Tuesday, December 11, 2018

thanks be to God for the crack in every thing...

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Thomas Merton died. After reading Mark Van Doren's personalized obit of this sometimes rebellious and often public Trappist monk, a hazy thought took on greater focus. My early fascination with the "broken saints" of music has led me into what has become a lifelong ministry of tenderness. 

In the beginning there were the world weary vagabonds of Dylan, Cohen, Harrison and Mitchell who sang of the still speaking God and sounded to me like spiritual direction. These initial musical mentors later led me to the other esoteric contemplative masters like Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Frank Zappa and Bono. Artists, you see, prepared my heart to hear the wisdom of the wounded healers of traditional religion. They showed me what the words of Merton, St. Francis, Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas Keating, Frederick Buechner, Peter Abelard, Howard Thurman, MLK, Dorothee Soelle, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Heschel, Wendell Berry, Elie Wiesel and Kathleen Norris might look like in my life. Individually and en masse these guides have prophesied like Emily Dickinson advised: "tell all the truth, but tell it slant."

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Yesterday's Jesuit magazine, America, reprinted the obit that Mark Van Doren of Columbia University wrote 50 years ago about his lifelong friend and one-time student: Thomas Merton. In it you catch a whiff of the crack in everything that Leonard Cohen named as the way "the light gets in." Merton was in rare form, exhilarated at being outside the confines of the cloister, effusive about experiencing the paradox of solidarity and solitude on his way to Bangkok:

Then, man, I fly to Asia. Real­ly, that is the plan. All sorts of places I am supposed to go to if I don't faint from delight at the mere thought. Since I hop from Singapore to Darjeeling, and have a meeting there with various swamis, gurus etc, I hope to sneak into Nepal. Then maybe a bit more of the top of India. Then Thailand (if not Burma, hard to get into, but may manage), then Indonesia (a monastery of ours there) then Japan, then home. Maybe. If they can get me home, l should say. 

Merton had made peace with ending his heart-breaking but life-saving affair with a young nurse from Louisville. He knew in his flesh that he was broken. He trusted in his heart that God's grace was greater than his shame. For he had been humbled. Taken down a few pegs, too. During his healing, Merton had found a new rhythm for living a joyful life of contemplation and engagement: art, creativity, prayer, formation, critical reflection on the social dilemmas of the hour and what Matthew Fox came to call a "deep ecumenism" now nourished his spirituality. David Johnson wrote in "The Jazz Monk" that after two decades of castigating himself for a once vibrant immersion in the world, Merton began to reclaim the arts as part of the sacred presence in reality.

Merton sometimes had to travel to Louisville, about an hour’s drive from the monastery, for doctor visits and other errands, and he often took advantage of these opportunities to meet with friends and go hear jazz, especially at Eddie’s on 118 S. Washington Street–the address used for the Louisville Jazz Council (forerunner to today’s Louisville Jazz Society) that Merton had formed in 1965 with, among others, future NEA Jazz Master Jamey Aebersold... Merton seemed to sense in jazz the same thing he sought in his relationship with a spiritual power: the ability to lose oneself, and through so doing, find oneself as well. In his memoir Song For Nobody Merton’s friend Ron Seitz described their visit to Eddie’s in early 1968, on a night when saxophonist Eddie Harris’s quartet was performing. Merton was particularly impressed by the bassist, Melvin Jackson. Seitz wrote that Merton “became the music. He became the calloused thumbs of the bass player…urging the bassman on to new highs with ‘Give it! Here! Take it!'”

Another look at Merton's eclectic musical insights, Robert Hudson's recent The Monk's Record Player: Merton, Dylan and the Perilous Summer of 1966, notes that as Merton was coming to terms with his "feet of clay," Dylan was joining the heavens with the body electric and Coltrane was mastering the art of musical mysticism. Hudson writes that, "Merton (came to) realize that silence and music are entwined, fellow travelers."  Contemplation and the creative arts were one, not two. Think "Favorite Things" or "Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues." 

Merton even made a "jazz meditation" recording at the Gethsemani monastery mixing Jeremiah 31 with Jimmy Smith's recording of Muddy Water's song, "Hootchie Coochie Man." This unity of body, heart and mind is exactly how Fr. Thomas Keating articulated the essence of the spiritual life.

Whenever your heart space, your mind space, and your body space are

all present and accounted for at the same time, you can experience pure presence,a moment of deep inner connection with the pure, gratuitous Being of anything and everything. It will often be experienced as a quiet leap of joy in the heart. Contemplation is an exercise in openness, in keeping all three spaces open long enough for you to notice other hidden material. When you can do that, you are content with the present moment and can then wait upon futures you know will be given by grace. This is “full-access knowing”—not irrational, but intuitive, rational, and trans-rational all at once.The supreme work of spirituality, which makes presence possible, is keeping the heart space open (which is the result of conscious love), keeping a “right mind” (which is the work of contemplation or meditation), and keeping the body alive with contentment and without attachment to its past woundings (which is often the work of healing). In that state, you are neither resisting nor clinging, and you can experience something genuinely new. (Center for Action and Contemplation, 12/10/18)

For the past week these thoughts have been swimming around inside me. They wake me up at 3 AM for deeper consideration. They pop into consciousness while wandering in the woods. They cry out for appreciation in my prayers. Or while I am preparing bread to bake. Today's meditation in the morning was shaped by the words of Isaiah 40: comfort, comfort ye my people... and cry out! What shall I cry out, the prophet asks? And the Lord replies: Cry out that all of creation and culture comes and goes - the grass whithers, the flowers fade - but the Word of the Lord - the unity of love, justice and compassion in our heart, mind and flesh - lasts forever. And that's when my fog lifted. I realized that my journey through brokenness, like the wilderness of Merton and Dylan and Cohen, etc. is how my eyes were opened and God's peace brought me a measure of healing. It is, indeed, the source and the path of what I come to know as my calling: a spirituality of tenderness. It wouldn't have become clear without the wounds. Or the music. Or the broken healers.

Sometime last week, when I least expected it, someone asked me how I spent my days now that I am retired. "Writing, playing music, reading, trying to be tender to the people I meet in Wal-mart and coming up to L'Arche once a month," I replied. The follow-up question took a left turn. "Why not give more time to the church now that you are retired? After all, Scripture 
tells us we should give ourselves to the saints in fellowship, so why don't you do more of that?" "Isn't that what I'm doing at L'Arche?" I said wondering what text was guiding this interview. The dissatisfied expression to my words made it clear I was still not getting it right. So I added, "these days I just seem to find Jesus more outside the church than inside." This didn't help either. So, because neither of us had enough time to go deeper in that moment, polite piety had to suffice. I asked God's blessing on us both and we went our separate ways.

What I wanted to say in the nicest way possible was, "To tell you the truth, right now I'm bored with the traditional church. I just find people in coffee houses and brew pubs waaay more interesting. And honest. My hunch is that I need to be in those unlikely places outside the church with a bit of quiet tenderness because that's where real people are hurting." I wanted to say that when Jesus began his ministry he told some of the well-intentioned teachers of that day that they needed to rethink what God meant by the saying: I desire compassion not sacrifice. Tenderness not just ritual. Presence and patience in the most ordinary places rather than just institutional obeisance. St. Leonard Cohen taught us well in words everyone can comprehend:  Forget about your perfect offering, just be real, and give thanks for that crack, the crack that's in everyt hing because that's how the light gets in.

+ David Mah @ http://www.explorefaith.org/saints/merton.html
+ Laurie Justus Pace @ http://contemporaryartistsoftexas.blogspot.com/2014/01/isaiah-4031-contemporary.html

Sunday, December 9, 2018

advent two in Pittsfield: music, family, feasting and love

We spent a delightful Advent II weekend with the family feasting, talking, laughing and making music. I am blessed to  share love with this clan at this stage of life - and cherish every moment. They all turned out this morning, too when the band played Dottie's Coffee Lounge on North Street in Pittsfield. We had a family table as well as a good crowd of new friends and old. Thanks to Andy and Laurie, the Yehele's and Robert and Penny plus Jesse, Michael, Louie and Anna, Winton and Michal, Dianne and Diane. We'll be on a holiday break and surgery recovery until after the New Year, but then we're on to taking this sweet music deeper - and recording this spring, too.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

unless we become as a child...

This morning we were greeted by our two young grandchildren, Louie and Anna, who make getting out of bed a sacred adventure. They delight in welcoming us into the day. We love spending time with them - and their morning enthusiasm is a true joy. Besides, at 8:30 AM, they've already been going strong for two hours, repeatedly asking Momma and Daddy, "Why do Gwad and Dima get up so late?"  so they're ready for a change. Smiling behind our bedroom door as we listen to their queries, eventually we summon the energy to roust ourselves and parade into the living room where instantly we are embraced and then engaged in games, questions and all sorts of merriment well beyond our normal morning abilities. It is a wee taste of heaven.

Later, after ample amounts of coffee and tea, Chef Louie (under the guidance of his gentle and wise father) prepares a written menu that he will cook for our dining pleasure. Before the banquet, however, the Brooklyn family needs to get out and about for a bit. As Louie is putting on his winter gear, I ask, "So what will Monsieur Chef be cooking this day?" Without missing a beat he replies, "I haven't created today's menu yet. That's still to be arranged." Then he notices that the numbers 1-6 on the microwave have writing below the numerals while 7-9 do not. "Why is that, Gwad?" I explain that the first six are marked as the "express" minutes set for quick cooking results. He let's that sink in for a few seconds and then says innocently, "So does that mean the other numbers are locals?" There is a short pause among the adults before it dawns on us that Louie has sorted out our microwave numerology through the lens of his lifelong fascination with the NYC subway system. "Ah.... exactly so," we agree, "1-6 are the express stations and the rest are locals." To which he says without guile, "and that means they cook more slowly, right?"

Later still, we head to the back yard for some parallel play with Lucie in the snow. Now its time to head off to the Plainfield farm house for a winter dinner with the rest of the family. These are holy days indeed.

Friday, December 7, 2018

what Advent sounds like to me...

Perhaps the finest, most evocative Advent song I have ever experienced is Loreena McKinnitt's "Snow." It tells nothing of the spiritual journey we take as the liturgy calls us to journey quietly from busyness into waiting in anticipation of the Christ child's birth. Nevertheless, these five minutes of music create a palpable encounter with the frozen earth as well as the emotional anguish so many of us know at this time of year. No matter what else may be taking place, when "Snow" comes on, I must stop and let its aching, haunting beauty wash over me one more time. This is what Advent sounds like to me...

I have never really been interested in the lyrics. And until this evening, I had never looked at them. It is McKennitt's voice and sparse instrumentation that speaks to me. In a unique way, she gives shape and form to what the earth seems to be singing these days - and words only clutter the lament. (If you're interested, you can find the lyrics here @ https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ loreenamckennitt/snow.html)

I listened to "Snow" over and over today while rigorously cleaning the house. When I had sorted and recycled yet more once valuable but now extraneous pile of papers, I came upon Naomi Shihab Nye's brilliant poem, "Kindness." It too speaks of this season in ways that rattle and cleanse me. Her words give voice to another way of hearing Advent:

Before you know what kindness really is 
you must lose things, 
feel the future dissolve in a moment 
like salt in a weakened broth. 
What you held in your hand, 
what you counted and carefully saved, 
all this must go so you know 
how desolate the landscape can be 
between the regions of kindness. 
How you ride and ride 
thinking the bus will never stop, t
he passengers eating maize and chicken 
will stare out the window forever. 

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness 
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho 
lies dead by the side of the road. 
You must see how this could be you, 
how he too was someone 
who journeyed through the night with plans 
and the simple breath that kept him alive. 

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, 
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow. 
You must speak to it till your voice 
catches the thread of all sorrows 
and you see the size of the cloth. 
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, 
only kindness that ties your shoes 
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, 
only kindness that raises its head 
from the crowd of the world to say 
It is I you have been looking for, 
and then goes with you everywhere 
like a shadow or a friend.

Today I read an Advent reflection that insisted that only those who are wounded - broken - poor in body or spirit can grasp the soul of Advent.  Bonhoeffer, privileged and bourgeois pastor who was martyred by the Nazis at the close of WWII, put it like this: 

Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait.… and not all can wait – certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manager.

I think Brother Dietrich is right - not everyone can wait - or is willing to learn to wait. Not everyone is broken-hearted or willing to become broken-hearted. That's why God graciously sends us angels unawares like Loreena McKinnitt and Naomi Shihab Nye who can wake us up with beauty and truth. And maybe then, despite our affluence and busyness, we can hear what Advent is saying. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

listening to the wisdom of the spirit @ l'arche ottawa: advent one

The blessings of driving to and from Ottawa, ON on a regular basis to be with my friends in the community of L'Arche involves extended solitude, reflection and taking in the natural beauty of the ever-changing landscape. Right now, the fields are brown, the trees are bare and the land is covered in a light coating of snow. Sometimes the sun pierces the day and brings afternoon shadows that are long and deep. At other times the whole realm appears to be enveloped in a shroud of light gray so that there is no demarcation between the earth and sky. Mary Oliver gets it right in her poem, "White Eyes."

In winter
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird 

with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us 

he wants to go to sleep,
but he's restless—
he has an idea,
and slowly it unfolds 

from under his beating wings
as long as he stays awake.
But his big, round music, after all,
is too breathy to last. 

So, it's over.
In the pine-crown
he makes his nest,
he's done all he can. 

I don't know the name of this bird,
I only imagine his glittering beak
tucked in a white wing
while the clouds— 

which he has summoned
from the north—
which he has taught
to be mild, and silent— 

thicken, and begin to fall
into the world below
like stars, or the feathers
of some unimaginable bird 

that loves us,
that is asleep now, and silent—
that has turned itself
into snow.

Given the peculiarities of banks, pension checks and calendars I had to change my travel plans this month by a day. That gave me the chance to drive up in the morning gray one day and return twenty-four hours later in the afternoon sun. In-between, I dined with my friends in the Wabana House, watched a little TV news with Jim and Randy, participated in the monthly community night gathering of L'Arche, celebrated a simple Eucharist for the start of Advent, and went grocery shopping the next day for Sunday's Open House Holiday Tea. Like everywhere else at this time of year, there's a lot going on - and even more to do. Sometimes, as I know from my days of parish ministry, it feels like too much. Given the ever encroaching darkness that descends each afternoon, I wasn't too surprised to find many feeling just a wee bit weary. Sitting on a sofa sharing yawns with Jules and Pierre before the celebration confirmed my hunch that the Holy Spirit was whispering words of wisdom to me: toss out the homily you prepared, man, and just offer up a few words of comfort and joy. And it is always best to trust the Spirit. What came out was an abbreviated message rooted in a text from St. John's gospel: "I have told you these things so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." Here is what I had prepared to share and simplified and shortened:  

Jesus is speaking to his disciples here before his journey to the Cross. He wants to encourage his friends during a hard and dark time to trust that God's love is greater than fear. Or exhaustion. Or shame. So he reminds them that he has given them his joy - that is, Jesus has blessed his friends and placed within their hearts the essence of grace (chara in Greek from the root charis meaning grace) so that their experience of the Lord's presence might become complete (from the Greek word pléroó meaning filled full.) Joy is the gift of grace Jesus gives to all those who love him. And the more we love him, the more our hearts trust from the inside out that God's love makes us whole. Complete. Filled full or fulfilled. 

Jesus knew from his own experience that all around us are events and feelings and experiences that can wound us. Or confuse us. Or exhaust us. He felt those things and practiced trusting God's love so that even when he felt weary or afraid or alone, he knew that God's joy was greater than his feelings. Right? Now this took a lot of practice. It doesn't happen automatically. Or easily. Jesus spent a lot of time quietly listening for the assurance of God's love. Fr. Richard Rohr likes to say that the way of Jesus involves: "Sitting in silent prayer until the silence silences us, choosing gratitude until we become grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are a living act of praise." Silence, gratitude and praise are the ways we nourish joy. Grace. The love of God.

And the reason we practice nourishing joy is that we will all have experiences that wear us down and tire us out. Even good things can do this. And when they happen, we can easily lose touch with the grace that Jesus has planted in our hearts. We can lose our connection with joy. So the Church has created seasons for us to practice strengthening our joy. In Advent Jesus asks us to learn to become quiet.  All around us people are getting ready for parties - buying gifts - and putting up decorations. And none of this is wrong. It's fun, right? But none of these things strengthen our joy so that we grow in grace and trust.

So Advent asks us to get quiet so that we can look for... a baby. A little gift of life and love. Nothing huge or grand. Often, the baby Jesus is hidden. In a manger. In some place unexpected. And ordinary. Not a throne. Or a palace. Or a shopping mall. But in a little bed among farm animals and hay. The invitation is to learn to look for small signs of love and hope, comfort, joy and grace. For the more we can see the joy of Jesus in our small and ordinary days, the more we can grow in trusting God. It's like our Advent wreaths: we start out with one small candle in the darkness. And over the course of a month we light additional candles - and the light grows - until we light the center candle, the Christ candle, and the light shines in the darkness.

This Advent, then, is not about doing more. God doesn't need us to work harder to grow in God's love. God asks us to be a little more quiet so that we can let the grace Jesus has planted in our hearts deepen. Ripen. Become complete and full. I like how a friend of mine put it: God doesn't ask us to work harder at loving and being prayerful so that we earn God's love. No, God simply asks us to love Jesus so that God's love within us may become full. And here's the real blessing: the more we love and trust this love, the more loving we become ourselves. We don't love others to earn God's love. We love God and God changes us into love from the inside out. And that is what they call the good news for Advent. To me, it feels like this in the old Christmas carol:

O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him: Christ the Lord.

+ John Comfort/L'Arche Ottawa
+ liturgy.co.nz
+ John Comfort/L'ARche Ottawa

Sunday, December 2, 2018

advent one: watching and waiting...

Yesterday I tossed out this year's autumn pumpkins in anticipation of entering a holy Advent. It was time to let go of the old so that the new might emerge within and among us. Maybe seedlings will take root from the debris. Maybe the pulp will simply feed the squirrels. Maybe nothing at all. Whatever happens next is beyond my control. Like so much of life, mine is to give thanks to God for the beauty these gifts brought us in their day and then let them go as they return to the earth in a fate that awaits us all. One of the prayers from this morning's worship put it like this:

Come to us as Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. Support us in this life that we may live now in the confidence of your everlasting love. Give us the grace to look forward to your coming again with power and glory. We remember those who have died, especially those whom we still love but no longer see. Give us, with all the faithful departed, a share in your victory over evil and death. O come, o come, Emmanuel: come and break upon us, O Dayspring from on high.

The gospel text for the first Sunday in Advent is one of the apocalyptic verses in St. Luke 21: "there will be signs in the sun, moon and stars..." Clearly in this part of creation the sun is diminishing, the moon is a waxing crescent and the stars? Clear and beautiful as ever. I know that the context of this verse has to do with the end times and the Lord's judgment; but God knows these feel like judgment days as the earth is inflamed, wars and rumors of wars proliferate and phony messiahs of every stripe promise us the moon in return for obedience, shutting down our hearts and giving up our compassion. Fr. Richard Rohr wrote these prophetic words back in 1989:

"We look without seeing, listen without hearing or understanding" so Jesus came to teach us in parabolic ways. (Mt 13:13) All the Christian churches are being forced to an inevitable, honest and somewhat humiliating conclusion. The vast majority of Christian ministry has been concerned with 'churching' people into symbolic, restful and usually ethnic belonging systems rather than any real spiritual transformation... I am convinced that most of our ministries have legitimated the autonomous self and even fortified it with all kinds of religious armor... (because) let's be honest: we would sooner have control than real conversion; we would sooner have well-oiled church societies than transformed people. Cosmetic piety takes away our anxieties about God and ourselves, but does not address the real and subtle ways we have "lost our souls." (The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, pp. xvii)

I am glad the lectionary called preachers to talk about God's judgment today. It makes me uncomfortable, but I need to hear it - and so does my nation. We meet Jesus at our southern border with tear gas and pepper spray, not love, hospitality and welcome. We fan the flames of white nationalism internally and fear-mongering and trade wars internationally. Large segments of the once-Christian church in the USA preach hatred of the stranger and damnation to everyone who does not look like white, suburban, working class citizens. We have clearly forgotten that "when religion is the conscience of a society rather than its lapdog," as Rohr wrote, "our culture is healthy." As he continues, now is a time for us to acknowledge:

... our part in the disintegration of Western civilization. If our culture has become soft and superficial, it is because religion did first - and not with regard to the so-called 'hot sins,' but with regard to those oh so subtle ways in which people slowly stop seeing, loving trusting and surrendering... We substituted law and authority for the ancient and much more difficult path of spiritual warfare, that subtle discernment of spirits, passions and energies the the Desert Fathers and Mothers took as normative. In so many ways, the traditional churches are no longer traditional at all.

This is the first year in more than 40 that both Di and I have not been in a worship community at the start of Advent. It is calling us to rethink how we enter this holy season. Given the odd ebb and flow of retirement checks, our bank account is close to empty. So we cashed in all our change and bought a wreath from the local nursery to set up an Advent wreath. I cleaned the house and she scoured the cook books for a simple Advent supper recipe. As the night arrives at 4:15 in the afternoon, we are ready to slip quietly into the waiting groove of Advent. 

Early tomorrow, I will leave here and return to my community in L'Arche Ottawa. I had the privilege of writing part of our community's Advent prayer resource this year. I will celebrate the bread of life and cup of blessing with my sisters and brothers in community tomorrow evening. At week's end, our daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren will gather back in the Berkshires for supper and also for next Sunday's small brunch music gig at Dottie's Coffee Lounge. There is much to consider right now. It feels urgent to move carefully and with deep deliberation. And just so that I honor the heart of Advent, these words grabbed my attention last night. In a poignant new book by the brilliant Ottawa author, Elizabeth Hay, she quotes Harry Adaskin in, All Things Consoled: a Daughter's Memoir:

Kafka said there is perhaps only one cardinal sin - impatience. Certainly the great doers and shakers of the world, who have killed millions of people, and are doing it right now, are guilty of that sin. But why are they so impatient? They're impatient because they are unaware that spiritual growth, which is the only direction we can hope for, cannot come quickly.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

damn, you guys can REALLY play....

Last night our band, Famous Before We're Dead, played the Infinity Music Hall (Norfolk, CT) stage - and we were ready. It was a tight, well-rehearsed, energized set that engaged the crowd. As musicians and story-tellers, we felt the synergy with the audience and felt the satisfaction of a job well-done. Next Sunday we'll bring the show to Dottie's Coffee Lounge (444 North Street, Pittsfield, MA) for the brunch gig. If you're in the area and free, check out the web page and join us for a fun time with great food and beverages.

Check out Dottie's web page here: http://www.dottiescoffeelounge.com/eventscalendar/2018/12/9/domingo-brunch-with-james-lumsden-etc)

Two very interesting reactions took place at last night's performance. First, we established ourselves as committed local artists who can stand and deliver. As one new fan said last night: "Damn, you guys can REALLY play." Most of our gigs to-date have been chill. We were learning to come together, to listen to one another, and to make a clear effort at communicating new music. As is always the case with a new band, things were ragged at first. And while there are still a few minor hiccups to work out after last night, we're moving in the right direction. Second, this was not just a performance before our friends. In the first few months of going public we did house concerts, church events, etc. where the crowd was mostly friends and family. Like any creative endeavor, it is important to start out in safe spaces. And we worked that vein well. Last night was much  more serious so the music had to win over those who had never heard us before - and thankfully the Spirit was with us.  We were able to share a little love and hope in a dark time with a bit of beauty and finesse. Thanks be to God.

If you'd like to take a look and a listen to part of the show, copy this address to your browser and have at it:


And if you're free, stop by Dottie's Coffee Lounge next Sunday between 10 am and 12 noon. We would love to see you.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

longing for God is enough...

A few days ago I saw a meme on FB that said something like:God has never chosen only the well-heeled, articulate, obviously beautiful and powerful people to carry the message of grace to the world. Read the Bible and discover that most often God calls people like you and me - broken, halting, sometimes confused and silent with more than our share of fear and doubt - to be bearers of the blessing. And THAT is part of the good news. We ALL belong!

I knew in that moment I should save it, but I was weary and a little blue. So I told myself, "I'll go back and get it later." And eventually when I did, of course, it was not to be found anywhere. Still you get the point: the love of God moves into creation through tender, bruised, uncertain and wounded individuals just like you and me. Not the elite or privileged, although they need grace as much as the rest of us, but ordinary women, men and children. The gospel of St. John puts it like this: God set up God's residence in the world smack in the middle of our neighborhood. Indeed, God became human flesh and blood, too so that we might more fully trust that our own flesh and blood is holy. That our bodies are beautiful temples of the sacred. That our lives truly matter. And they can give birth to joy, tenderness, healing and justice just like the Mother Mary. Jean Vanier of L'Arche goes on to say that in the love of Jesus we become sisters and brothers with God. 

Not that I always experience this to be true, ok? I trust it as the deepest truth of
my faith, but I don't always feel it in my flesh. That's why the best spiritual friends and guides remind us that  "we walk by faith, not sight." That is, we trust God's love for us more than any and all of our feelings. St. Paul wrote this for us in Romans 5: We have been united with God forever by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives shape and form to grace...  that is why we know that even in our suffering this isn't the end of the story: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Our feelings come and go. They can confuse us at times as well as give us clues. But they are not the final truth - ever. 

Writing about a new translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, the masterpiece of English mysticism, Bob Trube of Hearts and Minds Books first quotes the new text:

The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So be sure to make your home in the darkness.”

Then adds: 

One of the critical themes running through the work, true to the apophatic tradition out of which it comes, is that God cannot be known with our minds but only in our love– we can’t think our way to God".... (nor can we) attain an experience of God through the senses, (we must) dismiss both our thoughts and feelings into a “cloud of forgetting"(for) longing for God is enough, this will open us to a deeper understanding (and encounter) of God.(see: https://bobonbooks.com/2018/11/28/review-the-cloud-of-unknowing/)

There's a lot swirling around inside of me right now - it may make its way into words sometime -or not. For now, let's stay with "longing for God is enough" and know that you are the beloved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

this is blues time: challenging the madness with solidarity, trust and beauty

The last few days have been all about the blues for me - I have a periodic predisposition to melancholia - as well as a negative reaction to some over-the-counter medications. Mix this into the horror show of bad news abounding in my country and if you don't feel the blues, you're not paying attention.

The truly evil acts of this administration - from tear-gassing children on our Southern border with Mexico, giving Saudi Arabia a pass on murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to encouraging the ecological devastation of the planet for short term financial gain - are soul numbing. And the cumulative assault on tenderness and truth-telling regularly break my heart. This regime goes out of its way to degrade public conversation. Their well-tuned fear-mongering machine keeps some of us in a state of distress while their pandering to our bigotry manipulates others into violence or despair. Recently the Ottawa newspaper, The Globe and Mail, ran a scathing editorial indictment entitled, "America is the bad guy now," that summarizes the US reality like this: the"unfortunate truth has become more evident since Donald Trump took the oath of office and steered the country by its worst instincts."

The unvarnished bigotry of (Trump's) campaign and eventually his administration peeled back the thin veneer hiding our ugliest prejudices. We are in very deep, very dark waters. Whether it was the prejudiced Muslim travel ban, the persecution of transgender Americans, the sowing of racial animus, his inspiration of neo-Nazis and murderous assassins or his partnering with homicidal despots, the sad truth is that, no matter how we want to deny it or wish it wasn’t so, this is who we are now. We are a country that enjoys closer relations to Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia than our traditional allies in Europe and NATO. It’s in these vicious pacts with despots that the true nature of the problem crystallizes.(see https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-america-is-the-bad-guy-now/fbclid= IwAR1GGf2WLvU4r3GfeX0HjYAQHZBlOR_v8K8UVm9doFaEEk5_JCOA17Cvfy4)

"This is who we are now: we are a country that enjoys closer relations to Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia than our traditional allies in Europe and NATO." Let that sink in...

As the snow comes down in my part of the world, my small band of musical allies and I are preparing to play a show at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT. In light of our collective reality, I spent some time reviewing our set list for Friday. And much to my relief, I found it to be a blues-reggae-folk groove infused with modest hopes and poetic critiques of this current madness in America. I had been so caught up in practicing and rehearsals, that for a moment I lost sight of the new music we were sharing. It really does reflect what I recently wrote in a press release:

In a stressed-out era, we share songs of hope, challenge, compassion and humor for 21st century adults. Grounded in Americana our roots also include singer-songwriters like Tom Waits, John Hiatt, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead.

Perhaps its the new freedom of retirement. Maybe it has something to do with my stripped down spirituality. Could be the clarity that comes from choices we must make given our modest income. Clearly the influence of L'Arche and Jean Vanier is at play here. The salty wisdom of Mother Earth, too. Whatever else is going on, I see this as blues time - lament mixed with trust, grief and hope in close proximity - a reckoning giving birth to new alliances.

We're not going to change the world on Friday, but we will offer a little shelter in the storm. There will be a bit of encouragement to get up, stand up, too. If you want to reconnect with some beauty in solidarity with others committed to compassion, join us. (For more information: https://www.infinityhall.

Monday, November 26, 2018

take no thought for tomorrow: bread-baking and bass playing on a winter's day

Today is all about the bass - and bread baking, too. A young friend is applying to regional music schools and asked me to be a part of his audition recording. He'll be showcasing his chops on two essential jazz standards: "Billie's Bounce" by Charlie Parker and a swinging version of "Bye, Bye Blackbird." I need to settle in to a reggae groove later as well to get ready for this Friday's show at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT. That means I'll be playing on and off throughout the day. What's more, we polished off the final crusts from my rustic white loaves yesterday, so now it is baking time again at Chez Jacques. I've wanted to revisit the first recipe I used from back in the San Francisco days in the incomparable Tassajara Bread Book so... we shall see. What a delight: a full day of practice, waiting, music, quiet and the staff of life.

Two hours later: my, my does this bread RISE! I have had to delay grooving on the bass until all the bread kneading is complete. And, as is always the case but never the same way twice, there was a bread-baking surprise: the "sponge" overflowed the bowl! I had a hunch it might happen and made preparations, but still...what a mess? Such is one of the gifts of this spiritual practice: it is the feminine - or at least the domestic - version of Robert Pirsig's zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Please note that I say "feminine" reservedly, in much the manner that Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, Carl Jung and Gunila Norris use it, a reference to the inward arts of discernment. Ms Mueller-Nelson writes in To Dance with God:

As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth that which is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of become and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a live of value, necessary to real transformation. 

Things don't always go as the recipe indicates, right? You can count on this with every loaf of bread, you just never know what the surprise is going to be. Trusting that it will happen comes with practice. Ms. Norris puts it like this:

When the yeast is added
we will see in the honey water
the unpredictable, the alive...
which we can never own or
truly understand. We will see
how it bubbles and froths -
how it rises up - and we will know
that we don not have control...

When the yeast is added
to the sweet and the salty,
the skin-temperature,
warm-blooded water, we will sense
the irrepressible and how it moves
into the very cells of our bodies,
into the blood and marrow. We are
flesh and we are vulnerable...

When the yeast is added -
the impulsive, the unmanageable,
the free - we know we will be
moved. Every part of the mixture!
The inert l ump of dough will come alive,
will expand and yield. We will be lifted
out of ourselves, beyond ourselves,
We will be worked...

An hour later still: In the two months I've returned to baking, mostly I've been asked to practice and relearn the art of waiting: waiting for the yeast to rise (but sometimes not) - waiting to discover the right temperature for the water and the right process for adding salt and oil - waiting to discover the right temperature for the dough to rise (and failing at least as often as I win) - waiting to grasp how the very size of the bread pan can make a huge difference. In other words, learning how to wait long enough to see and trust the details of the recipe that have been time-tested rather than blustering forward without inadequate preparation. It is an earthy exercise in going slowly. And the more I practice doing just this, the more my anxiety rests. One of the genuinely learned souls of this disciple is Wendell Berry who gave shape and form to this wisdom in his small book of poems, A Small Porch.

The long cold drives life inward
into shelter, into the body, into
limits of strength and time.

Out of darkness day comes.
The earth now white, the trees bear
bright new foliage of snow,

beautiful, yes. "Beautiful, but hell!"
Junior Wright said, wading
in knee-deep snow to feed

the snowbound cattle. We were young
then and really didn't mind.
This morning, half a century

later, under the beautiful trees,
beautiful truly, repaying much,
I dig out the paths again,

renewing again the pattern of home
life grown old in this place
and many times renewed. Continuing

my difficult study, I remind myself
again: "Take no thought for tomorrow."

To my heart, this is Advent spirituality - trusting a mystery greater than self to be true - and quietly moving into its blessing. I've already relearned that you can not - or must not - rush the bread any more than a bass player can rush the groove.  "As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation."  

Nearly four hours after I started the baking processI still haven't picked
up my instrument. So much for today being ALL about the bass. There's still loaves to shape. And bake. Maybe I'll get some music in before our recording, but maybe not. That's yet another truth this bread-baking spirituality of Advent prayer keeps asking me to honor: I really can't do two things at once. Hell, I can barely think of two things at the same time, let alone multi-task. So, as the loaves rise, I'm listening to the tunes we'll be playing tonight and later this week. And moving my fingers as if I were actually practicing the tune. Trusting that this will be sufficient. 

Listening to these tunes, a thought arises: should this bread come out well, I'll be able to share a loaf - and won't that be wonderful Like brother Berry said:
Continuing my difficult study, I remind myself again: "Take no thought for tomorrow." (NOTE: they're ALMOST done - looking great - but taking an extra 10 minutes to fully bake. And the road goes on forever...)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

walking into the darkness with trust...

When I look back in time at the ripening of my heart - the deepening of my spiritual practices and the awareness of the sacred within the ordinary - I see my increased comfort with darkness. Mystery. Unknowing. I have known two seasons of what some call the dark night of the soul. They have been profound and even illuminating in an upside down way. More consistently, however, is an incremental appreciation of the via negativa - the apophatic path of knowing - a spirituality of silence and waiting given a Western expression by John Henry Newman, the 19th century poet and priest:

They watch for Christ
who are sensitive, eager, apprehensive in mind,
who are awake, alive, quick-sighted...
who look for him in all that happens, and
who would not be surprised
who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed,
if they found that he was coming at once...
This then is to watch:
to be detached from what is present, and
to live in what is unseen. 

I may prefer another word rather than detached: in this I am not in agreement with the old master, preferring instead to use relinquished in relationship to our present moment in time. To watch, then, becomes an intentional letting go of my addiction to certainty so that the darkness might mature. Or evolve and become its fullest self. This is how mystics speak of contemplation: not as navel-gazing or obsessively withdrawing from reality; but, rather, as creating space on a regular basis to take a long, loving look at reality. To listen and feel the truth beyond the obvious. To practice trusting the unforced rhythms of grace even when there is no discernible evidence . Barbara Brown Taylor confesses in her marvelous book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, that she has:

learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light... new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. If I have any expertise, it is in the realm of spiritual darkness: fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, keen awareness of the limits of all language about God and at the same time shame over my inability to speak of God without a thousand qualifiers, doubt about the health of my soul, and barely suppressed contempt for those who have no such qualms. These are the areas of my proficiency.

The via negativa is a humble spiritual path than honors doubt. It encourages questions. And practices silence rather than proclamation. In Western Christianity the via negativia and the via positiva - the apophatic and kataphatic practices -both  find expression in the liturgical year. The Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Feast of the Resurrection on Easter morning honors the obscurity of God's loving presence as well as the bold and bright albeit equally undefinable blessings of new life. 

A similar cycle takes place in the spiritual journey of Advent into Christmas and
then Epiphany. Advent takes place in the night. In the silence. In the mystery. It asks us to practice waiting which is likely the reasons Americans ignore it. One of the spiritual formation master teachers of our generation, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, writes that the practices of Advent are qualitatively feminine. By living into them we all learn about balancing the inward/outward journey. We find ways to honor both the holy feminine and the sacred masculine, too. She note in her brilliant To Dance with God, that in the West:

our masculine confines want to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right and delay an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting.  So we build Concorde airplanes, drink instant coffee, roll out green plastic and call it turf, and reach for the phone before we reach for the pen. (NOTE: this was written before the advent of so-called smart phones!) The more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry. The tempt of haste in which we live has less to do with being on time or the efficiency of a busy life - it has ore to do with our being unable to wait. But waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth that which is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of become and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a live of value, necessary to real transformation. 

Advent is my favorite time in the church calendar. It is saturated in mystery. Its music hints at the holy and lures me gently away from busyness without ever being pushy or brash. It is all about chants and candles, rather than trumpets and bonfires. It invites us to the birth of a baby whose very vulnerability tells a truth about the Lord if we're willing to watch and wait. And Advent into Christmas happens at night. A prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, A Litany of Darkness and Light, offers an apophatic corrective to the triumphalistic proclamations of so much of Western Christianity.

We wait in the darkness, expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully. The darkness is our friend. In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected. In the darkness of the womb, the Christ-child was made ready for the journey into light. It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe - blankets of stars - the solitary glowings of distant planets. It was the darkness that allowed the Magi to find the star that led them to where the Christ-child lay. Int the darkness of night, desert peoples find relief from the cruel, relentless heat of the sun. In the blessed desert darkness, Mary and Joseph were able to flee with the infant Jesus to safety in Egypt. In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed. In the darkness of sleep, dreams rise up. God spoke to Jacob and Joseph through dreams - and God is still speaking. In the solitude of darkness, we sometimes remember those who need God's presence ins a special way - the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized and discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness... Sometimes, in the solitude of darkness, our own fears and concerns, our hopes and visions, rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves and with the road that lies ahead of us. And in that same darkness, we find companionship for the journey. We know you are with us, O God, yet we still await your coming. In the darkness that contains both our hopelessness and our expectancy, we watch for a sign of your hope.

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday in the Western Church - the close of the Christian year - the Sunday before Advent begins. It asks me to give up my desire for quick solutions and magic bullets. Christ lives as Messiah not because of race, class, gender or power, but because he chooses the way of quiet compassion for all of us. He shares small moments of tenderness with those in need and then asks that we do likewise. "Follow me" he teaches, "and your joy shall be full." Complete. It is the logic of his upside down kingdom that helps us grasp that by giving we receive, that by dying we find true life, and by living into the via negativia we are filled from the inside out.

thanks be to God for the crack in every thing...

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Thomas Merton died. After reading Mark Van Doren's personalized obit of this sometimes rebellious and...