Friday, March 22, 2019

silver linings, poems and mr. rogers......

Life in my world has been slow moving of late as a week of stomach flu has
rendered me played-out: hung up wet to dry as they say out West. One of the silver linings within this relentless cloud of upheaval has been the chance to finish Maxwell King's The Good Neighbor: the Life and Work of Fred Rogers. It is a gentle and thoughtful read about a tender and wise man. One quote from Mr. Rogers stands out:

You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.

I chose to rest this week - a lot - and while resting two poems from The Writer's Almanac caught my attention as I tried to make peace with nausea. "Alive" by Naomi Shihab Nye gets it right: so much of our time in this realm is given to a collection of small concerns that we rarely evaluate or understand. Cumulatively, however, they give shape and form to our lives without honoring our truest self or our deepest values. 

Dear Abby, said someone from Oregon,
I am having trouble with my boyfriend's attachment
to an ancient gallon of milk still full
in his refrigerator. I told him it's me or the milk,
is this unreasonable? Dear Carolyn,
my brother won't speak to me
because fifty years ago I whispered
a monkey would kidnap him in the night
to take him back to his true family
but he should have known it was a joke
when it didn't happen, don't you think?
Dear Board of Education, no one will ever
remember a test. Repeat. Stories,
poems, projects, experiments,
mischief, yes, but never a test.
Dear Dog Behind the Fence, you really need
to calm down now. You have been barking every time
I walk to the compost for two years
and I have not robbed your house. Relax.
When I asked the man on the other side
if you bother him too, he smiled and said no,
he makes me feel less alone. Should I be more
worried about the dog or the man?

It made me think of how the late Irma Bombeck, philosopher of all things quotidian, put it: "
If I had my life to live over again I would have waxed less and listened more."

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy and complaining about the shadow over my feet, I'd have cherished every minute of it and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was to be my only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. 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 invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded. I would have eaten popcorn in the "good" living room and worried less about the dirt when you lit the fireplace. I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. I would have burnt the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored.

I would have sat cross-legged on the lawn with my children and never worried about grass stains. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television ... and more while watching real life. I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband which I took for granted. I would have eaten less cottage cheese and more ice cream. 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 a day.

Taking her advice - and staying in bed during this sickness - I rewrote the lyrics and part of the melody to my song "Small Is Holy." Verse one worked, as did the chorus, but the rest was too preachy. Lofty when it needed to be grounded in the earth. It also needed to be confessional and in the first person rather than declarative. So now it is - another silver lining in an uncomfortable week. When I get a good recording, I'll post Small 2.0.

Ted Kooser brought this sick week to a close with "Waxer." I think he brings it all together: choices, time, beauty, joy, work, whimsy, reality, ordinary wisdom and even a taste of the holy.   

I once watched a man wax a hallway
with an overweight rotary buffer
that he waltzed from one side to the other
by tipping it ever so slightly, letting
the bristles on one side get a grip
on the floor, drawing the big machine
in that direction, then artfully tipping it
into the opposite, letting it lead, letting it
whirl him out over the beautiful shine
that the two of them made as they
swept down the hall, the man always
in charge but cajoling his partner
into believing that she was, stealing
the show while the man merely followed,
the two swirling out over the gloss
from the overhead lighting, gracefully
rounding a corner and gone.

It is snowing and sleeting outside. Robert Mueller has submitted his report to the Attorney General. I'm going to get another blanket and watch PBS news as part of my daily prayers. And I will do so in the company of our soon-to-be-senior dog, Lucie, who all week long has snuggled with me worrying that something is wrong. This too shall pass my dear I think knowing it is time to rejoin her on the sofa.

Monday, March 18, 2019

following Jesus...

This morning I read this poem and it shaped my vision all day long: I Need to Live Near a Creek  by Hayden Saunier

the lush

rush of it

me up.

I wanted to hush up today but there were odd moments when I wondered: am I walking with Jesus in the silence or not? When I am flummoxed, I used to believe that I had failed. Such is the curse of shame and abuse. But now days, whenever I don't know deep inside if I am walking with the Lord within, I trust that I am and find God everywhere. Jean Vanier, in his commentary on the gospel according to St. John. writes that "to follow Jesus not only means 'to walk in the footsteps' of the master, but also to accompany and be with" him in the company of others. (Drawn to the Mystery, p. 47) As today unfolded, I believe that happened. 

Every morning, before breakfast and prayers, I make a little toast for Di before she teaches. Then I greet our neurotic dog Lucie. She climbs onto my lap, lets me rub her ears as she moans in ecstasy, and then wants to head outside to do her business. It is a morning ritual that is earthy, filled with laughter and just a bit wacky as Lucie and I find a way to move into morning.

After it was all over, I went to Wal-Mart. We're doing some repair on our ancient refrigerator and the inner handle needed to be sanded down. It is too old and broken to be replaced, so epoxy and sand paper are essential. As I sauntered down one aisle, a young clerk smiled at me, winked and said, "What's goin' on, brother?" I paused, touched my heart and shared a smile as I replied, "Life is good." To which he said, "Indeed, indeed. Carry on." What a blessing! As I was leaving, another clerk said to me, "Brother, your shoe lace is untied. I don't want you to get hurt." Small things, to be sure. But small acts of watching and caring and being present with one another leads to holy ground.

Then I had to stop at the local TV cable company because after replacing our 20 year old TV last week, we haven't been able to make all the cable/sound boxes work. I brought in our weird splitter device and asked if such a replacement was still in existence? The lovely clerk smiled and said, "I have never seen such a thing but let me check with the techs." Sadly, they were all out in the field, so she spent the next 20 minutes problem solving with me - and gave me a few new HDMI cords to boot! Often the cable company office is a zoo filled with countless unhappy campers huddled in a too small foyer issuing complaints in coarse and loud voices. Not so today. In addition to it being another day of sunshine in the  Berkshires, this one was sweet because there was no one else in the building. The clerk was truly helpful to me - printed out special instructions - and concluded saying, "If you can't get the darned thing to work, please remember that you can call our tech guys - they are great - and can help you solve anything!' I was full to over flowing.

Let's be clear: not everything was heavenly. Di and I probably spent an hour fussing and fuming trying to make the new TV work with our new cords. We have very different styles and can drive one another insane. And it is still unclear if the new cords mattered. But, little by little, we worked on the mess together and she eventually figured out how to make a 10 year old sound system sing in tandem with a modern, smart TV. I was reminded again that there is great wisdom in hushing up.

As evening falls and I look backwards, I think that at every step of this day, the morning poem called me to hush up. The sun was bright. The sky was blue. The snow was melting. And people were kind. Over and again I heard the invitation to hush up. And, mostly I did. So unless I am mistaken, in those times of being still, I probably met Jesus today. And might have even followed him a bit, too.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

a steadfast love that endures forever: gratitude within the darkness of lent

This morning the Rev. Philip Jackson, Vicar at Trinity-St Paul NYC, preached a sermon concerning the steadfast love of the Lord which endures forever. It was direct, illuminating and perfect for the second Sunday of Lent. His first insight came from Genesis 15: 1-6 and reads as follows:

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Jackson emphasized the nuances of the word "believed" and "righteousness" in
Hebrew. The first, aman אָמַן, has nothing to do with intellectual assent, rather it means a trust born of an experiential encounter with an empirical fact. The second, tsedaqah צְדָקָה, involves doing justice. When Abram mystically moves from doubt into an encounter with the Holy One's steadfast love that is more vast than all the stars in a Middle Eastern sky, his soul trusts God. In turn, the Lord honors Abram's trust as an act of righteous commitment. What comes next is a wild, strange, primitive and ancient covenant ceremony: animal sacrifice, fire and smoke (symbols of God) moving between the severed carcasses, and the Lord God promising eternal fidelity to Abram and his heirs. Jackson was emphatic at this point in his message telling us: 1) Only God acts in this covenant promise; Abram simply receives the blessings; 2) God's promise is that the Holy should become as the severed sacrifices should the covenant ever be violated; and 3) Only the One who is Holy is held accountable. His message ended with these words: 

It is this notion that it is God, and not human beings, who are bound by an oath. Because many of us act as if we're the ones who owe something to God, don't we? Here, what God is saying, is "No I promise you something, I owe you something, I will do something for you. You needn't do for me, I'll do for you. And that promise is irrevocable, and its binding, and it can't be broken, and nothing can change it. And nothing you can do can alter it. And nothing you can do can take it away. And nothing you can do can make it less. Because there's nothing you can do because I passed through the pieces. And may the same thing, God says, the same thing happen to me if I break my oath to you!"  What more fitting text can we have... as we walk towards Easter? Amen.

Brilliant! Simple, moving, honest, humble and salvific: one of the earliest and most primitive explications of God's grace and steadfast love that endures for ever in the Bible. 

I needed that message today. Last night I read that an as yet unidentified man greeted the white supremacist murderer who entered the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, NZ with the words: "Hello, brother." This brave and loving soul was the first of 49 victims. Earlier in the afternoon, while doing errands with my soul mate, I was told of a local man who set his house on fire - killing his childhood sweetheart and their three children -  before taking his own life. Later, as I listened to the evening news, I heard the president of the United States tell the world that he has all the tough people on his side - the police, the military, the bikers for Trump - and should we push him too far, the tough ones will be unleashed upon us and it will be very, very bad. Before going to sleep I read this chilling but essential analysis of this moment in time by Robert Kagan at the Washington Post entitled "The Strong Men Strike Back." (please read the whole lengthy article as an act of prayer, confession and awakening @ https:// wp/2019/03/ 14/feature/the-strongmen-strike-back/?fbclid=IwAR3idJ6yWSfe2vpw-Q5nwcKyZ85D2UYh0ltQWL0JG-UfYXDpticHWOM5-0w&noredirect=on&utm_term=.6058cb8c91a3)

David Brooks, whom some progressives love to quote while others love to excoriate, noted that the violence of our era - be it white supremacist terrorism, the opioid epidemic in the USA or our sky rocketing rate of suicide - is a consequence of the personal, cultural and social alienation and anxiety we all know at this moment in our history. This violence "is a societal problem. It’s strongly associated with social isolation. Men die at higher rates than women, single people more than married people, rural people more than urban people, Native Americans and whites more than blacks or Latinos. It’s also a values problem. Our individualistic culture means there are vast empty gaps in our social fabric where people suffer alone and invisible. It’s also a guns problem. A lot of people die simply because at their lowest moment, there happened to be a gun around." (Brooks, NYT @ 2019/03/14 /opinion/suicide-prevention.html) 

The world many of us loved and struggled to solidify over the past 70 years is now in tumult. The Gilet Juanes movement clashed with police and black shirted anarchists on the Champs Elysees this weekend proclaiming: "This is the apocalypse!" They burned and looted elite shops and cafes. The house of Jesus in Rome is collapsing amidst sexual violations and scandals of staggering proportions. And other parts of the holy family of Christ in Europe and the USA are being co-opted by white supremacists and neo-fascists. My heart is sick. My soul is weary. I fear for our future. Once again I hear Jesus lament our condition as recorded in today's gospel according to St. Luke: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

And yet while I grieve, I don't despair: I trust that the steadfast love of God endures forever. To be sure our realm is passing through a dark and ugly season where hatred of women, fear and bigotry against immigrants, homophobia, racism, as well as an aching for social order unknown in our culture for 70 years has become the new normal. Not since the rise of fascism in Europe and the brutality of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe has the West been so lost and confused. Many of us - myself included - never believed that we would find ourselves living into such a terrifying bleakness. We sensed that we had likely eluded both 1984 and Brave New World. But we were mistaken. A vicious brokenness of heretofore unknown proportions is polluting our politics, our culture, our religious traditions, our habits, our neighborhoods and our imaginations. And while this horror is not the only game in town - I think of the youth protests to save the environment that happened all across the world this weekend - fear is ascending, violence is escalating, and hatred is maturing in ever more macabre ways.

We are truly on the road to the Cross. If we travel with Jesus there is no avoiding the pain, the humiliation, the uncertainty, the trials and the agony. By trusting the Lord like Abram - or Jesus - or Magdalene or Mary the mother of our Lord, we know that all the anguish will not be the end of the story. God's steadfast love endures forever.


Friday, March 15, 2019

tasting god's love in community eucharist...

Earlier this week I had the privilege of celebrating Eucharist for Lent at L'Arche Ottawa. As I prepared my heart and flesh for this feast, words from Sara Bessey were continuously swimming through my consciousness: 

I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even—or maybe especially—the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. 

The celebration of Eucharist is serious business for me - not because I am a slave to liturgical law, ecclesiastical etiquette or canonical conformity - but rather because hosting a feast at the radically open table of Jesus Christ keeps me grounded. Any haughtiness immediately exposes my divided loyalties, any deference to status or power crucifies the presence of Jesus that is tenderly enfleshed in the least of my sisters and brothers gathering together to break bread. In her wise and well-crafted little book, The Sacred Meal, Nora Gallagher helped me connect the parables of Jesus with the bread and cup of the sacrament: "Jesus' parable are as clear as water in regard to power: don't be absorbed in who is sitting at the head of the table. The last shall be first. The meek will inherit the earth."

Early in this journey, I took these stories as difficult admonitions, slightly accusatory reminders of how I should always remember those on the margins. But what I am coming to understand is that Jesus meant to say these things to himself, as much as to me. He said these things to himself because he understood that choosing the vulnerable path was the way to keep his soul alive, and protected, from the harsh realities of power. He sought out the vulnerable because they helped keep him vulnerable. And he finally came to identify with them. Jesus' compassion for those who suffer because of the powerful is, as the theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it, "a radical form of criticism," for it announces that "the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness." (Gallagher, p. 20)

When we gather to bless and share bread and wine in Christ's spirit, not only do we practice living into the image of God as the sacred intended - in unity, trust, humility, faith,  hope and love - but we do so with a reverent playfulness much like a child. No matter what your sacramentality suggests about what is taking place during the Lord's Supper - high church or low, Roman Catholic or Reformed, consubstantiation, transubstantiation, symbol or historic rite - every person who receives the bread and the wine becomes grounded - at least for a moment. Focused, reverent and still, too. Open and receptive to human and divine love. That is why I used to tell those helping me serve communion: "There is NO wrong way to do this, ok? Because how could we ever be wrong sharing with another the love of God in Jesus Christ?" My friends would often look at me in shock. "Isn't there a correct form? Magic words? Something we MUST do?" they would ask. "Well," I would eventually reply, "you can be helpful and attentive. You can make a real connection with those you are serving. You can remind yourself that you are acting as a vessel for grace like Mary. And you can do it all with love and humility." After a long pause I would add, "But you can't do it wrong. Even if you go blank and silently stand there sharing the cup, you can't do this wrong. So don't worry. God's grace is always bigger and more creative than all our fears and failings."

Don't get me wrong: I love beautiful liturgical words and music. I revel in a well organized liturgy with carefully practiced leaders who can shepherd the faithful to the communion rail with respect and confidence. I think it is better to be well prepared than painfully casual and believe its wise to train worship leaders, too. But, as St. Paul taught, "we always have these treasures in earthen vessels, jars of clay, to show that grace is from God not ourselves." Nothing in this realm is perfect, least of all ourselves, so when something goes south, why not go with it? Laugh. Own it. Go with the flow rather than fight for control. "Remember" as author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins, wrote on his bathroom mirror: "This is not about me." 

Once, in Cleveland, I was doing a wedding where the bride came from a Roman Catholic family. She wanted Eucharist at the ceremony. One of her nephews had been in trouble with the law and had just been released from a juvenile detention center. She thought it would be a sign of hope if he could help me serve the cup during communion. So I met with the young man, who was sweet but defiant, and helped him walk through the steps of the liturgy. We practiced serving people from the chalice and saying the words, "The cup of blessing poured out for the forgiveness of sins." 

On the day of the wedding, all went well until the young chalice bearer came to his brother with whom he had great anger. This little fact had been omitted from our wedding rehearsal, but the vitriol between these two was palpable. And, as you can imagine, it came out at the wrong time and wrong place. While I was serving the bride's family the host, and the young chalice bearer was sharing the cup, he came to his brother. They glared at one another for a moment before the chalice bearer said: "The cup of blessing for you... you son of a bitch... even though you don't deserve it!" 

Everyone'e eyes were about to pop out of their heads and I thought the younger brother was going to deck his mean-spirited sibling. But in that moment the Spirit hit me - and I put my hand on the chalice bearer's arm and said out loud: "You know, you're right, this cup of blessing IS shared and poured out for all of us sons and daughters of bitches even though we don't deserve it! And that's what Jesus wanted us to know. So how 'bout you help me now and try to keep a cork in it for the rest of the wedding?" The congregation roared with laughter, the tension was diffused, and a truth was revealed about God's love that went way beyond our anything I said in the homily. 

None of this is about me. And yet, I am a part of it all, too. It is about grace. And forgiveness. And the presence of the holy within our humanity. The late Brother Roger, founder of the Taize Community, liked to teach the faithful that during Lent we should remember that this "is not a time of austerity or sadness, nor a period to keep guilt alive, but a moment to sing the joy of forgiveness. He saw Lent as forty days to prepare to rediscover little springtimes in our lives." (Taize letter) Eucharist breaks up the hard soil of my heart so that the bounty of spring time might arise within and beyond me. I have seen this happen in community too. That's why I trust going back to the feast over and over again: I have to practice being vulnerable with others who are open to their vulnerability. Nothing helps me do this better than Eucharist.  

Henri Nouwen used to say: "The beauty of the Eucharist is precisely that it is the place where a vulnerable God invites vulnerable people to come together in a peaceful meal. When we break bread and give it to each other, fear vanishes and God becomes very close." Maybe just for a moment. But in those moments we encounter a God who aches for us to live in unity and trust. At the feast, we taste a bit of the kingdom in our midst and it nourishes us for the journey. 

On Tuesday, before we shared the bread and wine with one another at L'Arche, the liturgy called us to share our prayers aloud and then conclude with the Lord's Prayer spoken in our own native language. As I prayed in Reformed English, I heard French, Hungarian, Spanish, old school Catholicism and Vatican II words along with a few mother tongues unknown to most but clearly loved by the Lord. In that moment I encountered what Calvin believed took place in Eucharist: we are all lifted up into the mystical presence of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit of love. For a moment, it truly was holy ground - and we all knew it.

credits: pictures by John Comfort of L'Arche Ottawa.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

a passion for holy reading after a tender dry season...

This Lent, as I find quiet ways to spend more time to simply "hanging" with Jesus, I am also being drawn back into some critical reflection, too. In addition to Vanier's commentary on the gospel according to St. John, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus: the Gospel of John, I am also wandering through Thomas Keating's The Mystery of Christ: Liturgy as Spiritual Experience, as well as Cynthia Bourgeault's Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. For over a year I have not touched - nor have I been inclined to touch - any holy reading. There is a stack of unread Christian Century magazines in the guest bathroom dating back to November 2017 that I have never even scanned. Indeed, I have given up my subscription after nearly 30 years of loyalty.

But now, as we have entered into the shared journey of Lent, I find that I am becoming saturated in lectio divina. To every thing there is clearly a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. I sense that I needed a lengthy term of just resting in Christ's love - a time without any institutional or intellectual expectations or demands - to simply be: to be alive, to be at rest, to be focused on tender acts of love with those closest to me, to be emotionally and spiritually dry and unfocused for a spell without worrying about it as well as everything in-between. Learning to trust the dry time and live into it without anxiety was part of my renewal. And healing. And repentance. 

In this I resonate with the words Jean Vanier used to describe an early story of Adam in Genesis. He notes that even when we believe we are lost or unmoored, God continues to search for us and reach out to us: "Scripture says that after Adam had separated himself from being enfolded in God, he hides. But God is looking for him, running after him. It is the whole mystery of God looking for us, running after us. We are not always looking for God but God is looking for us. God is looking for that part within us where we are vulnerable." That feels right to me from the inside out. 

This past year has not been one of darkness - and never one of despair. I have been through that type of wilderness before and this emptiness has not been one of pain. Rather, it has been one of acceptance. Of self-emptying and letting go. It has been my time to be quiet and listen to that still, small voice within calling me to peace. A time of trusting God as I experience the holy from the inside out. It was essential to relinquish the expectations and roles others had given me over the years, as well as the anxiety I bought into without clarity or put on myself in shame. Without a well-considered plan or timetable, I just knew that it was time to let it go. So that's what I did: I let go of my books; let go of countess records and CDs; let go of tons of visual art we have collected over five decades; let go of my habit of study, prayer, worship, ritual and countless external commitments; let go of all of my old sermon notes (except a few); and let go of my well-rehearsed daily routines. This was meant to be a time of learning who I really was without all of the externals - and that meant letting it all go.

What did I read? Mostly mysteries but also the daily reflections of Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr. How did I worship? Mostly by walking in the woods, working in the garden, or sharing songs in community with my friends at L'Arche. Who did I see? Only my children and grandchildren, my soul mate and partner in love, my musical friends in our new band, my friends in L'Arche Ottawa and a few of our dearest friends from our days in the desert of Tucson. I found myself pondering these words from Henri Nouwen who discovered that:   

To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. This requires not only courage but also a strong faith. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is a movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.

And now, without knowing why again, my soul thirsts for deeper clarity in prayer and a new engagement with Jesus. Right now Psalm 42 speaks to me:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God...
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

I suspect this longing is why Keating and Bourgeault are so vital: they are the spiritual wisdom keepers of mystical Western Christian contemplation. Keating articulates the intellectual, emotional and spiritual wisdom of the Lenten journey like this: 

To repent is to change the direction in which you are looking for happiness. The call to repentance is the invitation to take stock of our emotional programs for happiness based on instinctual needs and to change them. This is the fundamental program of Lent. Year by year, as the spiritual journey evolves, the destructive influences of these unevaluated programs for happiness become more obvious and, in proportionate manner, the urgency to change them increases. Thus the process of conversion is initiated and carried on... The Lenten liturgy begins with the temptations of Jesus in the desert, which deal with the three areas of instinctual need that every human being experiences in growing up. Jesus was tempted to satisfy his bodily hunger by security in magic that than in God; to jump off the pinnacle of the temple in order to make a name for himself as wonder-worker; and to fall down and worship Satan in order to receive absolute power over the nations of the world. Security, esteem, power - these are the tree classic areas where temptation works on our false programs of happiness.
                                                                                             (Keating, p. 37)

Liturgically Lent begins with Jesus wandering in the wilderness after his baptism. Keating writes: "The biblical desert is primarily a place of purification, a place of passage... not so much a geographical location - a place of sand, stones or sagebrush - as a process of interior purification leading to the liberation from the false-self system with its programs for happiness that cannot possible work." (p. 40) As I continue to wander into the wilderness of emptiness, I trust that Jesus will guide me - and we'll see what turns up. As the Gospel for today, St. Luke 4, concludes: "and when the testing was complete, the Trickster departed until another opportune time." There will be more testing for me, to be sure. More emptiness and uncertainty, too. But for now there is time to be with Jesus - and Keating, Bourgeault and Vanier as well.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

returning thanks for mr. rogers...

Last night I started reading the new biography of Fred McFeely Rogers, The Good Neighbor: the Life and Work of Fred Rogers. Back in the day, I must now sheepishly confess, I didn't like Mr. Rogers. No, that's not at all accurate: I didn't get Mr. Rogers. With my young daughters sitting on my lap in the late afternoon, I would usually fall asleep during his PBS show. The little trips into the neighborhood of make-believe seemed cheesy at the time. I didn't grasp his intentional use of silence and space that both slowed down an already escalating pace of life while simultaneously respecting a child's natural rhythms of comprehension. I wasn't a fan of the music. Some of the puppets creeped me out. And the whole Henrietta Pussycat's "mew mew mew meew" thing drove me insane. Intuitively, I trusted Mr. Rogers with my children's time and imagination - we didn't watch anything but PBS in those days - but the whole deal seemed flat and static when compared to Sesame Street.

O what a difference 40 years makes! Mr. Rogers was clearly the champion of kindness in his day and would that there had been more artists and innovators like him. Today popular culture moves at the speed of light. Marketing flashy, rude and expensive trinkets to children has become standard operating procedure. And creating quiet space for reflection, let alone sensitive conversations about hard things, is unheard of. Fifty years ago, in 1969, Rogers laid it on the line in his testimony before a Senate sub-committee:

Mr. Rogers turned our grandson on to "Stomp," the dance/percussion celebration of discovering the beauty in ordinary things - so we went together just last month to take in the joy. Mr. Rogers evoked a conversation about how there are always helpers around when hard things happen, so now Louie knows to always look for the helpers in hard times. Small wonder that this past Halloween, guess who my little man chose to be as he cruised around his Brooklyn neighborhood for goodies? His hero, Mr. Rogers. My heart was turned to Fred Rogers in gratitude earlier this morning when I came across this quote by the late John O'Donohue re: the gift of our imagination: 

Each person is always on the threshold between their inner world and their outer world, between light and darkness, between known and unknown, between question and quest, between fact and possibility. This threshold runs through every experience that we have, and our only real guide to this world is the imagination. One of the lovely things a person can do for another person is to awaken the power and sacrament of their imagination, because when you awaken someone's imagination, you are giving them a new kingdom, a new world.

I do not easily give in to despair - even in this era of cruelty and crassness. My heart has been captured by a commitment to the Paschal Mystery. A vision and discipline that trusts the sacramental truth of Christ Jesus: just as God's mysterious presence is in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, so too is God's hidden presence at work in our realm healing and transforming this world from the inside out in small but crucial ways every second. Today I give thanks to God for Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood.

+Gene J. Puskar/AP @

Friday, March 8, 2019

celebrating eucharist at l'arche...

Next Tuesday I have the privilege of celebrating Eucharist with my community at L'Arche Ottawa. For the past few years I have been heading north almost every month to visit, share music and love, sometimes help out with retreats, and periodically celebrate Eucharist. After retiring from my local church ministry last year, I entered into the observance of Lent with L'Arche and journeyed with the community through Holy Week. It has become a sacred place in my heart and I am blessed to be able to return next week.

In community, I find that God invites me to be more quiet than talkative and more attentive than casual. Simplicity and an appreciation for the small ways we can make compassion flesh among us is what matters most. So, in anticipation of our Lenten feast, I have been listening for clues about what I might share from the gospel that night. Eugene Peterson has rendered the gospel of St. Luke 4: 1-13 like this:

" Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry.The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave the first test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.”Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to really live.” For the second test he led him up and spread out all the kingdoms of the earth on display at once. Then the Devil said, “They’re yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I’m in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they’re yours, the whole works.” Jesus refused, again backing his refusal with Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.” For the third test the Devil took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, “If you are God’s Son, jump. It’s written, isn’t it, that ‘he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone’?” “Yes,” said Jesus, “and it’s also written, ‘Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.’” That completed the testing. The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity.

For most of my life, I have paid attention to the discrete temptations of this text. That can be interesting, but two other truths are beginning to emerge for me that I think are more valuable.  First there is the rhythm of this text: Jesus has just experienced his baptism where he finds himself filled with God's spirit of holiness. He has heard the Lord's love reassure him that he is a beloved child of the holy. And we might say that Jesus is feeling full to overflowing with joy at after his baptism.

No sooner is this over, however, then we're told that after the joy Jesus enters into an experience of emptiness. A time of fasting. A season of questioning and challenges. A time of wandering in the wilderness that winds up with three key temptations. Now the rhythm of all of this makes me think of the Hebrew scripture that says: "to every thing there is a season: a time to be up and a time to be down, a time for joy and a time for trial, a time for song and a time for silence, a time for feasting and a time for fasting, a time for life and a time for death." (Ecclesiastes 3) And that rhythm seems to be true for most of our lives: there is day and there is night, there is light and there is darkness, there is work and there is play, there is joy and there is sorrow.

Now some of us here at L'Arche tonight have known sorrow, right? There are ordinary sorrows like disappointments or broken-hearts. Frustrations or mistakes. And if you are anything like me, there have also been times of really big hurts and deep sorrows, too. Times when your whole body and soul ached and wept and you wondered if the hurt would ever go away. right? Times when you have felt all alone. Or been treated with cruelty. Sometimes we know sorrow when we've lost a loved one to death. Other times we have been hurt or shamed or neglected and that wounds us. Sorrow is real.

And yet, in addition to our sorrows, most of us have also known some beautiful, loving and joyful times, too. Don't you think? Times of laughter and love? Times of celebration and belonging? 

A few weeks ago, I was in Brooklyn, NY for a music show with my grandson, Louie. He and I have loved one another in a special way since the day he was born five years ago. We laugh and play and talk and tell stories and just love life when we're together. Well, his momma gave me a Christmas present that involved all of us going to this special show. And I was knocked-out. Its a show called "STOMP" about how we can make music with brooms and garbage cans and pipes and lots of ordinary things. When I watched it sitting next to this little boy that I love I was filled full to overflowing with happiness. And yet, two days later on the drive back home, I felt myself coming down with Louie's cough and sore throat - and for the next 10 days I was sick as a dog. 

Now, I wouldn't have traded the joy we shared that afternoon for all the gold in the world; but as so often happens when I visit my grandchildren, I get their colds. Those little kindergarten germs are powerful to this old dude! So as we drove home and I started to cough and sneeze I couldn't help but think: that's the way the world goes round, one minute you're up and the next you're down.
That's part of what this story about Jesus and his baptism and desert time says to me: there are highs and lows, joys and sorrows in every life. Like Jesus we are going to have days when we can't wait to get up out of bed and go to work; and, then there will be those times when we just want to pull the blankets over our heads and stay buried in our beds all day, right? 

Probably many of us in this room have also experienced the death of someone we love. Over the years I have been the celebrant at hundreds of funerals. And been with hundreds of families as they walk with a loved one into and through death. And one of the mysterious paradoxes is that as we sit around the bed of one who is dying - sad to our core at losing this blessing - stories pop up that make us laugh. Songs emerge that we sing to the one crossing over. And there are tears and laughter, joy and sorrow all mixed together in those moments.

That's one truth - a country music song puts it like this: sometimes your the windshield, sometimes your the bug, sometimes you're the bat and sometimes you're the ball. 

But there's another truth in this story of Jesus and I think it has something to do with how we can get tricked into forgetting who we truly are in God's love. How we can forget all our most important gifts. And become so confused in life that we no longer see God in one another. This story tells us that there are forces in the world that want to steal our true identity. One teacher told me that this is a story of identity theft where the Devil tries to trick Jesus into forgetting the he is God's beloved. The Trickster, and that's another name for the Devil, wants Jesus to act like he's is big and powerful rather than small and tender. He wants Jesus to trust his fears more than God. And act like having authority over others is more important than listening. The Trickster wants Jesus to put his own comfort so far ahead of caring that he can steal away Jesus' identity. 

So I imagine that during all this testing in the desert Jesus is praying over and over inside his heart: I am blessed because I am God's beloved. That's what the Father told him at his baptism. And that's what God whispers inside each of our souls when we are born. You - and you - and you and you and you - are blessed because since before there was time you were created in God's imagine as the beloved. I think Jesus spent those 40 days and nights in the desert wandering around praying: I AM God's beloved. I AM God's beloved. Because it is easy to forget this - or be tricked out of it - or feel so ashamed or afraid that our true identity is stolen. 

So those who know how this story progresses: what does Jesus do as soon as his testing and questioning with the Trickster is over? He gathers together his friends. He starts building a community of trust and tenderness and caring so that he can keep remembering that he - and we - are God's beloved. God showed Jesus how to call together a community to remember that we are God's beloved.

+ Can you say out loud some of the ways this community helps you and one another remember that YOU are God's beloved? Birthday parties! Community meetings and celebrations. Community dinners. Funerals. Work days. Passing the candle and speaking affirmations.  Eucharist.

+ AT one of the first meetings I attended here at the end we went around the circle and spoke out loud some of the reasons why we were blessed by one another's presence that day. And Michael Bass said the sweetest, most tender and vulnerable things... about me. And he kept going on and on. And when he was finished, I couldn't speak. I was weeping tears of joy and I had no words because it was so beautiful. He was doing for me what God did for Jesus: reminding him that he was the beloved.

There's a song you sing that is so important: I learned it years ago but had forgotten it until a community meeting when you were celebrating Chastity's anniversary. You all know it: Thank you Lord for giving us Chastity.... right where we are. Alleluia, praise the Lord... right where we are.

We gather together to remember that we are God's beloved. To help those who have forgotten to remember - to praise God for loving us all as beloved children right where we are - and to show the world there is a way better than power and fear and control. We call it community - and it is God's love made flesh right where we are. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

learning to let go...

Ash Wednesday 2019 has come and gone: it was, for me, a small, slow time of walking through the day with Jesus. Given the wintry cold, I chose to worship with my friends in NYC via the miracles of the Internet. Earlier in the day I wrote and prayed in silence. As the day ripened, I spent time with Jean Vanier's exposition of St. John's mystical gospel. And in the evening, I listened and prayed the prayers of confession that give shape and form to a spirituality of emptiness. That is my take on Lent this year for me: letting go. I don't sense that the Lenten journey is about taking more things on - or in - rather I find its time to let more things go. 

Cynthia Bourgeault calls this "putting on the whole mind of Jesus." Taking a cue from St. Paul's song of relinquishment in Philippians 2 she suggests that the life of Jesus was all about Jesus letting go. 

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Kenosis is what it is called in academic theology- self-emptying - relinquishing. I like the direct simplicity of the 12 Step movement that emphasizes the serenity that can be ours as we learn to accept the things we cannot change, claim the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. This too is what it means to put on the whole mind of Christ. (For those who would like to explore this at a deeper level, please check out Bourgeault's excellent four part Youtube lecture on kenosis and centering prayer @ https:

Now I have always been drawn to Jesus. My spirituality and practices are guided by an intimacy with him in my heart, mind and soul. This Lent I find that I am being called to spend more time in his presence, too. Not the presence of the institutional church - although being connected horizontally in worship still matters to me - and not at all the company of the church's bureaucracy. Just some alone time with Jesus - probably in the wilderness - or at the feasts with Magdalene and Mary and Martha. A poem I came across this morning by Fr. Daniel Berrigan rings true for me.

I can only tell you what I believe; I believe:
  I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
  I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
  I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
  I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.

I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
  nor by the Vatican,
  nor by the World Buddhist Association,
  nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
  nor by angels and archangels,
  nor by powers and dominions,
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.

By saved I mean made whole and redeemed from the clutches of a culture that is too busy, too loud and too fast. Jesus lets all of that go. He relinquishes his place in the cacophony. He wanders around for a spell in the wilderness being ministered to by angels and God's critters. And, when he's ready, returns to the cities periodically before heading back to the mountains, lakes, deserts and lonely places to be "chill." To slow down and let go. To reclaim the whole mind of Christ.

During Lent 2019, that's what I'm doing, too.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

ripening as a lenten commitment: ash wednesday 2019

Today is Ash Wednesday 2019. One reading for this day comes from the words of the prophet Joel: "Return to me with all your heart... rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." (Joel 2) Year after year I have listened to these words. I love them - and they always call me deeper. There is nothing harsh about this Lenten invitation to repent and turn back. It is a home-coming of sorts, a return to grace, trust and renewal. 

Henri Nouwen once wrote that Lent is the season where we practice choosing the way of God again. Every day there are numerous choices to make with our time, money, thoughts, and energy. With our whole lives. On Ash Wednesday we take time to review our life choices: we let God's forgiveness and love embrace our hearts without reservation, we humbly accept God's inward cleansing and renewal, and we decide again to walk in the way of Christ for another year. To choose the way of Christ is to take up our Cross and let our unique wounds become the source of our healing. Nouwen puts it like this:

Your call is to bring you pain home (to God.) As long as your wounded parts remain foreign to your (mature heart) your pain will injure you as well as others. So you have to incorporate it into your self and let it bear fruit in your heart and the hearts of others. This is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth.

In the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in St. Matthew, Jesus teaches those who seek to follow him that his way is about ripening. Maturing. Reaching our completion. The English text reads: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5: 48) But perfect is not a useful rendering of the Greek, teleios (τέλειος, α, ον.) For"perfect" too often connotes moral purity or the absence of error to us. And, as best as I can tell, this is the polar opposite of what Jesus is telling us. His standards may be high, but they are not impossible. That is why Biblical scholars suggest that a truer translation might be: "Become mature in the way of the Lord" or "grow to completion" or even "let your character ripen as God is fully formed." In Eugene Peterson's rendering in The Message, it becomes: Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

To live into the way of Jesus, therefore, is to go through the necessary stages of spiritual awakening so that we mature and ripen in grace. St. Paul wrote: "When I was a child I spoke like a child and acted like a child; but as I journeyed on the path to maturity, I learned to put childish things away... now I know that in this moment I can see only as through a mirror darkly; even as I trust that later I shall see face to face." In another passage, the Apostle tells the young church in Corinth that: 

We have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it’s not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene. The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is. (The Message I Corinthians 2)

To the rich young lawyer, Jesus said: "If you wish to become mature (teleios) you must sell your possessions, give the money to the poor and come and follow me." (Matthew 19: 22) The disciple whom Jesus loved, St. John, wrote in I John 4: "Love has been perfected among us. Ripened... There is no fear in this love, because mature love casts out fear; fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached completion in love." And a disciple writing in the spirit of St. Paul noted in Ephesians 4 that:

The gifts God gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and... maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

For those interested in living more fully into the presence of Christ rather than
 observing only the outward forms of our tradition, I have found the distinctions between perfect and ripened and/or matured vital. Jean Vanier builds on such a distinction when he writes: "The problem with us is that we can be governed by fear. Fear of not being loved, fear of being abandoned, fear of suffering, fear of death. It is very important for human beings that we touch our fears - to know where our fears are - because we cannot let ourselves be governed by our fears." Indeed one of the blessings that Vanier has learned and shared with the world through L'Arche is that we each have unique wounds that hold holy wisdom for us if we trust God's way of ripening and maturing into them. The wisdom of our wounds takes us deeper into God's grace and authentic humility. The alternative can be living in denial, fear, shame and violence. Or else superficiality and immaturity. Childishness.

"There is great pain and suffering in the world," Nouwen wrote.  "But the pain hardest to bear is our own. Once you have taken up that cross, you will be able to see clearly the crosses that others have to bear, and you will be able to reveal to them their own ways to joy, peace, and freedom. " Lent invites us by grace to go deeper into love. To ripen in our trust. To grow up in the presence of Jesus and his Cross.  


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

thank you...

We are cooking pancakes tonight in solidarity with the Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday feasts of Western Christianity. Tomorrow I will join millions of other penitents for the imposition of ashes and Holy Eucharist at one of our Episcopal congregations. Last year, after retiring from pastoral ministry, Lent snuck up on me. Honestly. I lost track of the days until I was in a meeting downtown and the reality of Ash Wednesday took me totally by surprise. At the close of my meeting, I slipped into the back of the local Roman Catholic cathedral, made the sign of the Cross at the right times, and went forward to receive both the ashes and the host. Upon arriving back home, I intentionally and prayerfully made a physical calendar that I could reference from time to time - and included all the holy days of my tradition. 

Last year, everything felt new and a bit disoriented as I was without a worship community. What's more, I was no longer the celebrant at worship. It was a little weird after 40 years. It became a year of being small and mostly quiet. It was our year of beholding what the Lord was already doing in our lives. It was essential for me to be still. After a full year of watching and waiting this year feels more settled. I am much more at ease in my non-celebrant status. I am just an older, straight white guy who loves Jesus. I want to strengthen the ties that bind. And I want to do it with tenderness and simplicity. Over this year I have found great joy in becoming Frère Jacques - Brother James - a 21st century secular monk. Most of the people I hang with never knew me as a pastor. When we worship, it is mostly with our children and grandchildren in NYC. Or with their on-line church through the miracle of the Internet. I pray the liturgy most every day at home and practice periodic quiet prayer. I have been blessed to be with my L'Arche Ottawa community for some of the feast days this year, too and will make two trips to L'Arche Ottawa during Lent for prayer and Eucharist. This year I have made a personal commitment to reread Jean Vanier's commentary on St. John's gospel to go deeper into the spirituality of L'Arche. 

Last year I found I was a bit nostalgic for what I had given up. Grateful, too, as it had become exhausting and filled with anxiety. But I was also grieving in ways I could not fully articulate. This year on the crest of Lent I find that I am quietly happy. A poem I read this morning during prayers has steadily grown on me as the day unfolded. It is by Ross Gay and called, "Thank You."

If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

silver linings, poems and mr. rogers......

Life in my world has been slow moving of late as a week of stomach flu has rendered me played-out: hung up wet to dry as they say out ...