Friday, July 19, 2019

gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small regularly discloses to me ways in which my old habits and patterns of thinking infect the new. Without an equally robust trust in embodied grace, it would be safe to say that I would throw in the towel. Letting go, as I continue to learn, is never finished. Growing small in the ways of trust is always a work in progress. Incremental rather than immediate - and always built upon grace. 

My spiritual directors for the past year have been bread baking, embracing the wisdom of nature revealed where I live, poetry, and, surprisingly to me, taking photographs. I was conscious about choosing the first three. But last night as part of my periodic examen (a prayerful look backwards over my days) I was drawn to the pictures on my IPhone and discovered that my photos had become a source of reflection, prayer and encouragement, too. (A few years ago one of the blessings of technology was unveiled when a friend taught me how to use my phone's internal alarm clock to set regular chimes as a call to gratitude much like the bells of a monastery beckon monks to prayer. And just this morning another technological blessing was brought to light when Di was invited to teach Syrian refugees English over the Internet. It has long been a calling of her heart - and now a path through the maze of fear has been opened.)

In addition to countless shots of my children and grandchildren, I was delighted to see that my phone revealed three other ways I am practicing letting go of the old in anticipation of the new: the evolving seasons in my backyard, various Facebook memes re: God's first word of wisdom in creation, and a host of contemporary icons. As I reviewed the message of the seasons, the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweet Grass came into focus: 

We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Water knows this, clouds know this. Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth. Our elders say that ceremony is the way we can remember to remember. In the dance of the giveaway, remember that the earth is a gift that we must pass on, just as it came to us. When we forget, the dances we'll need will be for mourning. For the passing of polar bears, the silence of cranes, for the death of rivers and the memory of snow.
(October 2018)

(November 2018)

(December 2018)

An excerpt from Mind of Our Mother by Bob Samples also rang out:

Culture has a way of giving us ladders when we need trees, reason when we need myth, and separateness when we need unity. In the music of the universe, there is harmony. The discord, the non-harmonious, is slowly drifting back in to the misty domains of our lost games. Ritual is being restored to rite. With a higher sense of the rhythms of the planet, we can recognize the emerging vision of grace. A grace to honor, not befowl, our Mother. A grace to honor each other as end products of diverse cultural journeys. A grace to become the kind of human that can embody the spiritual. A grace to blend into all that is, was, and shall be.

(March 2019)

(April 2019)

(May 2019)

(June 2019)

(July 2019)

Looking backwards over the pictures makes it clear that nothing stays the same. Nothing of life is stagnant. The ebb and flow of creation is reassuring albeit mysterious: we enter life and death, abundance and scarcity, summer and winter and everything in-between just as the Hebrew text teaches: to everything there is a season and a purpose for all things under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

A second series of saved pictures include memes from Facebook that celebrate God's first word in creation. On the website, Friends of Silence, (https:// recently read this insight from  Nathaniel Altman: 

Through greater intimacy with the natural world, we begin to appreciate its complexity and gain a clearer understanding of the relationship between the rains, the soul, and the plants, the animals and the trees, and how the welfare of one living being depends on that of another. (Sacred Water)

I was not raised with an awareness of my connection to Mother Earth. My training as a child - and as an adult seminarian - was thoroughly anthropomorphic. I loved quiet walks through the woods as a boy. And have been gobsmacked into silence and awe upon the sound of a secret stream in the forest. But it wasn't until my congregation and I started to honor a new liturgical season, The Season of Creation, that I learned about listening to the wisdom of God revealed in the first word: the cosmos and all its inhabitants. It is a way of letting go that will continue until I, too return to the earth and enter into the love of God in a new way.

What was extraordinary was that I saw clearly, indisputably, finally, that the child, the grass, the trees, the sky above were all woven of the same material, were all part of the same fabric, which was the fabric of which the universe is made, and that this fabric lived. As pointed contrast, the cement sidewalk lay ugly and dead, a scar in the picture; except for it, the whole scene was transcendent with beauty, the colors had an intensity, a purity not present in "real" life, and the vision was imbued with a feeling of the perfect peace and oneness and benevolence of the universe. (The Perfection of the Morning, Sharon Butala)

There were lots of icons - contemporary artistic visual prayers - giving shape and form both to God's tenderness and the agony of God's children in this generation. Many of the icons that I collected last year have their origins in the current regime's war against immigrants and refugees. Some point towards the plight of those fleeing genocide in Syria. And a few offer new insights into what it means to see the Christ Child and/or the Holy Family on the boundaries of our own culture. (NOTE: I will share the icons over the weekend. For now, here is my prayer altar with Jean Vanier seated with his favorite icon, Theotokos of Vladimir, alongside my prayer candles showing Nina Simone and Patty Smith.)

And poems... so many wonderful, provocative, contemplative and laugh-out loud poems. Here's one that opened my heart: "Personal Effects" by Raymond Burns.

The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.

His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama's spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father's favorite tie.

He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts

a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,

a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.

He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.

But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife's piano
on the scent of morning coffee

seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters

a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

small is holy...

For what its worth, these words from Henri Nouwen strike me as foundational given the anger, angst and exhaustion so many of us are experiencing living at this moment in history.

To start seeing that the many events of our day, week, or year are not in the way of our search for a full life but are rather the way to it is a real experience of conversion. We discover that cleaning and cooking, writing letters and doing professional work, visiting people and caring for others, are not a series of random events that prevent us from realizing our deepest self. These natural, daily activities contain within them some transforming power that changes how we live. We make hidden passage from time lived as chronos to time lived as kairos. Kairos is a Greek word meaning “the opportunity.” It is the right time, the real moment, the chance of our lives. When our time becomes kairos, it frees us and opens us to endless new possibilities. Living kairos offers us an opportunity for a profound change of heart.

Nouwen's contemporary invitation to be changed incrementally by cumulative acts of tenderness in our ordinary lives sounds to me a lot like the wisdom the 12th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, insisted upon: "Reality is the will of God. It can always be better, but we must start with what is real." Like other mystics, it is my conviction that what is real at this moment in time is challenging for it includes: 1) a collapse of our old order; 2) a scramble for clarity within the current chaos; and 3) the creation of a new culture. In my inner vocabulary, we are witnessing both the death of white, male bourgeois privilege in the West and the birthing of a spirituality of tenderness and solidarity Valerie Kaur calls it the Revolutionary Love Project. William Barber speaks of the Beloved Community rising up with justice and compassion among all hurting people. And I believe it is a maturing of radical love nourished by simple acts of everyday kindness.

My head and my heart know experientially that love is stronger than hatred, water is stronger than rock, and soft is stronger than hard. (Herman Hesse) To build upon the insights of Jean Vanier, we in the West are beginning to know that the brokenness of our world is healed by owning our own inner wounds and sharing our lives with those who have been shut out of the mainstream. Nouwen himself learned this at L'Arche and put it like this: 

God chose to enter into human history in complete weakness. That divine choice forms the center of the Christian faith. In Jesus of Nazareth, the powerless God appeared among us to unmask the illusion of power, to disarm the prince of darkness who rules the world, and to bring the divided human race to a new unity. It is through total and unmitigated powerlessness that God shows us divine mercy... It is very hard—if not impossible—for us to grasp this divine mercy. We keep praying to the “almighty and powerful God.” But all might and power is absent from the One who reveals God to us saying: “When you see me, you see the Father.” If we truly want to love God, we have to look at the man of Nazareth, whose life was wrapped in weakness. And his weakness opens for us the way to the heart of God.

Tenderness - and joyfully living into our small stature withing reality - is an upside down existence. In a culture that venerates winners and speed, the new realm moves at the speed of love. It finds time what real encounters and honors each moment. But please do not conclude that tenderness and being small means staying silent in the presence of evil. Or fearfully hiding away in our bourgeois privilege. Or just fuming, fussing and sputtering to anyone who will listen to our ethical indignation about the status quo knowing all too well that our noise is ultimately sound and fury signifying nothing. Rather, embracing the practice of tenderness asks us to quit trying to be heroes. And saviors. Or anything else puffed-up except who we are: wounded, beautiful, cautious and precious children of God. Leonard Cohen got it right when he sang: "there is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." We are broken - and this is precisely how the world is healed.

Living into the light of tenderness means facing our own wounds. It invites us to trust God's light and make our days count. Again, Nouwen tells us that "all action - whether visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked or working for a more just and peaceful society - must be a manifestation of the human solidarity revealed to us in Christ."

(Ours) is not an anxious human effort to create a better world. It is a confident expression of the truth that in Christ, death, evil, and destruction have been overcome. It is not a fearful attempt to restore a broken order. It is a joyful assertion that in Christ all order has already been restored. It is not a nervous effort to bring divided people together, but a celebration of an already established unity. This action is not activism. An activist wants to heal, restore, redeem, and re-create, but those acting within the house of God point through their action to the healing, restoring, redeeming, and re-creating presence of God.

The road of revolutionary love - the practice of the Beloved Community - the ascent of tenderness is born of our inner experience with the love of God that is stronger than death. I don't hear a great deal of that assurance being shared by many in my world these days. I hear fear. And disgust. I hear anger and righteous judgment, too. And there is good reason for all of this: the current regime is a fascist, racist kleptocracy hellbent on beating the people of solidarity into timid submission while they plunder creation. Sadly, in opposing this evil - and it is clearly evil - there's too little trust in God's grace and love. I hear blustering and weeping. I see political opponents pontificating and huffing and puffing. But not a lot of mystical, born-from-within experience with grace. I think Richard Rohr is on to something when he tells us:

If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God. When you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know it is just as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. I call this the “Principle of Likeness.” From this frame you stop judging and start loving unconditionally, without asking whether someone is worthy or not. The breakthrough occurs at once, although the realization deepens and takes on greater conviction over time.

Incrementally and quietly, I am seeing a small but potent mystical revolution that is being born from out of the hurt, anger, chaos, violence and evil of these days. Not perfectly, and not completely. Not without its own faults and wounds as well. But in ways that are changing hearts and lives everyday, a new way is taking shape all around and within us. It isn't being celebrated on TV or cable news. And not much is being published in even our best mainstream new outlets. Rather, it is becoming flesh in houses of worship where ordinary people are going out to stand witness on the Southern border of the US. As they call out the brutality of our immigrant concentration camps, hearts are being changed. 
I heard one soul confess: "I used to think that Rambo was what was needed on the border, but now I realize it is Mother Theresa." 

I've seen it, too in local poetry conversations where people who have historically been denied a voice find ways to speak their truth with depth and integrity. Playing music around the area has also convinced me that more and more of us are letting go of the old order and opening our hearts to a new way of living. It is a way that is small. And weak. And holy. It is a way of being spiritual without being religious. It sees Christ in everything and everyone - including this grand and frightening moment in history - because the people within this movement have experienced the sacred within and trust that like embraces like. 

In a style that is quiet and even humble, this new mystical tenderness and cultural revolution believes that God's timetable is right. Nouwen wrote:
"Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name." Like Jesus taught: look at the flowers in the field or the birds in the air; God cares for each and all of them without anxiety. You are precious to the Lord, too so trust that! Tonight I give thanks for shutting of the cacophony that passes for news at the start of Lent and not returning. Tonight I can returning thanks for the social, cultural, spiritual and political change for the long haul that is taking root among us.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

a new/old earthy contemplation...

Most nights I cook for our wee family: Di works teaching English to students overseas in the morning and evening - and does a ton of writing and editing during the day - so I get to be chief cook and bottle washer. It is a monastic task, I should add, I have always aspired to. Sr. Joan Chittister writes in The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages:

In The Sayings of the (Jewish) Fathers, it is written: "It is wise to work as well as to study the Torah; between the two you will forget to sin." To make sure we don not forget that humble work is as sacred and sanctifying as prayer, Benedict blesses the kitchen servers of the week in the middle of the chapel. With that simple but powerful gesture all of life begins to look different for everyone. Suddenly it is not made up of 'higher' and 'lower' activities anymore. It is all - manual labor and mystical meditation - on straight beam of light on the road to fullness of humanity. One activity without the other, prayer without the creative and compassionate potential of work or work without the transcending quality of prayer, lists heavily to the empty side of life... Prayer is not for its own sake and the world of manual work is not a lesser world than the chapel.

In the early days of pastoral ministry I cherished cooking a LOT simply so that I could have the experience of the fruit of my labor: as a novice pastor I learned to bake bread as well as prepare various Indian and Mexican vegetarian dishes. As time ripened, I forgot a great deal of those early lessons. But now, on the other side of serving as a pastor, I'm back to the kitchen and garden and loving it. Last night's fare included fatoosh - my favorite Lebanese salad made with fresh cilantro, flat leaf parsley, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, mint, cucumbers, sumac, olive oil, lemon juice and pita chips - along with a Greek chicken skillet creation slathered in lemons. Cooking and gardening continue to be an act of love and prayer for me if I don't rush. I must also intentionally hold up my loved ones during the preparation. Like the late William Stringfellow used to tell his friends in East Harlem right before his weekend feasts: No more prayers are required for I've been praying over this meal all day long as a labor of love. Let's enjoy the blessings and let the feasting commence!

Maintaining our fresh herb garden - and some cukes and tomatoes that will be ready in another few weeks - is a way for me to embody small acts of love everyday. It is also a way for me to stay grounded in what is real. As one who lives inside his head a great deal, part of my road towards balance demands that the words become flesh. It is practice in trusting that everything is holy. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God wrote: 

We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed... (God) does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for (God's) grace, sometimes to offer your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you... Lift up your heart to God during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing for we need not cry out very loudly; (God) is nearer to us than we think.

I spent an hour weeding yesterday afternoon and will spend another few hours washing floors today. There is nothing romantic or flashy about either of these tasks. Nothing. They are necessary, however, if I want my plants to have the space and nutrition to become their best selves and for our home to be a place of hospitality. These occasions afford me time to think and pray for those I love. They bring an extended time of silence. And, if I am paying attention, they offer a wonderful simple beauty, too. Gardening and cooking - along with spiritual reading - have now my contemplative practices rather than just the regular study of the lectionary that once filled my days. The simpler and more balanced way of being reinforces what Herman Hesse once wrote in Siddhartha: "soft is stronger than hard, water is stronger than rock, and love is stronger than force."  

What's more, these times of extended manual labor and reflection help me discern the connections that exist that I so easily miss when I'm rushing and fussing. Not that I am really any good at such mindfulness, mind you. I have a well nourished monkey-mind that flits all over the place and always finds a resting place in anxiety. Still, there are moments... Yesterday, after being worn out by the sun, I sat at my desk with a cold beer only to come upon this poem by Carrie Newcomer:

Note to Self When Walking (Because I Forget)

When walking in the woods,
Or on a path,
Or down the street,
In a store,
Or just upstairs,
When you are intent on going,
Where ever it is you are going,
Stand still.

Notice how the mind can chatter,
Like purple finches in the trees,
Endlessly clicking and warbling,
Rising and falling and rising again.
Notice all your plans and longings,
All the things you got, but didn’t want,
All you wanted, and didn’t get,
All the circular conversations aimed at changing,
What was already said or unsaid.
Notice all the losses you are carrying,
With as much grace as you can muster.

Notice the sky, the feel of the air on your skin,
The sounds or what hangs in the silence,
The hard knot in your throat.
Notice all these things and more,
Because there is always more.
Then let your heart open,
Even just a crack,
A dribble or a dam break,
It doesn’t matter.
Because it is in that opening,
You’ll find a clear space
The one you keep finding
And losing
And finding again.

Remember to love it all,
All of it.
Hold hands and high five
With what’s easy and dear,
Ephemeral and brilliantly ordinary.
Wrap compassion like a blanket
The kind we place tenderly,
Around other people’s shoulders,
When the disaster is done and the worst is over.
Love it all,
Without looking for any way out,
Not condoning, just allowing,
For it all to just live,
Where it lives.
Love everything that broke your heart open
That changed you forever,
That made you softer,
And helped you understand,
What you could not have understood otherwise.
Love what you’ve endured,
Love what you are still enduring.
Love the purple finches and the sidewalk,
The view from the upstairs window,
The brambles and wild asters,
And the click of the keyboard.

Love all of this
Small and fragile,
Big and beautiful,

Then take the next step.

One old friend recently wrote of our garden as my oasis. It is that, indeed, but more, too. It is a sanctuary. A place of silence and listening. A tiny refuge of tenderness, beauty and hospitality for others when they are overwhelmed with the harsh and brutal facts of our days. Sr Joan Chittister shares a Sufi story that rings true: 

An elder told a group of disciples whose heart was set on pilgrimage to "Take this bitter gourd along on the journey. Make sure you dip it into all the holy rivers and bring it into all the holy shrines." When the disciples returned, the bitter gourd was cooked and served. "Strange," said the elder slyly after they had all tasted it, "the holy water and the shrines have failed to sweeten this at all." All the prayer in the world... is fruitless and futile if it does not translate into a life of human community made richer and sweeter by our efforts. Both human connection and prayer, are intertwined - and we may not neglect either.

Monday, July 15, 2019

learning to pray with my garden...

I heard a new word today: cotyledon. Upon telling Di that my wildflower patch is beginning to come to life, she said: Those tiny one and two leafs on the flower seedlings are called cotyledons. Who knew? "Upon germination" writes the wise souls at Science Daily, "a significant part of the embryo within the seed of a plant," appears above the ground. Those with "one cotyledon are known as monocotyledonous (while) those with two embryonic leaves are called dicotyledonous." 

There is something oddly calming about seeing these wee wildflowers start their journey into being. They are doing exactly what they were created to do: in time they will likely flood my backyard with color, attract butterflies and perhaps even be a part of the journey for some honey bees. Same with the cucumbers currently climbing up our homemade trellis as well as both our various tomato plants. And I would be remiss if I didn't celebrate the beauty of the dill along with the basil, cilantro, flat and curly leaf parsley, mint, oregano, marjoram and thyme. Just to add some color and balance, I added a few small marigolds to the corners of the terraces, too. 

While away over the weekend in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, we walked for a few hours through the Ile de Marais - the Island of the Marsh - near the town of Magog. It was silent except for the frogs, a few red wing blackbirds, a huge great blue heron and a few out of place canoers. The sun was warm, a gentle breeze kept us cool and the solitude of walking together in silence was soul food.

After our hike, we drove to Livres Lac Brome in the town of Knowlton. (check it out here: https:// For those who already know and love the novels, check out the fun at this site: a tour of the Eastern Townships based upon the Three Pines novels. We did it a few years ago and it was a gas. Go to: https://www. The town has gained notoriety through the Louise Penny Three Pines/Inspector Gamache novels. We have been visiting for the past 11 years. For me, the bookstore is a place of quiet depth and integrity in a realm that is often too harsh and violent. We have attended a book launch or two for Ms. Penny over the years, too - sometimes intentionally and sometimes totally by chance - and I think of it as part of a secular pilgrimage of sorts. I found one of the most important books of my later life there, Rediscovering Reverence, and always discover something wise essential whenever we go.

After spending another few hours browsing, Di showed me a book entitled Everyday Sanctuary: A Workbook for Designing a Sacred Garden Space. I didn't get it right away. Truth is it took another 24 hours before the lure and promise of the text woke me up. But when it did by midday on Sunday, we returned and thankfully found that it was still waiting for our arrival. It is a workbook that invites us "to transform our lives by caring for nature in the space we already have while learning to use its simple, powerful gifts effectively. (We) will be guided to envision and create sacred space in our garden, to cultivate healing relationships with the plants there, and to develop simple daily nature-based practices to expand our happiness and well-being." 

That rings true to my peregrination: for the past 18 months we have been a journey into beholding; now it is time to take stock of what is real and embrace it with love and tenderness. Praying, living and learning from nature seems to be exactly where God is encouraging me to spend more time. This morning, I laughed out loud when I came upon this Mary Oliver poem:

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

I have never sat in my garden space to discern what the garden wants me to know. I have never emptied my busy mind long enough to listen to what the garden wants to become with my assistance. Nor have I ever co-created a garden for prayer and nourishment. Apparently, now is that time. How did John the Baptist put it? I must decrease so that Christ may increase? Lord, may it be so for me.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

embodied mysticism and joyful solidarity in music...

Back in 1984 - can you dig that !?! - Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul released their second album: Voice of America. For those not part of the scene, Little Steven was Springsteen's lead guitarist for nearly 15 years. He left the Boss during the Born in the USA sessions to explore his own vibe. The man formerly known as Miami Steve had gone full tilt boogie in the 80's with a killer blue-eyed soul album that was followed up by his world-music pastiche of songs of solidarity. I wore out two cassette copies of Voice of America, drove some friends crazy playing the vinyl version of Men Without Women and could never get enough of his 1985 compilation Sun City: Artists Against Apartheid. I still own - and regularly play - CD versions of each of these gems.

One song that continues to feed my heart is: "Solidarity." It has been wafting through my consciousness for the past week. 
We played a summer concert in Sharon, CT recently that was artistically very satisfying. It was also an important validation about the value of doing what we do: creating a safe space for different kinds of people to come together and enjoy being together. 

We do challenging songs - it ain't just a Jimmy Buffet concert - with existential questions of meaning in our music as well as some in your face songs about new spirituality as well as the consequences of our religious bigotry. We also do some sweet, soul music, too with a few shake your booty tunes. Like Little Steven put it: "Everybody wants the same things don't we, everybody wants a happy end... everybody wants to be forgiven and find shelter from the storm: look at me I'm not your enemy, why can't we walk on solid ground, we don't need to be fighting each other, what we need, what we need is: SOLIDARITY."

In times like our own, being real asks us to call out the evil, embody joy and solidarity and find safe ways to bring different people together again.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

on frittering, dry spells and gentle blessings......

In countless ways we could honestly say, "Creation is going to hell." There are signs of decay, greed, war and conflict everywhere. At the very same time, however, we could equally proclaim that, "There are miracles and blessings saturating every moment, too." Could it be that this is what the old preacher, Qoheleth, meant at the start of Ecclesiastes: What has been will be again, what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun?

My hunch is that the seasoned "collector of words" (one meaning of Qoheleth) was articulating a mystical, paradoxical truth. One one level, the teacher was reminding us that 
creation operates in a cyclical way. There is life and there is death, there are births and there are funerals, there is wind and calm, sun and moon, summer and winter, day and night etc. What has taken place in nature once, will take place again - and again and again. For there is a rhythm and an order underneath and within everything that exists under the sun. Recognizing this truth is essential for wisdom. Chapter three of Ecclesiastes amplifies this foundational insight:

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

Often this is as far as the text is developed: sometimes it supports a world weary worldview. A one-dimensional heart regularly confuses cynicism with wisdom. How many times have the words of Jesus, 
"You will always have the poor with you" been used to excuse injustice within the status quo? On another level, however, this passage suggests that built into the order of creation is also wonder, joy, birth, letting go, dancing, feasting and so much more. To be sure, there is always boredom, tedium and even oppression. And, there are also miracles, times of ecstasy and liberation. One of my favorite texts in the totality of the Scriptures is Isaiah 55: 

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live...
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace.

The challenge - the quest - the heart of our journey - is to let go of enough of our expectations so that we might hear and trust the thoughts of the Holy One whose ways are not our ways. Whose heart is not one-dimensional and cynical, but ever rich with creativity and compassion. Rosemerry Wathola Trommer put it like this in her poem: But You Thought You Knew What a Sign Looked Like.

Open your hands, lift them.
—William Stafford, “Today”

The parking space beside the store when you
were late. The man who showed up just in time
to hold the door when you were juggling five
big packages. The spider plant that grew—
though you forgot to water it. The new
nest in the tree outside your window. Chime
of distant church bells when you’re lonely. Rhyme
of friendship. Apples. Sky a trove of blue.

And who’s to say these miracles are less
significant than burning bushes, loaves
and fishes, steps on water. We are blessed
by marvels wearing ordinary clothes—
how easily we’re fooled by simple dress—

Oranges. Water. Leaves. Bread. Crows.

As I have written recently, I have been feeling like I'm frittering away time. Not all of it, to be sure, and not completely. But in a profound way, the past few months have felt like I'm treading water rather than nourishing my heart. Or living through an emotional, creative and spiritual dry spell. When that insight caught my attention, and it took a number of weeks to burn through my haze, I still didn't really shift gears. I knew something within was passing away - I trusted that something new was going to be born, too - but it was not going to be fully of my own doing. Like a mother in the early stages of labor, there was just nothing I could do to advance the intensity of my contractions. Instead, my work was to breathe - and keep breathing deeply - and let creation do its designated work.

And slowly a few clues have started to come into focus: new connections, new possibilities, new songs, new prayers, new life. Trusting these paradoxical blessings of the birthing process, yesterday I tore up a patch of weeds and grass in a raised flower bed that has laid dormant for 11 years. Like one of Israel's ancient prophets, I needed to embody externally what I sensed was taking place within. Today I planted wild flowers there. After all, we've only been talking about doing this for what... a decade? And now it is coming to pass: all things in their time, yes? When the student is ready, the Buddha will appear. Clearly our frittering is not for nought. Nor are our dry spells the end of the story. For to everything there is a season - and a purpose, too - for all things under heaven. Be gentle with yourselves, ok? Life is hard enough without crucifying ourselves with expectations. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

all things must pass...

For the past few years I have been writing in much the same vein as Barbara Brown Taylor. She, of course, is better known and, at times, a much better writer, too. That said, in her recent book, Holy Envy, she and I are on the same wave length when she writes: "(Being a pastor) was a good life for a long time. Then it was not."

Ask me what happened and I can offer you a variety of stories that are all true: I was not a skilled leader; I was gone too much; I succumbed
to compassion fatigue; I lost faith in the church.All these years later there is another story that sounds as true as any of those, which goes like this: the same Spirit that called me into the church called me out again, to learn the difference between the living water and the well. (Holy Envy, p. 5)

Like others who have gone through a staggering and profound change - whether traumatic or ecstatic - our story needs to be shared again and again until we ourselves fully believe it. Ms Brown-Taylor and I have been telling ourselves and anyone else who would listen that "the same Spirit that called me into the church (also) called me out." It was moving to me to read her using the very phrase I came upon four years ago: just as I was called into ministry in 1968 I was now being called out almost 40 years later. Affirmation arrives in unexpected ways, yes? Dianne affirmed this for me again earlier this week while we were sharing breakfast on our deck. "I was finishing the laundry" she said, "and I kept looking at your white Eucharistic robe. I am so glad you are free and happy now and healthy enough to enjoy these days after putting in so much time in a role that had come and gone for you." We sat quietly for a moment before I replied, "You know, I mostly only miss celebrating Eucharist. And some of the deep pastoral connections. But, I am really a weenie when it comes to conflict and church politics. I hate it. I learned to manage it reasonably well, but I always hated it." She smiled and said, "Even more so for the last 15 years." 

Which led my heart to a song by my favorite Beatle: George Harrison. He wrote some brilliant, odd songs that were uniquely beautiful. There came a time when he could no longer stomach the internal strife of his band mates - and became exasperated at their unwillingness to celebrate his musical creations - so the so-called "quiet Beatle" left the Fab Four. Eventually all of the Beatles called it quits, too and Harrison put out a triple album entitled, All Things Must Pass. Many of the songs on that masterpiece had been written for Beatles albums, but Mssrs. Lennon and McCartney were too interested in their own prowess to share the glory. So in time, their loss became our gain when All Things Must Pass was released in 1970. "Isn't It a Pity" along with "Beware of Darkness," "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life" had been set free to intrigue and satisfy those of us who yearned for more from Harrison.

The title track, "All Things Must Pass," has been running through my head since my birthday last week. It teases me when I try to figure out what to write, it pops up while I am doing gardening, or house work, or even while heading out to play a gig with my own band mates. "All things must pass... all things must pass away." I realized I was singing that chorus this afternoon while pulling up the weeds and grass in a raised flower bed that will soon host wildflowers and a butterfly mix. Oddly, I am not exactly sure what is passing away right now except to say being away from L'Arche Ottawa and my friends in Canada for the past four months is over. It hurts my heart to be away for so long. I think I'll be planning a few more music benefits with a variety of artists over the next year, too.And doing a little more spiritual direction. More than that, I am not sure.

And that ambiguity is probably appropriate: a few days ago I stumbled upon this quote from Fr. Thomas Merton: "You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope."

For some reason I feel like this poem by Richard Jones he calls "Eggplant." 

I've never liked the taste,
which, I think,
is a shame,
because some days
when my wife goes to work
and I walk to the grocery store,
I stand in the produce aisle,
admiring those gorgeous
purple fruits––
wine colored,
sensuously curved––
and can't help but reach out
and pick one up, just to hold it,
so silky smooth, so luscious looking
I almost fall in love,
but then remember
who I am:
a man not fond of eggplant.
I linger and look
and there in the bin
under the misters and lights,
I find it––
the perfect eggplant,
the glossy flesh unblemished,
meat firm under the fingers,
the stem and cap
bright green.
The fruit heavy in the hand,
I place the eggplant
in my cart,
taking special care,
knowing an eggplant is delicate
and wounds easily.
I carry the grocery bag home
through a light rain
and arrange the eggplant
on a white tablecloth,
the opulent purple orb
lustrous in the window light
and quietly beautiful
as if lying on satin sheets.
Then I sit in the wing chair.
The house grows dark
as the rain falls harder
and I wait for my wife
to come home from work,
shake off her raincoat,
turn on the lamp,
and behold the eggplant.

There are things to accomplish this week - and then a quick retreat into the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Then lots more commitments here. But it is going to be interesting to see what is, indeed, passing away.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

mindfulness, staying real, trusting what is, serenity: they're all connected...

The humidity has broken, the temperature is mild, and the vegetables and flowers are showing off at Chez Lumsdemott. After tending to the lawn and weeding a bit around the pumpkins, its time for some quiet reflection. As I was cutting the grass, a thought from Kelly Deutsch at Contemplative Outreach kept popping up for consideration:

... the way I understand mysticism is being deeply and utterly human. Life becomes radically simplified. There's no more defending, justifying, forcing. Everything just... is! That is, of course, until your ego wakes up from its coma and starts throwing a fit. And then we chuckle a bit and try to sedate it, knowing we will always be learning.

Trusting, accepting, embracing and exploring that everything just "is" rings true to me. It seems right in my ripening sense of Jesus, it feels congruous with my experience of quiet prayer, and it fits with my hunch that all authentic spiritual traditions simply invite us to be at peace with reality. It is a way of being truly at peace with the moment even while knowing there is more peace to be shared. The 12th century mystic and Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart, used to teach that "Reality is the will of God. It can always be better, but we must start with what is real." I have long trusted that this was an early affirmation of the wisdom the 12 Step movement honored in their prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. 

Such is the path to the rest and comfort Jesus promises when he tells us: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Eugene Peterson rephrases this for contemporary souls like this: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Frederick Buechner has given much attention to this mystical wisdom, too when he writes:

Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”

He continues saying: Be merciful to yourself, stop fighting yourself quite so much. Maybe what you are asking of yourself, what you're driving yourself to do or to be, what you put a gun to your own back to make yourself do, is something at this point you needn't have to think about doing. So, think back at the end of the day to the wars you're involved in. How are they going? (For) it seems to me almost before the Bible says anything else, it is saying that—how important it is to be alive and to pay attention to being alive, pay attention to each other, pay attention to God as he moves and as he speaks. Pay attention to where life or God has tried to take you.”

Buddhists call it mindfulness. And even though the marketplace has rendered the practice of an awakened, grounded presence into the latest gimmick to be bought and sold for a quick buck before tossing it into the dustbin of history, it remains true. That's why I need a host of reminders to stay in touch with what is real. There are so many external distractions spinning all around me to say nothing of my own wounds. Damn, but there are times when I easily become lost within my past or anxious about a future that will probably never come to pass. Even in the midst of conflicts with those I love I can slip backwards or forwards in time instead of staying real and tender in the moment. Or else I'll end up muttering inside my head for days about resentments rather than simply standing in the hot shower to enjoy getting clean. 

I heard a word of oblique encouragement earlier today in way the poet, Anita Pulier, puts it in her, "Playing Along."

The orchid arrived
swaddled in celebratory paper,
two curved stems balletically
balancing six improbable
naked blooms.

I, no youngster,
knew this might not end well.

Still, I played along,
placed the shameless display
near a gritty window,
watered the mossy base,
allowed sunlight
to ooze through the slats
of a dusty venetian blind,
invited light to invade
helter-skelter, fearlessly
nurturing extraordinary beauty
despite the lousy odds.

Mindfulness. Staying real. Trusting what is. Serenity. They're all connected. "No more defending, justifying, forcing." Well, that's my prayer. I believe, I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

it all leads to god... even falling down

Most of my days start quietly with a cup of strong, hot tea, fresh toasted bread and some poetry. With enough time in the beginning, I am usually open to greeting most of the challenges that are still to be born as the morning matures. To be sure, however, there are those days when I have neither the morning solitude I require nor the soul inclination towards presence let alone patience or hospitality. In those times, I wrestle with the reality of my anxious, needy and controlling self. I wish he were not so, but how does the folk axiom put it: if wishes were horses beggars would rise?

In the faith tradition of my youth, I found some strength that St. Paul knew my state. Eugene Peterson's reworking of the Romans 7 text puts it like this:

I am torn between one way and another... I’m so full of myself — after all, I’ve spent a long time (listening to my brokenness.) Still what I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise... Sometimes there is a part of me that keeps sabotaging my best intentions... I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

Most of the time this was interpreted as proof of original sin. Or human frailty. And the resolution was confession and repentance. What I've come to trust now is that my failings, weaknesses, brokenness and all the rest are not repugnant to God. Nor are they evil in and of themselves. Rather, my wounds, failings and confusion are just another path into the holy. At this late stage of the game, when I find myself lost and wandering in the wilderness, I take solace in two other truths. The first is best stated by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye in her work called, "Shadow."

Some people feel lost inside their days.

Always waiting for worse to happen.
They make bets with destiny.
My funniest uncle gave up cursing bad words
inside his head. He says he succeeded
one whole hour. He tried to unsubscribe to
the universe made by people. He slept outside
by himself on top of the hill.

When Facebook says I have "followers"––
I hope they know I need their help.
Subscribe to plants, animals, stars,
music, the baby who can't walk yet but
stands up holding on to the sides of things,
tables, chairs, and takes a few clumsy steps,
then sits down hard. This is how we live.

Eastern mystical Christianity teaches that Sister Naomi is right: living like a baby who can't yet walk but stands up anyway is humbling - and that is how God created us. Little ones who learn from our falls. And most of us have many falls. In fact, we fall over and over again. So on those days when there seems to be more falling than anything else, I am practicing remembering: this is how God made me. What can I learn from my fall? The other truth I am slowly coming to cherish, is this one from Rumi.

Rumi's prayer or Naomi's poem suggest that it all leads to God. And tenderness. And grace.And a bit of humility and a lot of learning. It does not lead to church. And probably not to religion either although some organization seems inevitable and maybe necessary, too given the human condition.

Whatever container we create to give shape and form to our quest to rediscover the holiness within our humanity, let's make sure it helps us grow in generosity rather than judgment. Serenity rather than anxious fretting. Trust instead of fear. And a beloved community of solidarity rather than isolation, too. I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:

I have had my share of frustration over the past few days. More than enough judgment and falling down as well. Today, as the rain waters our tomato and pumpkin plants, I remember that the failures are not the end of the story. Just a part of how it all unfolds. Besides, it all leads to God. Indeed.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

independence day 2019

The late Pete Seeger, champion of the best of America's communitarianism, is said to have wept in grief in the late 60s upon hearing that his favorite Woody Guthrie anthem, "This Land Is Your Land," was hated by First Nations people. A song Seeger had long celebrated and performed suddenly became anathema as yet another example of white privilege. In time, the people's bard found a way to renew his performance of Guthrie's riposte to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Seeger made certain to saturate future concerts with a host of more intentionally inclusive numbers. Nevertheless, his tears became a turning point - part conscientization, confession, and conversion - as the son of a Harvard professor realized how deeply the legacy of American race hatred, class conflict, loathing of women, homophobia, religious intolerance, and nativism flowed through his own blood. As Coretta Scott King said, "Freedom is never really won. Struggle is a never ending process where every generation must win freedom again."

On Independence Day, July 4, 2019, I can't help but reflect on Seeger's harsh encounter with privilege. We, of the one time real but now rapidly diminishing majority, are experiencing under the current regime what people of color, poverty, and powerlessness have known as everyday reality: atrocity, indignity, despair, anger, impotence, violence, shame, disgust, and fear. Like Seeger, we too should be weeping. We need to know the magnitude of evil that is at work among us and within us. Like the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, noted: the work of the prophets of ancient Israel always included grief as part of any resistance to oppression. "By the waters of Babylon," sang the Psalmist, "there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps when our captors and tormentors asked in mirth for songs, saying: sing to us one of your songs of Zion. But how can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land." 

The prophet first calls God's people to face, confront and embrace reality. The way into peace and hope cannot be constructed upon denial and lies. The 12 Step movement's Serenity Prayer expresses this prophetic truth clearly: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The second prophetic challenge is to fully grieve our shared reality. Until we feel the fullness of its pain, the depth of its despair, and the totality of its poison our heart's will be divided. Conflicted. Holding on to either the promise of privilege or the illusion of magical thinking. Again, to borrow from sisters and brothers who have been to hell and back in AA, "we must hit bottom before we have no more room for stinkin' thinkin'." Reality and grief are essential, writes Brueggemann, because they cleanse us of trusting the status quo. Only then, when we know we are imprisoned by the waters of Babylon, are our imaginations open enough to once again hear God's call: let my people go!

Tears are part of the prophetic journey: without them our hearts and minds will remain divided. But tears are not enough. Not long after the current regime was elected, I was at a meeting of local leaders eager to create public resistance. One friend, an academic, confessed that for the first time in her life she felt both hopeless and afraid. To which another colleague, an African American activist, replied, "Welcome to the facts of my world in America." It was not said with venom or malice. "Just the facts, ma'am." Facts - and tears. 

It is my conviction, therefore, that over the past three years we have been embracing the facts of reality and deep grief. For a while, we held public demonstration after public demonstration. We needed and wanted to do something. Anything. We honestly believed that our protests mattered. And, I suspect that they did in a modest way: they served as a way of preaching to the choir. And that always has a place because choirs have important work to do. And yet at another level I sense our early protests were yet another expression of white, bourgeois privilege: damn it, we have always been able to fix and change problems. So let's hurry up and DO something. But, and I say this with tenderness and solidarity, much of what we did did not matter. Actions in the courts mattered. Organizing for subsequent elections mattered. But not many of our protests born of privilege mattered all that much.

Small wonder so many white people of conscience have run out of gas. Or are experiencing resistance fatigue. Or an exhausted frustration that change is not happening fast enough. We started to face our American reality but have neither grieved enough nor let our hearts become so broken that the sacred imagination might find room to become flesh within us. Like the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, we have been sitting by the waters of Babylon - and weeping for a while when our tormentors asked us to sing songs of Zion - but we have not become empty and trusting enough to hear the holy whisper, to us "O mortal one, can these dry bones live!" That is, we do not know how to live paradoxically so that we can resist and grieve as well as celebrate and strengthen beauty.

The wise and fiesty souls at ADBUSTERS magazine put it like this: "If we on the left are ever again to be enchanted, ever again to be mysterious, spellbinding, and mythical, we must loosen up, stop intellectualizing, trust our instincts, and learn to play jazz!" Jazz begins with the blues - grief and the reality of hard living are the foundations of jazz - but the music never remains encased in anguish. Rather, jazz listens to the truth and shares it faithfully. It then invites others to share their truths - with vigor - and listens carefully once again. Then jazz brings all of our truths together and playfully mixes them up, changing tempo and timbre with creativity, so that we find new ways to sing the songs of Zion even in captivity. Even in an era when change comes slowly. Even when nobody else around us believes life can be better. Jazz, like nature, asks us to move slowly. Intentionally. Tenderly. Always seeking the beauty even in the midst of our tears.

Take the song "All Blues" by Miles Davis off the best selling jazz record of all time: Kind of Blue. As an instrumental, it is a chill reflection of the blues in both form and groove. To be sure, Davis inverts a few of the "turn arounds" to create something new, but the essence of the composition is classic.

Nearly ten years later, as the American civil rights movement was ascending, Oscar Brown, Jr. wrote lyrics to the Miles Davis masterpiece. These lyrics not only brought the tune into the realm of vocal music - expanding who could share it - but he reframed it as a paean to freedom and a lament over injustice.

The sea, the sky, the you and I
The sea, the sky, for you and I
I'll know we're all blues

All Shades, all hues, all blues

Some blues are sad
But some are glad,
Dark-sad or bright-glad
They're all blues
All shades, all hues, all blues

The color of colors
The blues are more than a color
They're the moan of pain
A Taste of strife
And a sad refrain
A game which life is playin'
Blues can be the livin' dues
We're all a-payin'
Yeah, Oh Lord

In a rainbow
A summer day that's fair
A prayer is prayed
A lament that's made
Some shade of blues is there;
Blue heaven's hue,
They're all blues

Now dig how the great Ernestine Anderson transformed "All Blues" even more: she honors the first story, welcomes the next while adding her own experience into the mix. This is key: knowing the truth, loving it and exploring the possibilities the truth offers at any given moment in time. 
On Independence Day 2019 I say let the fools bring their tanks and planes to the nation's capital. We can name it as folly and narcissism, but let's not be trapped by illusions of privilege. Or despair. Or grandiosity. Rather, let's keep reinventing a culture of resilience that playfully nourishes our souls. To every thing there is a season - and there will come a time again when the seeds we plant now in grief will be raised up in joy. Keep playing your jazz. Keep writing your poems. Keep dancing and praying and feasting, dear friends. This current darkness is not the end of the story.


gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic  spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small ...