observed that it is my hunch that like Franciscans those advocates of Celtic Spirituality tend to be more about experience than analysis. Nevertheless,I think there are a few clues re: Jesus that I have discerned from my study thus far.  

The Pelagian emphasis on the goodness of creation does not neglect 
evil and sin.  Rather, it realizes that human potential is often trapped and locked within the consequences of evil. We need to experience a love that can unlock sin and Christ brings us this liberation. His love unlocks the goodness trapped by sin, his grace overpowers the fears and shame of our hearts and "his redemption... frees the good that is in us and also at the heart of all life." (Newell)  In a word, I am gathering that the Celtic Christ unlocks the deepest truths within our conscience, sets them free to love as we were intended since the being formed in the image of God and shapes and corrects us through communion with Him in the body of Christ. (the Church) In this understanding, Newell writes, "the gift of the gospel is that we are instructed by the grace of Christ, encouraged and shown the true goodness of God (that is within us and all creation)..." and actively invited to be corrected by Jesus through a spiritual/ethical dialogue with both the person and teachings of Christ who stands ready to help correct our consciences and heal our souls. 

While there are some aspects of Celtic Christology that are still largely an unformed work in progress, the Community of Iona offers two additional insights. First, the Celts were at ease with paradox and quickly embraced God as Trinity. I need to read more about this but such an embrace suggests a theology deeper than mere a simplistic panentheism.  Some have likened Celtic thinking to Teilhard de Chardin (whom I need to read more closely for additional clues.)  But the Celtic connection to the Trinity is note worthy. And, then there is the work of George MacLeod: for him Christ arises from the mist as the one who gives shape and form to the truest incarnation of God's self in history. MacLeod is vigorous in his Christocentric prayers and ethics.  Of particular importance is his insistence that the incarnation renders ALL of creation - human flesh, politics, care for the earth, etc - as sacred. Jesus not only makes all things new, but Christ connects us to every living thing and cries holy without separating the sacred from the once denigrated secular. All is one through the presence of God Christ reveals.
I wonder if others have suggestions for deeper study?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Learning the spiritual wisdom of the seasons...

The wise Parker Palmer once crafted an extended essay, "Seasons," for a time of retreat. At the heart of his reflection was this insight: the seasons of nature may be the best way to grasp the reality of the holy within our humanity. He writes: "Most of us have a metaphor, conscious or not, that names our  experience of life. Animated by the imagination, one of the most vital powers we possess, our metaphors are more than mirrors to reality – they often become reality, transmuting themselves from language into the living of our lives."

For most of my adult, professional life I have not considered the wisdom of the seasons in any deep way. I have always celebrated the beauty of autumn in New England - and elsewhere - and have long been captivated by pumpkins, too. But rarely have I thought about what our still speaking God might be saying to me - and our culture - about life and grace through the seasons. In fact, I used to treat winter as a mean-spirited endurance test to be avoided as much as possible. Our time in the desert South West did nothing to alter my antipathy for winter, nor did it help me explore the spirituality of the seasons. Yes, while on various retreats I came to meditate on the land while sojourning in the wilderness; to listen for the heartbeat of the holy is part of the desert's charism. Belden Lane's excellent book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, was my primer along with Henri Nouwen's words from the desert fathers and mothers. " The danger and the desolation of the desert is a boon to the soul with its unmitigated honesty, its dreadful capacity to strip bear, its long compelling silence."


But it wasn't until we returned to the great North that I sensed the importance of learning the spirituality of the seasons. Partially this revelation took shape, I know, simply because of my age. Like Dylan sang so long ago, "Something's going on all around you - and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" In this neck of the woods winter sports is part of the air people breathe. And the stark beauty of trees, snow, ice and rock tugged at my sensibilities much like the deserts of the South West. So, I started to read and listen and ask about what God might be saying to us within the winter. 


And after seven years it began to become clear that perhaps I should start doing likewise with the other three season. (I am a very slow learner.) I know I was prompted by participating in the new liturgical season of "creation." Same goes for my recent readings in Celtic spirituality. Both windows to the soul are all about seeing and hearing the holy from within reality - including the  
whispering of the Lord within our seasons. Parker observes:

Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It

suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all – and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.

One key insight Parker illuminates is the paradoxical reality experienced in autumn wherein we see great beauty all around us while knowing intuitively we are moving towards death. It is a paradoxical time that is simultaneously sensual and troubling. 


Autumn is a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline:
the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance
decays toward winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter, what
does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new
growth in the spring – and she scatters them with amazing abandon.In my own experience of autumn, I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die. My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.

I know this ambivalence - and dread - too. I feel it now as my father moves ever more slowly towards his inevitable death. What Parker asks, however, and what the wisdom of autumn spirituality invites goes beyond my feelings. "In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface - the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work. And yet if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come." How does prophet put it in Revelation 21? 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’


That is one truth from within the lexicon of autumn spirituality that I am learning this season. There are more, to be sure, but that is sufficient for the day.

credits: Dianne De Mott

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

reflections on celtic spirituality: part one...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, October 12, 2014 using the
lectionary texts as part of a three part series re: Celtic Spirituality. I am deeply indebted to a number of sources including J. Philip Newell's book, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, my blogger friend, Blue Eyed Ennis @ http://blueeyed ennis-siempre.blogspot.com/2012/09/autumn-harvest-autumn-spirtuality.html) Parker Palmer, Working Preacher and the glorious season of autumn in the Berkshires.

Introduction
As some of you know, I was recently called to be with my father and family during an unexpected medical emergency. Thanks be to God that has been resolved for the time being, but for about a week my father was on death’s door even though he was clear that he wasn’t ready to cross over. And as so often happens while we are sitting in a hospital or nursing home room at the bedside of a loved one, our memories begin to revisit history – the good, the bad, the ugly as well as the grace-filled histories of which we are apart – and that occurred in spades for me.

My father was a pastor’s kid during the Great Depression – and that was a double whammy of poverty.  Not only are pastors paid poorly – then and now – but in that time they were often paid with things rather than cash – things like discarded clothes for the pastor’s family to wear or a sack of potatoes for a week’s supper. This grinding and humiliating double-whammy of poverty pushed my father away from a calling to ministry where he probably would have found blessing and challenge. Like many who came of age after the Depression, he chose to go into business because, as he used to say, I NEVER want to go back to such misery again.

+  To say that he was displeased, therefore, when I disclosed my calling to ministry would be an understatement: he was furious – which is how many men express their fear – and for years he denigrated my chosen profession mostly because it had been so miserable for himself.

+  In time, however, he mellowed – somewhat – and we would talk about the peculiar work of a pastor. “What are you preaching about this week?” he would sometimes ask. Once, early in my ministry, I gave him a deeply detailed explication of my intended sermon to which he first said: “Hmmm.” And after a lengthy pause added, “You know you don’t have to teach them EVERYTHNG you know about theology in ONE sermon!”
I love that old Scotsman – in spite of lots of reasons to hold a grudge – we eventually crafted both a truce and a measure of mutual respect that will last well into our life beyond life. Now I mention my dad today mostly because he is a true Scotsman while my momma was as Irish as they come. And the ancient Celts, who migrated from an area south of the Black Sea in what we know as Turkey known as ancient Galatia, developed a unique way of celebrating and encountering God.

For a time they roamed Brittany, Gaul and the British Isles but when the Anglo- Saxons invaded in the middle of the 5th century CE, the Celts were pushed into what we now know as Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria, Scotland and Ireland.  For a few hundred years, they existed at the extreme periphery of Europe and without much contact or intervention from the West, developed an alternative orthodoxy as Christians that was quite different from Roman Catholicism. In fact, their way of following Christ thrived well into the first millennium as Celts became the first missionaries to Northern Europe.  The Romans gave them their name by calling them “keltoi” – the strangers or hidden ones – and the Roman word “ceilt” – which refers to the act of concealing something – is where we get the word for… kilt (under which unknown mysteries are concealed!)

+  Now here’s why I believe this whole Celtic Spirituality thing is important for us to explore: the Western Church as we know it is dying and shriveling on the vine. People are worn out by scandal, exhausted from our theological obsession with shame and guilt and bored beyond tears with our empty rituals.

+  In her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, church historian Diana Butler Bass, writes: Although churches (might) seem (to be) the most natural space to perform spiritual awakening, the disconcerting reality is that many people in Western society see churches more as museums of religion than sacred stages that dramatize the movement of God's spirit.

+  And when she considers the reason WHY this is true, she notes that: Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service… (But today) other than joining a political party, it is hard to think of any other sort of community that people join by agreeing to a set of principles. Imagine joining a knitting group. Does anyone go to a knitting group and ask if the knitters believe in knitting or what they hold to be true about knitting? Do people ask for a knitting doctrinal statement? Indeed, if you start knitting by reading a book about knitting or a history of knitting or a theory of knitting, you will very likely never knit.

Western Christianity – in both its Roman and Reformed expressions – is so heady, abstract and wrapped up in doctrine and words that it not only feels irrelevant to many of us, it also feels oppressive.  And what I celebrate about Celtic Spirituality and its “alternative or even generous orthodoxy” is that it recognizes that being a person of faith is something you do not just think about. It is embodied, playful, incarnational and creation based.

Insights
So let me share with you – using today’s Biblical readings – not everything I know about this subject, just the three core truths that shape Celtic Spirituality’s joy-filled practices. To my heart, they hold great promise for those who want to be followers of our Lord Jesus the Christ at this unique moment in time. I like the way Trevor Miller of the Northumbria Community puts it:  we want to learn from history not relive it. By listening for the heartbeat of God with the Celtic cadence: We are not out to replicate a period of time as many do in their expression of faith so that we (find ourselves with) a 17th century language, 18th century hymns, 19th 
century morality and 20th century middle class values (when what we need is) a contemporary 21st century expression of life in God.

The three essential practices that shape Celtic Christian discipleship are as follows:  1) Living as if creation and all of life is GOOD rather than sinful and depraved; 2) Discovering God’s heart in ALL of life – including the most ordinary human experiences – as well as in nature; and 3) Knowing that being a follower of Christ is more about compassion than doctrine or dogma. To be lofty, we could say Celtic Spirituality is about ortho-praxis rather than ortho-doxy – right living rather than right thought –but that would be too theoretical. I like the African American spiritual that cuts to the chase:  Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart… but let’s unpack each of these practices so that we might go deeper, ok?

The first – living as if all of life is good rather than sinful – is a direct challenge to the efficacy of St. Augustine as well as aspects of Luther and Calvin. This does not mean that there isn’t sin and brokenness in the world, that would be na├»ve and simplistic, and we know from our own experience or encounters with the daily news that there is pain and greed and evil in the world. But the way of Celtic Spirituality teaches that life and all creation is not fundamentally sinful – creation is NOT fallen to use the traditional words – but rather blessed and filled with beauty and wonder.

+  The first Celtic Christian theologian we know of is Pelagius who lived between 390 and 418 of the Common Era. The former dean of the Community of Iona, Scotland, J. Phillip Newell, has written: Pelagius maintained the essential goodness of humanity (by asserting) that the image of God can be seen in every newborn child. (p. 6, Listening for the Heartbeat of God)

+  This was a direct challenge, of course, to the wisdom of St. Augustine of Hippo who taught that even the act of procreation was saturated in sin and that a baby in the womb was already polluted and would become a sinner in life just by passing through her mother’s birth canal.

Now Augustine’s theology triumphed over Pelagius – it has shaped and defined both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformed realm for 1500 years – but I have come to believe that Augustine was wrong.  Pelagius’ challenge to look upon the face of a newborn child and see the very image of the Lord gazing back at you makes much more sense to me – especially at this moment in time.  In fact, I sense that the old Celt was far more grounded in the way of this morning’s gospel text than his opponent.  The story we’re asked to wrestle with in Matthew 22 today is weird – it is complex and upsetting – and often called a bizarre parable gone wrong.

But I don’t think that is fair. Rather, I think this story is an example of Christ’s upside down challenge to make sure we are celebrating with joy the bounty of the feast once we make it into the banquet hall. “Many are called,” he tells us, “but few are chosen.” So here’s the trajectory of grace I find in this story which is more allegory than parable, ok?

+  First, the king invites to the wedding banquet of his son the usual suspects – his friends, those who are just like him, the powerful and prestigious people of his society – some of whom disrespect the king, others blow off the invitation because they are too busy with work while still others go out of their way to murder the king’s messengers.  That’s the first weird part of this story – nobody would have expected the best and the brightest to be so abusive – but Jesus says that’s often how things work.

+  And then, as some Bible scholars have noted, the story goes completely off the rails:  the king doesn't offer forgiveness to those who are so cruel, he kills them – kills them all. And just to make things more bizarre, after their destruction he informs the realm that the party is still on!  The city has been devastated, the elite have been destroyed but the banquet continues – and who are the new guests? Exactly, the poor and the lame, the broken and the maimed.

Ok, we might think, even though the previous murders are disturbing, things are back on track with grace because now the forgotten and wounded are being welcomed into the banquet, right? Wrong! Yes, the lost and the least are now at the party, but what happens when the king shows up to visit with his guests?
He bumps into somebody who isn’t wearing a wedding robe, yes? And after asking how this soul got into the feast without the proper attire – and rendering the poor person speechless – the story ends with the king saying to his servants: BIND THIS MAN’S HANDS AND FEET AND THROW HIM OUT INTO THE UTTER DARKNESS WHERE THERE WILL BE WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH BECAUSE WHILE MANY HAVE BEEN CALLED, FEW ARE CHOSEN.

Now that is just weird, don’t you think, and cruel? Punishing a poor person for not dressing right? But that’s just on the surface – this is an allegorical story that urges us to go deeper – so the real issue with not wearing a wedding robe is this: he or she didn’t take the party seriously enough.

The kingdom of heaven (verse 2) is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got
to put on your party dress to get with the program. The kingdom music is playing and it's time to get up on the dance floor. Or, as the slightly more sober, but no less theologically astute Barth put the matter: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all. (Lance Pape, Working Preacher, October 12, 2014)

+  I have come to believe that St. Augustine’s sin-obsessed and unfestive theology has disqualified itself from contemporary consideration and that the gentle and joyful way of Pelagius rings more true to Christ’s gospel of grace and hope.

+  When I look at the face of a newborn child I do NOT see a depraved and sin sick soul, but rather the very image of God gazing back at me. The first practice of Celtic Spirituality is that life is inherently good as it was created good by God our Creator.

Now, while time is rushing by, there are two other Celtic practices that I want to say something about briefly before I close:  a commitment to discerning God in all of creation – even the most ordinary places – and the conviction that the way of Christ is more about compassion than reason or rational results. Many of us have experienced something of awe and wonder in the beauty of nature – we’ve talked about that, honored it and even celebrated this blessing of the Lord during the new liturgical season of creation – but what we forget is that more often than not in the history of the Church, it has been the Sanctuary that has considered the key locus of God’s revelation to us: the Sanctuary and then the Bible. Even when we know better, this traditional understanding has trumped our experience.

That’s the second reason Celtic Spirituality is so valuable: it encourages us to “look for God in all creation and to recognize the world as the place of revelation and the whole of life as sacramental.” (Newell, p. 3) The contemporary Celtic theologian, Esther de Waal, put it like this: "The Celtic approach to God opens up a world in which nothing is too common to be exalted and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common… the presence of God infuses daily life and thus transforms it, so that at any moment, any object, any job of work, can become a place for encounter with God.”

+  In today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, we read that God’s presence has destroyed the traditional places of power and importance – the city and all its glory – only to render the mountain as place of refuge, hope and solace for the hurting and beloved of the Lord. Today’s Psalm – using an old Scottish folk melody – evokes much the same truth: we can learn from the swallow about the loveliness of God’s resting place for our hearts and lives because God inhabits the totality of our ordinary lives..

+  This broad and inclusive vision of the Holy One’s residence has encouraged me to consider what our still speaking God might be saying to us through the season of autumn. If the swallow and the mountains can sing to us something of God’s song, what might be heard through the changing leaves and cooling temperatures?

The wise Quaker teacher, Parker Palmer, has written profoundly about the spiritual wisdom of autumn. It is a season of “great beauty, but also a season of decline,” he observes. “The days grow shorter, the light is suffused and summer’s abundance decays towards winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter,” he asks, “what does nature do in autumn?”

She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring – and she scatters them with amazing abandon… in this paradox of both dying and seeding, I feel the power of metaphor… I often only look at surface appearances – the empirical – the decline of meaning in our world, the decay of relationships, the death of work. But if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear some fruit is some season yet to come. I can see in my own life, in retrospect, what I could not see in time: how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown. (Taken from Seasons: A Centre for Renewal, Parker Palmer)

The Celtic way gives us a whole new means of seeing and learning from God beyond our Sanctuary and the Scriptures. It recognizes that nature and our seasons are the FIRST Word of God – created GOOD as Genesis tells us – and that if we learn to listen for THIS heartbeat of the Holy, we might come to walk in true hope and peace. More and more, I am certain that listening for God’s truth in nature is absolutely essential given climate change and the human greed and neglect that has caused it.  Isaiah was right:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth for the Lord has spoken.

And finally the call to love – a way of being greater than reason and far greater than our addiction to the bottom line: listen to how St. Paul put it.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be
known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

·   Notice that the apostle says REJOICE in the Lord always.  Not worry – not question – not parse and ponder HOW God can be all powerful and all loving in such a broken and beautiful world – but rejoice. Not that questioning or linear thinking is wrong, just incomplete.

·   We like to convince ourselves that we are in control – that we are capable of understanding God – and actually able to make sense of the Lord. Now I am all for deep thinking and serious theology, but in the final analysis anything but total surrender to love and compassion is arrogant deception because we are incapable of comprehending the vastness of the Lord.

That’s one of the reasons for the new liturgical season of creation we just completed: over and again it reminds of our small place in the vastness of the Lord’s enormity.  As Christ taught his first disciples – and teaches us now – if we want to KNOW the Lord, we must first surrender to love. 

Conclusion
It is the WAY of Jesus. St. Francis used to say:  Preach the gospel at all times – use words only if you have to. Facts and doctrine do not make disciples; Jesus said, “Come and see.” Paul said, “Without love I am nothing but a clanging gong or a crashing cymbal.” That is why the Celtic Way is relational and personal and grounded in compassion.

In an era when fundamentalists of all stripes are vying for control of religion and power throughout the world, I hear the gentle and tender voice of the Lord saying: come to the banquet – and put on your party dress. Love one another as I have loved you for everything else is commentary.  And rejoice in the Lord, beloved, always: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone… for then the Lord is near. 

credits:  most by Dianne De Mott, one by me and one from Iona (from a Diana Butler Bass posting)